Thought of the Day: Bicycle Licenses

I love bicycles. And I think we should do more to turn our urban centers into bike-friendly places. In fact, I’m all for restricting access for private passenger vehicles and offering incentives to companies that cater to cycling commuters, including places to safely store one’s bike and on-site locker rooms so employees can shower and change into appropriate work attire after riding their bikes in on a sweltering August morning.

But I also think bike riders need to be licensed, at least in urban environments. Now I know what you are thinking…it’s a bike, for Christ’s sake. True, but one only needs to casually observe the behavior of cyclists in an urban environment like New York City to see the wisdom of this.

On one hand, New York is awash with professional cyclists who deliver food and other items on bikes. Many of these cyclists seem to either not understand or refuse to follow the laws concerning riding a bike in this city. They regularly ignore traffic signals, ride against traffic, and even ride on the sidewalks. And to compound that, a lot of them have what can best be described as a serious attitude problem, as if the rest of us are just obstacles in their way – even when we legally have the right of way.

On the other hand, with the expansion of the Citi Bike program, we also have many more casual riders, including tourists. And not only are these cyclists more likely to be less-skilled riders than those who own their own bike, but they are also less likely to be aware of the rules and regulations for safely riding a bike in this city.

This combination of aggressive and indifferent veteran cyclists along with the influx of inexperienced and ignorant new riders is a recipe for serious problems. And while the cycling community is the first to cry foul whenever one of their own is killed or injured by a negligent motorist, and rightly so, they tend to scoff at the idea that any of their kind are guilty of bad behavior – let alone the need to be licensed and regulated. It’s like dog owners, who always insist that they clean up after their pets, yet there is still dog poop everywhere you look. It’s never their fault…someone else is always to blame.

Licensing may seem harsh, but if you are a safe cyclist, then I imagine you would welcome such a measure for your own safety, to protect you from the reckless riders who pose just as much of a threat to you as they do to everyone else. Cyclist can easily reach speeds of 20-30 miles an hour, which are sufficient enough to injure a fellow cyclist in a collision, let alone a little old lady crossing the street. And now many of the delivery riders in New York City are using electric bikes, which can reach those same speeds without the need to even pedal. Plus, they ride these under-powered motor scooters as indiscriminately as some do conventional bikes, except now they can have a smoke or check their smartphones while they’re riding because they no longer have the need to even focus on pedaling.

Cyclists have demanded bike lanes. They deserve them – and more. And the city has complied, adding more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes to date, with at least 50 new miles being added each year – all at the taxpayers’ expense. The problem is that many cyclists use these bike lanes at their convenience. Imagine if motorists used the roads at their convenience, driving along sidewalks, through bike lanes, and across any pavement whenever they felt like it?

Despite the addition of all these bike lanes, you will still see some cyclists riding in other lanes of traffic, and even on the sidewalks. And those who do use the bike lanes we’ve set aside for them, at their demand, often use them inappropriately. Some travel in the wrong direction, riding against traffic, which is a hazard to both pedestrians and other cyclists (not to mention a risk for motorists), simply because they are too lazy to ride a block over and use the proper bike lane (again, imagine if motorists were just as lazy).

It seems like some of these bike riders only care about themselves. They want to be protected from everyone else, and insist that motorists and pedestrians both adhere to the laws and regulations, yet they totally ignore the laws and regulations regarding their own behavior. For example, most cyclists, though few will admit it, completely ignore traffic signals, preferring to weave through pedestrians and motor vehicles at intersections – even though the people and cars have the right of way. Be honest…if you are a cyclist in New York City, do you always stop at red lights and wait until they turn green? No, cyclists in this city do whatever the fuck they want. They want everyone else to have to obey the rules except for themselves.

We have made rules for motorists, to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and other motorists. As a result, more people feel comfortable riding bikes around the city (ridership has increased by 150 percent). Now it’s time to make – or at least start to vigorously enforce – rules for cyclists as well, to protect pedestrians, motorists, and other cyclists.

 

Eating Options in Midtown Manhattan

A large pie at Roberta's in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

A large pepperoni pie sans basil at Roberta’s in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

There are many reasons to hate midtown Manhattan. And I can only think of a handful of reasons to actually love it: MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and the Radio City Music Hall. Plus, it’s a tourist magnet, which keeps all those people away from our beloved neighborhoods.

