The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for the ‘Long Island Rail Road’ Category

limned orb

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Seasons Greetings, indeed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first electric Christmas tree lights were displayed back in 1882, by Edward Hibberd Johnson. It just so happened that Johnson was a partner in the Edison Illuminating Company, incidentally. In 1903, commercially available Christmas lights went on the market, and America has been gaga for the decorations ever since. Pictured above is Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint, which like many commercial strips in NYC, has a merchants association that strings lights over the thoroughfare to bring the cheer. Closer to home, the merchants association on Steinway Street here in Astoria, Queens, actually pipes Christmas music onto the commercial strip through speakers. I cannot imagine anything more horrible than living on Steinway Street and having Christmas music playing in a continuous loop outside my window.

Factor in the fact that the vast majority of people who live on Steinway are observationally religious Muslims, and it gets that much more macabre. The neighbors from the Levant seem to tolerate it pretty well, but still…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One such as myself would do away with all of these winter holidays and instead create a custom of serious self reflection and ascetic study. I think Voltaire had it right when he suggested that we should all spend more time pursuing our studies, but to each his own. Giant inflatable puppets it is.

Idiots and demagogues claim that there is a “war on Christmas” underway in our society, which causes me to retort that Christmas is a actually illegal in the nation of Brunei, and that the Sultan who rules that country was a dear and personal friend of Ronald Reagan.

This usually rubs those idiots and demagogues the wrong way, which is my intention.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

For myself, when I want to see red and green lights, I head over to the Sunnyside Yards. You don’t have to wait for December, which is a plus.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

December 21, 2015 at 11:00 am

impolite exclusions

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It’s horrible to be me.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recent endeavor found me wandering amidst the Degnon Terminal in Long Island City during a light drizzle, which for one such as myself indicates that’s it’s time to start recording the things I see. Above, the off ramp of the Queensboro Bridge that doth feed traffic unto the Thomson Avenue Viaduct.

As I’ve stated in the past, NYC never looks as good as it does when it’s raining.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I was on my way to attend a meeting for the group that’s sprung up around the abandonment of the Montauk Cutoff tracks by the MTA, a project which was described at this – your Newtown Pentacle – recently. The meeting of the so called “Cut off coalition” was taking place over in the former Waldes Koh I Noor complex in the Degnon Terminal, and since it was raining I used the subway to get there rather than my usual methodology of walking in pursuance of not getting drenched.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Degnon Terminal, just in case you’ve missed the thousands of times I’ve referenced it, is an industrial park which was built in the early 20th century by a fellow named Michael Degnon. Degnon and his team land filled a famously honerous swamp fed by Newtown Creek’s Dutch Kills tributary at around the same time that the Pennsylvania Railroad was busy building the Sunnyside Yards railroad complex. Degnon’s project took advantage of the yards, and provided for a “ship to rail” link at the head of Dutch Kills.

“Progress” was a pretty big concept back in the early 20th century, and the Degnon Terminal saw some of the first poured concrete mega structures in the United States rise from the reclaimed wetlands of LIC.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Loose Wiles bakery, Eveready Battery, American Chicle and other large manufacturers based themselves here and provided tens of thousands of jobs, which drew the immigrant masses out of Manhattan and out to LIC and its environs. By the 1930’s, this section of LIC had become a vast industrial sector.

After the Second World War, when manufacturing in the northeastern United States began to decline, the buildings were left behind and nobody was quite sure what to do with them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In the early 1990’s, it was decided to demolish a hospital to make way for the new, and the Citi building megalith was erected. The first of the glass and steel skyscrapers in LIC, this malefic eidolon used to be a singular tower. That has changed in the last ten years, as multiple high rise residential buildings have risen around “court square.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Over on Pearson street off of Skillman, in the Degnon Terminal, the four building Koh I Noor complex found profitable life after splitting the property up amongst smaller tenants. The Waldes company manufactured milliners and tailoring supplies – it’s said that they invented the metal zipper, for instance. Warehouse businesses, printers, and small manufacturers have taken up residence here in the 21st century.

