Sunday, August 31, 2008

Wasps, Winter, and One of the Reasons Why I Hate Living in Nyack

(This essay was originally titled "Dobbs Ferry: Station of Death")

During the summer of 2007, the Village of Tarrytown, NY enacted a new ruling forbidding all non-residents from parking in their Metro-North Train Station parking lot.

Tarrytown is a major stop on the Metro North Hudson Line. It’s an express stop, just under an hour in and out of Grand Central Station. It’s got a large parking lot behind the station, an actual station building made of brick with lockable doors and windows to keep out the elements, and ticket machines on the platforms, in addition to the ubiquitous candy and soda machines. There are always cabs lined up outside, and the TappanZee Express bus stops there as well, shuttling passengers over the river to Rockland County for a buck or two. It’s one of the busiest stops on the line.

I’ve been using this train station as my sole entry and exit point from Manhattan since I moved out of the city over three years ago. I always leave myself extra time to account for Bridge traffic on the drive over, and I’ve cheerfully provided exact change to the policemen behind the safety glass to obtain my non-resident parking permit countless times.

So as I was saying: In 2007, the Tarrytown police stopped issuing 1-day Parking Passes to non-residents. That means that if you don’t live there, you can’t park in their lots. Period. They have one small visitors lot that seems to fill up at 5AM, and they have a few metered parking spots, which of course are also always full when I get there. Street parking is also at a premium. The only way I’ve been able to find parking is to walk blocks and blocks through an industrial area full of workyards.

The policeman who informed me of this policy change was very clear that “You people can’t be going to work every day and leaving your cars here anymore.” I stated sharply that I was not a commuter, that I only needed to park there once a month at the most. He wasn’t impressed, and wasn’t the slighted bit sympathetic. Apparently Tarrytown is sick and tired of all the cars. So they’re making it bloody miserable for anyone who doesn’t live there but wants to use that train stop.

Fine, screw you Tarrytown, I’ll do exactly what you want – find another train stop. You win.

I’m familiar with the Hudson Line route. I don’t want the next stop south from Tarrytown – that’s Irvington. The only trains that stop there are locals. It will guarantee me the longest rides home and the least number of available trains out of Grand Central. Farther south along Route 9 is Dobb’s Ferry. Another smaller, not as busy train station, but it is included in some of the express routes. That’s a better option for me.

Sometimes smaller stations are much nicer. They are cleaner from less people trashing them every day. They have a more friendly crowd of locals who know each other and see each other at the station all the time.

I called the Dobb’s Ferry police department to ask about Parking.
“Oh, you should have no problem finding street parking. There’s plenty available, even on weekdays.” I asked the friendly elder –sounding man about meters. “Some of ‘em have meters, some don’t. They’re all about the same distance from the station, just across the street and up a bit.”

Sure enough, the man was right. On my next day off work, I drove to the Dobb’s Ferry station at about 10:30 in the morning. There was plenty of street parking available, just a few feet from the station. I parallel-parked my car on the street a few yards down from the entrance to the station. I felt secure leaving it there, with a few other cars around it.

The station is small but confortably-sized, and surrounded by bushes and wild grasses, flowering in the late summer heat. This was August, and the high that day was 93 degrees. I had parked on a small overpass, and there was a tall chain-link fence reaching high overhead, in addition to the stone rail and sidewalk outside the driver’s side of my car. I didn’t spend much time gazing at the scenery, as I wasn’t sure how long it would take to buy my ticket. Would there be a line at the machine? Was it not taking cash that day? I stepped lively, wanting to get out of the sun and the pollen wafting through the air. I sneezed a few times.

There was nobody in the ticket office. There was nobody I could see anywhere. There was a ticket machine inside. the waiting area was actually over the train tracks, like a bridge. There were benches, soda and candy machines, a couple of trash cans, and two ticket machines. The walls were all glass.

I saw my car out there, on the overpass, on the same level as me, standing in the bridge-like waiting area, looking out the windows at the tracks below. I noticed that underneath my car on the Eastern side of the tracks was what looked like a spot of undeveloped land. According to the Metro-North website, there had been construction going on at this station all summer. The surrounding vegetation was wildly overgrown. From my perch I could see enormous pollinating bugs flying in and out of the tall grasses, waving slightly in the heat waves. I shivered. I wondered if any landscaping efforts had been made during the construction period? If the vegetation had grown wild all summer, what else had flourished in there? What had nested in there?

I know a lot of people would be thinking about rats, but my eyes were on the large slow-flying wasps, all going about their business, flying very heavily from flower to flower. It was a bit disconcerting. I had just walked over that. In the station, I was pretty far from the activity, but there they were, fast and winged and not all that far away. I told myself I wouldn’t be here for long.