Fortunately my concert sojourns, as rare as they may be these days, are conducted at off-peak hours. But MoMA has always been a bit of a struggle, because I usually hit that in the morning – during the less-trafficked Member Previews – and then I’m left looking for convenient feeding options in the area.

I used to go to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian, but that’s become a tourist attraction itself. They did have a food truck thing happening on East 48th Street for awhile. But there’s really nothing to eat – or at least nowhere you want to eat (the midtown outposts of places like John’s and Shake Shack are simply too heavily touristed) – in all of Midtown.

Fortunately, the success of the wonderful Smorgasburg and Urbanspace food markets has made it’s way into even the banal blocks of Midtown. On the East Side, there’s Urbanspace Vanderbilt, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and East 45th Street. On the West Side, there’s City Kitchen, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street.

Urbanspace Vanderbilt
This little gem makes up for the demise of the food truck experiment. It’s bound to be packed at peak hours, but at least the feeders are more likely to be Midtown office workers than the tourist scum that surely fill the West Side alternative.

I’ve managed to make it in before the lunchtime rush. I had me a big old Roberta’s pizza pie, followed by a Dough doughnut for dessert. Incredible food, and at prices that are quite reasonable by Midtown standards.

City Kitchen
This is a much smaller option, though the fact that it’s located on the second floor and not street level might make it slightly less crowded. The downside, of course, is that its proximity to the fecal magnet that is Times Square will surely make it more of a tourist cesspool than it’s East Side counterpart.

I also stopped in prior to the lunch-hour madness. I had a great burger from a place called Whitman’s, and followed that up with a Dough doughnut as well. Again, great food at reasonable prices for the neighborhood.

Deep Fried Bacon

From left to right, local craft beer, roast pork drizzled with garlic, and deep-fried bacon at La Marqueta’s Vendy Plaza in Spanish Harlem on Sundays.

Yup, deep-fried bacon…just like Jesus intended. Lightly breaded bacon, slithered onto a stick, and gently nestled into a golden pool of boiling fat.

That’s just one of the many treats available at La Marqueta, the open-air market in Spanish Harlem. Every Sunday, starting at noon, an eclectic collection of food vendors gathers at Vendy Plaza, at Park Avenue and 116th Street, to offer up all sorts of tasty treats at affordable prices. It’s like Smorgasburg, or any of the New York City’s other weekly food events, but with three distinct differences: no lines, no ridiculous prices, and a live freakin band!

When Pigz Fly calls it chicken-fried bacon, and serves it with a side of gravy, but it’s basically deep-fried bacon on a stick.

I’ve written about this event already, but I’m writing again because I’ve discovered something truly delightful. One of the vendors, When Pigz Fly, has chicken-fried bacon. Those of you familiar with the Southern staple called chicken-fried steak will recognize this dish for what it really is: deep-fried bacon. And for $3, it’s a steal.

Lately I’ve been getting this as an appetizer and again as dessert, while my primary focus has been on the delicious roast pork…drizzled with garlic oil. That’s cheap, too. Something like $5, I think. The same price you’ll pay for a local craft beer, if you can believe it.

The roast pork is prepared Puerto Rican style by Angel Jimenez of La Pirana Lechonera, a South Bronx food truck (checkout the video on him below, from Liza Mosquito de Guia of Food. Curated.). Whatever tender loving care he gives this pig during the slow roasting in the wee hours ends with skilled but sudden slices of the machete, as he serves up perfect portions to salivating swine fiends like me.

And this isn’t some stale knockoff of the now ubiquitous Smorg machine, with the same vendors, long lines, and bleeding hipsters. These are real people, serving up stuff with appliances often on loan from their own personal kitchens. All to the accompaniment of a live band. It’s real. It’s local. And it’s delicious.

The Burger Joint

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

When someone says “BJ,” I used to think of blow jobs. Now I think of hamburgers. Because of the Burger Joint. That’s how good their hamburgers are.

I can’t remember the first time I went to the Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridian, the hotel on 56 Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The original Burger Joint is literally a secret hideaway tucked in the far corner of the upscale hotel’s lobby. There’s no signage, and you’d never even know it’s there unless you were curious about the line down the dark corridor, on the far side of the reception desk.

