The featured image above shows construction well under way for the creation of a mall next to the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island. The Richmond County Courthouse, built in 1919, on Richmond Terrace, is visible in the middle of the construction cacophony, a proud building in the neoclassical style at odds with, and somehow anchoring, the construction scene in front of it.
When I’m on public transportation or walking through a transit hub, I am entrenched in the life of the city, the flow or the stoppage, the anxiety, watchfulness, boredom, and restlessness of what seems to be, well, everyone. Public transportation is interesting. Full of new information, most of it conveyed visually, in clothing (shoe styles!), in the way a pair or a group mingle or huddle. It’s where I see how fashions and attitudes are aired and exchanged, however silently in the quick and discreet body language of strangers who come together in a train car or on a bus or a boat only briefly, strangers whose combined presence makes up the tenor of the city.
I always take pictures when I’m out and I take a lot of them on public transit. The photos below are an essay of travels around the city – only one of them is from New Haven. A lot of them are from the Staten Island Ferry, which begins and ends my trips into the city. Others are from buses, subways and subway stations. Passengers and loiterers, the architecture of public transit, the social atmosphere of buses, trains and boats.
I have a thousand photos that help me understand these places. Here are just a few of them.
Food trucks, NYC
A recent survey of quick eats in New York including food trucks, cafés tucked inside university department offices, on and off the Staten Island Ferry, and basic street food, the kind that comes in handy when you’re on the go.
Text below images is my food diary from last Spring, when I was teaching in three different schools.
Friday morning, Staten Island Ferry, rush hour
Man on the ferry, dressed in business casual, with a liter bottle of coconut water tipping dangerously out of a side compartment on his backpack. Mental note to start drinking coconut water for electrolytes.
Picking up the No. 2 train at Chambers St. and going up to Columbia University, Morningside. There’s a man on the train with a complete protein shake bulging out of his jacket pocket. It’s still in the blender, which is at my eye level (I’ve got a seat). Blue suit, short neat hair, leather oxfords. Young business man on his way to the job with 35 grams of protein to back him up.
Café Joe, Dodge Hall, Columbia U., 116th St. and Broadway
This handy little café is situated in the front lobby of the School of the Arts building. I teach at the 125th St. campus but always hop off the train to make a pit stop here for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on raisin bread, a small thing of plain yogurt, and a dry skinny cappuccino ($9.50 total). Then directly back on the train to head up to 125th. The coffee is for right away, for a buzz and inspiration because I have to start talking as soon as I get to class; the sandwich and yogurt are for when we break at noon and I can put my feet up for a moment or two.
I love this sandwich. The raisin bread is moist with a pleasant chewy texture like somebody’s mother just took it out of the oven. The peanut butter is just okay, which is good because you don’t want a nuanced peanut butter product. The jelly is what you’d hope for, sweet and fruity. Yogurt adds a protein and calcium boost. I have this identical lunch every Friday when I’m at Columbia. I’ve developed a mild psychological dependency on the pb&j.
Monday morning, College of Staten Island (CSI) CUNY, Cafeteria
The cafeteria offerings are often dismal but today I got the cheese and crackers – a plastic clamshell containing two types of cheese wedges, a small stack of water biscuits, and a tiny bunch of grapes ($7) for noon break. Surprisingly good and provides energy enough to get through the rest of my four-hour video class, no problem.
The coffee on offer is Green Mountain from Vermont, a State praiseworthy for its environmental ethos but not so much for its coffee. It’s weak and mild, but at least it’s never bitter. My real complaint is that the cafeteria coffee machine makes sure the coffee is not truly hot. By the time I get a cup back to Performing Arts, it’s lukewarm and every sip tastes like mild regret.
I used to arrive at CSI about an hour ahead of my 10:10AM class so I could eat breakfast at the cafeteria. I had cold cereal, usually Cheerios ($4), some yogurt ($3.50), and a cup of coffee. Plus, there’s a news-stand where you can pick up the day’s New York Times for free. The routine was to find a table, have cereal and coffee, and read the Times, setting an unhurried pace for the day. Albeit this was amidst a crowd of barely post-adolescent students who were rowdy, rude and endlessly entertaining. Definitely sets the tone.
Tuesday afternoon, CSI, Starbuck’s, located in the library
I order a dry skinny cap. What is delivered has missed two out of three of those things. The barista pushes it to me across the counter. It is loaded with foam and the first sip assures me that it is without much actual espresso. Watery, foamy, weak, and not warm ($4 or so).
