City Winter, Silent Blog

I’VE BEEN MEANING TO BLOG ALL WINTER, but keep hitting a stumbling block: what to blog about? (Besides car-shopping, which has been resolved with the purchase of a silk-blue Volkswagen Golf). In recent years, casaCARA has been most active when I’ve traveled somewhere, and I haven’t traveled this winter…yet.

Above: Coming off the Staten Island ferry at just the right hour. Winter sunset behind the Seaglass Carousel at Battery Park, Bowling Green subway entrance, US Customs House/National Museum of the American Indian

I’ve been in Brooklyn since Thanksgiving, and my eyes have dimmed to the beauty of brownstones and most things urban, though I can pull together a few recent photos to illustrate this post. Some of these images have been seen on Instagram, itself a deterrent to blogging. (Follow me @caramia447, if you wish.)

FDNY conclave at Grand Central, snow on the tracks in Crown Heights, subway companions

It’s not laziness this time, not entirely. I started the season with a burst of cultural activity, going to five plays/concerts/performances in December. I’ve seen Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim, Frida Kahlo at the Bromklyn Museum, Warhol at the Whitney. Met up with old friends, dealt with building issues here and in Philadelphia, gone to the gym, done my taxes, churned out Brownstoner columns and 1stdibs articles and spent too many hours reading political op-eds, listening to political podcasts and watching political YouTube videos. But none of those things resulted in blog posts.

Fort Greene row house turned Mexican restaurant, graffiti-covered store on Canal Street

Last night, I could have been blogging, but instead spent the better part of an hour watching Seinfeld memes on my phone and laughing insanely at Kramer’s entrances, George’s deadpan, Jerry’s shouting and Elaine’s dancing.

Cybister amaryllis (doctored with Prisma app), pussy willows at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, winter sun at Napeague State Park, L.I.

That was a grand time-waster. I rose from the sofa, disgusted with myself, and now I’m with you to announce that I’m going to Italy soon for 18 days — Calabria and Sicily. First to a townhouse in the unknown-to-Americans port city of Gioia Tauro on the toe of the Italian boot, then to tour around Sicily for the first time. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t rave about Sicily (usually about the gelato).

Simple winter lunch of couscous at Café Gitane in Nolita, still there after all these years

I’m certain the scales will fall from my eyes as soon as I step off the plane in Italia, and I’ll be refreshed, revivified, inspired and blogging.

Posted in BLOGGING, PHOTOGRAPHY | 8 Comments

Wanted: A Car that Sparks Joy

FOR THE PAST FEW WEEKS, I’ve been engaged in an activity that has me questioning my own mind. In recent years, at least, I’ve thought of myself as a fairly decisive person, a person who knows what she wants and how to go about getting it. Even major decisions, like buying a house, have not given me as much trouble as this latest pursuit: car-shopping. I’ve become a ditherer.

About a month ago, I said goodbye to my vehicular partner of 11 years, my trusty runabout, a 2008 Honda Fit with a manual transmission. It served me well on trips around town and from Brooklyn to and from my properties in Philadelphia, on Long Island and upstate New York. It hauled compost and mulch, yard waste, furniture, groceries, cargo loads beyond its apparent size.

Battered though its body was from years of New York City parking incidents and minor fender-benders, at 120,000 miles its engine and other moving parts showed no signs of dying any time soon. Sure, I replaced bits and pieces over the years — it was hardly maintenance-free — but every time I brought it in to John and Alex under the BQE, they’d assure me, “Oh, you’ll get 160,000 miles out of this car!” And I’d sigh and say, “Really? That’ll be years from now! I was hoping to get a new car before then.” They seemed disappointed.

I wanted a new car, one whose fenders were not attached with rusty screws. I was tired of owning a beater, and downright embarrassed when an event called for valet parking.

So a month ago, I put an ad on craigslist and soon found a young woman who was delighted with the Fit, Bernie Sanders bumper sticker and all.

