June 25, 2008

They Named It Twice

Memories of a trip are best written after allowing a period of fermentation, preferably with the help of fermented products, but the whirling dervish of work is so soon upon me that it proves the truth that there's no such thing as too much time off unless it's someone else's. A working definition of someone with too much vacation time is anyone with more than we have, in my case school teachers and pharmacists (I tease uncle Mark).

June in New York is as romantic as April in Paris, the temperatures moderate and the days long. The city that never sleeps is more alert than normal during midsummer night's eve, and the street fairs and frenzied shopping were such that it was hard to tell the natives from the tourists.

On Saturday, for example, in the space of a few blocks there was a commemoration of an obscure Italian (obscure to me), a street festival, and a skateboarder swarm. Near Mott St a dozen or so dignitaries sat on chairs that blocked part of the street while at the microphone a pleasant-sounding woman who looked like she'd never missed a pasta dish sung the praises of an honored forebear. I turned the corner and went a couple blocks north and there's a live band and street cafes and sidewalk sales and swarms of people passing through. I travel down Grand Avenue, going east, and a sudden pestilence descends. Not ten or twenty or thirty skateboarders, but they come in great waves, hundreds, altering the traffic flow as the cars honk and kids respond with emphatic middle fingers. A bystander near me is curious and asks one of them what's going on and she hears that it's "International Skateboarder's Day". This somehow makes sense.

Thursday

"Sissy" and Randy, deep from the heart of Kentucky, were our travelling companions. They were good ones, possessing Southern charm and impressive equanimity. Sissy, whose real name is Carrie, told an amusing story after we met them at the baggage claim of the Newark airport. They had seats right behind the opposing team's coach at a Lexington, KY arena football game. Carrie was riding the coach on his team's poor performance when he finally yelled back, "Well you need liposuction and he (pointing to Randy) needs to get his teeth fixed." Carrie shot back, "Well you have man tits!"

Carrie & Randy refer to the big city near them as "Lex-vegas" and Carrie once commented "keep 'er to a trot" in response to a co-worker's whisper of "simmer down, simmer down" regarding a high-spirited boss.

Our first stop after checking in at the Doubletree was John's Pizzeria, which offered the unique atmosphere of being located in an old church. It looked Congregationalist perhaps. A balcony wound around the top and we ate near what was formerly the altar, on the ground floor. The stained glass windows in the cupola above us bore no images of saints.

Afterwards we walked over to see about tickets to "Wicked" for Steph and me (C & R already had tickets) but the lines were long and the will weak. Unfortunately we saw the "Naked Cowboy", a dude who stands in the middle of Times Square wearing nothing but underwear and a guitar.

We walked up 5th Avenue and saw Rockefeller Plaza and shopped in the NBC store where I bought a Dundler Mifflin t-shirt of "The Office" fame. Steph later saw what looked to be the actress who plays Meredith on that series walking by. We stopped in St. Patrick's Cathedral and I asked a guide if there was a crypt, and there was, but it was under the high altar which was roped off. I could see down in there though, and was surprised to see that Fulton Sheen, whose cause for canonization is currently on-going, is buried there.

The girls wanted to shop at Tiffany's and so we did and I tried to get a feel of recognition from having seen it in the movie "Breakfast at Tiffanys" but only the large clock on the back wall gave off the feel of familiarity. New York as a backdrop was overshadowed by the lovely Audrey Hepburn in that movie, whose former apartment we would ride by on our Manhattan tour.

Meanwhile back at the ho'...

The hotel was a bit bi-polar; you exited or entered into or out of a river of humanity but turn the corner and there's a sloe gin feel. The river analogy is apt for I never saw a time there wasn't a constant flow of people in front. 47th Street was more neighborly with a beautiful old Episcopalian church named "Saint Mary the Virgin". There was also a homey convenience store and two Irish pubs.

There was a sort of genteel feel to the dinner that night at Langhan's. We sat near a framed print advertising "The King & I", starring Yul Brynner. It was a clean, well-lighted place and felt the sort of place Tony Randall and Felix Unger would feel at home.

