Monday, July 31, 2017

NY, NY, It’s a Wonderful Town

The Bronx may be up and the Battery down, but for us our week in New York City, other than theater (see previous entry) was about seeing family, friends, and a nostalgic stroll (walk /Uber / cab / subway) down memory lane.  I was born in NYC (actually Queens which any true New Yorker would dismiss as Manhattan to them is THE City).  I lived in Richmond Hill until my teenage years, although began working in Manhattan as a 14 year old for my father’s photography business during the summers, and continued to work there through high school and early college years.  Married in my senior year in college, I became a Brooklynite, living first in downtown Brooklyn and then Park Slope.  I wrote about my nostalgic return to Brooklyn last year.

After my divorce in the late 60s, I moved to West 85th Street, my first official residence in Manhattan (although when separated from my first wife, I lived with a friend in his East Village apartment).  After Ann and I were married, I moved into her one bedroom apartment on West 63rd Street.

Since I started with geography, I’m taking our trip out of order, continuing the geographic tour.  The last day before we left (Friday) it was forecast to be another 95 degree day – think it was the fourth in a row over 90.  Ann said she’d rather stay and rest that day and get started on the preliminary packing for our return flight the next morning, so I had a sudden urge to make the most of that morning, before the temperature soared, by walking our old West side neighborhoods.  After all, as an ex-New Yorker I had confidence that I could recapture that pace – the one that perfectly syncs with the changing traffic lights as one walks north or south (doesn’t work for cross town), so at about 10 AM I set off from 54th and 7th Avenue to my ultimate destination:  my old West side apartment, a third floor walk up at 66 West 85th Street. 

My improvised plan was to first go up Central Park West to the apartment which Ann moved into in the early 60’s, the one I moved into when we got married in 1970.  And so I set off.

I crossed Columbus Circle and went up Central Park West and made a left on 63rd and there behind a lot of scaffolding was our first apartment at 33 West 63rd St.  Then I went over to Columbus and then began another 20 plus walk up to 85th Street.  The change in nearly 50 years was remarkable, so gentrified, with boutique shops, markets, restaurants.  I went into a Duane Reade to buy a bottle of water and to use their restroom.  But I forgot: NYC is not hospitable to providing restrooms so I walked further to a local boutique coffee shop and bought a bottle of Perrier and there was a restroom.  Tragedy averted. 

Decided to take a brief rest there and watch the world go by.  Outside I saw a young woman handing out leaflets, talking to people, trying to get them to sign an electronic petition, so after having my drink, I emerged and talked to her.  She was urging people to sign onto an effort to curb an environmental issue in the neighborhood.  I explained that I was from Florida and the last time I lived here, only a block away now, was nearly a half a century ago.  I might as well have been from Mars, but she still urged me to sign as there was also a national dimension.  So I did, and we briefly chatted about the now beautiful west side and the long term threats to the environment given Washington’s current leadership.

So, I walked on, saw the entrance to my old apartment on West 85th St. and looked down the street towards Central Park West, so inviting now.  Sigh, if we could only live in this area again.

But I was only half way through my journey as I wanted to walk down Amsterdam now which had also changed dramatically.   At 79th and I turned east as I wanted to see another apartment Ann lived in before moving to 63rd Street.  She shared an apartment with another woman at 172 West 79th.  It is still there, a stately prewar building.  And actually, when Ann first moved to the city in 1959, her first apartment was a furnished room in a beautifully restored old brownstone at 39 West 69th (which I did not visit), but she has fond memories of living there and watching some scenes from the movie The Apartment being filmed on the street at the time.

I turned south back onto Columbus.  Opposite Lincoln Center (Ann watched it being built just across the street from where she lived) is a restaurant, P.J. Clarke's, to which we used to go almost a half century ago when it was called “O’Neill’s Balloon”.  Strange name for a restaurant, yes?  Well, it was originally “O’Neill’s Saloon” and the story goes that NYC at the time prohibited using “Saloon” so they just changed the “S” to a “B” and squeezed in an additional “l”.  A NYC expedient solution, indeed.

