The Next Best Thing to an Air Control Tower

The Wall Street Journal

Ralph Gardner Jr.

July 28, 2014 9:54 p.m. ET

Inside a flight simulator at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

It was my understanding that I was going to visit the control towers at both JFK and La Guardia airports on a single afternoon.

I’ve seen control towers on TV but never in real life—most memorably in that fine 1980 film “Airplane,” which seems to only improve with age. (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”)

Under the auspices of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs both Queens airports, I was to join students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, across the street from La Guardia, and visit that airport’s control tower.

Then I was to head over to CUNY’s York College in Jamaica, which has an aviation management program, and, like Vaughn, has a partnership with the Port Authority. I’d be joining their students for a tour of JFK’s control tower.

“The future of our airport operations depend on the expertise of our next generation of aviation managers and leaders,” said Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority.

I’m not sure at what point I realized my control tower visit wasn’t going to happen. But it was probably pretty soon after I arrived at Vaughn and was met by a welcoming committee.

Welcoming committees, unless you’re a head of state, are rarely a good thing. Precious time that could be spent reporting or, better yet, accumulating new experiences (for example, looking over a veteran flight controller’s shoulder) are occupied with introductions and interviewing everybody in the room so you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.

Student Ryan Barren shows the simulator to Erica Dumas of the Port Authority. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Also, I was informed that Vaughn had its own control tower. Perhaps I’d misunderstood the invitation and they’d planned to show me their version all along.

I tried to stifle my disappointment and started interviewing several students handpicked by the school. Such as 21-year-old Yichuan Luo, who is also known as Edison.

His ambitions are more earthbound than I’d have expected of a student at an aviation school.

“Airport management,” he explained. “How to run an airport on a daily basis.”

“I’ve always been a traveler,” said Mr. Luo, explaining he is originally from Shanghai. “An airport is a familiar environment for me.”

In that case, I wondered whether he had a favorite airport?

“Hong Kong International,” he stated. He added, “Palm Springs International. It’s a very nice airport.”

What did he think of JFK?

“JFK has a very good AirTrain,” he said.

I’m not sure I’d agree. The last time I took it I’d been dropped off at the wrong terminal, boarded the AirTrain to reach the right one and found myself heading back to Manhattan.

No problem. I always try to leave enough time for just such eventualities and managed to make my flight.

Vaughn also has several flight simulators. If you’ve primed yourself for a trip to a control tower, a flight simulator is probably the next best thing.

The controls in hand. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Apparently, Vaughn has a regional jet simulator. Unfortunately, it was unavailable. I “flew” a propeller plane. One with dual controls, the second set operated by 22-year-old Ryan Barren, who already has his pilot’s license.

Mr. Barren claimed I was such a natural I wouldn’t have crashed, even if I’d been flying solo.

“I think you did great,” he said with impressive sincerity. “You’d have landed.”

The time had come to visit Vaughn’s “control tower.” I doubt it was more than three stories high, four max, and could reach the top either by stairs or elevator. (JFK’s is 320 feet, and said to be the world’s tallest.)

From the Vaughn tower, we had a stunning view of La Guardia’s Runway 4. But other than panoramic windows, it didn’t have much in common with a functioning control tower. No radar. No weather-monitoring equipment. No high-frequency radio transmitters.

This control tower was just an empty space.

“We have a scanner,” explained Dr. Maxine Lubner, the head of Vaughn’s aviation and management faculty. “Instructors will bring classes up here. You can see a tremendous amount of activity going on. Sometimes we have lunch functions.”

Our next stop was York College, which had no views to speak of.

“It’s an aviation management program,” someone told me. “Not a flying school.”

Nonetheless, a couple of students told me about one of the perks of attending York: they get to go on scavenger hunts at JFK in exchange for keeping the place tidy.

“We help them out” by picking up trash off the runways that could damage the planes, explained Yousef Almomani. “Normally cans. Soda and beer. We’ve done it at La Guardia as well.”

Shawn Ferguson, another student, said for excitement—though to me having jumbo jets taking off and landing over your head would be excitement enough—airport workers hide objects for the students to find.

“If you find it you get a plane ticket,” Ms. Ferguson explained.

It doesn’t look like I’ll ever get to see the inside of JFK’s control tower. But maybe I can sign up for a scavenger hunt.



The City’s Other Museums

July 27, 2014 8:58 p.m. ET

Janel Halpern and Harvey Appelbaum, authors of ‘Not The Met,’ at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace museum. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Manhattan has 80 small museums, according to “Not The Met,” a guide to museums ranging from the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library, to the Museum of Sex and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on East 20th Street, where we happened to be standing at that moment.

“Seventy-nine. One of them closed,” noted Harvey Appelbaum, co-author, with Janel Halpern, of the Pelican-published book. “It was called the Mob Museum. Down near police headquarters. It ran out of funds. It had memorabilia of the gangsters of New York.”

“Instead of a red rope,” Ms. Halpern said, “they had a chain of handcuffs.”

“I say it was rubbed out,” Mr. Appelbaum said.

Even though the authors finish each other’s sentences, they’re not married. Both from Brooklyn, they’re longtime friends, however. “Over 40 years,” Mr. Appelbaum, a graphic designer and photographer, said. And they’ve spent a lot of time together researching and writing their book. “It took us 21/2 years to do the 80 museums.”

“We met once a week,” Ms. Halpern said. “Usually it was a Thursday.”

“We had time,” Mr. Appelbaum stated, meaning that both he and Ms. Halpern, a former English teacher and writer, are retired.

