Saturday, December 12, 2009

What happens when my students own vehicles worth more than my yearly salary?

As I walked up to the front of the student residence hall at the college where I teach at 3:50 to catch the 4 o’clock bus to the train station, I noticed a monstrously large cream-colored BMW SUV parked in the bus lane. I wondered immediately how the bus was going to make it around it. Then I noticed two Campus Security guys giving it a ticket, and putting those ultra-sticky orange stickers(you know, the kind you need Goo-Gone or kerosene to fully remove) on both the driver’s and passenger-side windows. I just smiled at them as they went inside and sat on the steps waiting for the owner of this big, ugly, expensive, illegally parked vehicle – undoubtedly a student – to stroll out of the dorm, thinking to myself, This ought to be good.

After about five minutes a gaggle of three or four girls strode down the stretch of stairs past me, all aghast. The first word they all said was, “What?!” The next words were, “Can you believe they put a sticker on a $70,000 BMW?”

They promptly called the offending friend, who was out of the dorm within 30 seconds.

“What, I’ve only been here ten minutes!” she yelled indignantly, her vehicle parked squarely on the words NO PARKING painted in yellow on the asphalt. She then left the vehicle illegally parked to go into the residence hall and complain to campus security. The other students just rolled their eyes and continued waiting for the bus to arrive.

While she was gone, her entourage of friends kept watch over the Beamer, gawking loudly.

“She’s my teammate. We gotta look out for each other.”

Another rubbed the thin film of dust on the passenger-side door. “I dunno about this beige color. It sure shows when it gets dirty.”

“Yeah, her parents just got her this one. The last one was bigger, and black. Look at this!” She pointed at a single bb-size dent in the door. "Can you believe some asshole had the nerve to open a door into it, and not even leave a note?”

After a few minutes of this she came back and her friends scattered, the bus still not having arrived. At that point I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask the obvious. “Aren’t you going to move it?”

She looked at me triumphantly. “Oh, I’m getting them to remove it.”

“No,” I said, pointing at her vehicle. “You’re parked in a No Parking zone. The bus is about to come.”

She looked at me blankly, then rolled her eyes and went back inside. The other students, some of them mine, just shook their heads and shivered in the cold.

And then we all saw the bus entering the parking lot. It approached slowly, the driver obviously waiting for someone to move the vehicle. When that didn’t happen, the bus sped up, hopped the curb opposite the offending SUV, loaded us all in, including the offending driver’s friends, and sped away. On the ride, I couldn’t help asking the one who was her teammate what sport they played.

“Field hockey,” she said, “and lacrosse.”

“Good to know,” I said ominously, hopefully professorially. “So that means your coach is Coach _________?”

“Um, yeah,” she said.

Their talk then took on hushed tones, probably already formulating their excuses. Of course I’m not going to tell her coach .

Just you.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

New York Cool - Capture the Flag in Williamsburg

I did this story about a game of Capture the Flag in Williamsburg. There were maybe 800 people running around in the streets with some vague sense of a game being played, with the cops finally breaking it up public assembly without a license. It was great.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Striper Fishing on the Sea Queen VII

To date the majority of my fishing experience in the New York City area has been freshwater fishing and casting from the piers while crabbing on Long Island. But I’ve been wanting for years to go out on one of those charter boats for striped bass out of Sheepshead Bay while they’re running in the spring and fall and on the urging of my wife, who’s two weeks from due with our first child, I finally made the trip last Wednesday night aboard the Sea Queen VII.

I’d heard about the Sea Queen from an old acquaintance who, after thoroughly researching all the different rates, confirmed it as the best deal for the cost (45 bucks per person for the night). The boat left at 7:00pm and I was a little worried about traffic on Ocean Avenue and the Belt Parkway so I left at 4:45 or so; turns out I overshot a bit as I got there around 5:15. Captain Steve was at the dock and the boat was just coming in from the day trip, so I made sure with him that my online payment went through and then went to the bagel shop across the street and got a pastrami and sauerkraut on pumpernickel and a coffee while I waited. I noticed at the counter they were selling Dramamine for seasickness at $1 a pouch, but didn’t bother.

