Monday, August 31, 2009

Rice Ball

And just like that, a rice ball photo materialized in my in-box. I must check with Marc to find out which Midtown Italian restaurant he found rice balls at.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

It Takes A Village

Roberta loves the rice balls that show up every year at the Italian street fair. They are the stuff of legend in the neighborhood, and have been for years. Rice balls have probably kept the entire downtown area sated for decades. Their recipe is a secret. More or less.

I have never tried them. Not because I don't want to, but because I don't want to wait in the rice ball line. I counted the number of people there one night. 25 people in line for rice balls!

But Roberta braves the line at the fair, which this year ran for five nights. She was under deadline pressure on the rice ball front. She had plans on Saturday and would never get back in time to acquire rice balls, and had a family obligation on Sunday. But she does love the rice balls, so she was determined to get some.

The first night, on Wednesday, she waited for me. I was making a Yancey-baby-quilt and the class went over. I texted Roberta at one point. "Late. Better go on."

She texted me back a short while later.

"Missed rice balls. Trying again tomorrow."

She'd waited in line but the last three rice balls had been sold to the person in front of her in line, my former next door neighbor, April, who bought three--one for herself and one for each of her kids.

Roberta had run into T the next morning. T is an older woman who lives across the street. She's a classic, with time for everyone. She does favors for the people on the block who can't get around so well, and always carries dog biscuits for her furry friends. She's best friends with A, an older woman who sold her house last year and moved into an old-folks apartment on Sixth Street. I adored A, because she was smart and practical, roamed the streets in her housedress, and had a filthy mouth. I once watched her give her flip-flops to a young Spanish mother whose new house had a basement flood. The mom had on fancier shoes, not made for wading. A stepped right out of the shoes and went home barefoot.

Roberta told T about having barely missed the last of the rice balls.

"I'm going earlier tonight," she explained. "I'll definitely get them this time."

"I don't even like rice balls," T told Roberta.

But Roberta was delayed, and on Thursday night, the rice balls sold out right in front of her again. At least she didn't know the person this time.

"You've got to get here earlier," said the woman selling the rice balls. She remembered Roberta's disappointment from when April snagged the last three the night before.

She ran into T again on Friday morning. T was upset that Roberta had missed out again.

"I'll get your rice balls," said T. "I'll go for you tonight.

"No, no," said Roberta. "I'm going to the beach for a few hours but I'll be back in plenty of time."

T shook her head and insisted. Her friend L said "T, Roberta can get her own rice balls."

"I'll call you if I'm late," promised Roberta.

But of course she wouldn't dream of calling a neighbor to pick her up some rice balls. And of course was delayed at the beach. At 8, Roberta parked her car and ran over to the fair with Tom, who also lives near us.

They weren't real thrilled when they saw the massive queue for the rice balls. But then Roberta spotted T, mid-way through the line.

"I saw your lights were off and you weren't home yet, so I came over to wait on line for you," said T.

Stunned, Roberta offered to take her place. But T wouldn't let her.

"You go have fun," said T. She waited and bought three rice balls (in case Tom wanted one) and wouldn't take money for them.

Roberta took her rice balls guiltily, but with gratititude. "Don't worry about it," said T. "I know where you are if I need you."

Which is true. Roberta has a car and in case of emergencies, T has her phone number. I remember when T got comfortable enough with me to show her where her emergency meds were kept. There are responsibilities that come along with living on an old-timer block, in an actual community.

Roberta hadn't gone ten feet from the rice ball line before she ran into April.

"Did you get your rice balls this time?"


She'd then run into L.

"Did you get them?"

"Yes! T got me three!"

She ran into more neighbors at the fair, and Tom shook his head. He has never lived on my old block but he knows it's an old-style community.

Later that evening, Roberta ran into T again.

"I ate two and saved one for tomorrow because Tom doesn't like them."

T gave Tom a high-five.

"I don't like those things either! What's all the fuss?"

I'll have to wait for next year to find out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Cheapskate's Night Out

I was congratulating myself on being a clever cheapskate yesterday afternoon.

In the morning, I'd located a $10 near-back-row ticket to see Carrie Fisher's one-woman show. Score!

Then I'd gotten free tickets to see The Bacchae in Central Park. Some 20 years back, someone would have to go hang around the line in Central Park all day to get our tickets. Years later, we'd have to wait at the Public Theater in the afternoon to get tickets. Nowadays, you just click on the "Virtual Line" and you know in advance if free tickets await you at the box office.

Next, I headed to get a student facial after work at Christine Valmy. These are about thirty bucks. Borderline-cheap. By that I mean, what's cheaper than getting a student facial? Not getting one at all. But I splurged.