“Janel said, ‘We ought to do something like Zagat,’ but all the restaurants were taken care of. Janel said, ‘We know art.’ “

Indeed, Mr. Appelbaum volunteers at the Museum of Modern Art’s information desk once a week. “I give information from ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ to ‘Where’s Van Gogh’s “Starry Night?” ‘ That’s the most asked-for painting. A lot of people ask for ‘Starry, Starry Night’ which is the song, not the painting.”

“We tried to do two museums each week that were fairly close to each other,” Ms. Halpern explained. “We really did the museum.”

Each institution, whether the Museum of Sex—”You don’t have to be a pervert to visit the Museum of Sex, but you do have to be more than eighteen years of age,” the guide reports—or the Museum of Biblical Art is allocated two pages. The authors don’t shy away from offering their observations and experiences.

The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace museum’s display of the shirt, glasses case and manuscript on President Roosevelt during a failed assassination attempt in 1912. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

On the New Museum in the Bowery: “Tino Sehgal’s ‘This Is Propaganda’ consisted of nine white body bags laid side by side on a gray floor while a museum guard repeatedly sang ‘This is propaganda/you know/you know,’ in a fine contralto.”

Of watching the “Seinfeld” pilot episode at the Paley Center for Media: “If you love television, you may not ever want to leave.”

“Not the Met” is on sale at MoMA and also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I got an email from Emily Rafferty of the Met,” Mr. Appelbaum said, referring to the museum’s president, “saying, ‘We do have a sense of humor. We will put it in the bookstore.’ And it’s there.”

I took mild exception to the authors’ definition of a small museum. I think of the Frick, for example, or the New-York Historical Society, as major cultural institutions. But some of their choices are clearly small, even tiny. One or two of them Ms. Halpern and Mr. Applebaum even seem to have trouble recalling.

“There’s the Korean institute,” Ms. Halpern said, referring to the Korean Cultural Service. “Austrian,” meaning the Austrian Cultural Forum on East 52nd Street. “And the eggs. The famous eggs.”

“What’s that?” Mr. Appelbaum asked.

“The Ukrainian Museum on Sixth Street. They’re famous for their wooden carved eggs.”

“We were welcomed,” Ms. Halpern explained. “These museums don’t get much publicity. Most of them can’t afford marketing people.”

Among Manhattan’s sometimes overlooked cultural gems that the authors visited were the Hispanic Society of America on West 155th Street, with its Goyas, El Grecos and Velazquez; the Anne Frank Center USA at 44 Park Place, with a model of the house and the secret attic where Anne lived; Tibet House on West 15th Street, established in 1987 at the request of the Dali Lama; and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan. Built in 1765 by British Col. Roger Morris as a country home, it’s Manhattan’s oldest home. According to “Not the Met,” George Washington had his headquarters there during the battle of Harlem Heights and returned as president in 1790 for a dinner that included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, as well as Alexander Hamilton.

I wondered which institution had the best bathrooms. As important as their cultural treasures, it’s always good to know where there’s a quality comfort station. “It’s in the book,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “It’s the Japan Society.”

“Which is 47th Street between Second and First Avenue,” Ms. Halpern added. She said it was her first experience with a Toto, the versatile Japanese toilet.

“It’s paperless,” Mr. Appelbaum explained. “It’s beautiful, too.”


Howzat? Figuring Out Cricket

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner
July 23, 2014 8:48 p.m. ET

David Shillingford of the Shelter Island Cricket Club demonstrates the straight-armed throw of the game for columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. The club’s annual match is Saturday.                             Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

The vast and unbridgeable gulf between two peoples, even those with a common language, can be summed up in one word: cricket.

I’ve never understood the sport. I find it impenetrable. No matter how much I’ve watched it. Not that I’ve watched that much.

I think part of the problem is I’m a chauvinist: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Cricket bears a passing resemblance to baseball but, to an outsider, appears to lack the machismo. In baseball, the pitcher bends his arm at the elbow, whipping the ball at maximum velocity. In cricket, the ball is thrown with the arm straight, which looks vaguely girlish.

Also in cricket, as I understand it, points are scored and accolades earned just as easily by hitting the ball along the ground. In baseball, poetry is made when the projectile takes flight and travels as far as possible.

A cricket ball—crimson with white stitching Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

You’ve probably already deduced—especially if cricket is your sport—that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Which is why I made my way to Shelter Island last week for a cricket lesson ahead of the Shelter Island Cricket Club’s third annual match on Saturday. The game is a fundraiser for the Shelter Island Ambulance Corps.

Two Brits—David Shillingford, in risk management, and Frank Emmett, a Shelter Island schoolteacher—had agreed to provide a tutorial.

Also, present were Mr. Shillingford’s two children, Orla and Basil. They were sitting in their dad’s car in the shade entertaining themselves.

I bring them up only because Mr. Shillingford boasted that earlier in the day it was 11-year-old Basil who had mowed the pitch, the 22-yard strip of manicured grass where the bowler delivers the ball and the batsman attempts to hit it.

“Unlike baseball, the ball is supposed to bounce before it gets to the batsman,” Mr. Shillingford explained. “A bumpy pitch is dangerous.”

The bowler’s art, as I understand it, is to deliver the ball with all the unpredictability that a baseball pitcher musters with the curve, fastball, knuckler, slider, etc.

His assignment is probably even more of a challenge since it’s supposed to hit the dirt, or rather the grass, before rising to the batter. Hence, you want as true a bounce as possible.

“The town has a heavy roller,” to produce as smooth and professional a pitch as possible, Mr. Shillingford explained. Unfortunately, it had yet to be deployed. Which didn’t come as good news.