The day crew was sill cleaning the boat when I boarded, so I took my seat in the cabin while the crew talked about the day trip and speculated that the stripers would really be running that night. I’m pretty sure the “No Smoking in the Cabin” sign was either a formality or just for customers, as I was the only one not smoking in the cabin.

For a good 30 minutes I was the only non-crew member on board, then a guy in glasses and a baseball cap took his seat on deck and looked stoically out at the water. As far as I could tell, he didn’t get up from his seat until we got back. The next guy on was wearing a full Puma jogging suit and had a perfectly gelled part in his hair. He walked with an exaggerated swagger, and sat down next to me in the cabin. As soon as the next guy walked in he yelled in a thick Slavic accent, “Ahmed! I fished wit’ you lastime, remember?” Ahmed nodded at him, and then I recognized him – Ahmed was the guy I’d seen in the picture from two nights ago on the Sea Queen website with a 41-pound striper, the biggest of the season. I congratulated him. “Eh,” he replied, “I catch more tonight, I think.”

I watched as about 20 more people got onboard, while the crew tried to court people onto the boat on the boardwalk as they walked by. There ended up about 40 people in all as we disembarked. A crew member set me up with a baitcast rod and reel that looked about 50 years old, and the guy in the Puma jogging suit sat down next to me.

“I from Albania, my friend,” he said. “What country you from?”

“Um, Kansas,” I replied.

“Kansas? Where that at?”

“About as far away as Albania.”

As we got further out, I looked back and saw the sun falling on Coney Island, the Wonder Wheel and the parachute jump silhouetted by that big yellow ball, and the Verrazano Bridge looming ubiquitously behind it all. And the guy in the Yankees cap was just sitting there looking at it. I guess he didn’t really come to fish.

My Albanian friend leaned on the railing. “These waves, my friend. I don’ like.” I was starting to agree with him.

The boat stopped, and one of the crew guys gave each of us a cupful of worms. But they weren’t like any worms I’d ever seen – more like 4-8-inch millipedes, with a gaping mouth at one end that made them look like lampreys. “Just hook one through the mouth and let the rest dangle,” the crewman told me and the gaggle of college kids from Montauk that had gathered on the other side of me and were all looking into their cups with varying degrees of fear in their eyes. One of them poked inside the cup and pulled his hand back like he’d just been stung. “Just grab one, they don’t bite,” the crewman said, then pulled a handful out of his bucket and put one on each of their hooks. “See?”

Then for the first of many times that night the ship’s horn rang, followed by the clamor of baited hooks being thrown into the water all at once. I about lost my balance getting my line in the water, the boat was rocking so much. And for the first of many times that night:

“Fish on!”

A guy on the other side of the boat brought in the first striper of the night, a “short” that didn’t meet the 28-inch length minimum, and then an eastern European lady at the front of the boat brought in the first keeper of the day. And so it went for the next hour, fish on, fish on, boat horn, lines in, move the boat, horn, line out, fish on, fish on, “FISH ON!” I finally had one of my own at the end of my line, and after a couple minutes of fighting I brought in my first, a 25-incher that the crewman didn’t even bother himself with but I had to admire for a minute before putting it back in the water.

Then the horn sounded, and I ran to the bathroom and puked up about one tenth of my body weight in coffee, pastrami, and gastric acid. I must have heaved about ten times, but serendipitously my stomach was completely empty at the same time the horn sounded for the next round. I went back to my place next to my Albanian friend and looked over to see another guy puking off the side of the boat.

Then my Albanian friend shouted, “Fish on!” as his rod almost bent over double. “Holy sheet! Is big!” he yelled. My line went tight as well, then I realized it was because it was caught on his. This was obviously a keeper on his line, and I knew it was my job to get my line the fuck off his. The fish came to the surface thrashing, and I had the precarious job of grabbing his line long enough to untangle my hook from it but not long enough for the striper to break it. I was in top form though, doing my job in less than 5 seconds flat, and he landed his keeper for the night.