Friday

Friday morning, pre-coffee, pre-breakfast, we intrepidly head out the door at 8am in order to peer in the windows during the live-taping of "Fox 'n Friends", one of Steph's favorite shows. It felt vaguely like stalking which is why I think the lovely Alisyn avoided me and talked to Steph when she came out just before nine. Through the barely-frosted windows you could see Geraldo (are two names necessary?) Riveria, who was pontificating to Steve, Allisyn and the irreverent Brian.

That morning in the hotel room we'd heard Brian say something that shocked me, his chubby, boy-next-door-face allowing him to get away with bloody murder. Alisyn or Steven made mention of Brittany Spear's sister, who not long ago became pregnant, and Brian remarked that her beau was known for "laying pipe", a euphemism for sex, and the co-hosts appeared shaken, whether an act or not I could not tell. Brian said he meant that he did plumbing. Later Steph asked him what "lay pipe" meant but he didn't hear or at least didn't respond.

At about ten till nine Brian and Alisyn and actor Richard Belzner came outside for a live-spot encouraging people to adopt dogs, and Steph was in her heaven twice-over, since this involved animals and her favorite morning crew. She spoke to Alisyn, who has a Cincinnati connection.

After breakfast at the hotel, Steph & Carrie & Randy went off to the Empire State building, which I'd already seen so could profitably skip. I headed three blocks away, to that famous Manhattan institution with the huge lions named "Patience" and "Fortitude" out front.

The walls in the periodical section of the New York Public Library look like chocolate, like you could eat them. The whole library is like a Willy Wonka factory for bibliophiles. In fact, Willy Wonka would've made a lot more sense had you substituted books for candy since even as a child I thought the kids were going through an awful lot just to own a chocolate factory. Certainly the gal who became a blueberry must've thought so afterward.

The tour guide was a calm, unassuming fellow sporting Spock-like eyebrows and three-day old sideburns hanging to his ear lobes. It's 11:10am, the library having opened at 11, and the scheduled tour guide hasn't shown up. He is forced to do it because, as they say on Broadway, the show must go on. I felt sympathetic as he hoped for a reprieve. I can well imagine the difference between the quiet of a cup of coffee and a comfortable desk, and unexpectedly having to give a ninety-minute tour over a building that spans a city block and four floors.

But he was a gamer, a historian who at one point said that no record was kept of the materials we might request at the library because "we're all left-wing here". And I thought it sad that conservatism has been now associated with snooping government bureaucrats when suspicion of big government is rightly our issue. But then both wings have their hypocrisies. Liberals welcome big government when it benefits their pet issues and conservatives the same.
At the NYPL gift shop I saw something ridiculous on the face of it - a "Library Action Figure" complete with "Shushing Action", a toy so anti-cool that it becomes cool in the same way a conservative so right-wing can become indistinguishable from a Communist. It even came with a librarian trading cards, featuring a real live librarian from Seattle.

* * *

With my pocket-sized Manhattan street atlas, I'd thought finding things would be a snap but it still amazes me that something as large as Herald's Square could elude me. I had some time to kill while waiting for the crew to return from their Empire State building tour, which sounded like the fifth circle of Hell. There were lines within lines, the perfect tourist scam, a visitor motel where visitors go in but then can't get out. A 15-minute visit at the top of the building took 2-3 hours. It was like waiting in line for a ride at Cedar Point Amusement Park and I shivered involuntarily at the thought, revolted by lines as I am.

I circled the 5th & 6th avenue blocks of 31st & 32nd streets but the best I could find was a "Herald Square Hotel". A different map showed Herald's Square up around 35th street. Another around 34th street. I'd trusted the wrong street map apparently, or maybe "Herald's Square" floats to different locations from year to year. Ha.

I'd decided I'd wasted enough time on it since I only wanted to see it for the song "remember me to Herald's Square". I headed back down 5th Avenue planning to visit Norman Vincent Peale's old church. I went down W. 29th street and found a large number of black and Middle Eastern men hoovering outside the doorway of a building just west of the church. A mosque apparently. They were having Friday prayer - "jumma" I think the sign said - and they all bent down on their knees bending towards Mecca I presume.