David Shillingford, in the white cap, and Frank Emmett demonstrate how to play the game of cricket.                                      Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Shillingford handed me the cricket ball, which was crimson, its seam in the center. Nonetheless, its density was similar to a baseball’s.

I saw the risk manager delivering it with English—no pun intended—and it taking a diabolical bounce directly into my eye socket.

“People assume we play every weekend” because of the club’s handsome white jerseys and caps, Mr. Shillingford said. “We play once a year.

“We had a phenomenal graphic designer” who created the regalia, he added. “He got carried away with the logo.”

He was referring to the club’s rakish and professional-looking emblem of crossed cricket bats over an outline of Shelter Island and the letters S-I-C-C. “Last year, we had players from England, Wales, Canada, Bangladesh, New Zealand.”

Mr. Emmett added: “Sri Lanka, India, America, obviously.”

Sides were apparently picked based on who owned homes on the island, who rented, and who simply happened to be somebody’s houseguest.

“Whether you had kids born in the U.S. was part of the algorithm,” Mr. Shillingford said.

Unlike professional cricket matches, which may be played over five days, the Shelter Island benefit consumes only a few hours.

Frank Emmett helps measures out the pitch. Uli Seit for The Wall Street Journal

Pimm’s Cup and rosé are served to friends and admirers—attendance last year hit 400—though apparently not to the combatants until the match is complete.

“You want to be quick-witted,” Mr. Shillingford explained.

“There’s no advantage to being relaxed. Professional cricket organizations do quite well at selling alcohol, but not to the players with the ball moving as fast as it is.”

After Messrs. Shillingford and Emmett took their “innings,” I stepped into the batter’s box, or crease, or whatever the area in front of the wicket is called.

I had no problem making contact with the ball, probably because a cricket bat is wide and flat—and because Mr. Shillingford was courteously delivering the ball from about 10 feet away and at about 5 miles an hour, as if he were pitching to a toddler.

I demanded he throw the ball at the grown-up speed and from the distance he was bowling it to Mr. Emmett.

He did.

The projectile took a wild bounce, caroming from my right side to my left and whizzing about 6 inches past my left ear.

“HOWZAT!” the Brits shouted in unison.

“When they think a player is out, the opposing team shouts howzat! to influence the umpire,” Mr. Shillingford explained.

Little persuasion was required in my case. I was clearly out and happy to return to my national pastime.


A Store With Plenty of Horse Sense

July 22, 2014 9:25 p.m. ET

Horse tack at Manhattan Saddlery, once the ‘equicenter’ of New York Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

At one time, Kips Bay was horse country and several stores catered to the needs of riders and their steeds.

Today, there is a sole survivor: Manhattan Saddlery at 117 E. 24th St.

“In the ’20s, ’30s, to the ’80s, 24th street was the equicenter of New York City,” explained Rhys Moore, the shop’s consultant.

There are many reasons for the decline of this specialty retail sector—from the rise of the internal combustion engine to the dearth of places to ride in Manhattan anymore.

“The last place to ride was Claremont,” said Nick Tsang, who owns Manhattan Saddlery, referring to the Upper West Side riding academy that closed in 2007.

Nonetheless, Manhattan Saddlery—it was called the Miller Harness Co. before Mr. Tsang’s family bought it in 2002—has a lot to recommend it.

The smell, for instance. Not of horses or stables. But of fine leather. It hits you as you walk in the door, coming from the custom Vogel riding boots on the main floor and the saddles in the basement.

“Everything for the rider is upstairs,” Mr. Moore explained. “Everything for the horse is downstairs.”

The store doesn’t seem an anachronism at all. Indeed, the Great Recession turned it into a tourist destination.

“Ironically, after 2007,” Mr. Tsang said, “what happened is that a lot of native New York customers fell off. They got replaced by South American travelers. We do very well with Brazilians, Argentines, European and East Asians.

Manhattan Saddlery owner Nick Tsang Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

“Ideally, we’d like to do more outreach and bring back that local New York population. We’re more famous in certain quarters of São Paulo than the Upper West Side.”

One way Mr. Tsang has tried to raise the store’s profile is by contributing $25,000 worth of riding apparel to Rider’s Closet, which makes riding clothes available to therapeutic riding programs.

Georgina Bloomberg, a professional equestrian and the daughter of former MayorMichael Bloomberg, started Rider’s Closet. And it also happens to be a cause close to Mr. Tsang’s heart.

The Tsang family started riding as a form of therapy for Mr. Tsang’s autistic brother, Andrew.

Everyone eventually lost interest—except Mr. Tsang’s mother, June. Indeed, Manhattan Saddlery seems an extreme example of what happens when a person gets hooked on horses.

“She bought a horse,” Nick Tsang recalled. “One led to two led to four. She was a customer of Miller’s.”

One day, Ms. Tsang visited the store and noticed the shelves looked poorly stocked.

“She asks what’s going on,” Mr. Tsang said, “and the manager told her, ‘If you’re interested in buying it, here’s the [phone] number of the bank.’ “

Mrs. Tsang made the call. But when she fell ill in 2007, her son decided to take command of the store fresh out of college, even though his undergraduate education at Harvard University had absolutely nothing to do with retail.

“I studied the history of science,” he said.

However, the store coincided with his plans to become a real-estate investor and developer.

Mr. Tsang’s main business is developing multifamily townhouses on the Upper East and West sides and in Greenwich Village.

A sampling of the shop’s wares. Danny Ghitis for The Wall Street Journal

Besides, trying to sell ground floor retail space in the teeth of a downturn would have been a challenge.

