It is a little-appreciated fact about New York that, regardless of how wild a spot you manage to find here, no matter how untrammeled a path or trail, independent of which adaptable fellow creature (fox, raccoon, whitetail deer) you may encounter on your wanderings, sooner or later you’re going to trip over a container of Vienna sausage.
Urban walker Cornelius Curry minds the city’s beeswax.
Ask any urban hiker. Vienna sausage is the substance that knows no boundaries. Gateway National Recreation Area, the scrubs of Staten Island, the uncharted backwaters of the Bronx, the far side of the moon: Wherever you go, you’re bound to find a pop-top can with the lid peeled back, contents devoured. You may have been conjuring Washington’s troops in retreat, Wiechquaeskeck Indians in moccasins padding along a trail, or . . . well, the point is someone has been here before you, and recently. Not only that, they’ve probably been slugging 40s as they ate livid precooked weenies from a can.
This occurred to me the other day on a walk with my friend Cornelius Curry. An inveterate urban walker, Conny is Bronx born, priest-schooled, a self-taught urbanist who makes up in passion what he sometimes misses in a linear narrative grasp. Data crops up helter-skelter in conversation with Conny, a bearlike former city bus mechanic who “got sick of the grease bucket” after 21 years, retired, and now works the night elevator at a posh Upper East Side co-op.
If Conny’s facts cannot always be sourced, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re either incorrect or without an essential truth. The granite setts used to pave city streets, Conny asserts, were known as Irish confetti in the 19th century, for the immigrant workers who hoisted them into place. The Roosevelt family, he remarks, for all its fancy airs, got started in this country as humble hardware merchants. The word fireplug refers to the wooden bungs that Revolutionary-era bucket brigades used to plug the locust water pipes they’d tap to put out one of the city’s then incessant fires. F.W. Woolworth is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in a “big Egyptian-style mausoleum,” pronounced muzzuleeum. And the quaintly anachronistic phrase “mind your beeswax” originates in a beauty tip from the 18th century, when a woman’s wax-based makeup was prone to melt if she sat too close to a hearth.
“It’s a turn-on for me, city history,” says Conny. And clearly it is. His conversation is a welter of New York lore, spouted almost at random, and usually followed by eruptions of a laugh best described as the sound a duck might make if you dragged it feet first across gravel. On a beautiful spring morning last week, Conny conducted this reporter, also Bronx born, through a part of the city he’d never seen, peppering him with local arcana along the way.
We started at the Van Cortlandt Mansion, home in the 17th century to the richest man in New York; made our way past Vault Hill, where Washington lit bonfires to deceive the British as he marched on Yorktown; stopped at the city’s oldest public golf course and clubhouse; passed beneath a disused railroad overpass that once served “people who would travel up the Hudson River to Tarrytown and all that,” and which now seems to serve as a gay cruising ground; crossed from the golf course silence to the din of the Major Deegan Expressway; reentered the woods somehow and wound up following the route of the city’s first great water tunnel, the Old Croton Aqueduct.
There’s little that New Yorkers more readily take for granted than the purity and plenitude of our water. Water comes from taps, from hydrants, from the hoses building supers use to sluice dog shit off sidewalks. Lost on most of us is the engineering elegance of the complex hydrological system, remarkably unaltered in more than 150 years, that conveys abundant clean water to New York from Westchester and the Catskills. Just as easily overlooked are the changes effected on the invention of a modern city by something as basic as plumbing. “The tunnel took seven years to build,” said Conny, as we made our way along a straight path, humped slightly in the middle, with sides that sloped downward to banks covered with dogwood, violets, and Japanese knotweed.
It was some time before it became clear that the path ran directly above the tunnel: Conny pointed this out in a spot where the soil had eroded and the old masonry could be seen. “This is where you went down into the aqueduct itself,” Conny said, pointing to a boulder wedged into a square manhole. The waterway, he went on, “was built from 1835 to 1842. This was the first pressurized water brought into the city. It was the first dependable source of drinking water. You’ve got to realize what a big deal that was. Before then they got their water in the city from wells. Now people were using privies. Suddenly, they had fountains in Union Square and City Hall Park. The city was abuzz. They couldn’t believe it.”
The aqueduct follows a 41-mile downhill course from the Croton Reservoir; it once terminated at a reservoir where the New York Public Library main branch now sits and still feeds the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir in Central Park. Our walk was not nearly that long, but it did take us pretty close to the city’s northern limit and through some dappled woodlands, where we never saw another soul. Shy of the Yonkers border we decided to turn south again, and that was when I spotted the Vienna Sausage can, a little trash totem on the side of the path. I didn’t mention it to Conny, who was expounding on Tammany Hall. “The aqueduct was a Tammany deal,” said Conny. “They saw the need for it after the great fire of 1835. They knew the city needed pressurized water. The bucket brigades couldn’t put fires out using the old method and the city couldn’t grow without being able to fight fires. All these neighborhoods in the North Bronx and the West Bronx were settled by Irish immigrants they got to build the waterway and the reservoir.” Masonry was cheaper than iron. Labor was the cheapest thing of all. “It was always cheap labor with the Irish,” said Conny, who is Irish himself. “There was big anti-Irish feeling at the time, so the isolationists tried to turn the public against the reservoir project. You know what they said? They said, ‘Don’t drink the water because those Irish workers are peeing in it!’ They said, ‘You never know what those Irish vagabonds are going to do next.’ ” Then he let out an enormous laugh.
No italicized note can adequately convey the gratitude, affection, and respect I feel for the many people whose professionalism and generosity have gone into the making of this column over the past 20 years, nor for its equally supportive readers. Still, as I leave the Voice for The New York Times, I would like to express thanks for their encouragement and friendship to David Schneiderman, president of Village Voice Media; to Don Forst, as canny an editor in chief as I ever expect to meet; to Brian Parks for his tact and deftly wielded blue pencil; to Vince Aletti for his companionship and incomparably camp e-mails; to editorial colleagues Bill Bastone, C.Carr, Michael Feingold, Richard Goldstein, Jennifer Gonnerman, Lauren Drandoff, Meg Handler, J. Hoberman, J.A. Lobbia, Mark Schoofs, James Ridgeway, and Doug Simmons for, among other things, keeping the spirit of the Voice vital; and most especially to my beloved friend and colleague Sylvia Plachy, who has clambered down subway tunnels behind me, driven into burning oil fields, trekked to Carpathian bolt-holes, and kept her good spirits throughout.