After a quick look at Peale's old place, I crossed the street and briefly took in the old "Church of Transfiguration" during which I got the call from Steph that they were finally done with their Empire State building tour. It took a shorter time to build it, I think.

We bought Grayline tickets for one of those double-decker bus tours where you can hop-on and hop-off. Already legs were giving out and transportation sounded like our friend. But you don't get anywhere quickly. We'd taken it in order to get back to our hotel but it took two-plus hours, a pleasant enough tour of the downtown all the way to Battery Park & back, but enough that Randy didn't get his birthday wish of going to Hooters, for we had to go directly to the Bronx if we were going to make the Reds game.

* * *

To see the Reds and Yanks play at the House that Ruth Built was, literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity. There was a "pinch me" aspect to it, the Reds in their grey road uniforms, a sight as foreign to me as me picking up the check when going out to dinner with my parents. Even rarer was to see a Reds road win, a 4-2 nail-biter that revolved around a close play at the plate. It was magical and I imagined Berra behind the plate, Ruth in left and Ford on the mound, Stengel in the dugout. A family squadron of four Reds fans flanked our right and so our cheers were joined in a modest chorus. But whenever the Yanks hit so much as a long fly, the crowd erupted. They seemed more natively optimistic than Reds fans, perhaps understandably so given the disparate payrolls and recent records. We are more of a "get the tying run on 2nd base and we'll cheer" while Yankee fans are more "get on base and we'll cheer as if we've already got it won".
We left the iconic grand building listening to the booming voice of Frank Sinatra singing an iconic song: "New York, New York". On Friday, the Reds "made it there", as Frank sang.

Saturday

By Saturday we were all feeling varying degrees of Great Fatigue, the fatigue that occurs with a sudden change from a basically sedentary desk-bound life to one of non-stop walking or standing. At every opportunity we collapsed in benches like soldiers in the Stonewall Jackson brigade during the Valley campaign. The secret is to use the subway, but the street life in NY is so absorbing that it's easier just to walk everywhere. Until it isn't.

We lucked out and managed to avoid an endless line for the Greyline when another bus arrived and promised a non-stop to the Statue of Liberty. You didn't have to ask us twice, since the plan was they go to Ellis Island today while I explore the southern tip of Manhattan on my own. But when we arrived the lines to Ellis daunting and the crew was necessarily line-phobic after the Empire Strikes Back building tour. Instead we would go to Ground Zero.

The area was bigger than I expected even though you expect that two towers would take up a lot of space. Still, television doesn't convey space well, which I suppose is why they say in order to really believe the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans, you have to go there.

* * *

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tour seemed a better idea on paper than in reality. I'd have traded the Met for it, but then hindsight is 20/20.

It got the highest starred rating in Frommer's or Fodor's (who can know the difference?), calling it a "must visit" on par with, say, Ellis Island. And so I waited for over an hour to acquire a ticket to the "Getting By" tour. I'd imagined much more than was offered. Frommer's or Fodor's said the guides were costumed and presumably in character and so I imagined a Williamsburg, Va equivalent of the squalor of 19th century Irish tenement life. Instead it seemed to impart little new information. The primary interest was seeing the size of the tenement, which was small indeed.

After the tour, I had a long way to get to Strand Books, a pilgrimage I was determined to make given how rushed I'd been last time I was in NY and given that the magical Gotham Books had vanished in hin air (the phone number in the Jan '08 phone book was now non-working).

On the way, I stumbled in Old St. Patrick's Church in the Lower East Side since I'm open to anything with the adjective "old" in it. I walked in and found a priest blessing a penitent outside the Confessional. It seemed a private moment and I instinctively turned away. I walked through the Lower East Side to get there, through SoHo and NoHo and I realized at one point that I was the least cool person in this whole area, perhaps a whole square mile, and while not proud of the distinction nevertheless I was glad to be a minority in a culture where minorities are celebrated.