None of them utilize the rail, nor the maritime connections, and are instead truck based businesses.

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these views

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Welcome to the Montauk Cutoff, Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recently, one found himself hitting the tracks just before sunrise. I was there with sanction, accompanied by an MTA employee and entirely “legal.” It should be mentioned, again, that illegal trespass is against a humble narrator’s code, and like a vampire – I need to be invited in to do my thing. You also really, really, don’t want to get caught trespassing up here by the railroad cops, by the way. You also really, really, don’t want to meet the sort of person who camps out along railroad tracks in LIC when you’re all alone in the wee hours.

The Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City was designed to connect the North Shore line with the Montauk Line. The Montauk Line uses the tracks which follow the shoreline of Newtown Creek through Queens, eventually intersecting with the Bushwick Branch and both head for the rail yard at Fresh Pond. The elevated trackway of the Montauk Cutoff crosses Skillman, 49th, 50th, 51st, and Borden Avenues, whereupon it meets a rail bridge called Cabin M which spans Newtown Creek’s tributary Dutch Kills.

The North Shore line used what are approximately the modern LIRR passenger tracks, give or take a few yards, which transverse the Sunnyside Yards and head through Woodside on their way east. The Montauk Cutoff was built for freight, as were the North Shore and Montauk Lines. Passenger service was always a loser for the LIRR. Modern day freight on the LIRR is handled by the New York & Atlantic company.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The first discussion, which I’ve been able to find at least, about building LIC’s Montauk Cutoff was in 1906 – as part of a series of railroad projects either proposed or already under construction at the start of the 20th century by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company – projects which included Penn Station and Sunnyside Yard. Other documents I’ve examined state that the LIRR was paying taxes to New York State as early as 1912 on the Montauk Cutoff, which suggests that it came into service around the same time that the Sunnyside Yards came online. The surrounding Degnon Terminal wasn’t far behind the rail complex, either, with the Loose Wiles factory and other mega factories opening in the 1920’s.

As is always mentioned, old Mitch ain’t no authority on the whole railroad thing. If there’s something wrong in my little summary, please let me know in the comments and corrections or an errata will be incorporated. I can speak pretty intelligently about the maritime/locomotive complex around Newtown Creek, but I’ll admit to having vast gaps on the particular subject of the iron road. That was my pal Bernie Ente’s area of expertise.

For a historic series of shots, maps, and technical descriptions of anything involving the LIRR, you are going to have to visit the fairly excellent trainsarefun.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff Page.

Another set of maps and historic shots can be accessed at an equally fantastic site called arrts-arrchives.com. Here’s their Montauk Cutoff page.

I’ve written about the Smiling Hogshead Ranch before, which sits on the interchange between the Degnon Terminal Railway and the Montauk Cutoff, over at my old Brownstoner Queens column.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The view from up on the Montauk Cutoff is unique. That big parking lot at the bottom of the shot above is a UPS shipping center, the one on 49th avenue. Rearing above and behind it is the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the Long Island Expressway, which arches up and over Dutch Kills some 106 feet from its beginning at the Queens Midtown Tunnel – which is around a half mile away.

My MTA companion and I met up at the Smiling Hogshead Ranch at 5:30 in the morning to get these shots, which gave me a solid hour to work in absolute pitch darkness up on the tracks. The shots in today’s post are obviously tripod shots, and long exposures. Leaving the shutter open for 20-30 seconds at a pop, you can gather a tremendous amount of light and color, but the hot spots of electric street lighting always cause certain problems. Compensation for this is to move the aperture into “hyperfocal” range, f11 and narrower, which is counterintuitive for night shots but nevertheless effective. It also produces those neat little star bursts around the lights.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, why was I out on a chilly November morning with an MTA property manger, walking on a century old rail spur in Long Island City?