I hadn’t been able to renew my EpiPen prescription that summer. Given my allergy, I give stinging insects a very wide berth. If I see one ten feet away I keep an eye on it. If it flies closer, I move farther away. August is the worst month for bees and wasps; it’s very hot, and they have a lot of energy for flying. They know autumn is coming, and they are bolder, searching for nesting grounds and last mad dashes for food sources. They are fearless. Living in the bucolic Hudson valley, I’d prefer to stay indoors throughout the month of August.

But, here I am, wanting to get into the city. So I warily approach the ticket machine. I have to commit my focus to the touch screen, but as I’m slipping my ATM card in and out of the reader, my ears are pricked for the telltale buzz of a dangerous bug.

The place is deserted. There’s not a soul around. I figured I had about 15 minutes or so until the train came. I scanned the overall area through the windows from the main waiting area, which was raised up above the platforms. There was a lot of construction equipment sitting around, big diggers and piping and large concrete slabs, but I didn’t see any workers anywhere. Behind the station, against the river, was a narrow parking lot full of cars with Permits, like in Tarrytown, only this lot was much smaller than Tarrytown’s lot. Dobbs Ferry seems to expect the majority of its commuters to be from out of town. I liked that hospitable-sounding attitude.

I looked down the stairway at the end of the waiting area. At the bottom, it was open to the air. The stairs were enclosed in a sort of plastic windowed tube, which was probably nice when it was raining, but no door. The tunnel just headed right out to the train platform… where I knew the bugs were. Leaning down, my head in the stairwell, I heard an insect buzz, and my blood went cold. Something was nearby. I whipped my head around and did a visual scan, but I couldn’t see it. I checked the ceiling and my immediate surroundings. The buzz had subsided, and it was quiet.

I was utterly alone in the station. No workers. No attendants. No other passengers. “Where the fuck is everybody?” I wondered aloud.

I peered down another stairwell, leading in the opposite direction, down to the construction zone. I knew I was gonna have to go down there eventually, when the train came, so I decided to go down to the platform and check things out. Reconnaissance. Next to this second stairway was an elevator. I pushed the button, and heard it moving up to me. I decided I’d feel safer riding in an enclosed box for a few minutes than venturing into the enclosed-yet-exposed tubular stairwell, so I hopped inside the elevator and rode it down to the platform level – the only level to which it would go.

When the doors opened, I wasn’t on the train platform. I was on the platform that leads to the parking lot via a small stair. I looked down the platform, and the tracks had been ripped up. This was the construction area! In the other direction were all sorts of construction implements, machines and tools, roasting in the sun. I choked on the particulates floating in the air. I saw several large black hornets flying around the construction materials. I got back into the elevator and went back up.

Back up at the waiting area, I stepped out of the elevator and wondered what I should do. I flipped my phone open; I couldn’t remember exactly when the train was due to arrive. Maybe it would be just a few minutes? Why hadn’t any trains come at all, even in the other direction? Why weren’t there any other travelers in this station with me? Was the station closed that day? I fingered my train ticket, which had cost me around 12 bucks. Wouldn’t the website have said something if the station was closed? Wouldn’t the policeman on the phone advised me when I asked about parking on this day?

Then I heard it: the distinctive low-pitched humming that I would recognize anywhere. Something dark moved in my peripheral vision and I whipped my head toward the sound.

There, hovering just along the top of the ticket machine, was the largest black wasp I had ever seen. I was standing easily 15 feet from it, and I could see every part of it clearly, the slender waist, the long extended abdomen hanging heavily down, the airplane-like wings whirring like hummingbird wings, as it sniffed around the ticket machine, likely mistaking it for a soda machine, hoping there might be some sticky drops of sugar to munch on. The creature was just enormous... and, I couldn’t help but notice, quite beautiful.

My heart pounded in my chest and I bolted. Somehow I skittered around the back wall of the room, passing closer to that flying instrument of painful, suffocating death than I ever hope to be for the duration of my life. I sprinted as best I could in my wedge sandals and sundress out the door, pausing for a split-second to scan the air in front of me for more of the venomous pests. I ran to my car, crossing to the far side of the street to avoid walking along the fence, which had flowers blooming up against it, creeping up the metal links, sweet-smelling pink and white food for the evil beings from which I was running. I got into the passenger side of my car, slammed the door, shifted into the driver’s seat, and sat there, trying to slow my breathing.

