May 28, 2013

48 Hours in NYC

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it."  - Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, Part 1: Autobiographical, 1829--1848, p. 412
This part I call the elevated promenade, because its principal use will be to allow people of leisure, and old and young invalids, to promenade over the bridge on fine days, in order to enjoy the beautiful views and the pure air. - John Roebling, builder of Brooklyn Bridge

Now THAT'S what I'm talking about. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which makes all other art museums look like little leaguers. It feels slightly lame to go to a big city like New York mainly for the museums, churches or libraries. It's the city that never sleeps after all, and there is food and music and Broadway and culturally-different people and…

But as the kids say, OMG. Room after room of sublime religious art. Yes, this art - devotional masterworks depicting Jesus and Mary and the saints - lives up to New York's extraordinary reputation. It's a heart-melting, spiritual experience. Even “hypnotic”, as was rightly put in an explanation of a particular work.  In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gravitas of New York is fairly represented (somehow people-watching on the subway didn't quite measure up). And it certainly makes me free to skip the Museum of Modern Art now, “modern art” being close to an oxymoron anyway.

So why not start with the best? Give me some Fra Angelico. But for some reason I had other agenda items that by comparison look trivial. One guidebook recommended taking the “international line”, the subway train from Manhattan to Queens so called because it passes above ground through all these picturesque enclaves, Mexican, Chinese, etc… I pictured it as a seated (and nearly free) ethnic tour. The reality was banal to the max, though it was seated. I think I made it up to 120th street in Queens, suffering through endless stops and tedious suburban-ish vistas. But vacations are like picking dogs - you win some, you lose some. I must've been a hilarious sight, craning my neck around to look at rain-splotched Queens. There weren't any other tourists that's for sure.


ON the plane ride to New York saw this: Sky Mall magazine offers an old-fashioned electric typewriter and actually advertises it as being without the “crutch of spellcheck.” Now that's selling to pedants, those souls who aren't happy simply that they can spell better than others but want to offer proof. No doubt they'll append letters with, “This was typed on an electric typewriter without the crutch of spellcheck.” High-laire. It's as if you went to a doctor and he or she said they diagnosed your problem without the “crutch” of any diagnostic tools.


Oh but are my legs crushed, destroyed, demolished, DOA. Tomorrow's soreness will be epic. I walked about seven times seven my normal daily amount and stood for about as long. Talk about a filling day, though. Checked in at the winsomely early hour of 10:30 and then made my way down Columbus Avenue on a cloudy day with gusty winds. Got about a half-mile and had to turn back. Too damn cold! (Say like, “The rent is too damn high!”) In late May, mind you. Went back to the hotel room and retrieved my jacket and then headed towards the nearest subway stop and flawlessly executed the arrival at the Chambers street exit for my intended Brooklyn Bridge walk, which would be nearly the last experience of successful navigation (except along the Bridge itself which fortunately has no turns and thus minimizes the chances of getting lost).

So GPS sucks; I should've used an old-fashioned paper maps. I wanted to hit Ground Zero briefly before the bridge, which turned out to be an unlikelihood wrapped inside an impossibility. Poor planning on my part will be punished on vacations and yet I always like the serendipity of wandering about without a plan. So I walked and walked, getting lost - though serendipitously finding St. Peter's Church, the oldest Catholic Church in New York. Huge crucifixion painting above the altar. Also walked in Trinity church there near Wall Street.

Finally I got to the 9/11 memorial only, to my surprise, they have it roped off tighter than Fort Knox. Tall opaque fences prevented viewing by random visitors. It seemed, unless I'm mistaken, you had to wait in a long line and buy a pass to get in to see the memorial. It is quite possible I'm mistaken because I might've had to have walked an extra ten football fields and achieved victory, but if I'm right then I think it's patently ridiculous. While it is hallowed ground in the sense of people having died there, I have to say that I feel much in the minority as far as not having a deep interest in going there (or the Pearl Harbor memorial for that matter). I find it a curious lack in me, that these sorts of things don't appeal. I'd rather see a 17th century Puritan graveyard than a 20th/21st century sight of death or war. Gettysburg is about as recent as I want to see. And yet when I said I was going to New York everyone said, “oh, to see 9/11?” So I felt a sort of pressure to go, more to check off my list than in a true desire. But there were loads of tourists waiting in line to see the memorial, which is kind of impressive. Kudos to them for wanting to remember and honor the victims by visiting.