Having not eaten for many an hour, I thought I'd better keep up my energy lest I fall in the Strand and be buried under an avalanche of books. (There are worse ways to go.) I wanted to try something called "Knish", an ethnic food of some sort, but there were fewer outdoor food vendors than ever I can recall. So I was reduced to McDonald's and got a fish & fries to go, but I'd forgotten to wash my hands and this was New York, surely the germ capital of the Western world, so I'm walking up Broadway engaged in the embarrassing act of eating french fries directly from the carton, held directly to my face, as if I were a pig eating from a troth. I felt the visual embodiment of the ugly American and/or the guy in "Fast Food Nation". I shortly found a place to sit in a nook outside Grace Church.

At the Strand I immediately hit the 50%-off review books downstairs and soon books were gathering under my arm like barnacles to a ship hull, or lint in a belly button. A short, unshaven man begged pardon as he tried to squeeze by me in the narrow aisle. Later he came back the same way and offered an unsolicited hymn to reading, saying that it "takes you to another place", then adding, seemingly apropos of nothing, that he was an attorney. I smiled and agreed, with the reading praise that is.

Dog tired by now, I made my way to the counter with my five new books (Reiff's "Triumph of the Therapeutic" for only 98 cents!!) and then made it to Union Square where I thrust up my right arm and a cabbie pulled over and I felt instant sorrow for all those who can't get taxis due to their skin color. Like magic he took me the unwalkable 40 blocks for $8.90 plus tip.

Sunday

We went to the Church of the Immaculate Conception at 14th and First Avenue and heard Fr. Neuhaus, founder of "First Things" magazine, say Mass. Having read him for years but rarely hearing him, I got a new appreciation for the power not just of words, which we readers tend to over-emphasize, but of delivery and the tangibility of "presence". His homily was consoling both in words and inflection, the deep bass conveying Christ's message that we are not to worry about the morrow and that we are worth more than sparrows.

After Mass I wondered what, if anything, I should say. That I read "First Things"? That I blog about it sometimes? My wife suggested she get a picture of us shaking hands which seemed excessive if appealing. I asked him for a photo and he assented and I told him I've blogged about "First Things" and that I'm from Ohio and he asked where in Ohio and he bore it all better than I would have, had I been in his shoes.

After we took the subway to the Central Park Zoo where Steph delighted in the penguin feeding and then enjoyed the antics of a polar bear. A humongous polar bear, if that's not redundant. Seemingly hundreds of photos later, we were back to the tour bus.

We board the Greyline and a woman with red-ish hair soon follows, along with (presumably) her son. She looks to be in her 60s and likely from Italy, based on the bits of language that I picked up. In Italy, all rules are subject to personal exegesis and are flaunted with regularity. (Only beauty matters there; rules are too utilitarian.) Our initial tour guide is a Type-A 40-something native New Yorker. Red-haired lady decided to get up, a no-no since while the bus is moving tree limbs and stop lights regularly cruise inches above our heads. The tour guide remonstrates Mz. Red Hair to sit down, twice, once in Italian. The lady sits down, unbowed and unrepentant. At the next stop we have to change buses. We wait in line to board the next one, as all good Anglo-Saxons will, when the lady and her son unaccountably cut in line. Steph can't believe it. It's surely proof that rudeness is not something you do once, but is habitual, like most vices.

But where it really got interesting was the titanic match-up under the new tour guide.

Max and his German accent took us on the upper loop of Manhattan (Harlem, the Upper West Side, etc...) . Small and wiry, he had that Germanic attention to detail. Unlike previous guides, we would always know which building he was referring to and he never mixed right from left from our view point despite facing us most of the time. He was, in short, the BMW of tour guides. As Sissy said earlier, stereotypes are there for a reason. And though bias is possible, my wife has a smile that is to smiles what the Louvre is to art museums. This draws attention from tour guides and neighbors, so it felt like Max was making eye contact only with us. He feels visibly hurt when a joke falls flat, and apologizes.

So we are going down the avenue when it begins to rain slightly, and this is when Mz. Red Hair decides it's time to go to the lower deck where it's dry. I could see this developing since she was behind Max - the perfect blending of the rule-lover versus the rule-breaker. A clash of European civilizations.