The run kept going strong for another hour – I caught another short, the guys at the front of the boat caught maybe 10 keepers, and then it was over. Between boat positionings, I noticed the eastern European lady and her husband would go into the cabin and have kumquats and shots of PatrĂ³n. They never looked sick, and they both pulled in their 2-fish limit of keepers and plenty of shorts. Don’t know about the tequila, but I’m totally bringing the kumquats for the next trip. And the Dramamine.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Honeymoon in Belize

My wife Christine and I were married on August 30, but because we’re both teachers we had to put off our honeymoon until the end of the semester. This was fine by me, as a honeymoon somewhere warm in December beats a honeymoon somewhere warm – or not warm – in early September. We actually didn’t have the official reception until late October, when we somewhat randomly decided that, as warm places go, Belize would work (neither of us had been there – we both had to look at a map to make sure of exactly where it was).

So, for a week in December we were in Belize. We dropped the dog off in Jersey on Friday, December 12, and left for Newark the following morning at 4:00am. As if to shuttle us off with some idea of why we were leaving, it snowed the whole way to the airport.

We went through Miami, perhaps the most illogically constructed airport in the US, without a hitch, even switching to an earlier flight to Belize and cutting a 4-hour layover to one. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad. We spent the whole 2 hours from Miami to Belize talking to the guy Andy in the seat next to us, or more specifically listening to him – it turned out he was going to San Pedro on the island of Ambergris Caye, same as us, and he acted like he owned private shares in it, telling us about the island like he was living there, rather than visiting. Christine finally asked him how many times he’d been there. “Oh, once,” he said.

When we landed in Belize City, it was 80 and sunny. We hopped on our propellered puddle jumper to Ambergris Caye. Andy jumped on ahead of us and hopped into the cockpit next to the pilot and started talking to him, winking at us like he was in on some secret. The pilot just rolled his eyes.

That was the last I remember of the pilot, because once we took off my eyes were looking out the window at the endless shades of blue below, sprinkled with sparse dots of green land every now and then. Christine pointed out the line of whitecaps breaking against the reef way out there surrounding everything. After 15 minutes or so we saw a larger strip of green, then we landed on it.

After unloading onto the airstrip, we hit the streets of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. The “downtown” streets were filled, what with bikes, golf carts, tractors, foot traffic, a couple of “San Pedro Taxis” that were all converted American minivans from the late 80s, but, conspicuously, no cars. And no lanes. And for the most part, no sidewalks. So every street was a loose juxtaposition of different pods going in different directions, with only the loosest of norms preventing them from running into each other. We hailed the first minivan we saw and headed to the Royal Caribbean, checked in to our cabin, rented bikes, locked them up, and rushed away from concrete and toward sand.

The Royal Caribbean itself is a simple setup of 30-some cabins, with a swimming pool, garden, cabana bar, and lots of lizards (but not inside the cabins). The first thing the manager told us as we were sallying forth was that every inch of beach at Ambergris Caye is public, which lent an easy retort when the first beachfront condo we stepped on the beach in front of a gaggle of college-age kids came running out yelling, “This is a private beach, yo!”

About the beaches – the key word is “blue.” The azure sky reflecting simpatically on the deeper blue of the water, with distant whitecaps on the reef just at the end of the horizon – witnessing that was probably the moment we both forgot where we left earlier that same morning.

After we burned the remaining couple of hours of daylight, we went to our lodging’s watering hole, the Sandbar. The owners and bartender immediately introduced themselves to us, and we were talking for the rest of the night. The only interruption was when a group of about 10 Texans, all couples vacationing at a neighboring condo took over the place for a couple of hours, insisting on giving me a new nickname every 30 minutes, first “Kansas” when I told them where I was from, then “Dad” when we told them we were expecting, then “Dirty Banana” when they bought me said drink to congratulate me, and finally “30 Minutes” when I told them how often they were giving me new nicknames.

We also met two nurses from New York City, who we talked to about home, then they recommended we book our snorkeling and fishing trips through Tanisha Tours. But more on that later.


