24 April 2007

Judy No Longer In Disguise

Well, though it has been some days, let me continue my trip to NYC at the end of March. It just so happens that had to be in Chicago las Friday. My focus in this entry is on Judy Chicago.

... Wednesday’s highlight, aside from visiting with my dear friend Charlotte, was visiting the new Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Because it was a fine day and we were not going to meet up until 11 a.m. I took the best route, which is by foot. Rretracing some of stapes from before, I walked downtown and thence onto and across the Great Bridge.

What I could tell you about the bridge! But don’t wait for me. Read David McCullough’s book, The Great Bridge, and take in the adventure and struggle that produced the largest man made construction in North America when it was built. The one great story I love to share is about the Roebling Company that built the bridge. It was in fact a steel wire company. They proposed a suspension bridge so as to make a market for their product. This appealed to Brooklyn especially as Manhattan was bursting at the seams. If there were a bridge, the people and business of Manhattan could flow into Brooklyn and make it not just a bedroom city to New York but a true metropolis.

Ironically, and due to the worm turns of politics, Roebling did not actually get the contract to provide the wire. That, though, is not the great fact. When their wire was ultimately fashioned and it proved strong enough to support the roadway, innovators found another use. It made for excellent elevator cable. Instead of businesses fleeing Manhattan because there was not enough land, they just replaced their buildings with taller ones, made possible by the improvement in steel wire.

Today it is simply a grand walk, one of the great things to do in the big city. The weather was very fine, the foot traffic tolerable, and so the irreplaceable views of the city and the harbor were mine to savor on my way east.

Arriving downtown I realized I did not quite have time enough the walk all the way down Fulton Street mall (named for Robert whose steam boats made reliable ferries possible and this the commute that had joined the cities for half a century already. There is a Fulton Street in Manhattan as well. They both lead down to and away from the ferry docks.) So I detours into the old Brooklyn City Hall Plaza (where we once heard movie makers blow up a truck for “Ahnold’s” movie "Eraser" and saw Gaorge Cloney and Michelle Pfeiffer flirt for "Oe ine Day.") to buy a soft pretzel from the merchant who has been parked on the plaza in the same place since before I lived there. Then I headed underground and to the subway to get me to the Brooklyn Museum.

If the Met were not in Manhattan, this museum would be the biggest art museum in the city. In sheer numbers of pieces, it rivals the Art Institute of Chicago and other major houses. Built in the late Victorian monumental style that is common among museums, it is hard to imagine that this mass of stone is only a third of the original plan.

The façade is complete, but only one of the four inner quadrangles was completed. Remember that it was built before there was reliable electric light, museums then depended on windows, and that meant creating galleries that were corridors. Like the Met, if viewed from above, the museum was intended to be a grid of four quadrangles like a small tic-tac-toe board, so that no matter where the sun was it would enter somewhere. Only one of those quads was completed along with the arm of another that was the façade.

That is not evident from the front, as I said before. The presenting mass, facing Eastern Parkway, has the familiar temple-like portico, replete with columns and pediment. When it was built there was a vast broad marble stair, but somewhere in the early 19th century it was removed and a new entrance created at the ground level. This was, in turn, replaced by a new, “post-modern” sleek metallic and curvaceous entry that deliberately collided with the neo-classic elements. It is striking and clearly says, “we are not fogeys.” Some were horrified, some tickled. It is certainly more inviting than the previous entrance, but sacrifices an open plaza that was a great place to dance.

Inside I wait some time before Charlotte arrives. We are eager to see the signature installation, the now permanent home of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party.”

No one who came of age near 1970 has not heard of this piece, as it was the most memorable piece of statement-art of that time. Judy Chicago, her adopted last name, imagined gathering thirty three of the world’s notable women around a common table, and each would have a placemat and dish that was unique to her and expressed that person. She choose the 33, and fashioned a triangular banquet table, with eleven setting on each side. It takes a large room to hold it all.

Created by many hands, the plates and fabric ‘placemats’ that extend in front and behind the table, it really is a tour de force whose political intentions are never obscure. Such works can fail when their message so dominates that the art is in service to the artist, or the artist’s opinion. Fortunately, it does not. While the intent to valorize women is always there, the quality of the work (craft) and the vision (art) is always there in abundance. Spectacular needle work, of all sorts from bargello to embroidery to cross stitch and more, is as varied as different painters, and painterly in their presentation. The ceramics of each plate is also a fine as any one might see, and as varied. The intent, to raise womanly arts to the level of fine arts, is more than accomplished. Each setting is worth extended viewing, and because they are very close to the viewer (they are within reach) the tactile qualities are evident as well.

