Scattered about the land are several reminders that the place is indeed steeped in history, that the hills held forts, the residences those scions now forgotten or neglected in the national memory or public culture remain standing even if the contributions of those now dead are scattered about a bunch of Wikepedia pages or have yet to see the light of day. Set between grand residences are humble abodes from the early part of the last century, here and there the blasted pockmarks of poverty or contemporary “design” the fly-by-night construction jobs pushing colourless cement structures up the only ornamentation the “Fedders” trademark on the air conditioner units. This is the vast land of the Bronx, named after the Dutch, or the river, or whatever you believe Uncle Google tells you. The Bronx, Al Bronque, The Boogie Down, spanning the war zone of upper Harlem that spilled over into Fort Apache and Mott Haven, the industrial factories spewing particulates and causing all manner of breathing problems in Hunts Point, still home to bus depots and street whores, the highways that flattened neighborhoods of working class trade unionists, the wealth of Riverdale with their Horace Mann-buggering Fieldston-worshiping Country Day School attending, Dalton side-boobing, to the espresso sipping, sister-pimping mafia of Morris Heights where after the gang-banging kids who had burned down everything they could find in their rage against poverty and racism, used their cardboard kindling as mats and taught the world how to break dance, how to hip-hop and how to spit a rhyme and battle in poetry – as well as fists, knives, and guns.
The Bronx can offer parks, small dirty endeavors and rendezvous points for crack heads and pensioners, large-scale tracts of land of ancient homes and memorials, gardens tended by elderly hands, from the brackish waters of Wave Hill to the salty effluvia of the ocean licking at the crusty beaches of Pelham Bay. Mansions, townhouses, apartment buildings attempting to pass as entire Tudor villages, projects so tough the kids of Coney Island had to beat it out of Van Cortlandt Park in a landscape of gangs either envisioned by Hollywood or real. Standing on Kingsbridge Avenue a group of men attacked one another in front of the McDonald’s, thankfully only fists and wounded pride, but two scuffling in the street stopped traffic and we wondered ‘isn’t this how bystanders get shot?’
The Bronx is Gothem’s Balkans, the place of mystery and confusion, of Daughters of the Revolution and dudes with names that are all vowels. People no one cares about from countries they don’t even bother to name live next to those who claim Brahmenical status, Khan’s linage, Pater Noster’s legacy, or wealth from Marcos smuggled over here in baby diaper boxes along with quite a few shoes. The Bronx is also inaccessible by any common forms of public transportation and impossible to drive in. Taking the train is a local affair, few express lines dare make it up that far, despite that a huge number of riders use the system, and the buses are like the rest of those in Gothem, a number of confusing and awkward affairs with the obligatory rude drivers dealing with people who failed to learn reason in their home lands, and here, and are illiterate in two or more languages but imbued with that American spirit of entitlement and Fox News-style of combat argument. Navigating a place this wide and disconnected requires some sense of adventure and perhaps a mantra or two to chant when things get tough.
We started out to City Island rather late in the day. The holiday weekend was unkind, Mother Nation is giving the Anti-Global Warming crowd some ammunition before turning the city into God’s Anvil. The day was the only one that could be salvaged, a bit of sun, a wind not too strong. We walked some pace towards the gardens of the botanical collection, this section of the Bronx smart lanes and while there was enough trash in the wind, it was a cityscape of rose bushes and trees as it was loud cars with horns able to split eardrums, air-penises hurling down the roads driven by scowling Yobs, Slobovia being more like Benetton ads and less like Dogpatch. The bus situation was confusing, lines tangle together like spaghetti. Distance is deceptive since the grid was set between former cow paths, the Grand Concourse serving as a Nazca Line but unable to provide more guidance after a certain pace. We boarded a bus only to have to transfer to another one at Co-Op City, a number of skyrise apartments intended to restore the middle class and which had become a Garden City fit with malls, a Red Lobster, and sundry other hallmarks of the New City and landscape of corporate-capitalism.