I ran into a problem after that. I got out by 7:10 and raced to the B train to get to Central Park by 7:30. At 7:30, reserved tickets are given to the standby line.

That's when my cheapskate luck hit a snag.

The B train stopped mid-tunnel.

And sat.

And started again.

And sat some more.

I looked at my watch. Minutes ticked by.


My superstitious side chastised my prouder self. I shouldn't have been self-congratulatory earlier. My cheapskate skills were not as sharp as I'd thought.

I finally got off the train at 7:35. My tickets were gone. I worried about the friend waiting there for me. Maybe we'd just go to dinner then.

At the box office, the clerk shook her head. "Sorry, your best bet is to try the standby line."

The line stretched up the park. I got in line with my friend.

"Why not," said the man in line in front of us. "It's just a few more minutes and you're already here."

I heard an usher yelling from the front of the line, but couldn't tell what he was saying over the sax-playing busker along the path.

Oh shut up so we can hear, I thought.

"Single file" was what the usher was saying. Not "Tickets for tonight's performance are gone."

We got in. The play was odd but the staging interesting, and of course the music was by Philip Glass so I'm not complaining. A small raccoon roaming under the feet of the row of theater-goers in front of us enhanced the performance. Crickets chirped, the weather was cool and perfect, and the only irritant was overhead planes and people looking at their mobile phones.

"I must remember to do this more often," I thought.

Theater in the park. Free if you have an unlimited Metrocard.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Family Tree

I've been digging around my files, trying to find photos I took in 2004. Or maybe it was 2003. See? I don't even know what year I'm hunting for. No wonder I can't find the photos. I also don't know if they were digital or print.

I was looking for some photos I took in the town of Briery Branch, Virginia. Those of you who have been reading a while know that I'm half-educated-classy-liberal and half-ornery-hillbilly. Half-Yankee and half-Confederate in historical terms. Half-vegetarian-Hemingway-artsy liberals and half-hunting-guitar-playing-bulldozer-operators. Which explains a lot if you know me. But I pass in mixed company. Meeting me for the first time, no one knows I'm not from an Ivy League school except those co-conspirators that attended wacky Antioch with me.

To complicate my heritage further, I grew up in a mostly black, dense urban neighborhood, though we were unlucky enough to live next door to the trashiest of redneck white trash.

But we're looking at my hillbilly side today. Not the immediate relatives but the people we know nothing about.

Hillbillies sometimes don't keep the best records, so one half of my heritage was the stuff of vague rumor. One of those rumors was that we were from this town I'd stopped in. My mother had heard somewhere that there were a lot of Javinses in the cemetery there, so I'd thought I'd take a look.

There were. Lots of Javinses. I took a photo of one headstone labeled "Edward Snowden Javins" who had served in the Confederate Army.

But this was disconcertingly meaningless. Who had these people been?

I filed it away under "Who the hell knows?" and continued on to view the nearest campground.

My mother has long had a website about my last name. She sometimes gets e-mails from people looking for info on Javins geneology.

A few weeks ago, she got the Rosetta Stone of my dad's half of the family. An e-mail from a stranger laid out my heritage on my dad's side. And the guy with the tombstone that I'd taken a photo of?

My great-great grandfather.

That same e-mail traced the family tree all the way back to a German who came over in the 1700s.

I'm part-Bavarian. Like the worthless ex who vanished after I landed in the Namibian hospital in 2005.

Oh hell.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Weekend Loaner Dog

This is Gypsy. We hung out this weekend. She was a very good dog, almost not trouble at all. Plus she made me run up and down four flights of stairs 3-4 more times a day than normal.

Yay Gypsy!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Note from Kampala

I've just read about this book on Anne-Marie's blog, and I must have it. It's not on any US sites yet, so I just ordered it from

And if you didn't just click on the link to Anne-Marie's blog, please do so. She is living in Kampala, Uganda, and her current blog post has a bit of fascinating information about the "whopper."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Doo-Wop by the Shore

When I went to Wildwood last week, some people said "Why? Why go to a beach town when you hate the beach?"

True, I do hate the beach. I hate heat. I hate excessive sun. I don't like to wear a bathing suit. I don't like sand. I do like to swim but it's hard to do laps with all those waves smacking you all the time.

But I like quirky culture. And Wildwood has plenty of that.

It's billed as the "Doo Wop Capital of the World." What that means is that plenty of old-fifties-era buildings still exist. Wildwood was a major center of pop culture fifty years ago, when the Garden State Parkway and the modern era of car culture was new and exciting. Think Happy Days. Think the Twist, tail-finned cars, Route 66-style, neon signs, and angular designs. Think a beach town in the vein of Disney's Tomorrowland, cutting-edge at the time. Kind of quaint and quirky now.