Less satisfying is the explanatory display in an adjacent room, which overwhelms the visitor with information that is more about the message than the art. But one can take or leave as much of that as one cares.

There is another gallery with feminist art, which is not synonymous with women’s art. The intent is always evident, to raise issues or consciousness. Some of it is artificial, meaning art at the service of the artist. But some is quite excellent as art as well as message, and can be appreciated on both levels.

I suppose my problem, as you may surmise, is when art is clearly intended to serve something outside itself. Not that it cannot. Art often has. But great art can be appreciated for itself as well as its ostensible purpose. The Guernica, for example, is a harrowing moral comment, but is also something great in itself. The Sistine Ceiling is theology but one need not know it or believe it to love it. The at must always be as great in itself as the message it conveys, or both become trivial.

Ironically, one of the great gifts of the Brooklyn Museum is its collection o Amarna era Egyptian artifacts. Created by the heretic kind, Akhenaton, Amarna artifacts exude the ideology of that court, but as it is now mostly lost to us, most of what people see is the craft at work which is enduringly great. I suppose that would be the measure – could this or that piece of art be valued by those to whom the message is irrelevant or meaningless?

The Dinner Party comes close to greatness. What it lacks is an artistic unity that equals its political unity. Each piece is exquisite, but the design of the whole is merely an armature to bring them together, a concept. And this, which is part and parcel of the message, is therefore weaker than the parts.

That said, it is eminently worth visiting, and provokes much thought. I am designing a trip to Brooklyn or some parishioners next all. This would be a highlight for sure.

Now, I must break off again, as the demands of the day are upon me. My exploits among the aged are still to come, as well as my last evening at the opera. Meanwhile, I am finally enjoying some excellent spring weather. Our daffs are up and hard at it. Te periwinkle is blooming subtly. Our house is now too warm, as it got to nearly 80 on Sunday and I only slowly cooling back into the 60s. But I am too frugal to wind up the AC just for a day or two.

More later!

15 April 2007

In Whino Veritas

Yes! The sun shines again. The last bits of our April snow are vanishing despite the chilly temps because the sun is shining. And to make it all even better, we dodged the weather bullet this time as a storm is to our south and is pounding the east coast while we escape. Meteorological schadenfruede. Not often I can get eleven syllables out of two words, either!

Through the miracle of this electronic age, my tax forms were delivered to me via the internet, all typed and filled out. Until last year I did my own, but now I use an accountant. Worth it? Not cheap, but hey, it’s deductible.

Now, if only I could work up real to get some things actually done. I have a yard that is emerging from the winter and is a blight to the eye. My garage is looking very shabby, a door fell off a few weeks ago I think I told you. A local robin has founded a nest within it, and flies about quite annoyed whenever we enter. My roofer still has not started work, the cable in the bedroom is not quite right.

Then there are the work tasks, ones without deadlines and ones with distant deadlines, that somehow go begging until the last minute. I have resolved, without success, to resume my Hebrew study, review my Greek, finish a volume of William James, and another by Charles Hartshorne. But even the Times, which I love, gets left for days.

A sense of lethargy lingers about my edges. I figured it was the weather, but even now as I come home with the real sense that spring is going to happen, I have the ambition of a slug. On the way home I think of a half dozen things for which I am almost enthusiastic, but by the time I drop my brief, change my clothes and otherwise arrive, it all slips away. Does that happen to you?

I think the difference between success and failure is that Edisonian proportion of inspiration to perspiration. Doing things, sticking with them, is hard. And of course the guilt from not doing things adds to the problem. After nearly 55 years of life, I am seeing a pattern - or it writing on the wall.

What makes it especially is that I have friends and neighbors who keep tidy homes, have clear desks, who make lists and check things off because they get things done. Not only do I envy them, they remind me that there’s no excuse, really, for my indolence. A large L hovers over my forehead sometimes.

And what good is telling you? Just a waste of more time. Unless this whining of mine is of comfort to others who are inherently lazy. Enough….

06 April 2007

My morning with Emma

Before sharing my Wednesday, which had the most picaresque and picturesque parts of my visit to New York, I must detour back into Tuesday.

Because of the very warm weather I needed to wear two shirts in one day. Now, I pack very efficiently. Travel is one place where I am quite organized and thorough. My venerable Land’s End Two soft sided two-suiter can hold a week’s worth of clothing, including a second pair of shoes, toiletries, and the growing thicket of charging cords for the cell phone, the PDA and the tiny TV I carry to find local news and weather.

(Radio now is not reliable for local news and weather. All talk, all music, and often piped in from some place remote.)

