Thursday, April 30, 2009

Looking West from Morningside Heights

Although I live in the heart of the Upper West Side, I spend a great deal of time in Morningside Heights, which is my other favorite neighborhood. As I've noted previously, my favorite used bookstore is Book Culture on 112th Street, and on the occasions when I attend church, I head right down the block to St. John the Divine, which the medievalist in me loves for its memorial to St. Guthlac. I had my first off-the-reservation crazy New Yorker encounter at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and most people who know me well are aware of my unflagging devotion to Nussbaum's black and white cookies. My very first criterium was the Grant's Tomb race in 2006, and the first time I drove and parked a car in New York City was by Morningside Park (I subsequently emptied my car of everything that might attract attention, including my ratty old ice scraper). My sister and several of my closest friends have lived in this neighborhood, and I once ran into an old friend on Broadway and 115th Street who I hadn't seen since playing Capture the Flag in the summer of 2000 at Harrah's casino in Stateline, Nevada.

However, Morningside Heights has an additional, special significance for me--my great-grandfather was a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at Columbia in the 1920s. Until I moved to New York, I never thought of him in connection with this city; I've always associated him with either San Francisco, where he was born, lived through the 1906 earthquake, and attended the same high school as me and my siblings, or Annapolis, where he spent most of his young adult life and through which he later solidified his professional reputation. But now that I've made my own home in New York, I've begun to reflect more frequently on him and his time here. Some of the things that I now see in Morningside Heights he saw as well, such as the Alma Mater statue in the Columbia Quad....
...others, however, like the Columbia Quad itself, were quite different (note the enormous athletic field in what is now the southern half of the quadrangle).
But I mostly think of him when I'm near the river. Of course, I never really knew him--I was eight when he passed away in Washington, DC--but if I had to wager on us having one thing in common, it would be a love of boats and being on the water. Like me, he grew up by the Pacific, and like him, there have been periods of my life in which I've spent hours and hours on boats (mine, however, were not weapon-bearing). In New York City, particularly the west side, the Hudson is our closest approximation to both, and I try to be near it as often as possible.
Grant's Tomb, which offers one of the best vantage points for watching the river, was as accessible in 1925 as it is now, and whenever I'm up by that memorial--either for tutoring, or on a walk with a friend--I wonder if he ever strolled over on a break between classes, or as a break from studying. The Hudson doesn't offer the same sense of endless water and boundless adventure as the Pacific does, but by virtue of the fact that one looks West to gaze at it, just as one looks at the water in San Francisco, I've found it to be an unexpected balm for occasional homesickness, especially when the sun sets. I also can't help but be excited by the different boats I see skimming the Hudson's surface--kayaks, barges, cruise ships, hapless looking dinghies, sailboats, tugboats, boats from the fire and police departments, boats that look like the heavy wooden whaleboats my father used to row. I have yet, however, to see the boat that held a special significance for my great-grandfather, or the kind that hold a special significance for me:
My Saturday mornings are spent coaching on Pier 70, which, as I've also noted previously, means that we are out over, somewhat "on", the water for a couple of hours before the city fully awakes. This is a welcome, familiar feeling for me--beginning the weekend on a body of water with a bunch of laughing, screaming girls--and I like to think that my great-grandfather found some way to be on the water while he lived here, as well as to imagine what that might have constituted in the 1920s. Sailing? Swimming? Log rolling?
Since I've been injured for the past six weeks and thus unable to run with our girls, I spend the workout periods at the end of the pier, often with at least one girl who's also unable to run in any given week. This past Saturday, which was sunny and still and during which the water was calm except for an occasional rolling wake, I hung out with L, one of our girls who had pulled her knee while playing baseball. We counted six different kinds of boats and waved at kayakers and rowers, and watched seagulls and terns swoop for food on the river's surface. We saw the tide rush back out toward the Atlantic and expose the rocks at the pier's base, and we watched a fisherman pull a small striped bass from the Hudson's depths and then toss it back into the river. If I closed my eyes I could have been a nine year old girl with a knee injury, on a San Francisco pier almost twenty years ago.
My great-grandparents stayed long enough for my grandfather to be born in New York City, but he's never considered himself a New Yorker, and since then our family's only occasionally had one member living here. But my sister is moving back to Morningside Heights this summer. And since she's beginning a Ph.D. at Columbia, two of us will now be by the Hudson, looking West, for at least a few years to come.

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