Monday, February 14, 2011

Letter from New York: Part 3

Cat in fireplace, National Arts Club

 Up early and wrapped up well to go out into the piercing cold, walking up Riverside Drive at 9:30 AM. Temperature was lower today, in the teens, and Riverside Drive is probably the coldest place in the city, I remember from childhood, and the sharp wind off the river hasn't changed. But I only had eight blocks to walk to my cousin Judy's apartment. Another cousin, Alice, came down from her home in Syracuse for this occasion, and the three of us planned to go up to Riverdale to visit my mother. Alice and Judy are both daughters of sisters of my grandmother, and we don't see each other very often, so this was an event. Judy made us a delicious New York breakfast of sausages and challah French toast, and we embarked on the long trip up to Riverdale together. It was made short and delightful by our family chat, in which we compared our childhood memories of beloved people, some matching up, some new revelations. Deeply fascinating for those involved! Alice is close to my age but we have lived our lives far apart, and it is actually Facebook that has made our friendship blossom in our sixties. We all enjoyed our nice visit and lunch with my mother, and it was certainly a big day for her. Then the trip back to Manhattan, and after parting from Judy and Alice on the Upper West Side, there was just time for me to get downtown to my next event.

Me, Alice and Judy, visiting my mother

That's the thing with my New York visits - they lurch from highlight to highlight! At home I might have a special occasion maybe once every few months; here, I cram in two or three a day, every day. This evening I was invited by a friend who is a member of the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, to have dinner with her there. Well! This was a stellar event, and no mistake! One of the effects of my leaving New York so early, in my mid-twenties, was that I didn't have decades to explore places I'd have gotten to know if I'd lived there as an adult. So I find that the Arts Club is very well known, but it was brand new to me, and a huge thrill.

Interior, National Arts Club

Haughty lady of fashion, National Arts Club

The club was founded in 1898, and is in the 1840 Tilden Mansion in Gramercy Park, filled with the most eclectic assortment of gorgeous artworks and antiques, including a magnificent stained glass ceiling. I don't know what in New York could be lovelier than sitting in the armchairs in the high bay-windowed nooks looking out at the park; it was all so evocative of a past, fin-de-siecle, gracious, and artistic era. Well, I simply had to see everything, and after a lovely dinner (French onion soup, delicious salad, warm chocolate souffle and cappuccino), I did. It's quite an exclusive place, with an intricate membership process, and the other members and diners looked most posh. I probably imposed on my friend's kindness by staying from 6 to 11 PM and examining every single piece of china and painting! I didn't dare take pictures until late in the evening, when a man started taking flash pictures, and then I whipped out my camera, but I don't like flash so they came out dark. Still, a few came out to remember this magnificent experience by!

Amazing glass ceiling, National Arts Club

Pictures of famous members

One of the bay windows

Many things to covet...but it wasn't the Salvation Army!


My plane home was at 6:30 PM, and the car was to pick me up at Ezra's at 3:30, so I had to cram a lot into the morning. To my joy, my High School of Music and Art friend Denise and her partner Serge were able to meet me for breakfast at our favorite Veselka's, the Ukrainian restaurant (open 24 hours) in the East Village. Denise, daughter of a famous sculptor, was the most free-spirited girl at M & A, which is saying something! She's had a fascinating life, moved to Alaska and worked on the pipeline in the 1960s, married a Tibetan Buddhist monk (who sadly died). Denise spends part of the year in Alaska, and part in East Hampton, and I've visited her in both places - as well as at Veselka's. Bottom line is that one thing I would never pass up is any opportunity to see Denise. We had a delicious breakfast of fried egg sandwiches and happy talk, and then I walked back with them to see the friend they were staying with in a lovely apartment in St Marks Place, an 1870 townhouse building with original moldings - wider than a brownstone, with a very "Washington Square" feeling. Here is Denise with one of her friend's cats.