The MTA has decided to “abandon” this line. Abandon doesn’t mean the same thing in “railroad” as in does in english. It means that the agency has no current plans for the line and wishes to free itself of the duties necessitated in maintaining it as functional track. It means that the MTA will retain ownership of the Montauk Cutoff, and can at any time reactivate the pathway should “future use” require it. Given the speed with which rail projects generally move, however, that means a window of at least a couple of decades of inactivity awaits the property no matter what happens.

Accordingly, MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest,” or RFEI, regarding the Montauk Cutoff and is seeking potential lessees for the space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As defined in the RFEI document, the MTA is seeking out creative uses of the land with an eye towards community improvement. The agency has set down a few ground rules for any potential lessee of the site, many of which are quite expensive – such as insurance, utility service – those sorts of things. The property, as defined in the RFEI, includes the Smiling Hogshead Ranch – who currently lease and pay insurance on the parcel in which the community garden is operated.

Before certain web masters start pointing their fingers and shouting “j’accuse” at me while spinning a conspiratorial tale, Smiling Hogshead is indeed associated with Newtown Creek Alliance, as am I. You can absolutely bet that I’m a fan of SHHR’s operations and programming, and friends with a lot of their members. Long Island City needs every bit of green space it can get, which is how I finally get around to explaining why me and the MTA guy were here on the day before Thanksgiving and just before sunrise.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A “Request for an Expression of Interest”? You can say that I’m interested. I’m interested in seeing this trackway converted over to green space, in much the same way that the Degnon Spur on Pearson and Skillman – a weedy dumping ground and homeless camp – was turned into a lush garden by a group of dedicated volunteers.

Can you imagine what a group like Smiling Hogshead’s could do up here?

If you want to get in on the conversation, or contribute some time and knowledge to the project – shape the future, as it were – whatcha doing on the 2nd of December? A bunch of us are going to attend a “visioning meeting” at Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) which is set to happen between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My companion and I had discussed the possibility of getting up here in the pre dawn hours, and a couple of previous appointments had to be cancelled on account of weather. We had met on a walk through of the site which MTA had conducted back in October for parties interested in acquiring the land, an excursion which occurred just before solar noon – which is not the most efficacious time to photograph LIC. I made the case to him that a “proper” set of photos would be needed for this project and quite handy to boot, which my new friend at the agency agreed with. Hence, where we were, when we were, and why we met up in the dark on Skillman Avenue on the day before Thanksgiving.

The wrinkle in this potential project is this – it doesn’t necessarily have to become a green space. Anyone can “express interest” in the Montauk Cutoff, and as long as their proposed project meets the requirements set aside by the MTA, it will be considered a viable option.

I see this as being a frankly huge opportunity to create an enormous acreage of green space in an otherwise completely barren industrial area which can be best described as a “devastation of concrete.” My interest in this thing is simple – this property touches Dutch Kills, where the borders of the “abandoned” section ends, which is “my house.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff begins at Sunnyside Yard, and at its southeastern edge connects to the M Cabin truss bridge over Dutch Kills which connects to the Blissville Yard, which in turn feeds the tracks that travel under the Greenpoint and Kosciuszko Bridges to Maspeth, Ridgwood, and all points east. The RFEI states that the M Cabin bridge will be opened, and secured in that position, and that a barrier of some sort will be erected at the edge of the Montauk Cutoff’s lot.

Additionally, I cannot begin to, nor have I ever believed that this is the original bridge on this site. I’ve got some Intel that suggests the early 1940’s for its origins, but nothing solid enough to to stick a pin into. The original early 20th century bridge is long gone at any rate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I can tell you with some certainty that the nearby DB Cabin rail bridge is from 1919, and is a swing bridge that hasn’t opened since 2002. My pal Bernie, mentioned above as having been THE authoritative source on all things rail around LIC, told me once or twice that two industrial wreckers are required to tow it from either side to open the bridge. The swing bridges motors are non functional, something that has caused no small amount of grief for the EPA’s Superfund investigators. DB Cabin allows access from the Wheelspur Yard to the Blissville Yard and the Montauk Line.