Outside my car, one of the black wasps flew in front of my windshield, oblivious to my presence. It paused to check out the heat source, the sun having heated the exterior of my car until it was radiating heat itself. The wasp moved on, enjoying the hot energizing sun, and helped itself to the nectar from a flower that was blossoming on the creeping vine climbing up the chain link fence, immediately outside my driver’s side window. All that neglected, overgrown vegetation. I peered out the windows and took a good long look down into the construction zone, and the empty lot extending out from under the overpass. A real good, long look.

The field was swarming with wasps. Sealed safely inside my car, I couldn’t hear the buzz, but they were a writhing black cloud over the tall grasses. There must have been a nest there. I’d never seen so many wasps in one place in my life.

I didn’t scream or cry. I did shake with fear, a fear that chilled me from the marrow of my bones, a primordial fear that made me feel frozen and on fire at the same time. I wanted to scream, but somewhere deep inside I knew I was safe in my car, and it’s not like anyone was around to hear me.

You’re having a panic attack, I realized. You can handle this. There was a bottle of water on my seat. I opened it and spilled some on myself as I shakily brought it to my lips. It was warm and foul-tasting, but it was an external stimulus, and it brought me out of myself. I fought for control of my breathing and managed to take slower, deeper breaths. I just sat there, breathing, clutching the water bottle, until my heart slowed and my vision cleared and I felt ok to drive. I turned on the car and let it idle for a few minutes. A very deep, detached relaxation spread through me as I dissociated from the world, and nothing existed for me anymore except my car, the other cars, the road, the buildings. I shifted into Drive, stepped gently on the gas, and drove home.

I did not go into the city that day. I called my friend who I had been planning to meet, and apologized for standing him up, and promised to try again over the weekend when G would be available to drive me to and from the Tarrytown station.

That was one year ago.

This year, I have been dreading August.

I know I am afraid of wasps. I have always been afraid of all stinging insects, but that close encounter last year pushed me over the edge into a full-blown phobia. Normally I wouldn’t give a damn. I don’t feel I’m missing out on much in life by staying indoors until nightfall during the summer, but I have a husband who loves to sit outside in the yard for hours at a time reading books. I have friends who want me to play croquet in their backyard. It gets frustrating, having to constantly turn down invitations, having to shove G out of the house, quit worrying about me, I’m comfortable indoors, if you want to go outside then GO WITHOUT ME. Christ, the social pressure to be out of doors!!

So, for the sake of my social circle, I decided to fight this fear with knowledge. After all, the internet is free, and hypnosis isn’t.

I have been doing research into the various sorts of wasps, hornets and bees that populate this area. I learned about their habits in late summer, how they invade human areas more aggressively in order to find warm nesting sites and eat our garbage to build up their bodies in preparation for winter. People don’t always rinse their soda cans before dumping them in the recycler, and this provides a feast for sugar-seeking wasps, which is why I always let G take out the trash during the summer. They are instinctive creatures, clever and quick, and primarily concerned with feeding their babies, and simply surviving, like all of us. Many wasps eat other insects, which givens them a beneficial purpose in my life. Bugs that eat other bugs I can't help but like.

And I cannot deny that wasps are beautiful. As I was momentarily struck by the shiny black beauty of the wasp that terrified me at the Dobbs Ferry station, I have been similarly captivated by a paper wasp lazily seeking an exit to the dry cleaner's on my street, and by the Carpenter bees that nest in the eaves of my apartment building. The big fat male carpenter bees hover protectively near the nest, all arrogance and bravado, as they have no stingers and can't hurt a human. I've taken out my opera glasses to gaze at them through my windows. Recently this month a long, slender, yellow-and-black wasp has been scouting out the eaves over my hall window, it's back legs trailing behind it like ribbons. I hope it doesn't nest here, and when it gets too close to the window, I back away instinctively. But it's delicacy is captivating, the way it seems to float and dart about on wings that beat so fast, they are invisible.

One article I read speculated that a recent increase in wasp population might have to do with the disappearing bees, and how the wasps are taking over their pollination duties in some areas. That’s a great thing for our crops, but I don’t live in farmland, I live in a heavily populated suburban area. And frankly, bees never frightened me as much as wasps. I also read about the Northeastern Cicada Killer Wasp – a very large wasp (around 2” long) that lives near humans, the males of which are very fearless, but like carpenter bees, have no stingers. But do you really want to get close enough to one to see if it's male or female? These huge bugs are common in Northern New Jersey and New York - one of my colleagues at work had a nest under his porch last month! I wonder if this is what I saw at the Dobbs Ferry Station?