When Tuesday proved to be warm, I left my jacket at home but even so found myself well irrigated and so somewhere in my wanderings, I bought a good T-shirt to wear on Wednesday, under my jacket of clourse, so I could save my better shirt for the opera. Thinking ahead and proud of it. But…

My hosts have laundry facilities. Since my Wednesday did not need to start until noon when I was meeting a friend, and I had tramped the corners of Tribeca and Chelsea and downtown for the last two days and my feet were a bit sore, I decided to stay in and do laundry. One of the blessings of travel is that you cannot do all your work. If at home, I would be checking email, reading for work, cleaning house, paying bills. But this morning all I could do was browse the library, a very nice one, or watch TV. Daytime TV was hideous, so I fell upon Harold Bloom’s Best English Poems and sampled from Pope and Dryden and Marvell and other obscure voices from the Augustan age.

I was actually trolling for Emma Lazarus as my morning walk had been down to Battery Park City, a new development built on fill from the original excavation for the now demolished WTC. Echoing the modernism of the 1970s, these buildings (including the World Financial Center with the palm court, whose post modern domes and finials were so much part of the old Letterman opening) run from Chambers down to the foot of Manhattan. The new waterfront is a jagged esplanade that includes marinas, ferry docks, parks and walkways. Lots of people run and walk along, like my hosts. I went this way on my early morning walk.

For those who do not know, as you approach the tip of Manhattan, one of the great sights is the Statue of Liberty. I find this eternally moving, inspiring, in large measure because of the Lazarus poem. Let me see if I can reconstruct it from memory…

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea washed sunset shores shall stand

A mighty woman, with a torch whose flame
Is th’imprisoned lightning. Her mild eyes command

The air bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
'Keep ancient lands your storied pomp,' says she

With silent lips. 'Give me your tired, your poor,'
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the homeless, tempest tos’t to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Yep, I did that from memory. And so I did that morning as I rounded the corner and so, when I got back to Tribeca, I looked for it in Bloom. She and it were not there. Bloom has very high standards indeed. By the way, “twin cities” means that it was written when Brooklyn was its own city, not united into Greater New York until 1898. Many in that other city refer to that act even now as the Great Mistake.

Anyway, I did my laundry, browsed these poems, allowed my feet to air out, and then proceeded on foot back downtown so I can do one of the great things New York offers, and it’s completely free – walk the Brooklyn Bridge. But as I must turn from this to prepare for Good Friday services, this is where I shall end this entry and resume it later if the day permits.

05 April 2007

Groucho, Chico, Gummo, Harpo and Me

The opera! Of all the things I miss the most, being away from NYC, the opera ranks right up there. That may sound odd, as opera is so snooty and all. But actually it isn’t. I have loved the music since my music school days, the theater since high school. It was a short jump from high school musicals to full bore opera. Now I read that opera is a growth art form, attracting larger and younger crowds. That’s only notable here in the USA. When I was in Europe for a while, and attended there, young people were always there. And not just the clean cut types. Goths and freaks and other heavy metal/grunge kids came and really got into it. It was clearly not their first time. They knew their Turandot from Twisted Sister, their Figaro from their Furtado. Can’t say the same thing for our side of the pond.

Enough editorializing. After my long, tiring, satisfying hike through lower Manhattan I got back to Tribeca with time to take off my shoes and air out my dogs for the evening. Since I was dining out, I nibbled just a bit, changed shirts (it was warm enough to perspire earlier in the day) and glimpsed the evening news. In less than an hour I was back out on the street, down into the subway at Franklin Street, and straight uptown on the 1 train to 59th street. My opera buddy of long standing, Charlie, and I are meeting at a restaurant named Josephina, which caters to the music crowd. The menu is fancy, the prices commensurate, and Charlie is late. He calls me on the cell just as I arrive at our appointed hour.

“Fred, I am just getting to the subway,” back in deepest darkest Brooklyn mind you, “so you go ahead and get the table I reserved.

Charlie is often late. He is also as fine a man as I know and this one fault is more than bearable; after all these years it is downright expected. In fact, I know we are still great friends because he does not try to be on time. So I buy a paper, get our table (with a view of a small courtyard garden) and wait. The waiter, New York unctuous with a touch of snide, endures my long cheap glass of iced decaf. Charlie does arrive and we catch up.

We order the prix fixe, at $40 a person. He gets soup, I salad; he the monkfish and I the salmon; he the key lime, I the cheesecake. Very nice all around. Predictably flashy in the scattering of herbs over the broad shallow pasta bowl that serves as our plate, predictably oleaginous in the hovering with water pitchers and bread basket. I have two piece of the foccacio. The wine, in large glasses, is vastly overpriced, but it all looks great and the place is quiet notwithstanding the tile floor.

