The Travel Desk, May 2014
Updated: Jul 2
Many of us Columbians are Morningside shut-ins. For too long have we heard the gripe, “I haven’t left the neighborhood in a month.” Fortunately The Blue and White’s crack team at The Travel Desk is not afraid to get on the subway. Here are our most recent adventures.
She has a great personality
Roughly 1.6 miles southwest of Battery Park stands Liberty Enlightening the World, a colossal French sculpture of a Roman goddess that has come to symbolize America, or freedom, or something.
I had always viewed Lady Liberty (and the legions of tourists who visit her) with the condescension of a New Yorker. Go to the Met if you want to look at things, I’d tell out-of-town friends, and go to Jackson Heights if you want a New York experience. You’ll get a better view of the statue from a postcard.
Putting aside my misgivings, I reserved a ticket at the behest of my editors. My first glimpse of Lady Liberty is from Bowling Green. It is a cool April day. The narrow streets and stone buildings open up to the water, and the relentless wind reminds locals and tourists alike that New York is a port city. Flooding from Hurricane Sandy had closed Liberty Island for eight months.
As I walk towards the water, hawkers pushing impossibly cheap all-access New York passes seem to take my quick walk and lack of New York paraphernalia to be the mark of a local and let me go by unmolested. Having already purchased a ferry ticket, I avoid the long line that stretches around Castle Clinton. A thick woman with a Midwestern accent chastises her companion: “We’re going to have to stand around in the cold for three hours no matter what we do.” Brown signs boldly advertise the “airport-style security.”
A dreadlocked man with a ukulele comes up with a ditty customized to the hometown of each waiting tourist. (“Folks came from Berlin/ The sights, they’re taking them in…”) I tell him that I’m from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He scowls and continues down the line.
I board the boat to Liberty Island just before noon. Below decks, the boat smells like hot dogs. Passengers swarm around the concession stand, which sells everything from pewter spoons to two-gigabyte memory cards. The biting wind keeps most travelers inside. On the 15-minute trip over, a voice on the public address system proclaims that the Statue of Liberty stands for “freedom, opportunity, security, and our future.” The first two seem to be the most common justifications, the last two perhaps holdovers from the Bush administration.
I soon realize the main reason people come to the Statue of Liberty: photo-ops. From the time the boat leaves Lower Manhattan, to its arrival at Liberty Island, passengers photograph everything. It is as if, one day, someone would dispute that they had coughed up $20 and taken a boat to visit a massive copper statue. Tourists take photos of everything in sight: the Manhattan skyline, the Jersey City skyline, Staten Island, each other, each other taking photos, seagulls, other boats, other islands, and, most of all, the statue itself. The advent of the selfie has only exacerbated the problem. European teenagers jostle with one another to mug at the camera with the Lady Liberty’s face seemingly next to theirs.
On the island, there is a pervasive sense of numbness and disappointment. It is surprisingly quiet. Overhead, helicopters speck the sky, looking like perforations in a giant blue balloon. I soon stand in front of the statue itself, alarmed by its bulging arms. Even the details learned in middle-school history class are hard to discern: the broken chain is cut off from my sight lines, and the inscription on the tablet faces away from me. I overhear a man with a German accent intone, “Shall we go inside? There’s nothing left to look at—it’s a big statue.”
I was under the impression that the statue looked out over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the entrance to New York Harbor, where thousands of immigrants first glimpsed a new land. I follow her gaze: in fact, Lady Liberty’s gaze is pointed toward a wastewater treatment plant in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The wind picks up, and I join the huddled masses heading home.
There’s barely room on the Q train as I slip through the closing doors and into the crush of people at Times Square. A woman’s oversized fanny pack presses into the small of my back and there is what seems to be a very large and very confused family shouting about the “fackin’ line” to get into their hotel. A few stops later, as the train gasps out of the tunnel and over the Manhattan Bridge, my car has mostly cleared out. I slide onto one of the benches and stare out the window because no one’s there to see me touristing. When I get off around midnight at the last stop, Coney Island, I am the only passenger left.
The air is noticeably cooler this close to the ocean, although the groaning clank of the subway obscures the sound of any waves. I step out of the D/F/N/Q station onto the breezily named Surf Avenue.
Coney Island does not just greet its visitors; it assaults them with neon. The biggest welcome sign is courtesy of Thor Equities, a global real estate firm that owns much of the surrounding property. They reportedly wanted to build a Vegas-style hotel on the site back in 2005. Thus far, they’ve built a sign—an aggressively tacky sign, branded with logos and too many fonts, leering over a violently cheerful candy store. They’ve also hung an “Arcade” sign over a vacant building that is not, in fact, an arcade. So much for glamor.
At night, touristy New York is predictably empty, and Coney Island is no exception. While locals still staff Nathan’s Famous, McDonald’s, Subway, and Dunkin’ Donuts, the rows of fluorescent-lit tables look bloated and unnecessary at this hour. I’m so unnerved by the absence of human voices that I pull out my phone and key up Beyoncé’s “XO” to drown out the silence.
There are no gated fences between me and the amusement park itself, so I wander toward the ocean, quickly realizing that the darkened silhouettes of rides that look cheerful by day are absolutely fucking terrifying without the smell of cotton candy as a distraction. What’s worse is that most of them feature the same Joker-esque face, grinning with bugged-out eyes ten feet above the ground. I turn my music up.