Later, I trek over to the cafeteria for sustenance to get me through an evening class. I’ve tried their kosher hummus wrap ($5.50), which proved to be soggy and which provides a good dose of indigestion. The egg salad sandwich, particularly the kosher wrap (both at $5.50), like the hummus wrap, is barely edible, like eating a soggy mess that someone had thrown away the day before. Everything else in the cafeteria is loaded with fat and sugar. Pizza, fries, sandwiches with both melted cheese and fries. Doughnuts, or more precisely, donuts. Giant cookies with M & M’s embedded in them like little diabetes bombs.
Wednesday afternoon, NYU library, Washington Square South
After the dentist, I went to NYU looking for a quick bite. There was a gourmet Mexican Taco truck on Sullivan Street and a Halal Food truck on W. 4th. I chose the Halal truck and ordered a falafel sandwich ($6). The vendor was grumpy and the falafel wasn’t great.
While sitting in the park finishing up my disappointing falafel, I spied the NY Dosas South Indian Food cart just down the lane and went there to pick up something to take home. A line had formed, people looked hungry and anticipatory, the guys were friendly. All aspects good. Ordered Masala Dosa Pondicherry ($7). The pancake was made right then and there. The man had skill.
Took the whole thing down to Whitehall and had just a couple of bites before boarding the ferry. The dosa was fluffy, golden, and sweet and sour from fermentation. But the curried potatoes were overcooked and dry and the seasoning was too mild. The meal comes with a small container of very good lentil soup. Mental note to visit again and try another dish, something without potatoes.
Lots of people eat in the Terminal and on the ferry. You have a choice of Pizza, burgers, muffins, cupcakes, cannoli, nachos, chips, pretzels, beer, and even harder booze. Why not have a quick margarita and a slice at the Pizza Plus Margarita Bar before boarding the ferry? It’s okay to drink in the Terminal and on the ferry. In fact, you can cozy up to the counter of the ferry’s Liberty Café and get a couple cans of beer or mini wine bottles and take them back to your seat. I will do exactly that one of these days.
Picked up a soft pretzel at the Island Soft Pretzel Shop ($1.25), St. George Terminal. Warm, moist and bready. Just right. I perused the pizzas, garlic knots, and hoagies at the pizza place next door. I was tempted to get some pizza or at least some garlic knots but fortunately was able to withstand the temptation. It’s a carb palace and is best avoided most days. Look, but don’t touch.
Made it to NYU library to pick up DVDs for class and had time to grab a bite from one of the nearby food trucks. My choices: either Gorilla Cheese or the Yaki Taco. I chose the tacos and ordered a shiitake mushroom taco ($4). Grilled shiitake mushrooms in yakisoba marinade (thick, sweet, dark brown) with miso slaw, pico de gallo, scallions, queso blanco, yum yum sauce (mayo, paprika, garlic, cayenne, tomato paste) and cilantro yogurt crema folded into a soft and warm corn tortilla. Wow. Lingering aftertaste brings me mild pleasure as I head to Union Square for my New School class.
Columbia University, Café Joe. Picked up my usual pb&j, plain yogurt, and a dry skinny cap. One day when I was especially hungry I picked up a container of deviled eggs on a bed of crisp baby spinach ($4.50) as well, giving myself a good dose of protein, iron, and roughage. Some days, merely being at work and far away from home – these things alone make me perpetually hungry.
Headed back down to the NYU library after class to return DVDs. No Yaki Taco truck today, but the QQ Beijing Style BBQ truck was definitely there. I ordered enokitake mushrooms wrapped in soy pasta and grilled, grilled eggplant, and steamed rice buns, all skewered for an easy nosh ($2 per dish). Freezing temps, but the library has a basement-level room with tables, so I took my Beijing BBQ there to eat in comfort. The mushrooms were perfectly grilled. The eggplant was an achievement, melt-in-your-mouth perfect. A generous drizzle of smoked paprika on both dishes gave them over-the-top deep rich flavor. The humble rice buns? Steamy bready little bites of heavenly carb. Haven’t seen that truck lately but I still dream of this $6 feast.
The Mud Truck, Astor Square, near Cooper Union, a couple years ago
What I remember from the Mud Truck is their coffee. It was distractingly rich and full-bodied, like finding your center within the fullness of each sip. Being out, being in the world, being on the go – this is when having a primo cup of coffee can take your worldview up a notch, give you the most optimistic version of whatever it is you’re doing at the moment. All of that in one cup of coffee from the Mud Truck. Thanks, guys!
