Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Fast Trip to New York

On the roof, Hunter College Elementary School sixth grade class, 1957 (I'm in lower right corner)

Hunter reunion, on the roof in 2011

Thursday.  Trip got off to a fraughtish start because the storm back East meant that cousins were without power in their Connecticut home, and had to stay at Ezra's Riverside Drive apartment - which meant Paul and I couldn't. So I called around frantically and got the last room at the West Side YMCA, convenient location just off Central Park West near Lincoln Center, $100 a night, with bunk beds. Decent flight, despite sardine seats and a threatened problem with the hydraulic system; but we got to New York safely and on time.

We headed to the Y, a handsome building with a nice lounge where there was wifi, and pleasant staff. But the room! One wild horrified look at the bunk beds, and it was perfectly clear we could not handle it, not for more than one night, and possibly not even that. But there was no help for it, it was already late, so I gamely said I would try and see if I could get up to the top, since I'm smaller. You'd think that wouldn't be so hard, but the thing was so constructed that you had to climb up the high frame, which swayed and wobbled like a weeping willow in an earthquake. It took delicate footwork, upper body strength and agility, all of which I used to have previous to the touch of arthritis in my knee, but now it was a challenge. I finally did ascend, and flopped like an out-of-breath fish on a wooden platter, which threatened to hurl me to the floor, six feet down. "I'll take the top, you can't," Paul said heroically, but the worst part of the challenge still remained: I had to get down. Couldn't get a foothold going backwards, so had to do a body twist and descend with arms behind me - very precarious and twisted my knee as I jumped the last few feet. Paul found it every bit as hard for his younger self to ascend, while his larger frame was completely incompatable with the wobbling-fish-plate-pancake effect. We concluded that of the two, it would be marginally less dangerous for me to sleep up there, but decided to put off thinking about it for awhile and go get something to eat.  Found a really nice Indian restaurant (Moghli) for dinner (Goa fish curry; Hyderabadi chicken), and then retired to deal with the night on the rack of torture.  Incredibly, the bunk bed was not even the worst thing about the Y. That would be the bathroom, which was completely communal! Divided by sex, yes, but that was the only amenity: there was no privacy. Only a tea towel sized shower curtain shielded each stall, which seemed not to be a problem for the large young women shaking their bottoms in thongs, but definitely was for one brought up in the Victorian age. So I limited my showers to thirty seconds at 3 AM, which is not ideal. The less said about the toilets, the better, and I won't say it.

Me on the roof at Hunter, 1950s.  Miserable little scrap.  Someday they will discover that sending night owls to day school doesn't work.

Modern version of the little play house, right (picture borrowed from Nancy)

Happily I was able to secure a cancellation at our favorite Larchmont Hotel on 11th Street in the Village, for myself, for our last couple of nights. It's so charming and inexpensive they're generally solidly booked, so I felt fortunate and never have I more appreciated my own room! and bath! and civil guests (the Y clientele, not surprisingly, was large, loud and graceless). We also hated staying near Lincoln Center, nothing but tourist restaurants for half a dozen blocks in every direction, and the Starbucks was so packed you waited on lines to get sloppy swill. Who ever thought that the coffee would be better in L.A.? We have Peets.

Friday.  We spent most of the day visiting my in-laws, who are growing miserably embattled in their old age. Part of the problem was that Peter Cooper Village where they have lived since 1948 has lately decreed that residents must get rid of trunks that have been stored in the basement for decades. I've had one there since moving to California in the early 1970s. This disruption was understandably extremely difficult for elderly people, and made for a lot of tension. They didn't want the trunk in the house, so it had to be arranged for us to go down for an illegal basement peek, bribing a handyman. The man was late and I had to go to my reunion dinner, so I left Paul in charge of this volatile situation, and he performed very well under considerable emotional fire. The trunk was opened; he had five minutes to gather armfuls of old books and his own baby clothes and shove them in a bag, before the trunk was consigned to oblivion. Paul got out of there quickly and I returned from a lovely time at the reunion to hear the whole dismal story.

Fourth grade class (me on left)

Reunion at Roosevelt House

Watching the awards

Beth receives an achievement award from the head of Hunter College

The reunion was to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Hunter College Elementary School, and it was held at Roosevelt House at Hunter College, where a goodly crowd of people who'd attended Hunter from the 1930s to the present had a warm and wonderful time clustering into their own class groups. There were about ten from my class, some of whom are always kind enough to meet me when I'm in NY, so we've become real friends despite the initial 50-year gap since we last saw each other at age eleven. Beth came from New Mexico and she and her poet sister Rachel were among those honored at the reunion, along with a pioneering advertising woman from the class of 1938, the president of Brandeis, and the writer/composer of The Book of Mormon. After the ceremonies the Class of '57 members went out to a local steak house for dinner and had a jolly, sweet, and congenial time.