Gentrification has taken its toll on Wildwood as it has all over the US, but the crashing economy seems to have put a stop to that.

Bus tours of Wildwood's unique leftover architecture happen on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I've been meaning to get down there for a few years but it's tough to get out of work mid-week. I finally went last Thursday to check out Wildwood.

Here are some photos.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Glad It's Not My Car

Roberta and I went across the park for a late-night snack at the Hamilton Park Ale House.

We were just hurrying home to get back to work when a furious, unexpected thunderstorm kicked in. Wind belted the trees. Rain fell sideways. Thunder and lightning cracked and flashed right on top of each other.

We huddled in the restaurant's vestibule, waiting for a break in the storm, then hurried home.

In front of my apartment, we found a huge tree branch had fallen across a cable, tearing it down and leaving it in the street, the tree crushing the top of a compact car's rear hatch.

I walked over to the police station to report the downed tree-and-wire, where the desk clerk—with all the enthusiasm of a man who has seen it all—said "Yeah, we have that one already."

Firefighters showed up a short while later. With a chainsaw. They sawed up the branch and force-fed the remains to a garbage truck.

Never a dull moment in J.C.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whirlwind Road Trip

I had to get Henry the Ford Taurus his yearly car inspection. Which happens in Virginia since my sister actually owns him.

I know, I know... he's my car. But when I left town for an extended period of time once, I gave my car to my sister. I keep meaning to legally take him back, but I'm kind of superstitious when it comes to my car. I secretly believe that he'll break as soon as I pay all the fees to make him my own again.

Last year, I whizzed down and back in a day, straggling into town on fumes and running out of gas just past the Turnpike gate. This time, I left work early on Thursday, hitting the Turnpike in the rain.

Cleared out of town so I clear my head.

My iPod chose Kathleen Edwards on "Random," playing it through the car stereo as I praised the E-Z Pass and whipped off of the Turnpike and onto the Garden State Parkway. I'd decided to take a look at Wildwood on the way.

I was feeling paranoid about driving. This must be because I drive so infrequently. Or maybe it's that tiny little voice in my head that keeps reminding me of the fortune teller in Bangkok. Two years in a row—I'd gone back to him to see if he said the same things twice and he had, based on some complex equations he worked out on paper—the fortune teller had warned me that at age 43, I'd be in a horrible car accident and would be okay, but recovery would take a long time. I laughed at myself for thinking about this.

And then thought, maybe he was off. Maybe the car accident was metaphorical, and was actually the unfortunate events in late 2005, blogged with obscurity right here. Recovery sure had taken a long time. Sitting still and letting myself hit bottom while trying to regain the life I'd gleefully abandoned in 2000 in favor of the open road had not been the hardest single thing I'd ever done, but it had been the most relentlessly unrewarding.

Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down.

The rain let up as Lucinda Williams sang Gram Parsons. Then the evening cleared for a perfect trip to Wildwood. I parked and took the bus tour of the "Doo-Wop" 1950s motels.

Afterwards, I drove up the road to Vineland to stay the night. Henry and I had driven these routes before once, in 2004 when researching Best in Tent Camping: New Jersey. But it was dark now and I fretted. I hate driving unfamiliar rural roads at night in deer country.

I checked into a tired Days Inn. The bed jumped when the person in the next room rolled over. Ewww, I thought. The whole room was eww. A homeless woman slept in the outdoor stairwell, her shoes on her lap.

I'd been to over 70 countries, most of them alone, sparring with touts and con artists while dragging around a 40-pound backpack. Why was I bothered by a grimy Days Inn and a relatively short drive in my own (sort of) car?

I must be getting soft. How can enduring my "normal" life until it was indeed normal make me weak and paranoid? I charged the iPod overnight for tomorrow's trip.

And you and me are in way over our heads with this one.

On Friday morning—suspecting that Liz Phair was onto something—I drove to Virginia, got Henry's new inspection sticker, visited Home Depot with my mother, then drove as far north as Delaware before collapsing into another grimy hotel, this time a Howard Johnson's.

I checked out their free breakfast on Saturday morning. Froot Loops and corn flakes. I got back in my car and picked up an Egg McMuffin at a drive-through.

I'd gotten started too late and the heat of the day was already bearing down as Henry and I, feeling braver now, tore up I-95. I was singing along to the iPod, spacing out a bit instead of gripping the steering wheel. Trucks no longer terrified me. I'd just needed to get used to being behind the wheel again, here in Henry the Ford, who had driven 10,000 miles in 2002, shuttling Turbo and me from L.A. to mid-America to Virginia to New York. Turbo had even driven him on the left a few times before I'd calmly said "You're driving Australian again."