The once-secret burger lair is no more than a little hole in the wall, far from what you’d expect in such a swank place. The walls are covered with graffiti and the operation screams “no frills,” though they now offer table service instead of having to line up at the counter.

The Burger Joint’s burgers are literally the best I’ve ever had, anywhere. The best. And the fries, well, they may very well be the best I’ve ever had as well – or at least in the Top 3. Amazing.

It’s not cheap, though. A basic burger is $8.50, and an additional $3.22 for the fries. OK, that’s quite reasonable for what you’d pay at most places here in New York City, but it’s still a bit pricey compared to Shake Shack’s $4.19 burger, which is mighty tasty as well. But the Shack’s fries suck, especially since they abandoned their new hand-cut shoestring fries to return to the old crinkle cuts.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The Burger Joint has been my go-to spot whenever I visit the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. In fact, it’s one of the few places I like to eat in Midtown. Though it’s become so popular, particularly with tourists, that it’s intolerable during the lunch rush. So I prefer to hit it early or late, and actually structure my museum visits around that.

Fortunately the Burger Joint opened up a second spot, the Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal. It’s huge compared to the original, about four times the size, and I’ve never seen it get crowded. Same food, same prices, just less tourists and less tension. So now I’m finding all sorts of reasons to head down to the West Village, just so I have an excuse to grab a burger and fries at the Burger Joint. It’s that good.

The Marvelous, Monstrous Met

As I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon masterpieces like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

I mastered the Met. And that’s no easy task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest art museum in the United States.

Had I realized what a massive undertaking it was, I would have tracked my time – like counting the licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But when I started exploring the museum with my new membership in January, I hadn’t a clue. I had visited the Met a couple of times over the years but never fully comprehended its vastness nor the richness of the treasures within. And its setting in Central Park, away from other blocks and buildings that could provide perspective, makes it hard to gauge its scale – 2 million square feet – from the outside.

Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja is one of those paintings I instantly recognized but knew nothing about.

My best guess is that I spent roughly (very roughly) 50 hours exploring the museum’s galleries. That’s based on the assumption that I did, in fact, visit the place once a week – with a few exceptions – and spent an average of about 2.5 hours per visit. In reality, though, I probably spent even more time there, as some weeks I think I went twice, and occasionally I’d last 3-4 hours before my feet began to ache.

The one thing I am certain of, however, is that I still haven’t visited every gallery in the museum. Of the 440 galleries, 57 of them were closed during my visits. Of course, I visited some of them twice, as certain galleries feature temporary exhibits that rotate. And I returned to some simply to marvel at the treasures, and others because of fantastic events like Jazz & Colors at the Met.

I also can’t claim to have seen every object in every gallery. I have come close, though, as I meticulously worked my way through each, giving everything a look. But occasionally I’d come across am empty space marked with a note explaining that the item had been temporarily removed for one reason or another – cleaning, restoration, on loan elsewhere, etc.

The Met features art from all around the world, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

And the Met has a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming. For example, the ancient artifacts are amazing, but shelves lined with chards of pottery can become mind-numbing while offering little insight beyond the realization that we pocketed everything from these archeological sites.

On a side note, that’s one of the disturbing aspects of the ancient treasures at the Met. What gave us the right to collect all this stuff, other than the fact that we had the foresight and finances? If you live in Cyprus, you’ll probably need to come to New York to learn about your past – and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The other art ad nauseam experience at the Met can be found in the European galleries, where you will be subjected to an infinite number of horribly similar paintings of religious subjects. If I see another portrait of the Madonna and Child I’ll crucify someone.

But there are treasures. Many, many wonderful treasures. Art and artifacts in every medium imaginable from every era and every corner of the world. You’ve got treasures from the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then some – including sculptures, sphinxes, sarcophaguses, and even a real, transplanted temple from 15 BC. There are tons of classic paintings along with a good collection of modern and contemporary art. And some unexpected finds, like an entire wing devoted to Africa and Oceania.

Among the many masterpieces you’ll find at the Met is Pablo Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile.