Also, 63rd Street at Lincoln Center has a secondary name, “George Balanchine Way” and there is a back story concerning this.  Most of our Connecticut years were on Ridge Road in Weston.  It was there that the great ballerina, Tanaquil Le Clercq lived, the ex wife of Balanchine. He built a wheelchair ramp for her at that home as she was tragically stricken with polio in 1956.  He finally left her for his last wife but she was always considered his muse.  We never saw her while living there.  Most homes were much hidden from the road.

Ann and I took another nostalgic walking tour earlier in the week.  We wanted to see the old building where we both worked and where we first met at 111 5th Avenue.  I have even deeper roots in that general lower Fifth avenue area, so I’ll describe our visit in the order of our trip that day.   

First stop was 100 5th Avenue.  My father’s photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, occupied the very top floor of the building for about 60 years (my grandfather before him) and from about 1936 to 1980 he commuted there from Richmond Hill, Queens, with his brother, my Uncle Phil, (except for the War years).  From about 1956, when I was only 14, to when I was 20, I worked there each summer, riding to work in the back of their small van, sitting among the props, from our home, to Woodhaven Blvd., to the Long Island Expressway and then through the Queens Midtown tunnel, down Park Avenue, to 100 5th Avenue. 

My first job was as a delivery boy, delivering proofs to customers all over New York, usually by subway, so I got to know the city fairly well, almost as if I lived in Manhattan rather than Queens.  That entire lower 5th Avenue has a special place in my reflective psyche.

So there it was, the same entrance I had gone in and out of a thousand times, the building looking the same, but, as everything else in the area, gentrified, boutique shops replacing the old coffee shops and industrial equipment stores.  From there we walked down to 14th Street toward Union Square.  When I was first married we (ex-wife) lived in Brooklyn and the subway stop left me off at Union Square.  It was there that I was the only New Yorker who has ever received a J-walking ticket.  I was crossing with a mob of people but the cop signaled me over.  I remember writing a letter to the Mayor at the time, John Lindsey, as it was the principle of the matter, not the violation.  I’m still patiently waiting for a reply.:-)

In any case, Union Square is now a lush park, and I wanted to find a Union Square diner which I clearly remember going to on several occasions in the mid 1960’s.  It was the go-to place if a large group of us were going out from the office.  I usually had a very inexpensive hero sandwich with Jim Mafchir who was a close friend and colleague.  He actually showed me the ropes of publishing production work and when I first separated from my wife, lived with him briefly in his East Village apartment.  About ten years ago we reconnected with him in Sante Fe, NM.

One of those luncheons at the coffee shop included a gal I didn’t know well, Ann, who would become my wife years later.  So, for the purposes of this visit, I wanted to see what boutique shop might have replaced it.  To our shock, the old Chase Coffee shop on Union Square is still there.  Changed ownership 28 years ago, and the layout is different, but it is still a traditional NYC coffee shop so naturally, that is where we had to have lunch and retread footsteps from another lifetime, when we hardly knew one another.  In this selfie, you can see “Coffee Shop” over my left shoulder.

From there we forged on to 111 5th Avenue where I worked from 1964 to 1969 and Ann worked from 1965 to 1971.  Funny how we went in and out of those elevators so many times, and never fully appreciated the fine workmanship of them and the lobby.  We finally did on this, our final visit.

Then, we went north on 5th Avenue and we looked for a restaurant we used to go to after work on the west side of the street.  Gone.  Up to 23rd Street.  Jim and I used to go to some of the bars on that street and have an Irish lunch.  They’re pretty much gone.  The Flatiron building of course still stands majestically at the intersection of 5th and Broadway.

Another building I had to see was the Met Life in front of Madison Square Park as I had two connections with that building.  My grandfather (on my mother’s side) worked there and later in my publishing career, we rented space there for Praeger Publishers which we had bought from CBS, so I used to visit regularly.  Every time I entered the building I had to sign in and get a pass which I used to just sometimes stick on the inside of my brief case.  Even though that was more than 20 years ago, I not only still use that briefcase, but the passes still remain.  Why I haven’t removed them, I have no idea. Maybe it was for this moment.