I patted the Fit’s steering wheel and dashboard, thanked it for its service and immediately turned my attention to the new-car market. I wanted — ahem, thought I wanted — the following:

  • a manual transmission, the only kind of car I’ve ever owned
  • a car no longer than the Fit’s 160-inch exterior length, for NYC parking purposes
  • a cooler-looking car than the new Fit’s uninspiring design
  • a quiet car (the Fit was not, particularly)
  • a comfortable car (ditto)
  • good cargo space and easy loading
  • good gas mileage, but that goes without saying nowadays
  • something in the $20,000 range (wishful thinking)
  • a new car, not pre-owned, since I will probably also keep my next vehicle for a decade

So that brings us to a compact hatchback with a stick shift, and there’s the rub. It is unbelievably hard to find manual transmissions these days! I think I’ve figured out why this is so: younger people don’t know how to drive them (except my own kids, who didn’t have the option of learning on any other kind), and car makers have figured out how to make automatics equally fuel-efficient, so that advantage is gone. Also, the whiz-bang safety features with which new cars are loaded don’t all work with manuals, apparently. And forget about color choices — if you insist on a stick, you have to take what you can get.

My search for a stick shift has taken me, via public transit, all over the tri-state area. I’ve test-driven eight cars over the past three weeks. Four were Volkswagen Golfs, which required me to get over what I knew would be my dad’s disapproval, were he still alive. I did this by remembering the excellent quality of the German products I’ve purchased over the years, from Miele vacuums and Bosch dishwashers to Wusthof knives and Reiker shoes.

One VW, a base-trim Golf S in Staten Island, was even an automatic. I was trying to be open-minded, but I found it un-engaging. Driving an automatic is just steering and braking; my left foot and right hand were bored.

In Rensselaer, N.Y., I test drove a silk-blue Golf manual with an ivory interior (rode like butter). In Bayside, Queens, I tried a Golf SE — more luxurious, with a bigger engine, but I didn’t want to pay extra for a headache-inducing sunroof — and an even more macho GTI, because the dealer wanted me to. The GTI was very vroom vroom, with plaid seats and fancy hubcaps — so not me.

Then I fixated for a while on the Toyota Corolla hatchback, new this year, after reading an article in a car magazine. I drove a midnight blue XSE in Kinderhook, N.Y., and a silver SE in Jersey City, but found them too loud, with not-great visibility out the “raked” rear windshield. And I had trouble with the aggressive-looking front grill, like the face of a toy shark.

I even went back to Bay Ridge Honda to give the new Fit a go. It’s a completely different animal now, with a spruce interior and all the bells and whistles, at a great price (under $18,000). I enjoyed driving it, and the car publications all give it top ratings. So…? They’ve changed the design for the worse, I think, with what one critic called a ‘jellybean body.’ But the main thing is, I want something different for a change. I think.

I’ve read hundreds of trade and consumer reviews, solicited opinions (all over the place) from friends and relatives, and tried to visualize how the various cars would look in my Long Island driveway, against the weathered stockade fence. I’ve tried to picture how I would look getting out of the conservative VW Golf (like an old lady?) or the sporty Corolla (like a ridiculous old lady?)

I’ve questioned my original parameters. Do I really need that much cargo space? (I can always hire somebody to deliver mulch.) Is near-silence that important? (Yes, it is.) Can I live with an extra foot of car length? (Other people seem to.) And must it really be a manual? (Most def.)

I haven’t paid that much attention to the new safety and entertainment technology. Back-up cameras are old hat already, I suppose, but now there’s a blind spot warning and lane assist and any number of other intimidating features. We’re well on our way to the self-driving car, while I persist in clinging to habit, making car-shopping harder than it needs to be by insisting on a manual.

Well, I’m learning a lot. Maybe someday I’ll even understand what torque is. But I haven’t pulled the trigger on a car.

I have an appointment to test-drive a Mazda3 hatch next week.