Hallucinations while meditating
In order to become a student of the Mountains and Rivers Order I had to sit tangario for a day. It meant meditating from dawn until dusk with someone from the Order to sit with me, to watch me. I went up to the monastery a day early to prepare. Most of the preparations were mental – getting my mind prepared for eleven hours of meditation. In my mind, it was like having to climb a mountain alone and having to reach the top. Tangario is not an either/or thing. It is one thing only. Long-term meditation as a test of whether you are going to be admitted to the Order as a student.
I hadn’t slept the night before, but when I was called to breakfast at 4:30 in the morning I felt calm and well-rested. Teikyo, an experienced meditator and very kind person, was my watcher. She met me after breakfast and we went to the activity center to a room on the second floor. It was a large room with a chair facing a wall that was about two feet away, for me, and a zafu and zabuton in the opposite corner of the room for Teikyo. There were cut flowers as well, incense, and a statue of Avalokiteshvara. I’m highly allergic to flowers but for the many hours I sat in the room with them, these flowers did not bother me.
I bowed to Teikyo, to Avalokiteshvara, and I bowed to my seat. A clock was set up so we would not go overtime. It was 5:00 when I sat down. My mind was calm. Unusually so. I cleared my mind easily and quickly. My eyes remained open and for the next seven hours I sat there, with only two breaks for using the toilet. During that time, I saw things. The room changed dramatically, the space opened up. I had power that I refrained from using because if I used it I would fail the test.
First of all, the wall in front of me and the two adjacent walls slowly and quietly fell away, flattening out. As they did so, they let in more light and the room became bright with sunlight. The wall in front of me, now flat like a floor, led directly to a large rectangular pool that was filled with blue water and surrounded by what looked like a concrete or stone walkway. To the right of the pool was a house, low, modern, white concrete and glass, with large picture windows and a sliding door that led out to the pool. The sky was bright blue. Beyond the pool was land. It looked like high desert with scrubby plants. In the distance, there was a mountain range.
As I sat there, my feet were very close to the flattened-out wall that lead directly to the pool. I knew I would be able to walk to the pool. I knew I would be able to walk on the water. I knew that if I walked to the pool, in Teikyo’s perception, I would be walking up the wall. The temptation to do so persisted for two hours and twenty minutes. Then I got up and walked out and down the hall to the toilet. When I came back, the walls flattened out, letting in light, and the pool and the house were in front of me once again. The temptation to leave my seat and walk up the walls to the pool was strong.
Two hours and twenty minutes later I got up again and went to the toilet. This time, as I noticed the clock, I realized that I had divided the seven hours in my head into three equal periods of time, each two hours and twenty minutes long. If I were asked to do that at another time, it would have taken me a few minutes to figure out. But while I was sitting tangario I did it absolutely without effort.
When I came back to my seat, the scene opened up in front of me again. I knew I would not go to the place that was being offered. I thought I would go there another time, however. It was warm, bright, fresh. It was contemporary, too. I didn’t know what was in the house, but I imagined it would be whatever I wanted. High desert, for example, is one of my favorite types of place to be.
I was meditating in the zendo at the Fire Lotus Temple, wearing my grey student’s robe. I was looking downward; my eyes were unfocused and the grey of the robe was in my field of vision. The robe became a rock. I was the rock. I had the feeling of being seated not on the chair but on the ground, having a broad base and a different center of gravity from my own human one. I felt the life of the rock. I noticed the various minerals in the rock, grey, white, black, flecks of different color deep inside the rock. They were not still but were moving constantly. The rock was full of mineral activity. The rock was changing all the time. It was full of activity. The rock was happy.
I was at the Fire Lotus Temple, meditating. It was a day of meditation – 7 or 8 hours of sitting beginning early in the morning, with oryoki at noon. The abbot was officiating. Throughout the day, he held dokusan, where students ask questions or ask for advice in private. Students are invited to dokusan An attendant calls out for students sitting in the north or south sides of the zendo, for example, and based on where they are sitting, they leave their seats, form a line outside the dokusan room, and sit again in meditation while waiting for their turn to speak with the abbot.
As I sat there, however, the walls of the zendo came very close to me and pinned me in. It was like sitting in a closet. The walls moved towards me every time my practice became deeper and I was able to stop thinking. I felt the pressure of being trapped by the walls. I could not leave my seat because there was no way out. The truth is, I didn’t want to talk to the abbot. I did not like the way he exercised power and did not like his cult-like status in the Order. It is always difficult for me to be a follower, to be a disciple, and the walls of the zendo moved in just in time, preventing me from doing what I did not want to do.
[images & text by Cecilia Dougherty]