Waiting for a time watching the water fall in the cooling towers of Co-op City’s power generator, when the bus finally came the driver vaguely told us the bus did not go to City Island but did not define “bus” as singular or infinitive and closed the door. Slammed it actually. Sped away as the small group complained. No wonder do many drivers are slapped. No help, the signage did not offer much more, we took what we thought we had heard and moved to another bus line, a tandem bus that was already packed. This bus took us only as far as the depot, the closest we could get to City Island on that line. Unable to find the dispatch for the bus or any maps, or any information, and regarding the crowds of motley people stacked up by each post, we decided that it was a nice day for a walk, and after traveling across town now almost three hours, what would another hour do, how could this make us anything but stronger? Past the BBQ pits we passed the edge of Orchard Beach, the Pelham Park sprung to life with so many families and individuals (including one guy just gazing at the friendly grass and enjoying all the happy trees)And on. Two buses, the line we were told wasn’t running, passed us by. However, we did not give in, but continued on our march knowing that at the end was fried food and beer, so a short burst of exercise wouldn’t hurt us at all. Anyway, the cars seemed backed up, it was as if everyone was in line for some ration or something.
We finally made it to City Island, the little outpost of New England in Gothem, the Bronx Montauk with clapboard houses and crab shacks, now swollen with people vying for a space on the road in order to check something important off their bucket lists. After a short repast in a restaurant (happy hour thankfully the same price as in Brooklyn or Harlem), we continued to explore the island by foot, the sidewalks not as full as the traffic that passed us by. Walking along the main drag, we passed a large family-style gathering spilled out in one side street, people swearing and laughing in Spanglish, smoking pot, as children and grandchildren played with elders – the sort of gathering New Yorkers can make anywhere, whether the stoop out front or miles from home the red Solo cups, grilling every sausage ever invented on a charcoal hibachi balanced on bricks or a stand that is tapped together “who wants a burger?’ and the paper plates come running, I wondered if we could also jump in since these can be very open affairs ‘hey man, no problem, we have tons of food man.’
The street seemed strangely empty of commerce, some buildings broken 1960s windows others were closed up tightly using boat portals. Considering that the cars lined up bumper to bumper and this Montauk was but an hour from over five million people’s homes I expected any number of establishments serving clam strips or some beach front souvenir. Perhaps it is the close proximity, perhaps that the cars spinning wheels and thuggish middle classes cast an angry attitude over what should be a relaxing stroll and New England calm and those who can afford that calm seek it and those who want more excitement plunge into Times Square or Rye Playland. At the end of the road was the tale of two cities, the one a building site as one restaurant attempted to recover from Superstorm d’annum and the other one a taste of old New York, of Coney Island and subway series, the masses teeming for a taste of deep fried Something whether codfish, bung, or chum, it seemed that the John’s Lobster Bucket was pumping in and out humanity as Nathan’s Hotdogs may do for the Mermaid Parade or the Competitive Eating Contest or some other lucky day. This was a Monday holiday. After 6PM. The place was banging. Kobayashi would have tossed up his buns seeing what people were stuffing into their faces. Do you need that much ketchup? For anything? It was stunning how this place is so popular, maybe we need return to the Bucket and see if the fry-o-lator really produces the best Fried this side of Kentucky.
Returning to our first restaurant, actually the first place on the right after the bridge, we retreated to a drink, the happy hour prices having evaporated. The sun was setting, a rather mundane affair considering it was summer, but not unexpected considering the End of The World Ice Age or Endless Summer weather. Sipping on our now over-priced drinks, a helicopter came from the mainland Apocalypse Now-style, low and seeming to hum Wagner for his birthday, the lights of police cars filling the sky as the sun’s rays dissipated. Upon leaving, we were reminded of the police state. Having passed one stop-and-frisk (a kid who really didn’t seem to be doing anything was stopped and searched), there was gathered ten police cars, one unmarked car, two motorcycles, five dirt bikes (I don’t remember buying them a dirt bike with my taxes), a dune buggy, and the helicopter. A woman waiting for the bus back to the mainland told us it was all “for one guy, I guess he had a problem so they sent an army.”
The police melted back into whence they came, “The Oasis,” “Fort Apache,” the “One Five Nine.” We waited and waited for the bus, and finally were delivered from our weekend, returned south from these Balkan lands, the confusion and incongruous illustrious strangeness of The Bronx, to wonder at what we had seen, and ponder if the rents were indeed less, and how long would it take from those cheep rents to get to “The City.”