The Delaware Memorial Bridge shimmered into view, slightly blurry through the haze. Just over the bridge was New Jersey.

Home. For now.

What are you doing in a place like this, girl? Anyone could see you're the queen of the world.

Blaring the Bottle Rockets with the windows down, I flipped the gear shifter into overdrive and revved Henry a bit, to go faster up the ramp to the bridge.

"Yalla. Let's go."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is That Legal?

I went to the Italian street festival last night. These nuns were both carrying stuffed animals. They'd been racking up wins at the horse races!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Craftsy Secret Identity

Craftsy-Marie made this thing last week:

It's on its way to a certain JC-in-California baby right now. Actually, it's already arrived but maybe Mom and Dad need to go to the post office or something to pick it up.

I made it in Hoboken at the same place I made a bag and skirt before, one of two sewing hotspots that I frequent. I think I'm going to take a bag-boot-camp there in October.

Here's a bag that I made and sent to my friend Jessica last week at the same time that I sent the quilt.

And here's a shot that ended up on the crafts shop's Facebook page:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

More New Adventures in Wi-Fi

Remember last year when I learned I could sit in a rest area by the NJ Turnpike and skim wi-fi off of passing buses?

Today on Facebook, I noted that I was sitting in J. Fenimore Cooper service area, trying to steal wi-fi from a passing bus.

And Kevin Kobasic quickly sketched up this funny image!

A disclaimer: I was not hanging over the bus. I was sitting in my car. And the Bolt Bus likely said "New York City," not "A(n)dirondacks."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Roadside America

It was all about the automobile in 1950s America. And shore town Wildwood, NJ—with Chubby Checker doing the Twist the first time there and Bill Haley and the Comets performing "Rock Around the Clock" for the first time—was in its heady heyday.

Here's a sneak preview at a photo I took last night in a quick tour of Wildwood's 1950s architecture. There are more than 50 of these old hotels left, and tourists love them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Photos of Last Saturday

I've been so tardy on getting up the photos of last week's canoeing expedition! But I finally got a chance tonight, since I'm in a hotel in Vineland, New Jersey, and don't have any distractions. (More on that tomorrow.)

Here they are. I didn't put up Kraiger or his kid... they never agreed to go on my blog in exchange for a ride to Secaucus.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Faded Us

My former neighbor (Helen) and I went for a walk down the street last night to see how our old block was doing. We took her dog and greeted the old men hanging around outside the sneaker shop.

The sneaker shop has moved out of downtown.

"His business was all on the computer anyway," explained Larry, the sixty-some-year-old who'd lived in my former apartment when he was four. "So now we rent the store."

"We" was him and a gaggle of old men. Mostly Italian men, all from the neighborhood. There was a computer-printed sign taped to the curtained display window that had once held sneakers.

Members only.

"How does it work?" I asked.

"We each pay a hundred dollars a year. It's nice in there. We have a big TV and we can just hang out."

Cute. I'm pleased the guys have a hang-out. They used to hang out in front of the pizza shop and before that in front of the deli.

Helen and I walked around to our own block. We talked to some neighbors, who told us "facts" about our old building that were just theories we'd come up with when living there. "They didn't use primer the first time, they didn't paint it right."

"No," I explained. "That was our first thought but actually I have a photo of the building primed from 2002, before any of us moved in."

"Oh, well, they didn't use outdoor paint."

"No, that was one of our theories, but when we got it repainted, we made SURE it was the right paint. We later learned that cedar chips and you have to maintain it. Some people say you can use stain instead of paint."

They looked at us skeptically. Our theories from 2004 had become lore, fact on the block, our own conjectures passed back to us as certainties.

One of our neighbors thought Helen looked familiar but couldn't place her.

"We both lived right there," I explained, shocked.

And I realized.

The people on this block have been here for 60-70 years. We were just there for a few years each.

Forgotten already, just a couple single women passing through. The gossip we'd produced had become incorporated into the bible of the street, but our names and faces were already faded.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Closer Look

Taking a closer look at our canoeing route here, we can see that it was a beautiful day to canoe the Meadowlands.

And here's how urban it is. This is right outside Manhattan. You can see not only the Empire State Building but also one of the spurs of the New Jersey Turnpike.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Local Tour

Goodness... I am starting to repeat my own adventures.

Okay, not starting. Long-time readers went across Southeast Asia two years running with me, then tolerated Cape Town to Kampala in both 2001 and 2005.