It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone at the Met – even folks who aren’t too crazy about art. You’ve got suits of armor and all sorts of guns and swords. Giant sculptures and carvings. Costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and even furniture.

Since few will have the time to tour the entire museum as I have, visitors need to decide what they want to see – what era, region, or art form they are most interested in. Or they can pick a wing and explore every nook and cranny of that.

I find that two hours is a good amount of time to spend in any museum. Visitors might want to linger a little longer in the Met, given its sheer volume. You can always take a break, as there are many benches and a couple of cafes. And while most of the food and drink options are as overpriced and underwhelming as one would imagine, the roof garden is worth a visit just for the views of Central Park.

Be sure to check out the Met’s Web site before you visit the actual museum because it is an exceptional resource. It offers an interactive map with overviews of each individual gallery, visitor tips and policies, and even some suggested itineraries. A little research and planning will go a long way, ensuring you get the most out of your visit to the marvelous, monstrous Met.

One of my favorite pieces at the Met is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.

Why Did The Chicken Cross The Bridge?

A Walk Across the High Bridge and a Pilgrimage to Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem

If you Google the best fried chicken in New York City, you are bound to come across Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem. It’s on every list. And it’s been on my “to feed at” list for some time.

I decided to take advantage of some cooler temperatures and clearer skies at the end of June to have a little Harlem adventure. I started with a walk across the newly renovated High Bridge.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

The newly renovated High Bridge pedestrian walkway across the Harlem River.

High Bridge
The oldest in the city, the High Bridge was originally called the Aqueduct Bridge because it was completed in 1848 to serve as part of the aqueduct system that brought water into Manhattan. It crosses the Harlem River, connecting the Bronx with upper Manhattan. The bridge has long since been abandoned. But, after a complete restoration, it reopened last month as a pedestrian walkway.

It is an interesting site, though the banks of the Harlem River are laden with highways, train tracks, and industrial sprawl so it’s not nearly as picturesque as I’d hoped. And the sides of the bridge are lined with wire netting, presumably to keep people from jumping or throwing things off it, so there weren’t too may photo opportunities. But it does live up to its name; it’s definitely not a place for those who fear heights.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Looking north from the High Bridge.

Heights of Harlem
I then walked south through Highbridge Park to try Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. The journey gave me a chance to see a part of the city I rarely do, from Washington Heights down to Sugar Hill. It was quite pleasant, actually, and even beautiful in some spots. And you know you are in Harlem when you are standing at the corner of Paul Robeson Boulevard and Count Basie Place.

But terms like “Heights” and “Hill” are used for a reason. This is not the relatively flat city we’re used to. And that proved a bit of a challenge as I tried to hone in on Charles Chicken. I was up on the bluff, and the restaurant was down below on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, between 151st and 152nd Streets. According to Google Maps, I should have been able to walk through Jackie Robinson Park, but that’s actually a massive cliff that runs for about half a mile. Fortunately I finally found some stairs that took me down through the park – around 149th Street, I think.

Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem.

Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken on Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem.

Charles Chicken
The place is small and somewhat cluttered. The counter is stacked so high I wasn’t even sure anyone was back there. But then I heard a reluctant voice from behind it, asking me what I wanted, as if I was there for some other reason than the food.

I asked for four pieces of chicken, letting her select the cuts. They are served in a Styrofoam to-go container – even if you are, like me, eating it there – and passed to you, in exchange for cash, through the narrow opening at the end of the counter. No fancy register or anything. And certainly no eye contact. But at $8 and change for four pieces of chicken and a small lemonade, I couldn’t really complain.

It was really good fried chicken. Not quite great. And certainly not better than places like the Bobwhite Counter in the East Village. But it was really good. And better than the likes of Hill Country and even Blue Ribbon. I was happy I made the journey.

And that lemonade? Normally I’m not a big lemonade drinker, but their choices are either that or iced tea. This was incredible lemonade, though, sweetened to perfection. So sweet, in fact, that I could feel the diabetes taking hold as I sucked it in.

The chicken at Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken.

The chicken at Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken in Harlem.

Stairway to Hell
After I cleaned my chicken nearly to the bone, I decided to see if I could find a more northerly route back through Jackie Robinson Park, as my subway stop was up on 155th Street, above the bluff. Frederick Douglas Boulevard actually runs beneath 155th Street, which is elevated as it leaves the bluff, becoming the Macombs Dam Bridge across the Harlem River to the Bronx.