Happy Hunter dinner (picture borrowed from Nancy)

I always marvel at how vividly we remember being children together, our personalities so strong and distinct even then. Was that because we were "gifted"? I doubt it; I think it's just that we were together so long in a small group, two small classes. Most of us had nothing to do with each other for our entire intervening adult lives, and we lived them disparately - we are widely diverse in experience, viewpoint, and specialities, yet we are all so fond of each other and listen with great interest to all the varied life reports. Nostalgia seems to descend on one in the sixties, along with knee problems and love of cats and china painted with violets (speaking for myself obviously!). I think the professional tally was two psychologists, two lawyers, a book editor, a newspaper editor, a realtor, a political activist, a games expert, and me. Although I would guess most are comfortably off by reasonable standards, it is perhaps a mark of the recession that only one of the ten is fully retired at age 65, most have no plans to retire any time soon, and one of our most vibrant discussions was of a shared, intense love of thrift stores! Other lively topics included: a psychological consideration of why some people from similar backgrounds are survivors and some not; various political campaigns and the "Occupy" movement; methods of building a real estate practice; the joyful achievement that one of us has a grandchild in first grade at Hunter (even more difficult than in our day, as there are now 2,500 applicants for 50 places); and a host of memories of each other in our Hunter days and the eccentricities of our teachers. Who would not love a reunion such as this?

To be accepted at Hunter in the 1950s you had to have an IQ in the top percentile and your picture taken in a bathing suit. Mine was taken in Central Park.

We parted early enough for me to meet up with Paul and go to Veselka's in the East Village so he could have dinner - Ukranian stew and ambrosial apple crumble.

Saturday.  This morning, on only 4 hours sleep, I got up early for the second phase of the reunion, which was a tour of our old school. The outside and the roof looked as they always had, and the lobby was recognizable, but the classrooms themselves were so changed and remodeled I don't think any of us got much of a real deja vu feeling; also it was all so long ago we found we really collectively didn't remember much. Memory, I have concluded, is not a reliable record. The great thing is that we all do still really remember each other, and it's perhaps the greatest part of our education to see what became of us, or what we became, after the elapsing of most of a lifetime.

The older generation looks at the work of the new

After the school tour they took us by bus up to the new school building on East 94th, for a light brunch and some more time to socialize in classrooms. From there "our ten" went to Chef Ho's for what is becoming our traditional reunion Peking Duck. Great fun. Shared a cab to the West Side, where I fell fast asleep for three solid hours, and awakened to find that by general agreement we weren't having the evening drinks party we'd planned: everyone was just too exhausted. I had a nice email from my bonhomious friend Jay, who mentioned a favorite restaurant around the corner from him and his wife Susan at Columbus and 89th, Saigon Grill, and we went over to see them at their fantastic, cultured-New Yorker, book-and-art stuffed apartment. A delicious dinner in the most delightful company put the capper on a thoroughly enjoying-New-York mood, topped off by dessert at Cafe Lalo (cappuccino and Frenchified cakes). Now I've caught up on internet and diarizing, and will hazard my last ghastly YMCA shower...Tomorrow we visit my mother.

Family visiting my mother

Youth and age.  Beautiful New York girl cousin Joanna, age 14 1/2

Men of the family:  Tom, Jim, David, Paul

Joanna, Anne, me

Sunday. Here I am comfortably ensconced at the Larchmont - my goodness, how this modest bed and breakfast feels like the lap of luxury! When I came in, the staff was polite and friendly, the other guests well behaved, there were flowers in the lobby and complimentary slippers and bathrobe...yet it costs the same as the Y! I simply hated staying right by Lincoln Center, awful tourist area, but it's just wonderful staying in the Village. Today, Paul and I took train and bus up to see my mother. She didn't look bad, just weak, and was so pleased we were there. Cousins Anne, Jim, Joanna, David and Tom all came, and it was a very warm, pleasant gathering, a real family party. Joanna has dyed her hair red and is a spunky beautiful teenager, enormous fun, now she's old enough to really get to know. It was a lovely time and we all then took the train back again, together.

On the subway going home

Tired out

Love this picture of Joanna (taken by Anne)

 Me at same age...

I then met my JASNA-New York friends at Lincoln Center (had to pass through a horrendous crowd as the New York Marathon had just finished up right there), and we went out to an excellent Indian restaurant and had some delightful Janeite talk that got me even more excited about the upcoming Brooklyn JASNA-AGM a year from now. I was pretty tired after a day of such intense socializing (more than I get in several months in Los Angeles) but joined Paul at the Y, and waited till he finished his work. Then we packed up all the remaining bags and took them by taxi to the Larchmont. We walked from the Larchmont to Veselka's where he had a late dinner (stuffed cabbage and pierogies).