The floor is remarkable. Not for being fancy but precisely for not; namely, for being an old black and white hexagonal tile surface with lots of patches from what was clearly the previous or even original business that was here. The current décor, with velvet banquettes and lots of velour and linen, is way out of keeping and I wonder how many people even notice the naughty choice to leave the old automat style tile below.

Matrons and their escorts are all around us. I am, at 54, younger than the average patron. Charlie, btw, is in his seventies. Only the staff are pre Medicare.

Our curtain is 8 p.m. The waiter, who worried that my date would make us late, was prepared to hurry our order from the kitchen but we had plenty of time. Crossing the triangular park into Lincoln Center I feel a twinge of homesickness. Over the years I had been here nearly over fifty times. I hope to break 100.

Our production is the rarely produced Die Egyptische Helena, a later Richard Strauss and his last with Hugo von Hoffmansthal. Last time the Met did this was 1928. Why now? The other soprano (meaning the one that is not Renee Fleming) named Deborah Voight, asked to do it. Strauss is her specialty.

I am a Strauss fan, I used to admit that only with some shame and now I boast. Fell in love with Rosenkavalier at 19 and devoured many recordings. But not until I got to New York did I see any in the flesh. Died and went to heaven when I saw Rosenkavalier in person. Have seen it three times and will see it as many again if I can. But I also have seen Salome, Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos, Intermezzo, Capriccio, Daphne, and Die Frau Ohne Schatten. The ones I have not seen are Elektra, Die Schweigsame Frau, Friedenstag, Die Liebe der Danae and Die Egyptische Helena. These last five (not counting two very early and now ignored works) are only rarely mounted. So I was determined to see Helena, and fortunately a performance was on a day I could work into my calendar.

Charlie and I sit in the balcony, which for those who don’t know is the fourth balcony actually. The Met and many other opera houses are vertical places, with a smaller orchestra level and several rings or balconies. At the Met they are, from bottom to top, parterre, grand tier, dress circle, and balcony. There is a family circle above that, but it is a continuation of the balcony, the way most balconies are set behind mezzanines or loges.

Our seats are in the fifth row, so as high as we are, we are close to the edge and closer to the center than those who have boxes which line the sides. The boxes look good but have limited sight lines. My first performance here, my only Pavarotti performance, another friend and I had balcony boxes, right by the stage. Our chairs we behind the others, so we could only see about half of the stage, and not much of the copious tenor.

For those who have seen Moonstruck, you know that the performance begins after the modernist chandeliers are literally lifted by their cords up to the ceiling. The lights dim as this goes on, so that all is dim when the conductor comes in. It is the privilege of the high seats like ours to see the orchestra rather clearly and thus to notice when he enters the pit. Applause always ensues. It is not Levine but Fabio Luisi. But he is well regarded.

The production is arch in that astringent European style that minimizes sets and introduces additional elements to serve as editorial comment. I see a heavily raked floor, with two enormous stylized doors at a precipitous angle, suggesting a single room but on an Alice in Wonderland Scale. The colors are stark – from the white of the walls and floor to the blue of the sorceress Aithra and the black of the “Omniscient Mussel,” the teal of Helena and the purple of Menalas. Scene changes change come with dramatic shifts of lights, turning white to black and vice versa, and the opening and closing of the enormous doors to reveal other shapes and backgrounds.

The story is mythic, stolen from Greek lore, a variant in which Helen is actually spirited off to an island near Egypt by the sorceress Aithra and a phantom Helen goes to troy with Paris. Strauss and Hoffmansthal create a domestic opera from the two couples thrown together by this story: Helen and Menalaus, and Aithra and Poseidon. They both have trust issues, as we would say, the resolution of which is the subject of the libretto.

It gets pretty complicated with potions and spells and promises made and broken. Elements are tender, others are prickly, and I cannot tell if this is a morality tale, a tragedy or a comedy. It turns out this was not just the cheesecake working its somnolent magic. One reason this opera is rarely mounted is that it is hard to follow and figure out.

Add to that a very short night’s sleep (four and half hours) and lovely meal with said cheesecake to top it off, and I found myself nodding of regularly. Of course, Strauss’s music, lush and curvaceous also lulled me wonderfully. So sadly, I have only spotty memory of the plot because of its complexity and my sleepiness. The set did nothing for me, and its visual puns and asides I found self important and confusing. It did nothing to improve or clarify and often distracted me by making me think there was some meaning when there wasn’t.