Posted in ROAD TRIPS, TRAVEL | 16 Comments

Late-Season Discovery: The Springs Library

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SO I’M STILL HERE in Springs, a woodsy hamlet five miles north of East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y., thanks to the installation of a wood-burning stove that staves off the day when I have to turn off the water supply and return to the city.

In between honing my fire-tending skills and raking, raking, raking, I finally made it to The Springs Library in the 1851 Ambrose Parsons House, below. In nine years of owning a house just a mile down the road, I’d never managed to check it out.

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It was closed the two or three times I tried to gain entry, and I imagined it full of dated, dusty volumes on sagging shelves.

Wrong! The library, which is not part of the Suffolk County library system but operated by the Springs Historical Society, was recently discovered to have a structural issue that required all books removed from the second floor. Then, questions of staffing and the need for a new state charter threatened the library’s existence. Alarmed, more than 100 people turned out for a community meeting a few weeks ago. Alarmed, I decided to make an overdue visit with a check for membership ($25).

Meanwhile, actor Alec Baldwin gave the Springs Library $5,000 to buy new books. So when I turned up there the other morning and finally found it open — it keeps regular but short hours, 10AM-noon most days — I was delighted to come away with the new Susan Orleans book (about libraries, coincidentally) and the new David Sedaris, and to discover that they had all six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental memoir, and all four of his subsequent ‘Seasons’ series (I’ve read a few, and can now easily fill in the gaps).

Inside the building, which is on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, with wood floors, resident dogs, geraniums on the window sills and an elderly woman who hand-wrote my name on an index card for each book I borrowed.

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The library is part of the Springs Historic District, which consists of ten 19th century farmhouses, four barns, and several other vintage buildings. The historic district is notable for its complete lack of commercialism, tourist appeal or chic, which is what I love about it.

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I’ve been in all the other buildings around its central green: the Springs Community Presbyterian Church (1882) for yoga classes and rummage sales, Ashawagh Hall (1884) for art shows and memorial services, and, once, the 1886 Charles Parsons Blacksmith Shop, above, normally locked up, for an avant-garde theatre production.

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But most of the time, when I’ve gone to the Springs Historic District, it’s to get coffee and a bagel at the 1844 Springs General Store, above, where aging hippies can be found hanging out on the porch on weekend mornings.

From now on, this aging hippie can be found hanging out at the library. ##

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Posted in HAMPTONS, HISTORIC PRESERVATION, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Philly’s Mid-Century Modern Mecca

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IT’S LIKE eBAY NEVER HAPPENED at the vast Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse in Philadelphia, where larger-than-life opera props jostle with well-made 1960s American case goods by such companies as Lane and Drexel, and new, retro-style upholstered furniture and dining sets made in China and Vietnam.

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Twelve thousand square feet and the place is still layered to the rafters. In a back room, countless chrome lamps and wood pieces await rewiring and refinishing.

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Owner Brian Lawlor, who has been in the vintage furniture business for a long time and in the moving and storage business before that, is not fazed by the possibility of having to move further north as runaway development approaches his present location on N. 2nd St. and Cecil B. Moore in Olde Kensington. (That’s Brian, below, displaying his “Best Scavenger” trophy from Philadelphia magazine.)

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He has been in this enormous garage for seven years, and has done the auction route as well, but now prefers to sell from his website, by appointment and to the public — for a mere three hours every other Sunday (the next sale is November 18 from 12-3).

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Customers line up before noon on alternate Sundays to get a sheet of “Sold” stickers. When the doors open, they dash around and place them on the pieces they want to purchase.

To this jaded New Yorker, Philadelphia’s vintage-modern scene feels practically undiscovered, refreshingly un-picked-through.

Have a look at the Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse website, the FAQs and the handy “Insiders Guide” to nearby restaurants and points of interest, for those who want to make a day of it. ##

 

Posted in ANTIQUES & COLLECTING, INTERIOR DESIGN, PHILADELPHIA | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Far Side of Summer in My Long Island Garden

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THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, I’ve spent the better part of April, May and June, September, October and November at my quirky vintage-modern house on the East End of Long Island, N.Y., and rented it out in high summer.