Like I said, Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Looking northwards along Dutch Kills, at a scene familiar and loved by long time readers of this – your Newtown Pentacle. That’s the Borden Avenue Bridge, with the LIE above, spanning Dutch Kills. I’ve been writing about this neighborhood for years, it’s one of my favorite locations in New York City. The Montauk Cutoff leads directly to this spot, which in my mind directly connects it to the environmental problems of the Newtown Creek watershed.

Know how I’ve been rattling on for years about “combined sewer outfalls” and the problems presented to the ancient sewer system during rain events? Montauk Cutoff represents an opportunity to create a nearly four acre long green sponge that can drink up a significant amount of the storm water that carries garbage, grease, and poop into this water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Montauk Cutoff. This is a once in a generation opportunity to do something right for the environment in the ruined biome of Long Island City. Every elected official I’ve spoken to about this idea is “into it” although they haven’t made any public declarations yet (too early in the process to bring them in) and recently – Community Board 2’s environmental committee voted to support the use of these tracks as “green infrastructure.”

Want to get involved in the future of the Montauk Cutoff? As mentioned above, a “visioning meeting” which be taking place at LIC’s Nomad Cycle (47-10 Austell Pl, Queens, NY 11101) on December 2nd, between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

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creaking joints

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I’m all ‘effed up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The compulsions to record and categorize everything one encounters, which a humble narrator suffers from, must be related to some form of narcissism – which is the favorite “go to” syndrome for every arm chair and amateur psychologist’s diagnostic assessment. “Dude, you’re a total narcissist,” might be an appropriate statement were it not for the fact that when I reach out to touch the eidolon of decay staring back at me from beyond a pane of silvered glass, that monster always recoils in shock and horror and retreats.

Pictured above, a locomotive unit of the Long Island Railroad transiting the Sunnyside Yards, full of people who – unlike me – have somewhere else to go.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

“Dude, you’re a freaking sociopath, and all you’re doing is trying to prove how shit the rest of the world and everybody in it is while making yourself out to be somehow above it all” is one I’ve heard as well. In all actuality, I think the rest of you are amazing, and wish that I could somehow function on the level that others seem to effortlessly maintain. One can barely pull himself out of bed in the mornings and climb across the giant piles of ennui and hubris which litter my floors. Buying an egg sandwich and an orange juice for breakfast is a moral dilemma for one such as myself.

Pictured above, illegal dumping along Skillman Avenue, wherein a bag (?) of paint was left to harden into putty on the sidewalk. In all seriousness – who has a bag of paint? Doesn’t paint usually come in a bottle, jar, or can?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If I’m not disappointing someone with my personal failings, abrasive and egomaniacal behavior, moral assertions and precepts, or preconceived notions – my day is ruined. A friend of mine once suggested that I should start a business offering “freelance, unsolicited criticism.” I would walk into a bank, tell the manager that they had set up the ropes all wrong, and hand them a bill.

Many employees of the government would offer that “freelance unsolicited criticism” is what I’ve actually been offering them for the last few years, particularly a group of NYC EDC employees whom I recently sat down with regarding their feasibility study for decking over the Sunnyside Yards who received a less than salubrious series of exultations regarding their ruinous plans. The usual “who do you think you are” expression was quite visible from my side of the table, incidentally.

Pictured above, the 7 line of the MTA’s New York City Transit Authority transiting the elevated tracks over Queens Plaza South at the intersection with Skillman Avenue. We don’t call it NYCTA anymore, but the MTA still does.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has a serious desire for a short vacation, and to visit some vernal wonderland in which the cessation of daylight brings actual darkness. To experience quiet, and the sort of silence which causes a city dwellers ears to ring with tinnitus for a couple of days. I’d like to see something nice, and not chase drunks away from my door for just a day or two.