“Riding in the city had such a great lineage,” added Mr. Tsang, 30 years old, citing H. Kauffman & Sons, another well-known horse haberdashery on the block, and M.J. Knoud Saddlery on Madison Avenue. “I thought it would be a shame if there were no longer any.”

Most of all, he wanted to honor his mother. Mrs. Tsang died in 2012.

“This place was my mom’s place,” he explained. “It was a labor of love. I wanted to keep it going for her— until she got better and she’d have this place to come back to.”

Now, Mr. Tsang realizes the best way to preserve her legacy is by growing the business—stocking it with $600 GPA riding helmets and $350 Pikeur riding breeches, as well as with bridles, bits and horse blankets, of course.

One afternoon, a father watched from an armchair while his wife and daughter shopped.

“Nick used to think,” confided Mr. Rhys, that a morose-looking dad wasn’t good for business. Au contraire. “The longer they’re sitting there the more it cost them.”

Eventually, the dad spent about $1,000 on his daughter’s horse passion.

Also shopping, for breeches, was 14-year-old Lara Smith.

“I was googling where to get riding clothes,” she explained. “Because not many people ride in the city.”

Lara said she leases a horse and rides in New Jersey: “It’s a problem how much I like it,” she admitted.

While Mr. Rhys said that upstairs was devoted to riders and downstairs to horses, there is crossover.

For example, horse products that apparently work equally well on humans at a fraction of the price, such as Mane n’ Tail shampoo and detangler.

“Girls with thick hair,” use it Mr. Tsang said.

Absorbine veterinary liniment is also a big seller.

“People rub it on themselves.”


Ode to the Write Stuff

July 21, 2014 10:05 p.m. ET

Grant Christensen, the managing director of Palomino, the company that relaunched the Blackwing pencil in 2010 Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

The Blackwing pencil, made legend by the likes of John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, animator Chuck Jones and especially Stephen Sondheim, is back. I even got to road test it last week.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the implement, or that it had stopped being manufactured, until Mr. Sondheim sang, or rather spoke, its praises in a discussion with Paul Simon last December at the New Museum.

The songwriters were talking about the creative process when the conversation segued to the tools of their trade. Mr. Sondheim professed a devotion to the Blackwing so intense that he went about stockpiling as many boxes as possible when production ceased in 1998.

The Blackwing pencil Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal

I could relate, even though I swore off pencils around fourth grade. While a perfectly sharpened pencil is a fine thing, it requires constant maintenance. Which is part of the allure for Mr. Sondheim, as he explained during that talk. Sharpening them is a form of procrastination.

I pound out a first draft on a computer, print it and then scribble between the lines using a blue Uni-ball Roller pen with an extremely fine point. It feels as if there’s an uninterrupted connection from paper to brain that facilitates creativity. It may be illusory. But coming up with something slightly interesting to say is challenging enough; you need all the help you can get, including psychological support.

It was because of the pencil’s cult following and invaluable free publicity from the likes of Mr. Sondheim that the Blackwing was reintroduced in 2010 by its new owner, Palomino, which is part of California Cedar Products Co.

“He wrote about it in his autobiography and he talked about it in his HBO documentary,” said Grant Christensen, Palomino’s managing director. “People started going on eBay to buy the unused stock for up to $40 a pencil.”

What separates the Blackwing from mortal pencils, according to Mr. Christensen, is that it’s made from incense cedar—”the highest grade of wood for the best pencils,” he claimed—and Japanese graphite. “The best graphite comes from Japan.”

The pencil even comes with a motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”

That’s probably another reason I don’t use pencils. I have a penchant for pressing down hard on the point; I suppose as a defense against life’s impermanence. I’m prepared to concede it’s a character flaw. But when the point of a pencil breaks it feels as if a small piece of your heart goes with it. So why suffer avoidable pain?

The Palomino Blackwing now comes in three versions: black, said to be soft and smooth for animators, illustrators and composers; the slate-gray “602″ model, with the firmest touch, for writers—that’s the one Mr. Sondheim stockpiled; and white “Pearl” for the best of both worlds, or polymaths, I presume. All have replaceable erasers. Their hexagonal shape is to prevent them from rolling off the slanted desks of animators and architects.

Palomino makes them in a handsome presentation box that retails for $130 and includes two dozen pencils with a two-step sharpener. “One hole sharpens the wood,” Mr. Christensen explained while doing so. “The other sharpens the graphite.” You can’t buy the pencils individually, but you can also buy boxes of a dozen for $20.

I wondered who still uses pencils these days except for elder statesmen such as Mr. Sondheim, and preschoolers, though I’m not even sure about them. “It’s the same kind of person who likes the sensation of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record,” Mr. Christensen explained. “The same kind of people who like to buy a book in a bookshop.”

I was also curious whether Mr. Sondheim had been contacted with the good news that his favorite pencil was back on stationers’ shelves, even though it sounded as if he’d purchased a lifetime’s supply.

Palomino did tell Mr. Sondheim about it, and “he sent a note back saying he supported what we were doing,” Mr. Christensen reported.

The time had come to test the pencil, to see whether it matched the hype. Needless to say, I was skeptical. How different can one pencil be from another? We’re not comparing Bordeaux, after all. The experiment started with Mr. Christensen’s publicist, Sara Rosenthal, producing a generic, over-the-counter pencil. It wrote fine. Then Mr. Christensen handed me the 602. I hate to admit it, but it was about the smoothest ride I’ve ever had with a pencil; it verily skated across the page.

I doubt it would allow me to write “Sunday in the Park With George,” or the Great American Novel that has thus far eluded me. However, if I ever need a pencil, I know the one to use.