Friend and friend

 Veselka's, Second Avenue and Ninth Street

Ukrainian Fried Egg Sandwich

I'd promised to get Paul cookies at Veniero's, which is only a couple of blocks away, so I stopped there and incidentally had a cappuccino and an eclair. Then took a cab to the New York Public Library, for a brief visit to the Pforzheimer "Shelley and his Circle" collection, specifically for a glimpse of the shard of Shelley's skull.

Veniero's (immediately after the fried eggs)

Shelley's Skull Shard

And then a saunter through Bryant Park, which I remember years ago as being a quintessentially dangerous "needle park," now changed into a lovely skating rink ringed by skyscrapers. I'd never seen the lovely statues before (as it didn't used to be a place you could walk in), and photographed Gertrude Stein with snow in her lap. Then a dash up Broadway to get a pound of nova from Zabars to take home. On the bus I chatted with a woman about my age who was carrying a brown silk evening dress she was going to wear to a friend's daughter's wedding, and she mentioned that her son had gone to Hunter - for one day. Why? I asked. "He came home and said that he couldn't listen to being called 'special' even one more time." Since that is a devastatingly accurate and pithy comment on the school, I ended my New York trip on a laugh. Returned to Ezra's, to pack and wait for the car to take me to the airport, and home...

Bryant Park

Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park, more uncomfortable than in life

Farewell to Riverside Park

Letter from New York: Part 2

Central Park


Not that much sleep. Hurried down to Yeshiva University, at Lex and 33rd, the women's college, where I found the new Regional Coordinator of JASNA-NY in her lovely office-with-a-view. We had a delicious Japanese lunch with lots of interesting chat, before heading to the Pierpont Morgan Library. I was eager to see the exhibition of three centuries of literary diaries, but first I was halted in my tracks by the Shakespeare portrait. This is the newly discovered portrait, that hung in obscurity in an Irish country house for centuries, on which many later, familiar portraits have been based. The copies don't begin to capture the magic. What's fantastic is that Shakespeare's eyes are manifestly so intelligent; and one has a slight cast. He looks young, prosperous, well set up, curious, satisfied, all of that, and so, so intelligent! Copies of the later replicas are in the exhibit too and you can clearly see how badly they distort the original image. This was the only portrait painted by someone who actually saw him, and I was mesmerized; to see it is really spine-tingling.

Swooning over Shakespeare

I was also very taken with a portrait of his patron Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, also recently identified, and fascinating to study. This is obviously a young and gay pretty boy with lip rouge and long hair, dressed as a woman. The exhibition text diplomatically tries to play down the effeminacy (not gay, oh no, it's just the period), but there it is, plain to see. The two portraits together are more than enough for a fabulous dip into Shakespearean England in the heart of New York.

His pretty Patron

The literary diaries were wonderful too, a very rich exhibit that I could have studied for many hours. I particularly loved a touching little entry by Queen Elizabeth I, written in her exquisite handwriting at age 15. The whole thing was a fantastically eclectic collection of what seemed like everybody famous who ever kept a diary, from pioneers to magnates, Thoreau to Bob Dylan, Charlotte Bronte to a heartbreaking piece by a cop describing rescue efforts on 9/11. It was extremely absorbing, but this being one of my compressed New York visits, I had to tear away to meet my friend Laurie, who was waiting for me at the Ramble in cold (temperature had dropped into the 20s) but sunny Central Park.

Belvedere Castle

Laurie is a former MGM friend who moved back to New York years ago, and now feeds the cardinals in Central Park every day. We walked in the cold bright sunshine, in this very quiet and snowy part of the park, where you might think you were in the country. Amid a lot of assorted birdsong, Laurie suddenly said, "Oh, I hear a cardinal!" - she can identify one squeak from another! And we ended up seeing an assemblage of nine of them, six bright red boys, three more subdued females. It was truly glorious and exhilarating, seeing these little red things flitting in the trees and against the snow, but they're almost as fast as hummingbirds and photographing them was next to useless. I missed the best shot (of course), a red boy sitting on the snow right at my feet, and these unsatisfactory ones with their little heads turned and eyes closed is all I could get!