Unfortunately, one remains trapped within the concrete devastations of the Newtown Pentacle.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

October 3rd, 2015
Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour
with Atlas Obscura, click here for details and tickets

all signs

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All we have to fear is fear itself, and I’m pissing my pants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like many Queensicans, when it was announced that this year’s July 4th fireworks would be taking place in the East River just off the coast of LIC, a humble narrator grew excited. Then one began to read about frozen zones (pretty much from 11th street to the East River) and homeland security. My enthusiasm for the event began to wane as the Terror Warriors descended from their Manhattan aeries, discussed throwing down cordons, announcing entry checkpoints, and throwing a cage over the entire neighborhood. One “gets it” of course, as our enemies from “east austral Asia” specifically target public events that draw media attention, which is the very definition of what the July 4th fireworks show is.

The thing is, and I’ve been pointing this out for years, is that there is very little actual “homeland security” going on the rest of the year around these parts, and the Terror Warriors spend most of their time in Manhattan offices dreaming up scenarios which could only be accomplished by Nation/States with vast combined weapon system resources and functionally unlimited budgets. If we were at war with the United States or the People’s Republic of China, for instance, I’d be pooping my pants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One is not so irresponsible to point the actual vulnerabilities out in any detail, as some moron out there might decide to exploit them (do your own research), but if you see graffiti along a train track or in a subway tunnel – that’s called time and opportunity. It should be impossible, literally, to sneak into a train yard or even get close to a moving train nearly two decades into the Terror Wars.

Problem is that our security personnel tend to focus on the outlandish notion that non state actors, who are basically mafiosos, can not only maintain but deploy complicated weapons systems that most nation states cannot even hope to possess. Jackass sappers like the Boston Marathon bombers, whose presence and intentions are THE real threat, just don’t fire the imagination or finger the purse strings of Congress.

It’s all a show, ultimately, designed to assuage the nagging truth that some jerk pulling the pin on a dud hand grenade while riding on the 7 train would be sufficient to shut the entire Subway system down for weeks while the Terror Warriors installed metal detectors and biometric sensors on every turnstile.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I think I’m just going to go up on my roof this year on the 4th of July, photographing the fireworks at a distance from almond eyed Astoria. One is not interested in being part of a compacted herd of spectators, who are all potential suspects, in LIC. I’ll be out and about on the 5th of July, and will wager that I won’t see a single cop or security contractor protecting the vital infrastructure found hereabouts. To me, that’s terrifying.

The big show will be over by then, and the Terror Warriors will be worrying about space based laser systems at BBQ’s on Long Island and in Westchester County. They’ll muse whether or not ISIL has perfected a tractor beam that can pull asteroids down on targets (that’s called a mass driver, btw.) or developed a neutron bomb.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

July 12th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 1, 2015 at 11:05 am

public building

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Sunnyside Yard, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Everybody always asks me how I get these shots, or about certain qualities in them. Simple answer is that I’m always experimenting with the camera, and when I come up with some protocol for “how to get this or that” my next move is usually to reverse it and see what happens.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, my friend, practice.

The setting: Recently, an evening meeting carried one up the hill from the elluvial flatlands of Southern Astoria to the heights of the ridge which Sunnyside was built into. Between these two neighborhoods, there’s a former tidal swamp into which the Sunnyside Yard was embedded back in the first decade of the 20th century. Once the largest rail coach yard on earth, the Yard still hosts the busiest rail junction found on the continent, the so called Harold Interlocking. The busy part is due to the frequent passage of Long Island Railroad commuter rail trains, which share the switches and rails with Amtrak.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The conditions: Sunset to the west, which I was going to be shooting right into. The weather was humid, and a bit misty. The point of view is surrounded by steel plated chain link fencing whose purpose is to deny observation of vulnerable infrastructure (I’m told that this fencing was installed during the first decade of the Terror Wars). One such as myself has a vast catalog of fence holes and gaps which are dearly held, and since my meeting in Sunnyside would carry one past an entire series of these occluded viewpoints, a point was made to pocket one of my lenses small enough to fit into while leaving HQ. I also brought some chewing gum, but that’s not important.

