By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina
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That was amply illustrated by our paddling experience on a recent weekend. In company with Harry and Runar, we set out toward Swinburne Island to see the seals that live there each winter. It was a perfect day for the trip: Sunny, temperature in the high 50s, just enough wind to make things interesting. We figured it would be a great way to start off the seal-viewing season.
Instead, we ended up spending an afternoon exploring a part of the world we’d never seen before: Red Hook, Brooklyn. What we gave up in paddling and seal-watching we gained back in art, architecture, and entertaining social interactions.
Here’s how it happened: We started late, and were plagued with boat difficulties, including maladjusted footpegs and backband, which forced us to land at Brooklyn’s Valentino Pier. But back on the water, the difficulties persisted. We were already two hours into the trip, and it was apparent that we would not make it to Swinburne Island before dark.
What to do? Harry said that he knew of a landing spot just around the large, crumbling brick building ahead that extended into the water. That turned out to be the Fairway grocery in Red Hook, beyond which a narrow shipping channel led into the Erie Basin.
Once inside the basin, we were rewarded with a beautiful sight: The mother-lode of yellow Water Taxis! There they were, lined up at a dock, sparkling in the late-afternoon sun, along with one lone Shark.
After the obligatory photo shoot, we paddled down to the far corner of the basin, where Harry’s landing spot was. We were greeted by a fellow lounging on the porch of his trailer home, who informed us we were on private property. But after a nice conversation with Harry and Runar, he agreed to allow us to land and even agreed to watch the boats: “Just for an hour,” he cautioned us sternly.
Delighted with this turn of events, we planned to have a nice meal in the first little cafe we came to and then return home. Little did we know the adventure was only just beginning!
First up: The vintage car. After we disembarked, we had just started to look around when a cream-colored convertible drove slowly up to us. It turned out to be a vintage Cadillac, circa 1938: “A Great Gatsby car!” Runar exclaimed.
Not quite. The driver (who graciously agreed to pose for photos) explained in detail the differences between 1920s (Gatsby-era) and 1930s car models, which are quite extensive (though we won’t bore you with them here). What a difference a decade makes! We’re so used to thinking that rapid technology changes are unique to this century—yet things moved just as quickly at the dawn of the last.
A few other folks gathered to take photos of the car—and, a bit to our surprise, of us. In retrospect, we should have expected it: Our ‘space alien’ bright yellow (or, in Runar’s case, blue) drysuits, and the impact they had on various people we met, became the ongoing theme of this particular adventure.
After a bit, we wandered on, taking photos of the neighborhood, which featured
… amazing views of the Statue of Liberty
.… creative urban art
Red Hook is in Brooklyn, aka ‘hipster central’ of New York City. Brooklynites take their coolness seriously, and it can be a bit overwhelming and in-your-face at times.
But perhaps due to its relative isolation (no subway lines), Red Hook seems to foster a less-aggressive form of hipster cool. People walked more slowly, were friendlier, and gawked more openly at the funny-looking strangers in their midst. That said, all the ‘cool’ cultural signifiers were still present.
It was getting late, and we were hungry. So, we headed down the streets of Red Hook to locate refreshment—in what turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip.
At the first cafe we tried, the host (a young man tastefully attired in retro-looking plaid) greeted us effusively: “Oh, I love your outfits!” But he warned us there wasn’t much on the menu between lunch and dinner. Correct: Oysters, a few wraps, and cocktails.
In other circumstances, oysters and cocktails would have been just the ticket—but remembering that we still had an hour or two of paddling home through frigid water ahead of us, we regretfully moved on.
The next place we found—the ‘Hope and Anchor’—turned out to be perfect. And perfectly, unexpectedly entertaining.
There was a warm buzz of conversation when we opened the door. As we stepped through, wearing our brightly-colored drysuits, it cut off abruptly. Faces swiveled towards us. Forks stopped moving half-way to mouths.
It was the comic-movie version of surprise—except it was happening in real life.
After a few seconds of utter silence, a woman to our left piped up, “How come you’re still wearing your kayak suits?”
“Because we have to get back in our boats to go home,” Johna replied.
She nodded, apparently satisfied, and that broke the spell. The chatter swelled up again, and a hostess bustled over to lead us to the back room. Presumably it was the one reserved for visiting space aliens, because except for one other table, it was unoccupied.
We unzipped and peeled down the top halves of our drysuits (if you haven’t seen this, the effect is something like a half-peeled banana) and settled down for some food and kayak-appropriate libations.
Our server was another Red Hook hipster, friendly and amiable, and dressed in what we’d begun to figure out was the standard retro-plaid look. All went well until the end of the meal, after we’d paid and were getting ready to leave.
As Runar drained the last of his coffee, he discovered a few strips of sodden red paper in the bottom of the cup, and the following exchange ensued:
Hipster waiter:”Everything okay?”
Runar: “Not quite. I found this in my coffee.”
The hipster waiter inspected the coffee and the offending paper strips carefully. “Oh. That’s from a tea bag. Looks like Morning Breakfast tea.”
Runar: “Hmn, yes, probably.”
We were all anticipating the usual next steps: A brisk offer to make the coffee, and perhaps Runar’s entire meal, complementary.
Instead, the waiter assumed a sympathetic, solicitous look, and said softly: “Does it make you sad?”
Taken aback, Runar replied, “Well, yes, a little bit.” (Scandinavians are not big on admitting emotional vulnerability, but Runar isn’t exactly your typical Scandinavian).
Long pause. No offer of remuneration.
Waiter: “Yeah, our dishwasher sometimes isn’t all that… It happens… Hey, is that for me?”
He gestured to a $20 bill lying on the table in front of Runar. (We had already left a healthy tip).
Runar: “Ah, no.”
Waiter (a bit regretfully): “Oh… Okay. Have a nice afternoon, folks!”
And he sauntered off, while we collapsed in astonished laughter.
That was pretty much the high point of the day, but there were a few more experiences to savor.
For one thing, the bathroom at the ‘Hope and Anchor’ is papered with 1940s-era tattoo designs by one ‘Sailor Jerry‘. If you haven’t heard of Sailor Jerry, please check him out—even if you don’t have the slightest interest in tattoos. He’s a fantastic artist who wonderfully captured the spirit of his time and place (mid-20th-century America). As the writeup on his Web site says:
A Sailor Jerry tattoo was characterized by bold unwavering lines with a refined use of color and amazing detail (the riggings in his clipper ship tattoos were nautically accurate). His one-of-a-kind work combined American design and traditions with Asiatic color and sensibilities. His visionary style is revered to this day.
Then there was our re-entry into the main part of the restaurant. Once again, our space-alien outfits brought about a total stop in conversation. You could hear a pin drop as we made our way past late-afternoon brunchers to the door.
Back at the dock, the trailer-house guy made no complaints about having watched our boats, even though considerably more than the promised hour had passed. We slipped him a couple of bucks to thank him, and set off into a spectacular sunset with a nearly full moon above.
So that’s the story of how our trip to visit the seals turned into an excursion to experience a different sort of fauna entirely. The unexpected is the essence of adventure!
And no, that does not make us sad. Not even a little bit!