The singing, on the other hand, such as I heard, was exquisite. Voight can out run an entire orchestra, gastric bypass notwithstanding. Her opening aria of the second act was beautifully rendered, an ‘afterglow’ from a night of marital bliss. No one can express sex in music as well as Strauss. And Voight used her remaining voluptuousness to good effect, swelling her bosom and tossing her hair and turning her hourglass figure to good effect. Rapture was the intent, and rapture is what she gave us.

And every note right where it belonged. Mind you, the director, Mr. Gelb came out and told us before it started that Ms Voight was slightly under the weather, so we did not get the ‘light sabre’ high c’s are described by the NYTimes critic at the premiere. Even so, she was very fine.

The lovely surprise, was Diana Damrau, a very young and lighter soprano (lighter in every aspect) who as Aithra really threw energy into her role both with a nimble and accurate voice and an agile and energetic body that moved easily about the stage. At the end of act 1, as a potion has taken effect, she falls asleep on the floor and remains there, in front of the curtain for a minute before rolling upstage to amused applause.

Overall, there is reason it is rarely mounted. Little action, lots of dialogue, confusing situations when characters shift emotional gears, make this a hard story to be swept up in. Its uncertain genre (tragedy, comedy, irony, morality) and its preachy tone mean you have to invest yourself to get its full impact. In this respect, it is like “The Mother of Us All,” a slightly later opera by Samuel Barber that mythologizes Susan B. Anthony. But that night years ago I could stay awake and so found it quite wonderful. Maybe I shall Helen again and find it more compelling. Even so, the sheer luxury of the sound, opulence even, was worth the effort. And I got to write this story about it.

02 April 2007

Downtown, Where All the Lights are Bright

Now, where was I? Counting the ways I spent my days away last week. as someone wrote me to say how much fun it was to walk along with me I shall continue. Telling is even more fun than reading…

3. My other walk through Manhattan was downtown. You should know where I was staying is in the heart of Tribeca. My friends have lived there since before it was cool. In fact, as we were chatting late one evening, he said it was annoying how much more crowded noisy and more dangerous it had gotten with all the development. Back when it was just abandoned lofts, it was apparently safer. Who knew?

Anyway, they live on the fifth floor with magnificent enormous half moon windows to the south. The original 24 inch beams are still there, and the floor is way out of plumb but the ambience is bright and fresh and large which is why people took up residence in the first place. Remember, these were the cheap seats back then. Of course, I shall never live like this, mostly because you had to buy here in 1980s to be able to afford it on less than a seven figure income (as my friends did) and obviously I did not. But it is so much fun to visit for a while and taste this ultimate in New York style (not counting the upper east side with its old money and silken refinement).

I take the elevator down and leave through the very consciously kept rusted old door onto the equally important loading dock. From here I wander west to Greenwich Street, just a block, turning south to visit the odd block of vestigial federal style row houses on Harrison which is just a block south itself. In various corners of lower Manhattan these three story brick houses with their Georgian decorative elements were as common as their cousins still are in Philadelphia and Boston and Baltimore. Today they are quite desirable for the rarity and chaste forms, and this cost vast amounts of money. I cannot imagine what any of these half dozen would fetch on the open market. Those who watch law and Order occasionally see them as they are used from time to time. In reality, they are the last unbroken block of federal style houses left in the city. On all sides they are surrounded and enshadowed by an immense apartment block and the community college and more. Their uniqueness is thus underscored by their situation, as cliff dwellings or tree houses are by theirs.

From here I cut zig zags over to the north end of Ground Zero. I have been here many times over the years, the first time less than a week after the catastrophe. It was all grim and hard then, the looks of disbelief still etched on our lives. Now, it is a giant construction project and people pass alongside the tall fences without looking. I am on my way over to the World Financial Center because it was here, ten years ago or so, that I spent a memorable Saturday morning in the palm court.

That time, I was waiting while my older son took an entrance exam at a nearby school. I nursed boutique coffee and finished a book I had started long before – a short but very densely argued treatise written by a philosopher friend whom I cherished in my Austin church. I came to its climax and found myself awed and touched, though all around me the crisply dressed workers in high finances clicked and swished past me – threading around the geometrically planted palms underneath the segmented glass of the galleria. When the WTC fell the collapse sent debris down through the glass windows like hail destroying a hot house. But in this case along with the shards came the fine cloud of dust made of exploded concrete and asbestos and drywall and human bodies. It fell like ashen snow on the palms. A picture on TV and in the Times showed me the awful sight, something you can now ironically imagine as very like parts of Baghdad.