Last year, in June of 2008, I went canoeing in the Meadowlands. Helen, Roberta, Tom, and I went, and it was a fascinating way to spend the morning...

...before I boarded a plane to Vegas to go on a Grand Canyon rafting-camping trip.

The Meadowlands were a bit obscured by the week that followed.

I went canoeing again this year, on Saturday with Kraiger and his kid. I tried reclining in the middle of the canoe but the kid only lasted about 10 minutes before she wanted to swap places with me.

Turns out several people are fascinated by this excursion. The Meadowlands have a reputation of being filthy and polluted, of stinking and being an illegal dumping ground.

New Jersey isn't just home to crowds, the NJ Turnpike, and stinky oil refineries. It also has Pinelands, forests, beaches, and a piece of the Appalachian Trail. NJ suffers from an image problem. Why would the Meadowlands be any different than the rest of the state?

Since 1969, the Meadowlands Commission has been trying to control illegal dumping, preserve the wetlands, and restore the damaged parts. The area I was canoeing in, Mill Creek Marsh, was restored starting in 1996. I'm not sure when canoe tours started but there is a public launch. If you have your own canoe or kayak, you could row around for free.

I don't have a canoe, so I have to wait for the public summer tours. You can book them (or pontoon tours) here.*

We paid $15 a person, which included canoe rental, life vest, paddles, and a guide. We were rained out of our first-choice date in June.

We drove to the canoe launch in Secaucus, which is past Home Depot and on a dead-end road to the east of the Secaucus center. Kraiger's kid was fascinated by a dead fiddler crab on the launch, and then by a wild bunny. She followed the bunny until larger people came along and loudly scared the bunny away.

Rampant reeds called phragmites grow wild among the wetlands. There are channels through the phragmites, and we paddled through them, viewing egrets and herons.

We did not spot any elusive muskrats. We did spot a wild soccer ball and what appeared to be a redneck house, blasting loud music across a yard filled with a dirtbike, quad-bike, and assorted BBQ setups.

The sun was strong and after an hour of paddling, we were just getting tired when we headed back to the launch. Henry the Ford Taurus was waiting for us, with a container of fresh watermelon.

*If you can't get on the public tours, try renting a canoe or kayak here.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Urban Safari

I took this photo from a canoe in the Meadowlands this morning.

The tan sliver across the middle is the back of Mill Creek Mall on Route 3. The skyline just beyond includes the Empire State Building.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Contemplating the Future

"Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about."

This is the opening passage from Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl's book about crossing the Pacific by raft. And I love it. The Talking Heads say this well too, of course, in Once in a Lifetime. But this is so much more apt as most odd situations don't seem so odd until you're in the thick of them. Opening theme parks in the desert near Iraq, for example, or fleeing an angry hippo by the Nile, or even something as innocuous as boarding a freighter for Australia.

I'm thinking about this a lot right now. 2011 is the ten-year anniversary of, when I went around the world for a year by public transportation. I've been determined to stay home. But I've been here almost two years now. The terrific malaise I suffered initially is completely gone now. The gulf of depression that opened up when the workaholic in mom jeans told me I had never mattered is a distant memory and symptom of his problems, not mine. I'm done. I spring back when touched, perfectly baked now and ready to take on the world.

Should I go backwards this time? I want to go to West Africa. Why stop there? I've been meaning to take on India again, wanting to stop a while in Bali, and I've been curious about Borneo and Madagascar. And there's that not-so-small matter of Brazil that needs checking out.

But I have a frequent flyer round-the-world ticket. How arbitrary would it be to take ships this time out when the plane is free? What would YOU do?

I wonder too, how long I'll have to plan before I have said it out loud so many times that I'm compelled to make the jump. Back. Back out there, into the marvelous, exhausting, inconvenient unknown.

"Please don't die," said a certain comic book writer. That's a factor too. I push it, I know. I don't feel that I do anything unusually crazy, but there is the occasional close call.

Let's rephrase the question. What would YOU do isn't quite how it should be asked.

What do YOU think I should do?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Everyone Loves A Parade

I put together video of the Jersey City Bolivian parade so that everyone can enjoy it.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Bolivian Parade, JC

I got a little carried away with taking photos yesterday.

You can view them all here.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


I do hope you will all forgive me for assuming someone was moving in today and had hired a moving van company with a rather odd name.

Every Day's A Party

The Andean music echoing through the streets should have been a tip-off, but I just learned that the festival happening on the streets of JC today is a parade for Bolivia! I didn't even know we had a Bolivian population here.

I'm grabbing my camera and will report back.