It might even be fun to buy one of those chrome, desk-mounted sharpeners they had in grade school. While perfection in most things remains beyond reach, you’ll probably never come closer than at that fleeting instant when you remove a pencil from a sharpener and pause to admire the point.


Canoeing Up the Hudson River With River Haggie Outdoors

July 20, 2014 10:25 p.m. ET

A canoe trip on Stockport Creek, two hours north of New York City, led Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors and joined by families from The Farm at Millers Crossing in Hudson, N.Y., and the columnist.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Had I not followed normally reliable Google Maps, I’d have arrived in Stockport, on the Hudson River about 10 minutes from my home and a couple of hours north of New York City, 30 minutes earlier. Fortunately, Fran Martino of River Haggie Outdoors, an environmental education program, hadn’t yet departed on the canoe ride I’d signed up for. Ms. Martino works in partnership with the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, whose organization provides many free canoe trips, as this one was.

The last time I’d gone canoeing I capsized in a rushing, early spring torrent in a nearby stream. Though I’d like to state for the record, it was through no fault of my own—except to the extent that I was stupid and uncharacteristically game enough to agree to the adventure in the first place.

I’d also once gone kayaking on the Hudson as part of an organized tour. That outing had fortunately ended uneventfully. But I became aware that the tides on the river are so strong that you have to time your trip accordingly.

In other words, if I’d missed the boat, or rather the canoe, there was no way I was going to venture into the waterway alone, or with my photographer Richard Beaven, even had Ms. Martino courteously left a vessel and paddles behind.

However, the tour of approximately eight boats and 20 participants had yet to leave. I even made it to a brief tutorial where Ms. Martino, assisted by Jim Herrington and Brianna Rosamilia, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River Estuary educators, explained that the greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley, including, I assume, the unheralded streams and swamps on my own property.

The plan was to travel up the creek, test the water quality, and drag a net to catch some fish. Time permitting we’d then venture into the river itself. That’s what I was looking forward to most. Even though I live only a few miles from the Hudson, most of the time I spend on it involves taking an Amtrak train from Penn Station to Hudson, N.Y. It’s a scenic ride, but doesn’t quite qualify as communing with nature.

The greater Stockport Creek Watershed, the Hudson River’s second largest tributary, spreads through two states—Massachusetts and New York—and drains 517 square miles of the mid-Hudson valley.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Martino, whose organization leads several trips up the creek each summer, gave a few helpful tips on paddling and steering a canoe. I found them invaluable both because I hadn’t had any instruction since summer camp several decades ago and also because it persuaded me that I should sit in the rear of the boat and steer—especially since it was hot and sunny—while Mr. Beaven, seated in front, provided the muscle. I trusted the arrangement would only minimally inhibit his ability to take prize-winning photographs. Besides, we’d be on the water for several hours. Some of that time would obviously be spent simply drifting and appreciating the view.

Ms. Martino offered a final piece of good news and then we were off—that the creek was only a few feet deep. If we capsized, it was unlikely we’d drown. “Stay with the downed boat,” she instructed.

After we’d paddled up the creek a quarter-hour or so, Ms. Martino took and tested water samples and found the pH levels within normal range. Since I wasn’t appropriately dressed—I’d worn sneakers instead of waterproof shoes—and because there were lots of children along, I remained in the canoe while allowing them the fun of dragging the creek for fish, even though they ended up mostly catching pebbles.

The trip back down the creek toward the Hudson was more auspicious. You could almost persuade yourself that you’d left the 21st century behind, that you were traveling Huck Finn’s Mississippi, especially after a bald eagle landed on an overhead branch and watched us pass below, and we entered a serene, slow-moving side channel filled with violet-blue flowering pickerelweed.

We passed under a railroad bridge, out into the Hudson and to a nearby island. “These are man-made islands from the dredge spoils,” Mr. Herrington explained. “The Dutch were the first ones to start dredging the river so they could have boat navigation. Henry Hudson couldn’t even make it this far. He got up to Hudson and then he had to continue on in smaller boats.”

When the fish net was dragged again, the catch was marginally more successful than it had been in Stockport Creek. It included a white perch. Unfortunately, the fish would have been inedible even if it had measured longer than a couple of inches. Ms. Martino produced a chart that showed which fish were safe to eat in which part of the river. “Yellow perch, yes,” she explained. “White perch, no.” The fish may contain unsafe levels of chemicals, particularly PCBs.

The environmental educator also leads seasonal snowshoe walks, owl prowls, animal-tracking trips and lessons in debris and snow-shelter construction. “The idea is to connect people to the resources we have here,” Ms. Martino explained. “People don’t realize what they have in their backyard.”


A Religious Experience

July 16, 2014 9:36 p.m. ET

The cross on top of the steeple of the Church of the Incarnation. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Churches—absent those with a Caravaggio or a Michelangelo, or unless I’ve been summoned to a wedding or a funeral—don’t hold particular excitement for me.

On the other hand, if you invite me to clamber to the top of a steeple, I’m there.

Such was the opportunity I had last week: to summit the Church of the Incarnation at Madison Avenue and 35th Street, which is only about a block from the Empire State Building.

Dating to the Civil War era, the church—a New York City designated landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is behind scaffolding right now, undergoing restoration. If I might be allowed to quote from a fundraising presentation prepared for members of the parish: “Due to its weathering surface, the brownstone spire atop the great corner tower is eroding, sometimes in sizable chunks.”

Scaffolding surrounds the church. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Even though the prose was explicit enough, the Rev. John Douglas Ousley, the rector, drove home the message as we stood on the scaffolding at the base of the spire, about two-thirds of the way up the 14-story structure.