So after having wasted a lot of time and energy trying to do the World Trade Center, I went in the opposite direction and found, with surprisingly little trouble, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Walking across it I had to laugh at the weather: 50 degrees, spitting rain, and gusty breezes. If that isn't worst-case scenario for NYC in late May I don't know what is. But I didn't mind really because thank God I was warmly glad in t-shirt, dress shirt AND rain-resistant jacket. Seasonably appropriate garb for March, but hey I'm not complaining since I'm on vacation.

Walking the Bridge made me want to read David McCullough's book on the building of it given what an exceptional engineering feat it is. Perhaps some “reverse tourism” is in order, where I go somewhere and then read about it. I loved the view of the Statue of Liberty in the far harbor, the Empire State building on the other side beyond a picturesque bridge (Williamsburg I think) just north/east of us. I walked right on in to Brooklyn (sign said, “Welcome to Brooklyn. How sweet it is!”). Wavered on whether to check out the DUMBO gentrified area. Elected not to because legs were already fried.

After le' bridge, walked back into the city and given the steadily worsening weather I thought about how it would be nice just to read my Frommer's NYC in my comfortable hotel room. Which is sort of hilarious. Arm-chair travel while actually traveling. Rather expensive, but there's no time guidebook reading is more interesting then when you're actually in the city.

Instead thought it would be nice to go to McSorley's Pub, take in a pint, maybe hit the NY Public Library and/or check out the Library hotel. But all my GPS misadventures had killed the fly-lifespan of the iPhone battery. Thus by 2pm I had no phone. Which meant no subway map, no Frommer's Guide on the Kindle iphone app, no GPS, no Google search, no nuthin'. So this severely limited my choices to just one: ride that subway, ride!

Early Xian Saint or Mrs. D? I report, you decide.
Rode first to Grand Central Station (now called Grand Central Terminal) because I'd never seen it in all these years. I've gotten it confused in my mind with “Penn Station” but I understand the two are very different. I can never hear Penn Station without thinking of a 1970s-era Reader's Digest line that quoted a child as thinking the end of the Lord's Prayer was “…and lead us not into Penn Station.” Cute kid alert! I may forget my name but I'll never forget that silly thing from a billion years ago. The print equivalent of the greatest ear worm of all time.

Grand Central Station? Lord it is grand. Especially for a train station. Wow. And the people! In the past I've said things like, “it was like Grand Central Station in there” because that's a popular saying. But now I can put a picture with that phrase. The sky-high ceiling is sky-blue with cherubs and little stars of light. Strangely peaceful despite the hubbub.

There's always got to be drama in New York, and I saw something odd going on when I went to the restroom: a man appeared to be going to the toilet in a garbage can. Cops were soon on the scene, two males inside to talk to the obviously mentally disturbed individual and one lady cop just outside. I smiled inwardly that even in this age when the sexes are seen as interchangeable, the female cop did not go in the male bathroom.

I wanted to eat something properly New Yorkian, whatever that means (maybe something ethnic) but I was hungry and there's this huge food court at Grand Central, so I succumbed and ate a BBQ steak sandwich with fries. I'm not proud of it. I am the ugly American, eating boring, predictable American food in an international city while on vacation. Tomorrow vegan sea bass from the East River (joke).

So after fortifying with food I continued the endless series of subway rides to Times Square, where I would hook up with another ride to the Upper West Side near my hotel at 81st (the Excelsior). This was achieved and I charged up my dead phone to 23% before heading back out to the Met, just “.65 miles away” according to an app - as the crow flies, but not as I walk, especially given the three different directions I go first before finding the right one. I think my sense of direction has been severely compromised over the past decade or so, at least since the advent of Google maps. It's nearly unerring as a contrary indicator.
I thought I could “cut through” Central Park but Central Park is huge (newsflash!) with twisting paths and semi-roads. [Later I would learn if I'd entered the Park at 81st, it would've been a snap.] Using my GPS I thought maybe I could just hike as the crow flies, fording boulder and stream, but alas I found to my shock that the GPS is iffy. It sometimes works and sometimes doesn't which makes it completely unreliable. Again, I'm a new fan of paper maps. Plus their batteries don't die.