I love missing the Hamptons’ seasonal frenzy, the crowded beaches and restaurants, the scarce parking. I hate missing my native white rhododendrons in midsummer bloom, and the lilies of July and August.

The summer was hot and dry. I don’t have irrigation, so I had the garden watered by hand once a week. It survived (with a few minor losses), needing just a few days of extra catch-up watering when I returned after Labor Day, before the deluges of September began.

Toward the end of August, I asked my garden helper to put in a few hours of hand weeding before I returned. The result was that I came back to a garden in such good shape, I wandered around with little to do and a strange lack of motivation for new plantings or projects.

That went away, and the month of October has been a busy one here at Dry Shade Half-Acre (still trying to come up with a name for my property; that’s not it).

I made three trips to the dump for wood chips and created a rudimentary meandering path through an unstructured area of tall oaks dotted with a few shrubs I’d stuck in here and there over the years. With this simple, cost-free gesture, I suddenly had planting areas…definition!

I planted 300 bulbs along the path (mostly small ones like muscari and Star of Bethlehem), aiming for an early-spring carpet. Elsewhere, I put in three white azaleas, filled in holes in my perennial beds with colorful heuchera (coral bells) and euphorbia, and moved things that weren’t doing well, like non-blooming Montauk daisies, in hopes of finding happier homes for them.

The most backbreaking task was dividing huge clumps of hakonechloa and epimedium and spreading them around. I ventured into parts of the property that have never been cultivated, where digging turns up roots and rocks, and the soil is just plain dirt. Back to the dump for compost.

The other night, I was in my “winter studio” (i.e. the great room, now with insulation and wood-burning stove), going through a pile of garden notes, clippings and plant labels dating back to 2013, when I bought this property.

I came across a folder from a three-session course I took at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in March 2014, where each student worked on plans for his or her own garden. The instructor, Jim Russell, was big on creative visualization, and he had us write up — in present tense, as if the vision was already realized — descriptions of our gardens five years hence.

It’s only been 4-1/2 years, but here’s what I wrote, and whether it’s been accomplished:

“My garden is serene, organized and thriving.” YES!

“A system of paths, made of loose material, with logs inserted for grade changes, winds through space that still has the feeling of the original oak woods…” YES!

“…with an understory of evergreens and flowering shrubs, and medium-small flowering trees like dogwoods and magnolias.” ON ITS WAY. NEED MORE PLANT MATERIAL. STILL LIKE THE CONCEPT.

“Shade-loving perennials line the paths.” YEP.

“The stockade fence is gone or modified beyond recognition — screened with a tapestry of lush plantings.” UM, NO. IT’S STILL THERE, IN ALL ITS GLORY.

“There is a new deck that provides for both sun and shade…” YES, INDEED!

“…an area for vegetable and cut flower gardening…” I DO HAVE FOUR RAISED BEDS IN THE SUNNY CENTER OF THE PROPERTY, BUT SINCE I’M ABSENT IN SUMMER, THIS REMAINS A NOT-YET.

“…a remodeled shed…” NOW KNOWN AS THE GUEST CABIN, IT’S PRESENTLY IN AN ADVANCED STAGE OF FIX-UP (PHOTO BELOW)

“…and a fabulous outdoor shower.” YESSSSSS!

Perhaps it’s time to write my next five-year plan. This stuff really works!

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Chasmanthium (Northern sea oats) leaning out of their scallop-shell bed along the front walk.

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Mid-autumn view, with morning sun slanting in.

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OK, not the most impressive path you ever saw, but it’s a start.

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Emperor Japanese maple, one of three planted last fall and nicely settled in.

The guest cabin is being painted white, with a new pine floor, below.

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Other home improvements of the past season: a DIY bamboo privacy screen for the outdoor shower deck…

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eye-popping Mexican blankets for the guest room…

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and a pair of irresistible (to me) S-shaped rope lamps.