After an hour, with the sun going down (my green fur-trimmed down jacket from the Salvation Army cost $10 and turned out to be the best coat I've ever owned, light, but kept out all cold), it was pretty chilly, so we warmed up at EATS, the East Side Zabars, where we had a sumptuous spread of chocolate cake, cookies and cappucino. From there I took the bus back down to my mother-in-law Vivian's house on 23rd Street, stopping at the Metropolitan Opera Thrift store, which had some very nice things, though again, prices were higher than at home. At Vivian's we ordered in Italian food, and then I made the long trip back up to Riverside Drive and 106th via crosstown bus and subway.



Slept in, till 10. Ate the last of the Zabars lox. Cold, sunny day. Subway down to Sheridan Square and a cappuccino at Cafe Reggio. After a short wander around the Village, took the subway back up to Riverside Drive to visit my friend Barbara, American secretary of the Charlotte M. Yonge Society, as I do every year. A couple of hours of lovely book and travel chat, over tea and sandwiches, flies like ten minutes. Then I dipped into a favorite bookshop near her, Bookculture on 112th Street,
before meeting my childhood best friend, Mark, at a Starbucks on Broadway near his office. Then I went back to Ezra's to tidy up for dinner party, which wasn't far away, at another Hunter friend's beautiful, rambling 4-bedroom apartment with the most stunning panoramic view of Central Park and the reservoir that I have ever seen. The gathering was small and select, all writers, warm and friendly, and the dinner was beautiful. I am particularly fascinated by people who stayed in New York instead of emigrating as I did, and seeing what they and their lives are like today...genuine dyed-in-the-wool sophisticated New Yorkers!

Love, Denny (P.S. No More Cheese for Marshy, Please!! We do not need that cat vomiting up curds.)

Squbble (as I called them as a child) in Riverside Park.  Food dish or litter box?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Letter from New York: Part 1

Despite dozens of Facebook warnings the night before my flight, like this one: "Why are you travelling in this mush? Be safe. I would cancel and wait for spring if possible!" plus agitated calls from both mother and mother-in-law begging me not to make such a "dangerous" trip into a New York paved with lethal Black Ice, on February 5 I did indeed take flight. Here are Excerpts and Embroideries from my emails home.

Central Park in February

Not a bad flight on Jet Blue, but I only had a couple of hours sleep and am an anxious flyer, so it's always an ordeal. Plane left an hour and a half late because they lost a lightbulb. Then there was heavy mist at JFK and we had to circle for another hour because of "congestion," which wracked nerves further. But the car I ordered was waiting for me, and I was at my cousin Ezra's house on the Upper West Side by 10 PM.  Felt tired and muddled (accidentally left reading glasses on plane, automatically adding $300 to the $250 airfare), but went out to a neighborhood Indian restaurant and had delicious curried goat, which restored equanimity.  Whatever it took to get there, I was in New York!

View from the window

Slept well and woke up to a beautiful soft sunny day, temperature 49, and out the window a glorious view of Riverside Park, the Beaux Arts mansions, and the snow-fringed river. Just a little snow was left in the gutters; the streets were dry, and my big thick Salvation Army hiking boots seemed like an overstatement. So I sauntered out into the New York streets, securing a creamy cappuccino and a Metrocard, before meeting my Hunter friends for lunch at Chef Ho's Peking Duck on 89th and Second. We were eight: Marianne, Mickey, Priscilla, Te, Debbie, Barney, Nancy, and me. And what a wonderful, warm, chatty lunch of old friends it was. (We celebrated the 50th reunion of our sixth grade class at Hunter College Elementary School a few years back, and the party's still going on.) We ate Peking duck, dumplings, sesame noodles, minced chicken lettuce leaves, and spicy string beans. Afterwards, several of us went to the thrift shop next door and had a revel. Not such great prices as in Santa Monica, however, and I bought nothing; but it was fun.