On the flight from Miami to Belize we both noticed the guy across the aisle from us wearing a band on his shades saying “Belikin: The Beer of Belize.” It didn’t take long on arrival to find out how true that is. Even before we landed, we noticed the Belikin Brewery building next to the airstrip, enclosed in barbed wire and camouflage (and, we later found out, surrounded by uniformed armed guards). Andy made it a point to get a Belikin at the airport right when he got off the plane. But it wasn’t until we started drinking on Ambergris Caye that we found out that every bar literally only sells Belikin. More than one bartender used the term blacklisted, and the owner of the bar at our resort told us, pointing to their Belikin cooler, that as per their contract they could be sued by Belikin if they put any other brand of beer in the cooler. Belikin brews a stout, lager, and premium if you want to get fancy, but almost everyone simply orders a “beer,” the pale ale that pretty much tastes like Rolling Rock. While it’s not a distinctive beer by any stretch of the imagination, it is light, refreshing, and goes well with the fish and hot sauce (pass the Marie Sharp’s, please) characteristic of most Belizean food.

The next morning we hopped on our bikes and headed to George’s, a diner the nurses had recommended that was on the road back into “town,” which is what they called the area around the landing strip with the highest concentration of restaurants and tour guides. We had the Belizean eggs there – otherwise known as a western omelet in the states – and headed into town to find Tanisha Tours and get some beach time. We actually rode all the way to the northern tip of the island, where you have to pay a fee to ride across the bridge to the next island, and were promptly accosted by salespeople trying to get us to stay at a private resort on the other side.

After a half hour of passive-aggressive back-and-forth, we finally got rid of them and headed back down the beach to Tanisha Tours headquarters, which was actually the beachside residence of the family who ran it. The wife booked our snorkeling tour, to be guided by her husband the next morning, while their 4-year-old daughter was cooking lunch and their son chatted with us.

We finally set up on the beach and I took my first dip in the water. I immediately found a conch shell, which I was pretty proud of until a little boy who was wading in the water with his younger brother told me, “Yeah, they are everywhere.” The older one was catching little fishes with a dip net the size you’d use for a 10-gallon aquarium, and putting them in a tiny clear plastic tank that was hanging around his brother’s neck. His brother was holding his hand in the tank and giggling while the little fishes swam around his fingers. “It tickles,” he said. The older one then showed me around the beach, picking up a sea urchin and letting me touch its porcupine-like prickles (“They are softer on the bottom,” he told me), then a sea anemone (“They will sting you,” he said while fondling its tentacles), then a tiny barracuda swimming a couple feet from us. We found the island teeming with young marine biologists like these two, who knew every form of life in the ocean around them like they were related to them. I was a little jealous.

The next morning we got a glimpse of what those kids would probably become in our Tanisha Tour Guide, Daniel. He pulled up to our dock at 8:00 instead of the standard 9:00 because, he said, you see the best animals before everyone else gets in and scares them all away. We headed straight out to Hol Chan, the premier spot on the reef for snorkeling. This was my first time snorkeling – Christine has been since she was a kid – and it almost wasn’t even my first time when a shark swam leisurely under our boat as Daniel was explaining how to use the equipment. For some reason this excited him and Christine.

It all became clear, though, the first time I looked under the water – a huge school of horse-eyed jacks had parked themselves leisurely under our boat and were already playing chicken with our appendages, and a big terrapin was sidling along the bottom eating seaweed. As we went further, we saw that shark, some eels, a whole fleet of leopard rays, and many other things I can’t even name, although Daniel tried to find them all in his reef wildlife book once we got back on the boat. Unfortunately we had to get in the boat an hour or so earlier than expected, as I got sick from swallowing so much saltwater. Both Christine and Daniel tried to assuage my shame, but I was marked for that trip as the designated landlubber.

The following morning was my chance to redeem myself – fishing. As our guide Tony and his son helped us onto the boat, I told him about growing up catching catfish on the Wakarusa River in Kansas. He asked how big they got – I told him some got into the near-100-pound range, but the biggest I’d caught as 35. “Oh yeah?” he said, “I guess we’ll have to spend some time trolling for barracuda then.”