“We had one small piece that triggered the project,” Father Ousley explained.

My understanding was that this was also his first time on the scaffolding, at least at this height. Looking through the protective material installed to prevent accidents or lawsuits from falling debris, we could see traffic and pedestrians vertiginously far below.

A piece of stone will be repaired on the church’s steeple. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Three days after Christmas 2012, the rector went on, a chunk of stone “the size of your fist” plummeted to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. “You don’t want it on your head. We immediately put up a sidewalk shed.”

I wanted more details, even though my primary concern at that moment was making sure I didn’t plummet to the sidewalk from 100 feet up. I don’t know whether it is age, wisdom or impending mortality, but as I get older, I find myself clinging to objects, such as subway banisters, a lot more enthusiastically than I once did. And as I was now doing with any piece of scaffolding within my reach.

I wondered whether Father Ousley was alerted to the steeple’s decay, perhaps by a passerby who got beaned—fortunately not. He said one of his caretakers was sweeping the sidewalk when he discovered the stone.

“We ended up with eight giant garbage bags filled with loose pieces of brownstone,” he said.

Obviously, something needed to be done.

Preserv, a restoration and project management firm, and Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, an architectural firm, were called in. I mention them not only because they seem to be doing a diligent job restoring the steeple to its original 19th-century dignity, but also because several of their representatives were complicating my journey, clambering up and down the scaffolding either ahead or behind me.

The Rev. J. Douglas Ousley climbs up the scaffolding that surrounds the church; a renovation to the historic building’s stone facade should be finished in November. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Their plan was in at least three parts. First, to remove any loose stones to prevent an impending disaster. Next, to staunch the deterioration. And finally to repair and restore four stone “gablets,” elongated dormer-like openings on each side of the spire. The stone that hit the ground came from the Madison Avenue-facing gablet.

There was other damage as well to the body of the spire, which was shaling off. Kurt Hirschberg of Jan Hird Pokorny, and Carl Culbreth and Nikki Westfall of Preserv, attempted to explain the intricacies of the restoration. It included everything from saving and retooling the existing stone when possible to finding matching stones when not, a challenge with weathered brownstones that are a century-and-a-half old.

I can’t say I was paying the closest attention. I had two overriding priorities: maintaining my balance as I climbed up and down the metal staircase and across planks that seemed to offer more than enough room to drop through; and ascending ever higher.

My guides seemed content to conclude our trip only halfway up the spire, after we’d examined the dormers. But as compelling as the challenges of historic restoration are, my top priority was finding daylight—climbing to the absolute tippy top of the steeple.

All agreed to go forth—when we embarked on the voyage, Father Ousley had made mention that the church was protected not only by God but by adequate liability insurance—and we reached the pinnacle.

It was well worth the effort. We were greeted by the cross that capped the spire as well as a spectacular view of the Empire State Building, the two edifices feeling as if they were engaged in a relationship of mutual admiration.

When we made it down safely, Father Ousley gave me a brief tour of the interior, showing me stained glass windows by the Victorian-era artists John LaFarge, Edward Burne-Jones and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The church “was built when Murray Hill was the most fashionable neighborhood in New York,” the rector explained. He also pointed out a front pew where parishioner Eleanor Roosevelt worshiped and where President Franklin Roosevelt attended his mother’s funeral.

“We have a very primitive ramp he used to get in the church,” Father Ousley said, motioning to the ornate Tiffany side door where the disabled president arrived. “We still have that in the basement.”

Artwork by John LaFarge surrounds the church’s altar. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal


A Carnivore Without Guilt

July 15, 2014 10:53 p.m. ET

Patrick Martins at Heritage Foods’ complex in Brooklyn. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Brooklyn has played the incubator to lots of innovative, romantic, and, it goes without saying, hip business models in recent years. But few seem more ambitious than Patrick Martins’s operation on Seigel Street in East Williamsburg.

It’s the home of Heritage Foods 519552.BY +5.16% USA, which ships at least 45,000 pounds of heritage and rare-breed meat to customers around the country every week. And the Heritage Radio Network. That nonprofit spreads the gospel of the sustainable-food revolution from a studio around the corner. In fact, it’s located at Roberta’s, the celebrated pizza restaurant where guests can dine while watching one of Mr. Martins’s radio shows in progress through a picture window.

He’s also the author, with Mike Edison, of a new book, “The Carnivore’s Manifesto” (Little, Brown). I was attracted by the title, hoping that it would mollify my guilt—much of it inflicted by my younger daughter, Gracie—when it comes to eating meat. In particular, supermarket meat.

I’m honestly trying to be a better, more humane and sustainable person. But it isn’t easy. Last week I visited an enlightened local farm upstate and selected something called a flat iron steak from its freezer. The cut resembled a hanger, flank or skirt steak.

The helping was small. In fact, it was almost exactly half a pound. Enough for two people, eating judiciously. The farmer presented me the bill: $18.

Meat freezer at Heritage Foods’ complex. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Surely, this must be a mistake, I thought, and said so out loud. We weren’t talking Kobe beef, or even aged filet mignon. This was one of the less-expensive cuts on the animal. He must have meant $9, which would still have been plenty pricey.

The gentleman checked his math. No, he said with a smile, that petite sliver of protein cost approximately $36 a pound.

I thought of how much beef 36 bucks could buy me at my local supermarket: a slab of sirloin the size of a coffee table.

I’m not suggesting corporate food and factory farming is the way to go. But throw me a bone, no pun intended. My wallet is willing to suffer a little pain if it means saving the planet. But this was like attaching electrodes to my head and cranking up the dial.