Finally, one more destination in this area, and that was 28 West 23rd Street, a building I used to regularly visit to attend board meetings of our then parent company, Williamhouse Regency from 1970 to 1976.  Therefore, you might say, much of my working career is tethered to that area.

 From there, we had intended to Uber up 6th Avenue to our hotel but as all of lower to even upper Manhattan, traffic was at a standstill and it was beastly hot by then too, we took the easy way, the 6th Avenue Subway, and thus back in a flash.  “The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it's a wonderful town!”

Earlier in the week we had a date to lunch with Ann’s niece Regina and her two children, nearly adults, Forrest, and Serena.  We had agreed to meet at the Grill in the Standard Hotel right near the southern entrance to the High Line and there we had lunch, their menu very creative, the waiter fun, and the ambiance, trendy, reflective of its roots in the meatpacking district.

After catching up with the activities of the now grownup “kids” and a relaxing lunch, we all walked the entire length of the High Line from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street. The High Line was built on an elevated freight line that was supposed to be demolished.  Instead, it has become an example of how such industrial space can become an integral part of a beautiful city, affording views, cultural art, and community spirit.  It brings back a little of old New York, combining it with the sensibilities of modern times, with its street art and architecture of new buildings.

Although some very good and old favorite NYC restaurants were another go to feature of our trip, I’ll only mention one, and that is the legendary Le Bernardin.  We’ve been there before, not often of course, but we made it a point to go to this very exceptional restaurant and there we celebrated being together with Jonathan and Tracie.

Speaking of whom, we also spent the day with them, the Sunday after we arrived, we taking the New Haven railroad to South Norwalk where they picked us up and we went immediately to our boat where they had a lunch waiting for us.  It seemed odd to be there as a one-day visitor, but we’ll be back later in the summer to stay there. 

Naturally, while there we had to get out on the water, that day perhaps being the best day of the week, taking our little runabout to visit friends on their boats.  Finally back to our ‘Swept Away’ to read the New York Times and then Jonathan and Tracy prepared a feast for dinner, king crab legs and sous vide T-bone steak and, unexpectedly, a neighboring boat had just returned from a fishing tournament so there was fresh mahi mahi to grill as well.  That night they returned us to NYC as they both had to drive back for work.

We were going to go to the lower east side on Thursday but it was supposed to be in the mid 90s with high humidity and being outside would probably kill us so we "settled" for a day at MOMA before the theatre that night.

I ended up taking about 100 photographs and I managed to cover all five floors and we had a lovely lunch in their restaurant.

Instead of posting everything, I’m including a few that felt very personal to me, especially in this chaotic political era.  So many of the MOMA’s collection presents other similar times, ones that we’ve lived through, such as in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents, one can appreciate the following:

Simon Denny’s “Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of David Darchicourt Designs for NSA Defense Intelligence.”

 Or Kara Walker’s “40 Acres of Mules” where  “characters play out repulsive dramas of racial and gender bigotry

There was an entire exhibit “Why Pictures Now” devoted to the iconoclastic Louise Lawler.  When asked to submit a picture of herself for a 1990 issue of Artscribe magazine, she submitted one of Meryl Streep, “acknowledging MOMA’s role in presenting artists as celebrities.”

Robert Rauschenberg’s work really captures the zeitgeist of not only the turbulent 60s, but also anticipates the unrest of today.  

 His “Signs” (1970) warns about the “Danger lies in forgetting."  Indeed, 1960's political foment reminds one of today's world.  

His “Stop Side Early Winter Glut” (1987) is an environmental warning and a warning of spiritual ruination.  “It’s a time of glut.  Green is rampant…I simply want to present people with their ruins.”

As an ex New Yorker I viscerally responded to his “Estate” (1963)

Mobs of people were photographing Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) which haunts.

Personally, I’d like to have this one hanging over my piano (in addition to “Rebecca” which presently hangs there):  Picasso “Three Musicians” (1921).

