City Island: Check

Hoo, boy, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’d apologize, but as it turns out, the delay allows for a nice segue into the post I’ve got today. So instead of explaining my absence, I’ll move forward with an unapologetic statement of what this post is about: checking items off long-neglected to-do lists. It feels almost appropriate (or poetic or, OK, convenient if we’re going to get nit-picky here) that I’m publishing today’s post after months of letting it languish in the drafts folder.

Those neglected months take us back to my recent visit to New York City. I spent the bulk of my 20s in NYC, and my NYC “to-(never)-do” list grew pretty extensive over the years. You know the kind of list I’m talking about: The one that delineates all those things you really mean to do in the city where you live. The sights you intend to see, the activities you swear you’ll one day take advantage of, in a distant, nebulous time known as “one of these days.”

What to do in NYC

New York isn’t a small, place, ya see.

I’ve had those lists everywhere I’ve lived, from Boston to Paris to Queenstown, but the imaginary check column on each has remained consistently, conspicuously clean. My New York list was the lengthiest and, consequently, the most blatantly pristine: Attend a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, go to a PS1 summer party, see a filming of SNL, have a beer at McSorley’s. The longer you live somewhere, I suppose, the longer the list gets, and the less likely you become to actually check items off of it: you get complacent, lazy, dependent on and content with your tried-and-true favorite spots and activities. You don’t give a second thought to opting for the mundane activities of daily life over trying something new — going to the gym on a Saturday morning instead of a new flea market, or staying home to watch Bravo on a Tuesday instead of checking out that pub trivia night down the street.

manhattan skyline from williamsburg

There’s always a next weekend, a next summer, a next happy hour, to shove new experiences off to. Until there’s not. One day, you move away, and you wonder why, on all those evenings of boredom, those weekends of perfect weather, you didn’t go down that to-do list like a kid on a scavenger hunt.

The number-one item on my New York list had always been a visit to City Island. The little island off the coast of the Bronx contradicts reason in all kinds of delightful ways: instead of being adrift in a vast ocean, it’s wedged between the Eastchester Bay and the Long Island Sound. Instead of getting there by boat, you take the subway and the bus. And despite the fact that it’s basically a New England fishing village, it’s under the jurisdiction of Michael Bloomberg (for now, anyway). It’s much further from the urban compactness and bustle of New York than you’d think you could get on a single Metrocard ride. In the nearly seven years I lived in NYC, I spent a lot of time listing these as the reasons I wanted to go check City Island out. Yet I never took the time to go actually go do it.

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My recent visit to New York, I decided, was finally my chance. No excuses, no complacency, no laziness: I was going to City Island. I recruited my friend Ken, in town visiting family, to come along. The fact that he actually agreed is a testament to his open-mindedness, because my sales pitch went something like this: “I’m not sure what there is to do there. Possibly nothing. Or it might be awesome. But we won’t know until we get there — which, incidentally, is going to take about two and a half hours on public transportation.”

As it turned out, it took a bit longer. The 32 stops between Union Square and Pelham Bay Park on the local 6 train were spread out over a series of track changes and unexplained service cancellations. The BX29 bus, which would take us from Pelham Bay Park over the skinny bridge to City Island, probably didn’t take that long to arrive. But after a few sweltering July minutes we were already spotting oases in the desert,  squinting through the wobbling heat lines and truly believing, until the last possible moment, that each approaching bus was ours.

All of this for an uncertain reward.

Fortunately, it turns out City Island made for a very satisfying check-mark on my list. Here are a few activities I pulled off there with varying degrees of success — and a few others I didn’t go anywhere near.

WANDERING

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City Island Ave., the town’s Main Street, pretty much bisects the island length-wise: to the West, residential streets dead end at Eastchester Bay; to the East it’s the Long Island Sound. The houses could be in any neighborhood on Long Island, or on Cape Cod. The front lawns could host lemonade stands and block parties. The streets are so empty I didn’t bother using the sidewalk, and so quiet I dropped my voice to a constant whisper just to match my environment. None of this feels particularly unusual until you realize you’re in one of the five boroughs. When you do, every minivan seems a marvel, every freestanding mailbox an artifact from a bygone era.

city island collage

BOATING

Yes, you can actually rent boats for the day to venture off the coast of City Island. Do I have pictures of me taking advantage of this fact? No way. Instead, I have an incredibly (let me emphasize: incredibly) inappropriate clip from an episode of The In Betweeners illustrating why incompetent landlubbers such as myself should probably steer clear of piloting their own vessels.

EATING

Look, if you’re into lobster rolls and clams, City Island is the spot for you.

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It should be no surprise, though, that the food on City Island was not of huge interest to me. So I drank Sam Adams Summer Ale and sang along to Sam Cooke on the stereo while Ken assessed the lobster rolls’ legitimacy. (They got a thumbs-up, by the way).

SITTING

Preferably somewhere with $2 cans of Bud Light, plastic tables, and seagulls (also known as “Thank God They’re Not Pigeons”).

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Also, the most urban of waterfront views.

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LURKING

City Island has the only waterfront cemetery in NYC. This sounds like a fun and wacky place to explore when you’re walking suburban side streets and reapplying your sunscreen as the birds chirp overhead. It becomes a considerably creepier plan, however, when the sky suddenly darkens and it starts to rain.

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The way to get around this, as it turns out, is to bring along a chocolate egg cream from the local old-timey ice cream shop. This is not only a great way to lighten up a rainy day graveyard walk, but also an excellent pick-me-up when you realize that your lunch of two beers and a giant corn on the cob is not going to get you through a humid summer day fully conscious.

view from city island

One last activity I won’t recommend, though: falling asleep with your forehead resting on the handrail on the long, long 6 train ride back home. Just trust me on that one.

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