Forty-five minutes and two miles later I stumble into the museum, hoping to hear the free classical music concert scheduled for the balcony bar. Unfortunately the balcony bar is, well, upstairs in the balcony. Feet don't fail me now! I have to walk up steps, ouch! After a few misdirections I find the elusive balcony bar that, had it been a snake, would've bit me right when I came in, i.e. right above me. I got there to find—-! A long line to get into this balcony bar. No music for me tonight, just art. Since the violin strings' sound carried about five feet.

But what art it was. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I couldn't decide what to see first, second or third. Roman & Greek art or Byzantine, or Medieval or European or… It was truly an embarrassment of riches. But my legs were dying under me, so I limited it to just an hour. Then cabbed back, and I half-vowed to take a cab everywhere from now on, including in the museum if possible (do they allow cabs in there? Rickshaws? Can I get a cab from my room to the hotel lobby?)


Before heading to the art museum I'd explored Columbus Avenue near my digs at the Excelsior and came across one of those tiny if heartfelt local groceries. I bought some Bass ale and coffee - I think it was called Calilgonie Brothers Grocery or some-such. Italian. Old Italian brothers. Established 1927. Had old pictures of the joint from way back when. That's the way you want your groceries. Mom & Pop, not chain.

The good news is that it was perfect museum-going weather. Certainly it worked out well given that if it were warm and sunny I'd surely have skipped over some of the treasures of the Metropolitan. Plus I didn't need SPF lotion.

The bad news is it doesn't make for great walking around “exploring” weather. Thus tonight faced with 25mph winds with gusts up to 35, and a temperature in the high 40s, it doesn't look too promising. Years ago I surely would've wanted to haunt old bookshops but nowadays - curse Kindle! - there are few of them around and it seems beside the point since I downloaded a sample of David McCullough's book about the Brooklyn Bridge instantaneously. Hard to go fishing when the fridge is already full of fish. Which is a good thing of course, but still…

[Later]: Well how many days I'm going to be in NYC in my lifetime? Relatively few is the safe bet. Measured in hours, a few score. So I headed out on the bum legs for another adventure, a perambulation down 81st street with short sojourns on Amsterdam and Broadway. Oh how can you know a city if you haven't seen it at night? Or in the early morn? And so I strolled down past those handsome brownstones that occasionally revealed interiors lit with books and light. What a sense of order there is here (although I'm sure money has something to do with that)! Every so often you have these avenues filled with little mom & pops, crossed with perpendicular residential streets. You really don't have to drive a car anywhere. Groceries, coffee joints, churches, gym, restaurants - all within easy walking distance? Wow, that's a nice quality o' life. And geez but there's a lot of florists. Who needs all these plants and flowers? I surmise these urban dwellers are starved for nature. Certainly the native fetish for Central Park seems a result of being nature-deprived. It's a nice park, but there are plenty of better offerings in Central Ohio. Vive le' difference. I love their architecture, they love our trees.

Walking by the ornate brownstones I wondered if Peggy Noonan might live in one of them. I thought she lived on the Upper West Side but I could be mistaken. I eventually was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to a used bookstore on Broadway. Looked for a cheaper version of the expensive ebook price of McCullough's The Great Bridge but they didn't have it. Bought instead - for $1 - Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Craig. Then to the local Barnes and Noble, but no inexpensive McCullough.

We see the trees in their early-spring greenness, but not again until just before winter. The common is mostly beyond us. - Jack Gilbert
So this morning I headed to the blessedly close by World Coffee and copped a spot in the window while enjoying a breakfast sandwich, coffee, and a “two berry yogurt muffin” whatever that is. I felt like a character on the Seinfeld show. It certainly was good eats and drinks even though I'm out of the loop on all these fancy coffees and pastries. In my day we had coffee and donuts, now you have some sort of cafe-expresso-latte with obscure types of scones. And in my day the only beer choices were Miller and Bud.
Shortly thereafter it was off to the art museum, this time by the utterly simple route of entering Central Park at 81st and using the transverse road. Wow, what a difference that made. And hugely helpful since I would end up logging over 4 miles just in the museum itself, if the GPS be working - which it looks like it didn't because even though I was only in the museum my “route” took me up and down 5th Avenue, over to the Natural History Museum, a trip to Central Park, etc… I guess I thought in NYC it would be more accurate than, say, in an isolated region in Montana but I guess not.