My “good lenses,” which are used in particularly high rotation, have a circumference too large for these cracks in the walls around the Sunnyside Yard – so a “decent” lens which has a decidedly smaller diameter was employed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The “decent lens” mentioned is the so called “nifty fifty” offered by Canon. It’s far and away my most inexpensive tool, and allows wide open apertures which would make it handy for night time shots but for its persnickety focusing mechanics. The term for what it does, autofocus wise, is called “hunting.” What that means is that it noisily rolls through the range of focus and never quite settles itself into a lock. My usual habit with this sort of thing is to use autofocus to “get it close” and then switch the thing over to manual focus for final adjustment.

The optic formula of the lens also renders things a bit less “contrasty” than I’d like, but you can’t really complain about camera equipment which retails for around a hundred bucks – especially when it fits through fence holes.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The methodology: For those of you not in the know, as to how cameras and lenses work – a “bright lens” will allow you to operate it at wide apertures (f1.8 in the instance of the nifty fifty). Wide apertures create a tremendous “depth of field” effect, which means that the area which is in focus will appear sharply delineated and everything else will be blurred. Higher aperture settings – the “f-stops” as it were – will create a hyperfocal range in which everything in frame will be sharply defined. The lower the “f-stop” the more light enters the camera, and the higher ones allow less light to get to the sensor. You balance the shot using shutter speed and ISO settings. Night shots and interior spaces require you to use the lens “wide open,” with slow shutter speeds, and higher ISO settings – all of which introduce certain quality issues to the captured image.

The shots in today’s post were consciously captured with the desire to have “everything” in focus, with a minimum of motion blur as well, and to record a full range of color and tone. Difficult to do with the sun behind the scene, and in a setting where everything is made of contrasting reflective surfaces.

My formula was to actually reverse my night shooting protocol on 2/3rds of the exposure triangle, using a very narrow f-stop and fairly fast shutter speed, but with a high ISO setting for tone and color sensitivity (f10, 1/1250th of a second, ISO 800). Sometimes, particularly during the summer, the problem isn’t that there enough light – there’s actually too much of it and some methodology needs to be employed to control it. Experimentation and failure often emanate from screwing around with your normal shooting habits, but sometimes it pays to mix things up a bit.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

July 12th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets.

idly digging

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Another odd occult altar encountered, this one in Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Involuntarily marching about in Queensican DUKBO (Down under the Kosciuszko Bridge Onramp) recently, on my way over to East Williamsburg to conduct an iteration of the “Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek” walking tour, an occult altar was encountered not far from the bridge. It was at the grade crossing of the Haberman rail siding, nearby the intersection of 49th street and 56th road in Maspeth.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This area has been observed, in the past, hosting some odd activity. The very same spot is where the “3 Headless Chickens” described in this 2012 post were found.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The ceramic plate was filled with what looked like corn meal or some other roughly ground grain. The liquor bottle was white rum, and there was a considerable amount of the stuff in the bottle. The fact that it hasn’t been scooped up and consumed is noteworthy.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The eight arranged dark shapes seemed to be yams or sweet potatoes. There was some sort of shape impressed into the “corn meal” which reminds me of some skinny or tiny person’s naked butt, or possibly those tablets which Moses brandished about.

Entirely likely that there’s a missing piece to this altar which was swept aside by rail traffic passing over it, imho.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

July 12th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Newtown Creek Alliance, click here for details and tickets.

Written by Mitch Waxman

June 25, 2015 at 11:00 am

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