We spent the first hour catching bait, following pelicans that were diving for sardines and netting our share to cut up for use on the reef and keep live to troll for barracuda. Trolling on our way out to the reef, Christine caught the first, a 2-pound barracuda we’d later have for lunch. Once we got to a channel by the reef, we anchored and threw sardine chunks out. It was like fishing in a bucket, really – it seemed like every cast brought a different kind of fish out – porgies, snapper, grouper, parrotfish, and quite a few I couldn’t name, including one that snapped my line when I tried to get cute with the drag. But the best was Christine’s, toward the end of our day – a 12-pound barracuda she spent a good 15 minutes pulling in after we started trolling beyond the reef. Long and shiny, it looked like a sword fighting down below the surface of the clear blue water. When she finally got it in, the guide told us, “Thanks guys, I’ll be eating good tonight!”

We did give him that one, and in exchange he filleted 2 parrotfish, 2 grouper, and the smaller barracuda. While he was filleting them on our dock, a group of pelicans were circling above us. “We have a saying here in Belize,” Tony told me as I watched them warily, “Never look up with your mouth open.” We then took the bounty to our cabana bar, where they grilled them in garlic butter for us. It was maybe the best meal we had in Belize.


Perhaps the most pleasant generalization I could make about Belize is that things seem to happen so organically. Our experience was that we met a few people, they told us about a few cool things to do, and the people we did those things with told us about other cool things we should check out on the island. The nurses told us about George’s and Tanisha Tours, the guys at Tanisha, told us about a DandE's Frozen Custard, and the lady who owned DandE’s told us we needed to have dinner at Hidden Treasure, which was so well hidden we never would have thought to look for it much less found it without the advice. The coolest thing about this is that I’m convinced, even though we loved our experience in Belize, we could come another time, do entirely different things at different places, and have just as much fun.

By our last full day there we were both thoroughly burnt so we kept it simple, walking up and down the beach, stopping for a drink at various seaside bars, reading in the shade, snorkeling off the ends of docks – a lot less to see, but at least I didn’t get sick – and towards the end of the day we rode our bikes down the main rode south from our cabin – the “town” is north – to see what was there. We rode about 5 miles down the rode, and it got progressively dustier and smellier, until Christine mentioned that the smell was kind of a burnt, trashy smell. It wasn’t long before we saw the piles of burning trash. Hey, I guess island garbage has to go somewhere.

A couple blocks before we got back to the hotel, we stopped at the lone freshwater lake on the island. Christine swore she saw an alligator, and sure enough when we got to the water’s edge there was a huge scaly back and two eyes that reminded me of Pitfall. “Hey guys,” a group of kids called from behind us, “Wanna sponsor a chicken?” The deal they proposed was that the chicken we “sponsored” would be tied to a rope and thrown into the water, giving a show when the gators – or, if we were lucky, Diablo himself, king of the island gators – descended upon it. We rode off quickly, not asking if they chickens were live or dead.

That night we went to dinner at Hidden Treasure Restaurant . It was some of the best advice we got, rivaling our fresh-caught fish for the best meal we had there. The ambience was very cool as well – you really had to go out of your way to get there, and when we did it was like entering a little open-air paradise, with gas lamps and waiters who actually wore shoes. (Not that we did.)


One thing I haven’t mentioned – there are a lot of stray dogs on Ambergris Caye. But I don’t think stray is perhaps the right word. They all seem to be from the same brood, and they’re all friendly to strangers. When I asked the owner of our bar about them he said, “Yeah, the mean ones don’t last long around here.” I think every day we were there we had a different dog adopt us for the day, walk leisurely down the beach with us, park itself under our seats at the bar, lap up any scraps that would “accidentally” fall to the ground, and just as leisurely walk off at some point with someone else. I don’t know if they officially belonged to anyone – in fact I’m not entirely sure if we ever saw the same dog twice.

And the next morning we packed up, checked out, said goodbye to the friends we’d made at the hotel bar, and took a minivan cab into town. We had a couple hours to burn before our puddle jumper left, so we squeezed in a bit more beach time and had some fried jacks at Estel’s. And then we left.

On the puddle jumper back to the mainland I started thinking about Andy, the guy we met on the way into Belize. I remembered how he seemed to think of the island like a distant but close relative, one he always knew would let him in and take care of him. I remember how many of his facts didn’t add up, like the multiple texts he said his wife was sending him while he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, or the conflicting number of children he said he had while telling different stories about them. And then, when Christine mentioned how well he knew the island and asked him how many times he’d been there he replied, “Once.” And that part I now believed.