One of the things I like about art is its relation to history, how inseparable the two are. Thus my interest in history is simultaneously slaked with my interest in art. There is much art depicting a world gone by. I saw rooms furnished as they were from the 18th and 19th centuries, I saw the infamous Five Points tenement district of NYC in a painting.

And oh the crowds today! It's odd to see my appreciation for art echoed by so many others. It was like a football crowd - jam-packed wall-to-wall people in the lobby. I'm sure the weather helped but still it does the heart good to see so many people waiting in long lines to buy tickets to see great art. It's also cool to hear the variety of languages.

I'm touched almost as much by execution of the art as its subject matter: I appreciate the faith that these sometimes anonymous artists had that their works would bring appreciation and meaning and joy. The attention to detail is profound.

Of the many religious depictions of Mary, it seems a good number show her as looking detached, stoical or sad. That seems unreasonable given the Christian joy that suffuses the faces of most saints. Perhaps the artist is symbolizing the sword of sorrow that would later pierce her heart.

The cool thing is everything is real here, from the famous Stuart painting of Washington, to the iconic and gigantic Washington Crossing the Delaware to the ancient Egyptian temple. Only one thing I found faux: the Byzantine image of Christ at the Hagia Sophia. I guess the Met is the only one allowed to make a reproduction.

Walking through the Greek and Roman statues, I'm always struck by how small the men's penises look. Maybe that's designed to make men appreciate their own equipment more.


By 3pm I was sufficiently worn out. Limped to the finish line but didn't see it all. My right hip was aching as was my left instep from plantar. Which made me symmetrically hobbled. A pleasing, artistic symmetry. I headed back to the ho' for a nap, which felt crazy to do on a short vacation. Refreshed, I strolled slowly along Columbus and took in the myriad of small grocers and coffee and food joints. I picked up a chocolate soufflé at Gastronomie 491 and ordered a delicious chicken dinner at Spring Natural Kitchen.

Boy did I feel out of place though. My fire-engine red wind breaker didn't blend in with the uniformly black and gray garb of the natives. They don't believe in bright colors up here. I thought I saw actor James Cann but subsequent Google searches have in Cannes five days ago. Possible but not too probable.


Final hours in NYC and they felt a bit anti-climactic, partially because of the uncertainty over the cab situation which turned out to be no difficulty at all. And also because not being truly physically fit has its consequences, specifically when on vacation in a city made for flaneurs. I had little desire to move under my own power today.

Breakfast at World Coffee was followed closely by Mass: Trinity Sunday at Holy Trinity parish on 82nd. A micro-walk from the hotel. The priest gave a fine sermon on the creed. He mentioned how the Jews were so respectful of God's name that they wouldn't say it but for the High Priest once a year and I thought about this makes a kind of sense given that in the Old Testament to name something or somebody was to have a kind of dominion over them, thus the story of Adam and Eve naming the animals. So to “name God” wouldn't make sense from a Jewish point of view, and even today we have only the self-revealed relationship of the Trinity as a name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also mentioned that every part of the Creed is from the bible but the phrase “consubstantial with the Father”. “Consubstantial” is so unusual a word, and providentially so because it deals with a matter we have no human experience of and thus don't want to use an overly familiar phrase that would make us think we fully understand what's going on there.


After Mass cabbed to the City Museum of New York at 103 and 5th. Somewhat disappointing museum, very light on substance. Highlight was film about the growth of the city from Henry Hudson to 9/11, though I was surprised Gulliani didn't receive any credit whatsoever for how safe the city has become. By noon I was getting nervous about time despite the 3:40 flight, so walked 5th Avenue down to about 92nd street. Sunny if cool day, I walked with Central Park to my right, with a couple large skyscrapers beyond it as if positioned there for effect. The amazing thing about the Park is that it exists at all given how coveted that real estate would be on the open market. It's always a cheery sign when something trumps the market. Seems like you could say to New York liberals, like so many say in a different way to the Vatican: “why don't you sell Central Park to developers? Think of all you could do for the poor with that money?”