For weeks it remained there, untouched as the fire fighters slowly cleared the ruins nearby. But in time it as restored, and on this day I cannot see how it is different than before. Maybe a shop or two has shifted location, but not that I can recall. And the people have come back, with their swishes and clicks and the precise echo of a room that sounds busy but not harried. On a wire bench facing the river I sit a long time and drink a cup of boutique coffee and eat a biscotto, trying hard to remember all three moments as clearly as possible.

From here I travel south to Vesey Street or something nearby. Crossing into the caverns of Manhattan, the narrow sidewalks are hard to negotiate with the passage of workers and executives. Following memory and good instinct I make my way to Rector Street and climb up behind Trinity Church, the oldest Episcopal church in town, I believe, a deep brown neo gothic pile that stands at the west end of Wall Street to frame photographs and challenge the identity of the Vatican city of mammon. That most members of this church are priests in pay of lucre is another irony. Alexander Hamilton, the true father of today’s New York City, lies in the boneyard of the church, his squat cenotaph easily seen and read as I walk up the hill.

I could speak at some length about Trinity Church, about its ownership of a major skyscraper or two and the revenues therefrom, about its summer chapel which is barely 200 yards north on Broadway which became the resting place for rescue workers in 2001 and whose fence was almost covered in spontaneous tributes, about its glossy monthly magazine and exquisitely formed choir. I could, but some other time.

Down Wall Street, literally down as it slopes downhill to the east, Broadway riding a spine that runs up Manhattan all the way to the Bronx. It is officially Route 9, and starts at the foot of Manhattan, at Bowling Green which is a park created by the Dutch. This is the southernmost point in NY. OK, Staten Island is further south, but it’s really New Jersey in all but name. Route 9 continues north from there all the way to Canada, Rouse’s Point to be exact, a place I have been many times on my way to family in Vermont. Can see the border as I turn onto the bridghe and into Vermont. I have driven most of the distance between them too. I should walk it.

At Wall and Broadway (an intersection now secured from traffic by giant steel bollards and other pillars) stands the old Bank of New York building, a gem of an Art Deco structure, worthy of being in Oz with its sleek lines and faintly rounded finials. You would recognize the shape as it is among the taller structures downtown. Its lobby, now off limits for predictable reasons, has the most splendid Art Deco tiling you could ever imagine. Before the Troubles, one could go in, and standing there you are surrounded by a stylized fire of red and yellow and gold tiles, covering the walls and the ceiling, which themselves look like Rockwell Kent flames. It is dazzling and dark and utterly unique. I peered as much as I can through the glass doors from my distance out in the street where barriers kept be at a safe distance.

Past 14 Wall where I was supposed to have breakfast that fateful morning but cancelled the day before. Then down Broad Street, which really is, and fronts the NYSE, all the way to that aforementioned Fraunces Tavern where the waitress is British and dowdy instead of raucous and sexy, to have a lunch in a place I used to visit monthly for years to have breakfast meetings with members of my previous church. No wine, but a very nice salad with spicy crab cakes and decent bread.

Fraunces Tavern is famous because it intends to be. The building is an enlarged but genuine colonial structure in which Washington bade farewell to his officer corps. It was a highly emotional occasion, scrupulously revered by the owner of the tavern who knew it would be his chief draw, I suspect. Washington, it should be noted, actually left his troops earlier. And he handed in his resignation as general later, down in Annapolis. Both were more momentous in their actions, but the officers who received him were so devoted that they created their own alumni organization, the Society of Cincinnatus, named for the Roman general who refused to take power from those in the Senate and retired to his villa and farm. We forget that Washington could very well have seized the government and made himself king or lord protector. He did not, and that act as much as anything else, set us on the path away from coups and military governments.

Leaving the Tavern I walked the little remaining streets that are the same as old Manhattan, very like the block near the Union Oyster House in Boston – narrow, bent, and low. Today they are mostly bars for the exhausted laborers of Goldman Sachs and the like. But in the city where a square foot is valued in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, to see this hunk of 18th century New York survive is inspiring.

Around the corner is Delmonico’s, the famous restaurant for whom the steak is named. The place actually moved around the city a lot, following the trade, as it were. In the late 19th century a predecessor of mine in Brooklyn took a woman to lunch, not his wife, and when the wife happened to pass by and see them in the window she returned home to Brooklyn, collected the children, went to the train station and returned to her parents in Boston. The scandal drove him from the pulpit. Hard to imagine today.