Hunter lunch

Then I took the Second Avenue bus down to Peter Cooper Village, where Peter's parents live. Everything has looked the same there since 1948, when the family first moved in, though his mother at 88 is now more bent over and has more trouble walking than last year. Spent a pleasant hour with them, then took a cab crosstown for a lovely Indian dinner with my first cousin Anne, her husband Jim, and daughter Joanna, a bright personality who keeps me in touch with the current 13-year-olds of this world. 

Joanna, cat person

A very warm and happy evening, and then I took the subway back uptown, to the apartment on Riverside Drive that is the scene of so many childhood memories.  Then it was the home of my dear great-uncle Louis, who lived there since time out of mind (probably the 1930s), and we always went to seders there. It's been modernized, but the original seder chairs are still there.

Seder memories


Another lovely day, still warm, in the 40s, sun and clouds. Bad dreams from the horror thriller I was reading for work, and got up too early (a rarity in my life, that), but repaired self with Starbucks. Crosstown bus to 96th and Third, then caught the bus to Riverdale, in the Bronx, where my mother is in the Hebrew Home for the Aged.  I'd thought it would be snowier, because reports are that there's more snow and ice outside Manhattan, and the Hebrew Home's grounds on the Hudson are country-like; but it was dry, and I was fine without the boots. My mother was very glad to see me, and we had a very pleasant time, talking over news and memories of various members of our once large, now smaller, clan.


View of the Hudson River from the Hebrew Home

Took the 4 PM bus back, and got off at Central Park West and 81st. From there I had a lovely West Side wander, past the Museum of Natural History where I bought a New York salted pretzel with some anticipation, only to find that, like so much in life these days, they have been denatured and now taste like they were baked by MTV. Infinitely more satisfying was a visit to Zabars, mercifully unchanged, where I bought some truly divine nova. Reached Epices du Tratteur just in time for dinner at 6:30 with two Hunter friends, Te and Eva. We had a lovely warm wonderful chat for more than 3 hours, while enjoying Moroccan/Algerian food - started with a bric, which is a thin fried filo pocket filled with egg, potato and tuna, followed by lamb curry. Great evening, great talk, ranging from Tunisia (where they'd both been) to New York life, and of course school reminiscences - my favorite was Te telling about how she, Marianne and Debbie were once in a play based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's thumpingly cloying 1860 poem The Children's Hour. I have no recollection of the event, but apparently Marianne played Grave Alice, Te was Laughing Allegra, and Debbie was Edith with Golden Hair.  Hilarious, though I cannot imagine what inspired any Hunter teacher to make this part of our education. Here are a few stanzas to jog your memory:

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Bishop of Bingen being devoured by mice

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

Damned sinister.  Another one of these things that would probably have the poet arrested as a pedophile today.  But, good heavens, how I do love the Internet.  I just looked up that Bishop of Bingen story.  Do you know he was a greedy man in the 1300s who hoarded food during a famine, until everyone died and the mice ate him up in his Mouse-Tower?  Nice story, I don't think! 

But I digress.  How does the city look to me this trip? There doesn't seem to be the level of fashion and luxury goods you used to see, but that could be because it's winter and everybody's wearing down jackets. A few stores have desperate sale signs, but not as many as at home, though I was shocked to see a really high number of closed stores and big sale signs emblazoned up and down Madison Avenue in the 80s.  Of course the rents are astronomical there, but I have never seen such a sight in my lifetime and never imagined such a thing - Madison Avenue!  Still, no hordes of homeless people, unlike in Santa Monica, but that may be because people can't sleep out in such cold. I've only seen one homeless man so far, in a sleeping bag near Zabars, talking on a Blackberry. Incidentally, that's another social change - seems like every third person, whether sitting on the bus, walking, or whatever, is using a smart phone. Reminds me of two visits to Dublin I made just a few years apart, one before cell phones, one after; it was like a different century.  Here, it's not something new - but the proliferation is astonishing. 

Fashion statement for New York: 
Salvation Army down jacket, $10, and hiking boots, $15