Max sported a look of great shock and displeasure when Mz. Red Hair attempted to get by him. It was satisfyingly dramatic, and I went in with high expectations concerning his outrage. He physically escorted her back to her seat, re-telling the rules of this gig, as if that mattered to her. Red Hair was not the least bit sheepish; you get the sense that sheephishness has never dawned on her brow, much like it has never dawned on a Clinton's.

Home Again, Home Again

The power of association is such that I can look at this Planet Hollywood souvenir shotglass with pleasure. In the list of NYC restaurants I'd have prefer to have gone, PH would have ranked 2nd-to-last (Hard Rock Cafe being last). But despite the obnoxiously loud music and distracting music videos, the shotglass has pleasant memories attached because of food and drink and company and, of course, vacation atmosphere.

I'm not too disappointed that a couple activities were left off due to time and body constraints and thus are left in the imagination fermenting for another trip. We didn't rent bikes or rowbaots at Central Park and explore an interior as unknown to me as Dark Africa was to a young Dr. Livingston. Nor did I taste the seemingly infinite fruit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nor the Natural History Museum. There was no time to walk the Brooklyn Bridge either. But to see the Reds & Yanks play...

Vignettes

The phallic buildings a trick,
an illusion,
Wall Street they call you
though the whole city is a wall
when viewed from across the river,
like a walled womb from which
no one longs to escape.
* * *


An off-off-off Broadway play
so real it WAS real,
the perspiring man
arguing with the lady in the
subway cage,
passion without hostility,
conflict without tears.
* * *


All other cities play New York,
while New York has leisure to play itself.
The city removes artifice,
like water through coal
reducing impurities
through impurity
like Christ being made sin
to remove it.
* * *


The oceans of soak'd print
like the 3-day bearded guy
in the stacks of the Strand who said
"Books put you in another place!"
Like entering the Jack Finney novel.

Smeared in newsprint
in the happy cellars,
they ferment the wine of yesteryear,
waiting the rush of the tube
announcing the next request.

There librarians get high
on the slow breakdown of paper
in the stacks,
a quiver seen by the outsider
through lanky windows,
a corked bottle of books.

The Stacks!
Stacked upon the sheets of rock
upon which the island is build,
where Times (Square) stands for no man,
the little island within an island,
where Broadway comes hurtling towards 7th
the febrileness of it, the
shock of more in the middle of much.

* * *

The womb imagery above symbolizes a return to privacy and solitude in the wake of the stripping of our offices at work and my neighbor's cutthroat friendliness at home. (A guy who came over to detail our car reported afterwards that she had "talked his ear off". I have dark fantasies of telling her I'd converted to Mormonism and attempt to prostylize her at every visit. Though she probably wouldn't mind.) Crowded New York, ironically, offered pristine privacy. I think Manhattan would be a decent place to be a bum, though the weather is poor. There should be a "Sponsor a Bum" charity whereby we can vicariously live their life. "Bum trading cards" would be cool too. Maybe offer them free lap-tops for live-blogging purposes....

While closing down the Newark airport (our plane was delayed till 11pm & we didn't get home till almost 2am), I was looking for something far from politics or even history per se, something "New York-y" - that is, something full of the past but fully contemporary, something literate and dense, something passionate as those two subway workers at the station near 14th & 1st. There near the bottom of the shelf with the spine at the joint is "Rilke and Andreas-Salome: A Love Story in Letters", the correspondence between the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome. A letter from Rilke: "My room was full of last June..."; "Provincial France always has a soothing effect on me; so many of the old houses there I imagine living in as I pass them by-- and then when I stop and take a good look, most of them are actually for rent..."

And now, back home, the unexpectedly great weather continues, the sun missing the clouds like a soccer player through a defender, like we so often missed the "Don't Walk" signals in the Manhattan grid, and the sun is centered between two clouds acting as goalposts signalling a field goal, a touchdown, while the lake in front of me glints like Irish eyes. Even my boss calling me on my day off and unloading his problems is small peanuts: "he can't help hisself" goes country mercy, which I know, deep down, applies to my neighbors, both literal and figurative.



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