Back up Broad, which turns to Nassau at Wall. The corner is held by Federal Hall, a Greek Revival temple that is a replacement for the federal style structure that stood here in 1789 when GW took the first oath of presidential office. He stands in bronze splendor on the steps, reminding us of the event. A plaque on the corner of the steps recalls the passage of the northwest ordinance, an act of the government under the Articles of Confederation and grandfathered by the new government under the Constitution. It set the pattern for western settlement, with its townships and counties laid out on paper in good straight lines before any european faces arrived to live there. Much of the midwest owes its shape to this act.

North along Nassau and past the Federal Reserve bank, a fortress like structure beneath of which resides the gold bullion of the world. Yes, far more than Fort Knox lies below, in cages designated for each country than chooses to store it here. When international transactions require it, workers roll a few bars from one cage to another and the books are balanced. How cool is that?

Just north, passing Maiden Lane, which is a wonderfully London sounding street, Nassau becomes mercantile with small shops for tourists and back office workers. Up here is old Newspaper Row, with large imposing Queen Ann protuberances for the papers that once worked here, to be close to City Hall which is just a block or two away.

I go into the triangular park that is next to City Hall, underneath of which is the original subway station. It has not been used for years, but sometimes when the work on the lines late at night, trains detour through it. I had that happen on the way home from Gotterdammerung or some other yawner at the Met. It was after midnight and we lurched along. I saw new shadows out the windows and realized were diverting through the old station. Its great mosaic arches were hidden from view. Only the shadows of the train light gave them away at all. It was almost worth it to be up so late.

Back to the afternoon, I circle City Hall, including the statue of Nathan Hale set up where he was hanged for espionage, not fifty yards from City Hall but out on the country back in 1776. On the west side, where one can take in the glory of the Great Bridge, a small but substantial Calder stands, new since I lived here. In the familiar reddish orange he liked, it frames the great bridge wonderfully and symbolically links my old home with my new home. I enjoy the view for a moment, search about to see the Stalinesque Wedding cake of the Municipal Building, the hypertophic Belle Epoch Immigrant Savings Bank, then as I start to walk home, note with pleasure the renovated Tweed Building and the old Sun Building.

The former was a massive boondoggle in which Boss Tweed, Democratic party head and thus in charge of contracts, doled out a “Producer’s” style project that eventually cost 100 times the original estimate, lining his pockets with kickbacks. He was also involved in the Brooklyn Bridge, which fortunately had more oversight and thus still stands today. It is now the Board of Education and other offices. Its interior is lavishly restored to recreate the real splendor of the original, but again I cannot see it because, well, you know..,

The Sun was a major paper. It is again, or wants to be, with a new location and editor owner. He is a friend, which is good because we have vastly different politics. Still, he is someone I respect and even admire. Virtue and decency are no province of ideology. The old building, though, is a Londonesque terrace of classic revival limestone. It covers half a block, but because of its proportions and lines looks less massive than it actually is. on the corner is an old clock, the kind that hangs out over the street like a lantern. On the top is says “The Sun,” but I wonder if anyone sees.

Well, this is even longer than the last walk. I should end now, and as my next step was to go home and get ready to go out to eat and see the opera, it makes sense. Maybe the next entry won’t be as prolix. But it was fun to tell. Allowed me to remember in detail. Thanks!

01 April 2007

Home and Back

Sorry to be away. But I really was. Spent three days with friends in NYC, and two days at work in Boston. And since my idea of recreation is to do things, I arrived home happy but spent. I need a vacation to recover from my vacation.

This is Holy (shit) Week of course. The other peak period in the clergy calendar. We may not be official Christians here, but the habits of Christmas and Easter are durable, so we observe them even still. With them, thus, come the extra services and emphases and the work they entail. Wily fellow that I am, I arranged for a theater troupe to perform this morning. They did a morality play version of Job not able for its costuming and makeup that give the appearance of mosaics. As my building here is built in the neo-romanesque style, and has lots of mosaics, it was a match made in heaven, aesthetically. The morning we a big success and the troupe was roundly applauded. Besides, the themes of Job are very much germane for the season.

Looking back over my week away, it was very rich in the things I like best. I saw many fine friends, enjoyed two fine operatic performances, was hosted by two of the best friends I ever had, and enjoyed such good weather than I spent hours simply walking the endlessly varied streets of NYC. Let me count the ways

1. In a world of new Irish themed bars, including one very decent one I know here in GR, the Old Town Bar on E 18th is the real thing. Thanks to a cousin who works nearby who introduced it to me before I left, I now hold court there when I come to town. Downstairs is a true bar, with well worn wooden booths and lots of years evident everywhere. The menu is small, stable, and the company more young than old but with a fair number of regulars who keep it from becoming hip or chic.