So, this entry and my prior one summarizes one very intense week.  If it was not for the unbearable heat, and crowds, we'd still be dreaming of living there again.  I think we've abandoned that dream, although we’ll be back to the city where we have deep roots.  The exciting multiculturalism and the juxtaposition of where new architecture meets the old still speak to us.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

We’ll Take Manhattan

We recently returned from a week in NYC, a whirlwind revisit of our old stomping grounds, cramming in too much for a single blog entry.  Thus, this one focuses on the five Broadway shows we saw while there.  I could write detailed reviews of each, but Broadway is well reviewed and doesn’t need my help.  So this is a brief coverage of the shows we booked many months before the Tony Awards and even before three of them actually opened.   In other words, we took a chance on those – although we knew something about them in advance.  Call this write up an impressionistic review.

Before getting into the shows themselves, I must confess we were not fully prepared for the theatre district in the summer, although we’re both ex-New Yorkers and should know better.  The week before we left, every long term weather forecast had promised a week of ideal conditions, temperatures in the mid 80’s, moderate humidity.  Ah, we said in confidence as we packed to catch a Jet Blue flight to LaGuardia, lucky us.  But that following week morphed from idyllic into a scorching heat wave, one day reaching the mid 90s with high humidity.  And we left “cool” Florida for this? 

As anyone who has lived in the city knows, if the air temperature is in the mid 90’s, the buildings and the macadam, the traffic, and the hordes of people, just magnifies the heat.  We were staying at 54th between Broadway and 8th Avenue and thought we’d be able to walk or Uber wherever we needed between the hotel, the shows, and restaurants.  More unrealistic thinking.  Traffic was at a standstill most of the time.  The only way to get to your destination was to walk.  Subways were impossible too.  And we walked mostly on 8th Avenue, frequently in the street as the sidewalks were so congested.  Because of the heat, the sidewalk vendors, the mobs of tourists and trash all over the place, the stench sometimes was insufferable.  But as ex New Yorkers we beat on to our destinations.

I’ll start with the least appealing show, although it was very entertaining, War Paint.  We bought tickets way before it opened and had front row seats and were showered by the spit of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, whose presence alone was worth the price of admission.  When their contracts are up, War Paint will recede into Broadway history.  The music was agreeable but not memorable.  However, the costumes were fantastic as well as the scenic design by David Korins who designed Hamilton and two other shows running on Broadway now, Dear Evan Hansen, and Bandstand.  We were disappointed that there was little dance, unusual for a big Broadway show.  Personally, I also found the subject frivolous.  Do I care about cosmetics, although I get the point that these were two women battling in a man’s world.  Nonetheless it was a privilege to see two divas at work.

Dear Evan Hansen lived up to its hype, Ben Platt a unique performer who can sing beautifully while crying at the same time.  In fact, the audience was crammed with Ben Platt groupies.  A young lady sitting in front of us (her friend sitting two rows behind us so we were privileged to be in on some of their conversation before the show and during the intermission), was seeing the show for the 6th time, seats to this particular performance being a present from her mother on this, her 21st birthday.  She was at the end of her seat whenever Platt was on stage and singing, which is most of the time. The music moved the plot along and some beautiful songs, “Waving Through a Window,” sung by Evan and Company, “So Big/So Small” sung by Evan’s mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) to name just two.  Both Jones and Platt won Tonys for their performances.  Steven Levenson wrote the book and the Music and Lyrics were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who is from our old home town, Westport, CT). 

As moving as the show was, it’s the first time Ann and I felt that this was a show for another generation (didn’t feel that way when we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton show, In the Heights in London which is hip hop multiculturalism). It’s not that we didn’t feel moved but the reality of how millennial families connect or are torn apart by social media is a major theme.  We understand but it’s not our world.

The Great Comet of 1812 was spectacular.  The Imperial Theatre was gutted for the staging, some of the audience sitting at tables, the action taking place all around.  Josh Grobin had just left the show.  Okierite Onaodowan who we saw in Hamilton is his replacement.  He did a credible job but I think Grobin’s voice might have worked better in the role.  But that is not to detract from the overall impression of the show, great music, phenomenal choreography – constant movement, and the kind of show only Broadway could put on in that form.  It leaves an indelible impression, in the same way Hamilton and Les Mis does.    