My hope was that Mr. Martins’s book was a paean to the guilt-free consumption of red meat—a courageous, politically incorrect diatribe.

As passionate, thoughtful and more than occasionally amusing as it is, the volume is anything but. Mr. Martins’s argument is that we’re a meat-eating species, so get over it. Now that that’s settled, let’s do so in the most responsible way possible. “The book is trying to create the path for a more humane and tasteful meat culture,” he explained. “As opposed to not eating meat.”

“We sell 25 types of hamburger meat,” he added, by way of example. He listed goat, chicken, pork, bison and turkey, in addition to beef. “We’re grinding the whole animal so nothing is wasted.”

The author’s background isn’t exactly agricultural. His father is the Brazilian classical pianist João Carlos Martins, and the son grew up on the Upper East Side, attending the Browning School (my alma mater, though I’d never met him) and Vassar College. He’s married to Anne Saxelby, the respected Essex Street Market cheesemonger.

One of his first jobs in the food industry was making deliveries for Gentile, an upscale Madison Avenue grocery store around the corner from his apartment. Heritage Foods USA came out of Slow Food USA, a nonprofit he founded that was inspired by the Slow Food movement started in Italy by journalist Carlo Petrini, and for whom Mr. Martins went to work.

Heritage Foods USA began in 2001 when Mr. Martins decided he could have a greater impact on the food chain by working day-to-day with farmers.

The job—not writing books or running a radio station, but selling 200 heritage pigs every week, as well as goats from 14 farms across the East Coast, while attempting to revive 24 rare heritage chicken lines—would seem to invite a certain amount of stress. But Mr. Martins and his co-workers seem to wear their mission lightly.

“We have to move 50,000 pounds of meat,” Mr. Martins reported as he gave me a tour of his walk-in meat freezer, filled with Duroc porterhouse pork chops and tasty prosciutto from Virginia. “And come hell or high water, we do every Tuesday.”

My favorite part of Heritage Foods USA’s catalog is the gift packs. For example, there is the sausage sampler (seven kinds); the four-breed-variety burgers (from Angus and Highland, to Devon, Belgian Blue and Dexter); and the five-kinds-of-bacon variety package.

“I’ll always eat it,” Mr. Martins testified, referring to meat, as our conversation veered—and as that of proud New York carnivores inevitably must—to burgers. “I think the best burger in New York is P.J. Clarke,” he stated.

I politely disagreed. J.G. Melon makes my favorite burger. Then again, I have a hunch the man knows his burgers better than I do.

Selling the Family Silver

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
July 14, 2014 9:48 p.m. ET

Steven Fina appraises a silver ladle owned by the columnist. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Whenever my mother needed a wedding gift, she called the silver merchant Michael C. Fina.

A baby rattle or baby spoon? Michael C. Fina.

A platter in need replating? Michael C. Fina.

And I followed in her footsteps. My default wedding present for friends was a set of six salt and pepper shakers from Michael C. Fina. They looked impressive, but my recollection is that they didn’t cost much more than a hundred bucks.

Tiffany, with its admittedly lovely robin’s egg-blue pouches and boxes, was for tourists. Michael C. Fina was the place where shrewd, cost-conscious New Yorkers shopped for silver.

“I hear it on a daily basis,” Steven Fina, 33, a third-generation member of the family, told me when I dropped by a couple of weeks ago.

” ‘My mother shopped here. My grandmother shopped here,’ ” Mr. Fina said, relating what customers tell him. “We’re [in business] just shy of 80.”

Mr. Fina’s grandparents started the company in 1935. “We’ve helped a lot of New Yorkers,” he said.

My recollection was that the store used to be on Fifth Avenue in the ’50s.

Silver antique pieces in Mr. Fina’s office. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Fina confirmed my memory. Michael C. Fina was at 580 Fifth Ave. until 1998 and at 545 Fifth Ave. until last year, Mr. Fina said.

These days, the store is at 500 Park Ave., though the entrance is on 59th Street.

However, my mother did her business over the phone. I doubt she ever set foot in the place. She didn’t need to. She knew, based on appreciation from friends, that the order would be right and delivered on time.

Just as important, the recipient could always return the gift for credit. My mother’s obligation, in any case, had been dispatched.

Mr. Fina said that customers over the years have included Frank Sinatra, the Saudi royal family, President George H.W. Bush and Anna Wintour. Chelsea Clinton also registered there.

“I think she’s done,” Mr. Fina said, meaning that, unlike me when I married, she acquired everything she registered for.

I was somewhat distressed to learn that Fina no longer considers bargain shoppers such as my mother and me its target demographic.

“Prior to ’98, we were known as a discounter,” Mr. Fina acknowledged. “When we moved from 580 to 545, we moved away from that. It was us and Fortunoff’s,” he said referring to another Fifth Avenue silver store—I shopped there on occasion, too—that closed several years ago. “We now cater to the top 1%.

“We’re working on an order now,” he went on, “for 160 place settings.”

He said the client, who lives in the tri-state area, had a tab of between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.

Not long ago, the Saudi royal family purchased 250 place settings of china.

“It’s usually one of the princesses that comes in,” Mr. Fina explained. “You can’t talk to her. You have to talk to the other person,” meaning her retainer, even if the royal speaks fluent English. “You’re talking. They’re repeating.”

In fact, these days silver represents only a portion of Fina’s wares. The average oligarch could almost consider it a one-stop-shopping source.