As I passed under the bridge, by a little makeshift auto detailing enterprise a few local entrepreneurs had set up on the sidewalk, I spotted a staircase leading up the northern side of the bridge. It was a long, steep staircase. You’ve heard of Stairway to Heaven? This was more like Stairway to Hell. And the fact that I didn’t drop dead of a heart attack while climbing the thing, especially after eating pan-fried chicken washed down with some liquid diabetes, leaves me wondering if I am indeed immortal.

Parting Thoughts
As I mentioned earlier, this is a lovely little area. But the cliffs and steepness of the surrounding hills make it difficult for an old walker like me. It’s nice to visit, but I’m not sure I could live there.

Which I guess sums up how I feel about Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. It’s nice, but not nice enough to make it a regular thing. Maybe if I lived nearby as opposed to having to schlep up there. As it is, the fried chicken is so much easier – and tastier – at places like the Bobwhite Counter.

I may give it another visit in the fall, when the leaves have changed. I imagine the views from the High Bridge will be more picturesque. And maybe the chicken at Charles will live up to my lofty expectations. Or at least be served with a little more warmth.

The Death of the Chocolate Bar

The Chocolate Bar has closed its doors on Eighth Avenue in the West Village.

The Chocolate Bar has closed its doors on Eighth Avenue in the West Village.

I have long been a fan of the Chocolate Bar, Alison Nelson’s store/café on Eighth Avenue between West 12th and Jane. But when I learned that they were closing, citing a dip in business due to construction on their street, I was downright pissed.

Yes, it’s tough as hell to run a business in this town. Rents are ridiculous, and New Yorkers have so many other options to choose from. But the Chocolate Bar seemed to have figured it out.

They were originally located just up the street, on the other side, before relocating to the tiny storefront at 19 Eighth Avenue. I assumed the new location made more sense for them. And the fact that they were adding stores in equally expensive cities like Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai (in addition to a store in New Jersey, they now have seven shops in the Middle East and one in Melbourne) made it seem like they were doing more than alright.

Yet they have closed up shop here in New York City. Sure, I can still order their incredible chocolate-covered Oreo’s via their surprisingly crappy Web site, but it’s just not the same.

Perhaps the crappiness of their Web site should have been an indication that not all was well? In this day and age, you need something more functional – and with a little effort on the SEO front.

The Chocolate Bar's signature creations - chocolate-covered Oreos and hot chocolate.

The Chocolate Bar’s signature creations – chocolate-covered Oreos and hot chocolate.

And how can you invest in shops in other expensive cities if you can’t make it work here in New York City? If you can make it here, you can… Look, for all I know, maybe they sold franchise rights to these other shops in an effort to prop up the NYC flagship?

I don’t feel like New York City failed the Chocolate Bar. I feel like the Chocolate Bar failed New York City. Sure, it’s a tough town – dog-eat-dog and all that. And culinary genius doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with business acumen. But there’s no reason that the Chocolate Bar should have failed. Not in this town. Not during this gastronomic renaissance.

Imagine if they had invested some of that overseas expansion money in a proper Web site? One that attracted traffic (a chocolate blog?) and was optimized for search engines? A little marketing to get on the local foodie radar, let alone become a draw for tourists? After all, they were only a few blocks south of the High Line and the uber-popular Meatpacking District.

Speaking of location, if construction on the street was dampening traffic, why not move? It wouldn’t have been the first time. And imagine what kind of business they’d do if they opened up a stall in a place like Chelsea Market? Or got involved with Smorgasburg (Dough used this avenue to open up a shop in the Flatiron, with lines down the block for a $2.25 doughnut) or any of the other food-centric destinations popping up around our city? Or even just put a kiosk on the High Line, to drive traffic down to the shop?

Instead, the Chocolate Bar has closed its doors. The New York flagship is no longer an option. It looks like all of their other shops are still operational, so maybe I can at least enjoy some chocolate-covered Oreos when I’m in Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. And, of course, you can always order online. But with all the options for immediate gratification we have to choose from here in New York City, online is always the last option when it comes to treats like these.