So much has been written about Josh Grobin that one would think his role playing Pierre was the primary one in the show.  It is not – it is more of a fulcrum.  The two dominant characters revolving around him are Natasha played by DenĂ©e Benton in her Broadway debut, who was nominated for a Tony, and Lucas Steele who plays the dashing womanizer, Anatole.  It is a large cast, with many outstanding performances. 

The music is infectious, rock at times, lyrical at other times (usually with a Cossack aspect), with an interesting back story as to how Dave Malloy who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics came to envision the show: “I first read War and Peace while working on a cruise ship, playing piano in the show band, as a way for my landlocked girlfriend and I to stay connected. I remember being so enthralled by the scope of Tolstoy’s vision; the book was a trashy romance novel, a family drama, a hilarious farce, a military thriller, a philosophical scripture, a treatise on history, all wrapped into one giant, messy, nearly unmanageable tome. And then there was that section. Volume 2, Book 5. I think I read the whole 70-page slice in one sitting, staying up til 5 a.m. with the delirious obsession I usually reserved for Stephen King or Harry Potter. Up to this point, Natasha had been so mirthful and pure that her downfall seemed to come screaming out of nowhere . . . and then Pierre, his sudden righteous action, his heart finally alive, his simple kindness, the comet . . . it all happened so quickly. At the end of it, as I read the last words “into a new life” with tears streaming down my face, I had the weirdest and clearest epiphany: that this was the perfect story for a musical.”  His epiphany is our delight.

Groundhog Day was enjoyable, surprisingly faithful to the movie.  Very clever set designs and the infectiously likeable and talented Andy Karl who performed in spite of a torn ACL made the show. Great dancing too and the music was more than incidental.  I just didn’t see how that film could be turned into a musical, but it worked wonderfully.  Groundhog Day will become a traveling show one day.  Don’t miss it if you can’t get to NYC!

One disappointment was not being able see an equal number of dramas as well, but we took a chance on one of The Roundabout’s new plays which they developed with the Long Wharf in CT: Napoli, Brooklyn.  Long after we got tix it opened and the NYT had a so-so review.  It deserved a much better one.  Rarely have we seen characters so sharply drawn, memorable, except in some of the classic American plays.

 It is set in Brooklyn in 1960.  I was living there then and there is a horrific incident that takes place at the time (no further detail to avoid a spoiler).  It becomes a catalyst.  The play is about Italian immigrants, a man who arrives as a stowaway with his wife, and how they try to make a life in Brooklyn.  He’s a manual laborer and his wife bears him three daughters.  That’s strike one in the family, the father frustrated he has no sons.  His disappointment with life in the New World and his family is clear: “If we stayed in Italy we would have had a son.” 

He’s not an O’Neill alcoholic father, but he is a workaholic and expects the same from his family.  He demands absolute obedience and is baffled by the way things devolved in his life. This leads to the conflict and the resolution.  The mother is trying to please everyone, her husband in particular, with her food and peacemaking efforts, the older daughter has sacrificed her youth for the benefit of the family, the middle daughter has to retreat to a Catholic convent after being attacked by the father, while the youngest, 16 years old, is trying to stowaway to Paris with another girl, daughter of an Irish immigrant, with whom she’s in love.  There is much more to the play than that -- it was riveting, a feminist spin on American family drama , written by Meghan Kennedy.  Remember that name.  Fantastic acting.

In addition to the 5 plays we caught our favorite jazz pianist at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Monty Alexander (and his “Junkanoo Swing”), who takes swinging jazz and combines it with the rhythms of Jamaica.  His original composition, Hope reminded me of Oscar Peterson’s Canadian Suite, jazz compositions which have classical underpinnings, not improvisational jazz.  It was an ideal setting on the 5th Floor of the Time Warner building at 60th St, overlooking Columbus Circle, nearby our first apartment.  The view is as breathtaking as the music.

All in all, it was a magical week of theatre in Manhattan.  Hopefully, next year we can do it again!
More about our NYC trip in the final portion of this entry here.