Fina also sells engagement and wedding rings, china and crystal, even an affordably priced shark-shaped staple remover—”for the guy who has everything,” Mr. Fina noted.

Mr. Fina in the showroom of his family’s business, which also sells china, jewelry and crystal. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

I brought along a heavy silver ladle from home to be appraised.

Mr. Fina, who learned connoisseurship from his relatives and has an extensive library of reference books, told me it was from Russia as he examined it with a jeweler’s loupe.

“It was made in 1891,” he explained. “The Russians are good about that. They put the year on it. It comes from Baku. The person who assayed it was named Joseph Shmidyetsky.”

Mr. Fina said the ladle was worth whatever someone was willing to pay for it: “We buy it based on the weight.”

The Fina family also has an impressive private collection, including a set of three silver spoons—made by Paul Revere—that sat on Mr. Fina’s desk.

“I’ve seen them sell for $15,000 a spoon to $30,000 a spoon,” he reported.

I was curious whether Mr. Fina shared my passion for polishing silver.

Paul Revere’s spoons appeared rather tarnished and seemed in urgent need of elbow grease.

“You are one of the few people who loves polishing it,” he said. “I hate it.”

Royals and other 1%-ers aside, it sounds as if those of us who cherish the family silver are becoming an anachronism.

“People don’t entertain anywhere near the way they used to,” Mr. Fina explained. “That’s why I have this.”

He produced what looked like a cake knife.

“Where else are you going to find an ice cream hatchet?” he asked. “Ice cream used to come in a brick.”

At our house, actually. We have a couple of them. Even though I had no idea what they were until I met Mr. Fina.


Ciao for Now, Mr. Mayor

July 13, 2014 9:13 p.m. ET

Sant’Agata dei Goti, which is on the mayor’s itinerary TIPS/Zuma Press

I’ve heard criticism that Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s 10-day family summer vacation to Italy, scheduled to start Friday, is too long. I hold the opposite opinion. I don’t think it’s nearly long enough.

Think about it. Your first day abroad and your last shouldn’t count. You’re exhausted when you arrive and the mayor will probably be doubly so. Comporting with his populist image, he’ll be flying economy, I assume. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall and my knees are always painfully pressed against the seat in front of me. At 6 feet 6 inches, he’ll probably need help getting off the plane.

Also, on your first night abroad and for several succeeding nights you’re suffering from jet lag. Unless you take Tylenol PM, which I highly recommend to avoid laying awake in the middle of the night, you’re too haggard to do anything except sit in a café with a Campari or doze under a beach umbrella. Both great ideas given Italy’s throbbing Mediterranean midsummer heat.

Come to think of it, I believe the de Blasio family’s itinerary is absurdly ambitious. If they’re undertaking the adventure to score political points, which may well be the case—given the fact that the mayor is bringing along his press secretary and granting interviews along the way—I totally understand.

But if they’re after an authentic family vacation, they should hit the brakes.

Venice requires several days. Getty Images

As it stands now, his schedule, which includes visiting his grandparents’ ancestral towns, as well as Rome, Venice and Naples, is way too action-packed. One could spend a full week in Rome and not see everything. Venice requires several days. I hear he’s even wedging in a trip to Capri.

Here’s what I would do: Call off the interviews, leave the press secretary behind and rent a villa or stay at an agriturismo in Grassano or Sant’Agata dei Goti, where the mayor’s grandparents are from. I’m sure they have many lovely ones.

Agriturismos, often located on working farms or vineyards in the countryside, are one of Italy’s great modern inventions. You can’t beat the price, especially for a family. An entire week may cost only a few hundred bucks, and the accommodations usually come with a kitchen and a nice swimming pool.

If you have the sightseeing bug, fly into Rome or Venice for a couple of days. Anything more ambitious is self-destructive. The whole point of a vacation, at least as I understand it, is to relax, to decompress.

As the father of two, I can also attest to witnessing developmental leaps when my children were exposed to new people, places and things. But Rome, Venice and Naples, plus interviews and news conferences, will leave Dante and Chiara recalling little but a blur.

It may no longer be fashionable in our adrenalized age, but in my opinion the mayor and his family need a respite of a minimum of two weeks. Three weeks would be preferable. I know he’s looking into the teeth of a Long Island Rail Road strike. A few years ago my mother went to the hospital shortly before I was scheduled to go abroad. Sometimes stuff happens that requires you to bite the bullet and postpone or cancel a trip. No big deal. That’s life.

But assuming the trip doesn’t get derailed by an LIRR strike, I think the mayor could provide a substantial public service and serve as a role model by, say, taking two weeks this summer, three the next, and a full month the following year.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family Getty Images

Mayor Rudy Giuliani was famous for not taking vacations. But where did that get him? He always seemed angry. Could his lack of down time have anything to do with his sour mood?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg only took short jaunts. But he doesn’t count—he had a private jet and helicopter. Almost as therapeutic as taking a vacation is knowing you can whenever you want.

I’m not suggesting Mayor de Blasio should issue a parting statement explaining that the city is unhealthy in summer and he’s outta here. But absent emergencies, for which he can always return, does it really make a difference if he’s gone for a couple of weeks?

Presidents do it. President Barack Obama and his family are spending two full weeks on Martha’s Vineyard in August. George W. Bush retreated to his Texas ranch for extended periods. Surely the job of mayor of New York is no more challenging than being president of the United States.

The beauty of going abroad, particularly to Italy, is that Italians have a talent for smelling the roses. For knowing what’s important. Appreciating that art and beauty, good food and wine, and especially nap time trump money, power and success.

These are important virtues the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, may want to impart to their kids.

That’s hard to do if you’re in a rush.