End of the Marathon

Susan's divine chocolate shortbread cake

Monday. Awfully nice day today, perfect weather. Dropped in to see the in-laws briefly in the morning. From there, took the Lexington Ave. subway up to see my Jane Austen friend Gene, who lives near my home building on East 86th St. Lovely time, she took me to the most exquisite Italian restaurant, Centolire, on Madison and 86th, for a taste of first class New York food. I had little grilled wild mushrooms in polenta cream, delicate and divine, then marvelous grilled sardines on risotto cream, and gelato and cappuccino. Ah, New York Italian! I also stopped by my old building and talked to a kind, chatty doorman, Angelo, who told me that if I wrote in advance, the woman who lives in our old apartment, Mrs. Furman, is very nice and would probably let me see the place! Ah, next trip. He also said that the mother of two of my playmates died only a couple of years ago in her 90s and her apartment was unchanged in all that time - wish I'd known, I could have visited her. Then I met Paul on Broadway and 114th, at Book Culture, a favorite bookstore, and we visited a retired librarian friend and Charlotte Yonge devotee whom I always see when in New York, in her beautiful, book-filled Riverside Drive apartment. Another librarian friend was visiting her, lovely lady, and Paul told them horror stories of modern library work situations and made their hair stand up on end!  Then we went to the charming Jay and Susan's, and they made us the most delicious dinner - can't believe it was still the same day as the fabulous Italian lunch - the tenderest roast pork with endive, and a stupendous molten chocolate cake, the best ever. Paul and I staggered back to our respective hotels and I'm at the Larchmont now. On the way I found that Lafayette Pastry, a favorite bakery in the Village that I'd loved since I was a Music and Art student at 14, but thought was closed, is still in existence; they'd just moved. Though decidedly they've become a little strange. The elderly proprietor is dead, and his son, who does the baking with his elderly mother, has a few screws loose and got into awful public trouble, as well he might, for his Drunken Negro Cookies. There's been a campaign to stamp him out (he's had death and bomb threats), and the online restaurant review sites tear him apart. His mind may be scrambled but oddly there is still absolutely nothing wrong with his pastry; the Greek Cookies are still sublime. Perhaps it's his mother's hand there; how deeply miserable that poor old woman did look, I felt sorry for her.

Lafayette Pastry, what happened?

Tuesday. How pleasant the Larchmont is. Quiet and peaceful, and when I went downstairs with my three heavy bags, everybody simply leaped to help me. I checked out, left the bags, and walked over to 7th Ave. to take the subway uptown. Warm sunny day, must have been 70 degrees. Went to my childhood best friend Mark's psychologist office in my aunt's old building on West End Avenue at 10:30 but he wasn't there; clearly missed my message. He called as I was walking away and said he was a block away, so we met up! Just for 5 minutes but much better than nothing. I then went to Murray's Sturgeon Shop to buy my nova and bialies to take home, and took the crosstown bus intending to have a peek into the Met...but the crowds were vast and the day beautiful, so instead I went for a lovely wander in sunny Central Park, past Cleopatra's Needle where Mark and I played as kids half a century ago, and to Turtle Pond where we floated boats (it's all fenced in now, alas). So many self-conscious prosperous New Yorkers attitudinizing; it used to be just a park where kids played, I swear.

Me and Mark at 10...and when we met again, in our 40s

Me in a quieter Central Park, 1950s

Central Park on an unseasonably warm day in November

Cleopatra's Needle, where Mark and I used to play
Then I took the Fifth Avenue bus down to the building on 29th Street where my cousin Anne had an art exhibit - her meticulous architectural paintings were well placed in an executive office setting. 

It was literally around the corner from "The Little Church around the Corner," where many theatrical people and journalists were married - including my grandparents, Onoto Watanna (the first Asian American novelist) and alcoholic reporter Bertrand Babcock.  Then I took a cab to meet Paul at the Coffee Roast cafe across the street from the Larchmont, where he had a Croque Monsieur and we saw Austin Scarlett of Project Runway sauntering by, a doubly delicious New York moment. Then to the Larchmont to collect bags and take a cab to the airport...and home to Peter and the cats...

"The Little Church around the Corner" where my grandparents married in 1901

One of Anne's "High Line" paintings


latebloomingmom said...

Your NY trip posts always make me homesick for NYC -- upper west side, village, the park, and all that great ethnic food.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Wow, Diana, you really know how to write a memoirish travel piece! ;)

Cool stuff, sounds like Hunter was a lot like Fieldston, where I went, I have really enjoyed reuning with my classmates the past decade.

Thanks for the enjoyable tour of your trip!


Barbara said...

Great combination of family and friends and criss-crossing across New York, Diana. You fit so much into your relatively short visits and what with the rough accommodation no wonder it took you a few days to sort your thoughts and pictures. Entry to Hunter sounds and looks rather more like a Miss World contest ;-). Did the other swimsuit picture gain you any extra points?? Food sounds great too! Thanks for the report, Barbara

Debbie Cusick said...

Great report as always! I'm so sorry I'm no longer in the area with a chance to meet you when you come east.

Gaffney said...


Ellen said...

Sometimes the tough moments can make the good ones shine out all the more and even the tough ones have their intense compensations -- as when you visited your mother.

I find with my cousins (re-met on facebook) we all have this vivid memories of when we were adolescents and for the summer would be taken to Wading River where my father had bought my uncle's county house (self-built) and to which he invited the rest of the family.

It's ever rejuvenating to come back to these roots and (for me too) this place, NYC.

A good report. I liked those early photos. I have a few and could start putting them on my website for personal life (Under the Sign of Sylvia).

Ellen aka Miss Sylvia Drake