Stopped at the Guggenheim and easily got a cab to back to the hotel and from there to JFK. The cab driver, a heavyset half-Hungarian, half-Serbian and all-accent, wanted to talk. Specifically he wanted jokes but would accept talking about insurance since he wanted to know what I did and I'd told him. He asked how to start an insurance company. I said, “start out with a lot of money,” which seemed like acceptable advice for starting any company. “And be prepared for regulation.” Obviously my knowledge of starting insurance companies is limited, to massively understate it. And my appreciation for Orthodox liturgies went unremarked upon, as well as any discussion about Eastern Europe under the Soviet regime. Politics and religion didn't interest him. Business and jokes instead. On New York he would only say that a lady from the Midwest came here for a week on business and said, “All they do is work around here. Till 6, 7 at night they're still working.”

On marriage, he related what his father said of the institution: “one-fourth honey and the rest shit, so you can choose which to go for first.” I said that I think the person you marry matters and he seemed to agree. He also had a joke: what is the “hottest part of a woman's body? Her palm. Why? Because if you put a $100 in there she'll…” and the rest was too accented to understand but I'm pretty sure I got the jist of it.
He managed to miss the Delta terminal at JFK, which seemed surprising for a cabdriver. He insisted on giving me his Skype email address in case I wanted a cheap place to stay in Europe, where he has a small house. Just Europe, nothing more specific. I said Europe'a a big place but he didn't specify, which was kind of humorous. Here's the American dream, or dreamer, in action. There's a strong sort of optimism in advertising your house in Europe by giving strangers your email address without giving them the country. It would take as big a dreamer to take him up on the offer, I would think.


Arrived at the airport a good 2+ hours early only to find the flight delayed a half-hour. So make that three hours early. You know an airport is seriously big when it has a sign with directions to terminals for different countries including Uzbekistan, a country I spelled so wrong that even spellcheck had no replacements to offer me. When you can't spell close enough for spellcheck there's something srsly wrong. I'd packed two beers that I now had to get rid of before going through security so got them out of my suitcase and put them on a seat in the airport lobby. One bottle rolled off and hit the hard-tiled floor and broke. Not good. The other I drank.


Feel a fullness of sensory image after bathing in that New York state of mind for the weekend. Rue'd, of course, my early departure from Gotham at noon but didn't have much oomph left. Wondering if I should've visited the Natural History museum since I was right on top of it. Might've been nice to walk to the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot even though I'm not a Lennon fan. Also would've been cool to have received Communion from Cardinal Dolan, assuming he gives out Communion at his masses. Also didn't make it to the parish of Catholic savant and author Fr. George Rutler. Also could've easily used the subway to go to downtown Brooklyn and explore there. There seems to be so much more to do in New York than, say, Chicago.
Feel a bit of instant-nostalgia (just add beer) for the little things, like the giddiness of writing up the trip log that Friday night over a few Bass ales, the “extraneous” night trips to the bookstores on Saturday and the art museum on Friday, how nice the shower felt Saturday morning with that deep window-well that I could've stored a refrigerator in and that reminded me I wasn't in Kansas anymore. The startle of that unique church, Holy Trinity, at Mass on Sunday. The rush of reading McCullough's book about the Brooklyn Bridge after just having walked it. The excitement of seeing the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building from that bridge. The inviting swirl of street after street in every direction that begged to be walked. The simple appreciation for the two berry muffin at World Coffee. The incredible performance of the quintet of two trumpet players, two sax and one drummer in the subway, playing like there was no tomorrow, as if they were at Carnegie Hall....


mrsdarwin said...

Aw, you're too sweet.

We just got back from vacation ourselves, in the more southern reaches of the country, and I hope to put up some vicarious vacation for the readers. Of course ours won't be as lyrical as yours -- the kids take a lot of things down to the most prosy levels -- but riding along a rutted road next to the great Mississippi levee has its charms.

TS said...

Ah am looking forward to your trip log!