This is my third summer in the horticulturist’s paradise that is Nyack, New York. People here are incredible landscapers, and plant gorgeous flower gardens in vivid colors that bloom all summer long. They cultivate mid-sized trees that are covered in enormous pink blossoms as broad as your hand, with huge yellow stamens poking out libidinously. Some larger trees are covered in white flowers, and you can see the thick dusty pollen all over them. Their branches hang over the sidewalks, and I have to duck under them in winter. In summer, when they bloom, they are buzzing with death. I cross the street to avoid them.

From my conversations with locals, I am the only person in this entire town who is disturbed by the plethora of wasps that enjoy the fat, happy existence here. I know I am not the only person with an EpiPen in my purse, but I do seem to be the only one advocating wasp population control measures. Everyone else up here is so enamored with this environment, they look at me like I’m nuts, or with pity in their eyes.

Fuck them. I was happy in Manhattan. In Nyack I need an enviro-suit just to get the mail. Which I usually wait until after dark to do, when all the wasps are sleeping.

I do not feel that I am missing out on anything in life because I don’t enjoy gardens. When I lived in the city, I avoided Central Park. I went to a few outings with friends in the earlier part of the summer, where the fields are green and broad and devoid of flowers. This is fine in April, May or early June, but in July or August, I’d rather go to the museum. I do not enjoy the warm summer sun on my shoulders unless I’m on the beach, covered in sunscreen. I am the complete opposite of most human beings I know. Most people want a house with yards and trees and flowers – I know lots of people who plant all sorts of flowers everywhere they go, they love their fucking rose plants and lilac bushes. I only enjoy flowers CUT and in a VASE. I want an apartment in a totally urban area with a maintenance plan and off-street parking. I will NEVER enjoy strolling through fields full of wildflowers. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, and I’m tired of pretending I like it so people will think I’m normal. I DON’T LIKE BEING IN NATURE.

Unless it’s cold. Granted, I don’t like to FEEL cold, but I have learned to dress warm, and I love winter sports, especially ice skating and sledding. I grew up in an area where it wasn’t winter until we had three-to-six feet of snow on the grounds. We’d sled in our schoolyards, making our own hills, sometimes launching off the drifts left behind by the snowplows. Of course the parks are full of sledders.

Being somewhat of a loner, I just like the beauty of winter, everything white and clear and glistening and sparkling. I take a lot of photos in winter. In December, Central Park becomes one of my favorite places, quiet and nearly empty, the trees bold and bare, the birds and squirrels bustling about. The air is clear and clean. At night the moon and stars are bursting out of the sky and the snow glows and the black tree branches trace patterns above, and make lacy shadows in the moonlight.

That’s for me.

It’s too bad that the colder places in the world are so devoid of sunlight. I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier living in Canada, where the growing season is so short. But I’d miss the sun. As much as I hate the spring and summer and all it brings, I love the sun, and I love how happy and cheerful people are when the sun is shining. So I guess I’m staying in these latitudes.

I’ll just have to find a better train station. White Plains was always nice. It’s completely urban, surrounded by asphalt and cement and steel. It’s all enclosed. And it’s actually cheaper than the ride from Tarrytown. Still no free parking lot though, and the traffic is a bloody nightmare.

I did discover the Rockland Coach bus that takes Route 9W all the way to Fort Lee, then hops over to I-95 and heads into Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel, dropping me off at Port Authority. Nowhere near as pleasant and convenient as Grand Central, but an acceptable way to get into the city. Best of all, the bus stop is practically across the street from my apartment - no driving required. And the stretch of road between my building and the bus stop is relatively flower-free, at least along the sidewalk.

The bus stop itself is in front of a building full of attorneys. It's an historic old home with a wrap-around porch and turrets, sitting at the corner of Broadway and Cedar Hill Avenue. The owners recently spent a lot of money on renovating the property. They were kind enough to install a whole new bus stop waiting area at the corner, complete with two new redwood benches, pavers for the seating area, and decorative vegetation consisting of mostly non-flowering plants. There are lovely green things, some with long tall leaves and fluffy dandelion-like seeds. There are hardy little scrub bushes that look like Yews. The only flowers I’ve seen are on these small round bushy plants with reddish leaves. The blooms are incredibly tiny, and I’ve never seen a bee or wasp near them. They may not be real flowers, just colored leaves. The tall trees that provide shade for the bus riders do not bloom. They are huge and old, and stand protectively against the curb, shielding us from the sun. It’s cool under there, even in August. I feel relatively safe.

Safer than Port Authority, most likely.

I welcome the fall this year, and the cool weather, and my sweaters and boots, and the photos I will take of the moon and the snow and the icicles. I want to bundle up in my Damart underwear and go skating at the local rink and tobogganing in Nyack state park.

I hope that this ends my last summer in Nyack.

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