Upstairs are more booths, tables lined up to hold two to ten, benches, the same menu and less noise. Young families bring their kids to eat and have a drink. It is as near to a public house as I have found here. We go upstairs, and ten of us did, quickly falling into several conversations. What a pleasure to hear about my former church and its future, and their lives in its midst.

2. Each morning I took a walk. This was my planned exercise, having quit running years ago when my ankles started to complain. I tried again recently and the ankles were not too bad but my lower back sent bad signals.

Monday morning I walked the west side highway route from N Moore where I was staying to 23rd St, and then returned along 23rd to 10th, down 10th to 14th, over to Hudson and down Hudson to N Moore. The first part had its share of sights – some leftover pre 1850 workhouses wedged between newer buildings, a wild baroque dutch revival place that drips old money, a Frank Gehry knock off standing preposterously amid warehouses at 18th Street. It made me remember what I love about this place – anything can be found here. The sheer breadth of buildings, like the variety of people and the profligacy of restaurants, lets you know this is a place of utmost human fecundity. Like a southern garden where weeds are as abundant as flowers, just seeing so much happening at once is exciting.

3. My walk down Hudson to my host’s home was so interesting that when I was dressed later and went out I replicated this walk, pausing at places that caught my eye earlier. My goal was the intersection of 14th, 9th Ave and Hudson, part of the meat packing district that has lately become the night scene for 20 somethings with too much time and money on their hands. By daylight, though, the outlines of Old New York are still very easy to see, with angular streets, triangular buildings, cobbled intersections wet with morning washing, old pock marked bricks and sturdy mid 19th century design with its simple lines and careful windows. It is a piece of what Scorcese reconstructed for “The Gangs of New York” only real and still at work.

In the light of spring morning the place looks oddly fresh and new, dressed up by the chic boits and clubs that hang their very self consciously stylish signs in supposedly unobtrusive places that nevertheless succeed at being quite visible. Not just the buildings work at being calculatingly nonchalant. On the opposite corner of the intersection a young woman is wearing knee high leather boots with four inch heels on a day that is already nearing seventy. Remember the streets are cobbled. It’s a statement.

New York is a city of 8 million statements. More than anyplace else I know - Rome, Paris and probably Buenos Aires excepted – New York is where being exceptional is the rule. People, businesses, everything wants to be unique, distinct, and above all stylish. The preening is so universal and so automatic that it ceases to be annoying. Everyone does it, from grand dames in mink coats carrying their Shih-Tsu droppings, to workers with their hard hats on backwards and cashiers with lip piercings. To blend in is the sin. To stand out is the commandment.

Along my walk I passed through a very Parisian looking square: pocket park at the angle, outdoor café with bright simple paint, a grocery with a long bank of fresh flowers. Barely out of sight of that is the White Horse café where Dylan Thomas consumed himself to death so long ago and even at 11 a.m. the leather faced regulars are drinking coffee way too slowly.

Into the Village now, Greenwich Village, and down Bleecker Street, which cuts diagonally across the neighborhood and then doglegs east. Along the way I find a place to eat that reminds me again of Paris, down to the smell of the oven and the food they serve. Nothing elaborate, and not very expensive. I have a tarte flambé that is a sweeter version of the provencal style pisaladiere I so enjoy at another favorite place on the upper west side.

Now my walk follows Bleecker until it turns east and I see Washington Square to the north. I head up there to gape at the crowds that are always there, but especially on a warm day. The arch marks the beginning of 5th avenue, where I will head up later to meet those friends I mentioned before. For now, I relish the young people from near by NYU who make it possible for there to be literally scores of restaurants in this compact place.

Standing in the park I remember a time almost ten years ago when on a similarly warm day I dragged the family over here to see the arch and all. We came by train, and as we mounted the steps up we emerged and saw, amid the thronging and indifferent hordes and six foot five black man in a bright yellow tutu dancing down the sidewalk, skipping even. No one seemed to care. Stephen looked up at me as if to ask how to respond. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Welcome to New York.

By three o clock I was back in my Tribeca neighborhood, and now I did stop for an aperitif. I decided on dessert now, as the bar would be a poor place for sweets. At Walkers I ordered pecan pie and a glass of champagne (beer and wine seemed not to go with pecan pie after all).

And in that wonderful intimacy that this city has along with its enormity, I saw a waitress I thought I recognized.

“Did you used to work at Fraunces Tavern?” I ask.

“For seventeen years she says,” in that full throated voice I recognized from lots of cigarettes.

“I used to have breakfast there once a month, with friends.”

“You’re the preacher, right?”

Small world, even here. Yeah, it is. Welcome to New York.