The park is dismally industrial at this hour, like a post-apocalyptic art house film about the importance of valuing the physical, the tangible, over the digital. The light pollution casts everything in a dull sepia. I consider Instagramming the Ferris Wheel and realize that no one would really care.
I step onto the boardwalk, which feels laminated and artificial under my Docs. Beyond the boardwalk and a short fence is a thin strip of beach. I’ve only been to the ocean once before, when I was a kid visiting relatives in California. The Pacific felt terrifyingly vast – I found myself afraid to go beyond the thick ropes of seaweed, and ended up drawing in the wet sand with a stick. This is not the case at Coney Island. Like everything else in the city, the Atlantic feels constrained, its edges lapping at Jersey and the other parts of Brooklyn visible in the distance. I wonder if I should be having a Big Philosophical Moment and existentially ponder emptiness and the state of modern culture or something, Camus-style, but mostly all this water makes me feel like I need to pee.
Most of the fences and gates I pass are locked. I see a parked ambulance with its lights on and “Drunk In Love” coming from a speaker inside and decide not to get too close. Maybe someone will be having breastases for breakfast in the morning. There’s a slightly obscured Port-A-Potty, but as soon as I get my zipper down I hear something move and I run away.
More than a little cold and with a dying phone, I walk back to the train and head back to campus. I’m a little slow crossing 114th and a cabbie pauses long enough to scream, “Move your fucking ass!” as he nearly clips my bag. It’s good to be home.
“Hey guys! Who wants to come to a shuffleboard bar in Brooklyn tonight?”
I was vaguely offended by how hard a sell this was, but ended up mustering a group of friends for two excursions to the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Carroll Gardens. The first time, I got there on a Friday 20 minutes before close; the second time, around 11:30pm on a Thursday. The best nights are apparently Thursdays, and Wednesdays for bingo. Mondays and Tuesdays are “club nights” for the shuffleboard league, whose leaderboard adorns one of the walls.
I logged my first shuffleboard experience in a series of iPhone notes. “Literally a Wes Anderson movie,” says the first. The space is huge and reminiscent of a bowling alley, with 10 shuffleboard courts and two bars. The color scheme is a pleasing turquoise, the bathroom has flamingo wallpaper, there are a bunch of records going and they’re all playing groovy music. It’s very fun, very Instagrammable.
You can sit at the bar without getting a court, and plenty do: they all seem to know the bartenders. “Surly Hawaiian-shirted bearded man,” says my iPhone note of one. The cocktails come in Mason jars, are vaguely shuffleboard themed, and are very good. “Ordered Earl Ball…its like earl hall get it” says one note.
There is a note of heady escapism in being so far from Columbia, apparently in technicolor 1950s Florida. This is only enhanced after drinking several Shuffleboard Bobs and leaving the bar. The nearest buildings to Royal Palms are a bar, something my phone calls a “legitimate non-ironic Super 8 motel” (where we talk to a character the notes identify as “very mildly attractive Buster from Vancouver who went to 10 bars tonight”) and a dog hotel. The last note reads: “Let’s never go back to CU let’s stay forever there’s a doggy day care they take humans?”
Royal Palms had its “grand opening” two months ago. Most of the staff, who all seem to have developed a keen appreciation of the game, have been here since then. “WOAH,” says one bearded, Hawaiian shirt-clad employee upon witnessing my shot when I visit a second time. “The way that biscuit just kissed off the other one and landed in the zone…keep that up.”
“It was an accident!” I splutter for some reason.
Shuffleboard is perhaps the only sport—game?—where physical strength is a disadvantage. Hit the biscuit with a reasonable amount of force, and you’ll find yourself with no points, or a pathetically comic negative 10. “You want to glide it,” our appointed shuffleboard tutor advised us, with a sort of graceful Olympic curling motion. Fast-paced and adrenaline fueled it is not. One can see how this is a fun activity for senior citizens, and drunk people.
But even if its languid pace is thus suited to the cruise ship deck and the old people’s home, shuffleboard can also turn you into a monster. In this respect, it is arguably also suited to the old and inebriated. “FUCK YOU,” you will find yourself shouting as the biscuit you artfully slotted in to the 8-point zone is violently displaced by your adversary. My opponent developed something of a signature move, sending biscuits flying off the court—including his own—in a sort of kamikaze attack. The obscenity-ridden victory cries reverberated over the ambient jazz.
One of the more mystifying things about Royal Palms (and there are several) is its attempt to infuse its appropriation of the retirement-home lifestyle with a nostalgic glamor. Everything looks like those Mad Men episodes that are set somewhere sunny. There’s an entire huge back wall of beach canopies turned bar booths, and every word is spelled out in a font you might find on an old postcard from the Sunshine State. It’s suggestive of some parallel universe where the ancient, white-sneaker clad shuffleboard patrons of today were once Miami groovers, shufflin’ some board with a cocktail in one hand and a flamingo bobbing in the background. Could it be true? At any rate, it’s a sunnier vision than the bleak irony I might have expected from the phrase “shuffleboard bar in Brooklyn,” ironic youngsters of today dancing to Shake Your Tail Feather on the shuffleboarders’ impending graves.
“What was this space before it was a shuffleboard club?” I ask the hostess.
“I think it was a part of the casket company next door,” she says.
—Hallie Nell Swanson