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Finally, I’d like to take a quick look back to the more floriferous days of late spring, which I neglected to fully document in these pages. (It’s also a look ahead to next spring, which in Nature’s infinite wisdom will be much the same.)

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The rhodie show takes place every Memorial Day weekend.

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The iris show happens around the same time.

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Lychnis (rose campion) are prolific self-seeders, flinging themselves into all the sunniest spots. I’m letting them have their way.

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First-ever prickly pear flower, transplanted from the beach a few years back.

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New this year: window boxes, with coleus and vinca. ##

Posted in GARDENS & GARDENING, HAMPTONS, LANDSCAPING, LONG ISLAND | 10 Comments

This Wondrous Summertime World

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If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere – Vincent van Gogh

Beauty has not been hard to find this summer, despite the heat. Almost everywhere I’ve gone, and I’ve moved around a fair amount, I’ve been hyper-conscious of the natural beauty of this fragile world.

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Even in the heart of the city, the sky, the light, has often been breathtaking.

Above, early evening view of Manhattan from Roosevelt Island. Below, mackerel sky over the Brooklyn Museum.

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“This world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists!” That was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He could have been reflecting on a scene like the one below, in Western Massachusetts:

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Or these, in upstate New York:

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But not to give short shrift to the human-made, either. Because this is an omnibus post after a three-month-long drought, I’m going to stuff it with a few more images that caught the eye of this lazy blogger in my summertime travels, and move on, we hope, to a more prolific fall.

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Fireworks over Shelter Island, N.Y.

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Vintage service station in Chester, Mass.

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Victorian brick pile in Schoharie, N.Y. Cornices, shutters, columns — all outstanding.

Schenectady, N.Y. is a trove of historic architecture and that is not a joke. Below, three views of the Stockade District, a substantial, intact neighborhood of 18th and 19th century houses, about forty of which are over 200 years old.

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Follow me on Instagram, how’s about it? @caramia447

Posted in HISTORIC PRESERVATION, HUDSON VALLEY, LONG ISLAND, ROAD TRIPS | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Latest on Hamptons Reno: My Go-To Great Room

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IT ONLY TOOK FIVE YEARS to get there, but the great room at my place on the East End of Long Island is finally livable. The final phase of its transformation this spring: a bout of quickie decorating in the newly insulated and painted space.

This changes everything. The new, improved great room is warm when it’s raw elsewhere in the house, bright and inviting where it used to be dark and dreary. It’s now everyone’s go-to room, instead of what once felt like wasted space.

I worked like a demon for two weeks, putting things back to rights after a fall of construction and winter of abandonment, restoring the room’s furnishings and hanging art (i.e. framed posters). Local yard sales yielded a few things that weren’t strictly needed, but which I could not resist (pix below).

The new wood stove insert, which fit neatly into the existing fireplace, is what enables me to be here several weeks earlier than in the past. Prior to these recent improvements, the house was basically an unheated summer bungalow. Two-thirds of it is still an unheated summer bungalow, but the 400-square-foot great room, at least, now approximates the comfort of a real house.

Painted white floor to ceiling, it looks more like a Hamptons beach house than a cabin in the Adirondacks. I sent new photos to a couple of local real estate agents and asked them to list the house for rent from July 1 through Labor Day. Next thing I knew, the house was taken for the season by the first person who looked at it.

That was gratifying, and freed up space in my brain that had been taken up with worry about finding a summer tenant.

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Fabulous Mother’s Day present from my son: a new black Corian countertop for the kitchen, above. Major upgrade on previous chipped white Formica.

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A new addition to my coral collection. Can’t buy real coral anymore, so I’ve been buying vintage coral at yard sales, along with flowerpots, rugs, wire items, mobiles…

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Art-directed yard sales are not rare in East Hampton.

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How cute is this? Yes, another yard sale find.

Posted in HAMPTONS, INTERIOR DESIGN, RENOVATION | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments