New York City: The Good, the Bad and the Otherwise
In the past three years, my wife and I have visited New York City three times: once in the fall and twice in the spring. What follows is a compendium of my thoughts on those visits, the good, the bad and the otherwise.
Let’s begin at the heart of the heart, the core of America – Times Square. What a tawdry, manic display of humanity and humanity’s production. This canyon of overexcited capitalism, flashing its pants off, blinks repeatedly in frenzied hyper-oblivion. There’s nothing like Times Square, nowhere that would want to emulate Times Square, with its squads of scammers, its brands flickering like thoughts in the mind of some hectic Leviathan. I’ve always been a little shocked at how small the actual square itself is; in fact, it’s hardly a square at all; just a widening in the streets, more vertical than horizontal in its brazenness.
Nearby is the theatre district. We’ve seen four plays in the past two years: Matilda, Something Rotten, Les Miserables and A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime. Matilda was by far the most entertaining, although all the plays (three musicals) were highly professional with accomplished actors, imaginative staging and some fine singing. All except Matilda fell down a bit in terms of actual storyline and pizzazz and energy, which is what you want in a Broadway play.
I’m always struck by the theatres of Broadway, all the ones I’ve entered displaying what could be called a dumpy elegance, as if their heyday took place about fifty or sixty or more years ago, when the fixtures and seats and ceilings and chandeliers were still shiny and new. And each theatre offers that peculiar fellow walking about with a box strapped around his neck as he calls “water, wine, candy”. There’s something oddly American and juvenile about that combination. Do you really need a candy bar in order to enjoy a Broadway play?
The theatres are surprisingly close to Times Square. After the play, we walk back through the flickering, commercial maelstrom. I can’t help but imagine that Times Square will one day make an intriguing ruin buried deep under the sands of the future, or forming a weird chasm under the ever-rising seas, all its energy and display squelched and silent.
At the very centre of Times Square, at the hub of the heart so to speak, stands a blockhouse that turns out to be a US Forces Recruiting Station, a bracing reminder that all this brash capitalist hoo-hah has at its centre an outrageously bloated military establishment, skilled at ‘sucking in the suckers’ (in Times Square vernacular) of the right age and temperament. There’s a sad desperation in the atmosphere of Times Square, and the recruiters know that the most desperate youth will eventually throw up their hands in exasperation and defeat, and join the Army.
A few short blocks from Times Square one discovers another world entirely. Bryant Park fills a city block off one side of the New York Public Library’s main branch. Down one side of the park, a double promenade of towering plane trees (that tree so typical of large cities around the world) provides shade for an outdoor reading room. Rolling metal racks display books and magazines that users can borrow for free and read at small circular tables. In the middle of the park, a few steps take the stroller down to a spacious open area also filled with small tables at which lunchers can lunch. At one end, a fountain plays, much to the delight of toddlers pursued by their mothers who push empty strollers strung with water bottles and diaper bags. On the other side of the park, a pleasant carousel filled with brightly-coloured, smiling horses turns, and one can find a stand that offers a variety of board games to borrow and play at nearby tables. (“Boggle anyone?”)
At the far end, beneath the walls of the library, on this day, a dozen passersby have stopped passing by and taken seats in folding chairs with pads to listen to a pianist playing classical and jazz. Free entertainment, and she’s good too.
Nearby is the most pleasant public toilet in all of New York City (if a public toilet can ever be called pleasant). As one enters the sanctuary, one is greeted by a large vase filled with fresh flowers. Depending on one’s gender at the moment, one turns right or left to the bathrooms. In the men’s room (the only one I have visited), a smaller vase of fresh flowers sits on the sink. The bathroom is relatively clean. On the wall above the sinks is displayed a list of rules including such admonitions as ‘No shaving’ and ‘No standing on the sink’. Why the latter regulation would be required, I have no idea. In any case, the Bryant Park public toilet makes everyone feel welcome and special. It restores my faith in humanity, quite an accomplishment after Times Square.
The generous human touch continues at the entrance to the massive public library, fronted by two guardian lions, who look as if they could be reciting in unison Shelley’s poem, ‘Ozymandias’. Before one takes the final bank of stairs to the entrance, there is found a patio with long tables that contain art supplies inviting the public to take a moment and create something. Pads of paper, and boxes of coloured pencils, crayons, and pastels are on offer. I sit and write a quick love note to my wife. I hold it up for her to see and she smiles.
Inside, the helpful elderly lady at the information desk informs us that readings and talks take place weekly in the spacious entrance hall. That day’s reading is by Geoff Dyer (Zona, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), a British author I know well, having read many of his books. Unfortunately, we can’t stay to hear him. But I’m disappointed to discover that the library bookstore and gift shop carries no books by him and none by the other authors featured in future weeks. Another typical disconnect in the writing/publishing/book-selling world.
A few more blocks away, we come to Radio City Music Hall. We have been informed by friends that a fascinating tour of its Art Deco interior is worth our time. The building again displays that slighty frumpy air of yesteryear that I felt in the Broadway theatres. Lovely paintings, sculptures, a fascinating jazz-themed rug in the lobby, huge bathrooms with twenty-two urinals (I couldn’t resist counting them) and a foot-pump hand dryer which feels like something out of the great age of steam. As history goes, it’s not Rome, or even Paris, so it all feels a little worn around the edges, a sad atmosphere of what was once brilliant now being kept up by money but not old enough to be a ruin, yet. I’m interested to learn that the pistons that lift the stage, still ancient (for pistons, that is) were used in the design of US Navy aircraft carriers, for raising and lowering decks. Again, that ‘steam age’ echo.
Another few blocks, and we come to MOMA. Only New York City museums are so well known that acronyms alone can be used to identify them. For those truly in the dark, MOMA is the Museum of Modern Art, and the Met is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of my favourite New York poets, Frank O’Hara, used to work as a curator at MOMA in the fifties and published a collection titled Lunch Poems in which he described walking about the streets near the museum on his breaks. Sweet, lovely, ordinary, everyday poems that don’t hurt anyone. He died young, run over by a dune buggy while sleeping overnight on a beach on Long Island.
In any case, the MOMA doesn’t emanate that ‘age of steam’ aura that seems endemic to midtown Manhattan. The MOMA feels crisp and clean, efficient and always up to date, with its pleasant sculpture courtyard displaying massive works by modern masters and its hip, minimalist restaurant with panoramic views of the city.
We wander into the museum, ready to gorge on modern art. The first thing that catches our eye is a show of silhouette art in the lower level. It’s not the main show that attracts (Ernie Gehr, Carnival of Shadows), but a short film from 1922 by Lotte Reiniger based on the well-known story of Cinderella. The story itself, of course, is a fairytale cliché but in this case the fact that it is so well known works in its favour. Reiniger, in a fascinating and extremely early example of its type, actually shows the activity of the artist creating the imagery. We see the pinking shears cutting out the shapes of Cinderella and the Prince, as well as the ugly step sisters and the pumpkin coach. These black silhouettes with serrated edges are used in simple but entrancing ways to tell the story, through minimal movement of the cut-outs and characters. Altogether it’s utterly fascinating. We stand and watch the entire thirteen minute film.
We also explore an exhibition of contemporary Japanese architecture (A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond), for which we had high expectations and which turns out to be disappointingly dry (for us non-architects, anyway). Instead of clear, sparkling photos of the various buildings on their final sites which are represented in maquettes throughout the exhibit, someone decided to run video flashes of the finished buildings on a kind of fuzzy wall material. All rather inchoate and ambiguous.
Another intriguing show, titled Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty, feels slightly out of place at MOMA as it’s not all that modern. While investigating the huge show, I think often of my mother, who used to love the ballet dancers painted by Degas. For her, they stood out because they highlighted her favourite colours: turquoise and pink. The most overwhelming image I get from the show is the rather odd contrast of naked women in baths, some in weirdly contorted positions, and overdressed men in top hats. (The 19th century was surely the Age of the Vest.)
A more playful show we see displays the work of Belgian artist, Marcel Broodthaers, who turned from poet to visual artist at age forty. In a telling comment on the low popularity and meagre sales of his poetry, in his first solo exhibition as a visual artist, he encased a stack of unsold copies of one of his poetry books in plaster, turning it into a sculpture. Broodthaers constructed humorous sculptures using piles of empty eggshells and mussel shells, and dabbled in early versions of installation art and conceptual art in many of his pieces. An altogether enjoyable and mischievous artist (and a fine poet, too).
Our preferred hotel for all three of our recent visits to New York City is the Belnord on West 87th Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway (recommended by my brother and his wife who accompanied us on the first of these visits). The Belnord’s location is its greatest feature. A few blocks from Central Park, down pleasant tree-shaded streets in one direction, and close to Broadway and its useful Number 1 subway line in the other. The size of the rooms in the hotel makes me think of what life must be like for caged battery chickens. Three of our rooms could fit inside a typical Holiday Inn hotel room and stumbling over one’s partner by mistake is a constant danger. On a later visit, we opt for a slightly larger room on a higher floor and feel as if we have graduated to a suite in the Waldorf Astoria. But the Belnord is, above all, clean and efficient and serves our purpose.
Another advantage is its proximity to a number of serviceable restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One we tend to frequent regularly is the French Roast at the corner of Broadway and West 85th. Not as pricey as many of the midtown eateries, it nevertheless serves excellent french toast, a huge bowl of cafe au lait (cafe latte, which should be the same thing but in Italian, is a different coffee here, served in a glass). Lunch and dinner are good, and I can highly recommend the Coq au Vin which seemed to include an entire half a chicken.
But when we want to splurge for dinner, we go to the Cafe Luxembourg, off Broadway on West 70th Street. The small restaurant is always packed, and for good reason. The Farroe Islands salmon (the islands are between Norway and Iceland) is to die for, perfectly cooked with a slight crust on the outside and flaky and tender within. This time it’s served on a bed of spring greens, which includes fresh asparagus, morel mushrooms, leeks, radishes, arugula, various lettuces and little edible flowers, all surrounded by a moat of watercress puree. There’s enough variety and amount in this green bed that no starch is required to complete the meal. Somehow, the bed of greens and such is filling enough. The waiter doesn’t look aghast, like a Parisian waiter might, when I order a glass of light-bodied red with my fish. We finish with an apricot crumble that is sweet heaven in its freshness and simplicity. Then, a glass of Vin Santo from Chianti, tasting lovingly of the oak barrel and with a slight caramel colour akin to a light brandy, to complete the conquest of our hunger, followed by the long walk home.
The Cafe Luxembourg gives away a most unusual postcard to advertise the restaurant. This small postcard might stop any self-respecting mailman in his tracks before he slips it through the mail slot. The image depicts three young women standing at a white-tiled bar, bottles lined in rows before the mirror in typical bar fashion. All three women have black hair, of varying lengths. The one on the right holds a cigarette down by her thigh. Only the woman on the left has her head turned and is looking at the camera. The other two face away from us. All three women are stark naked, except for low-heeled black shoes. They are not perfect Playboy specimens but fetching enough. The combination of bottoms is intriguing, all different: the girl on the right is slightly chunky, the one on the left somewhat thin. The one in the middle, with short hair, a prominent earring and her left hand on her hip, reveals a bum that is absolute perfection. I suppose they are having a Pernod while waiting for a table. Who knows?
Central Park remains one of the wonders of New York City. The fact that it still exists, despite the near-priceless value of the land, is astonishing and shows true vision among the many administrations that have ruled the city. Of course, the residents would simply not stand for any yard sale of its holdings. The park is constantly used by New Yorkers. It is not simply a bauble, pleasant to look at from a 28th story penthouse, but welcomes residents and visitors in droves. Joggers, walkers, sitters, dog owners, Frisbee players, old, young and stroller-bound, and so on. A true cross-section of the city comes here every day.
The intriguing aspect about Central Park, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is its complexity. Riddled with ponds and lakes, winding paths, playing fields, a few small outdoor auditoriums, a puppet theatre, sculptures and so on, one can always discover some new pathway or garden. On our third visit, we take our usual route to the Met, walking from our hotel along West 87th Street (past the ‘pocket garden’ near Columbus Avenue, but more about that later), up to Central Park West. We enter the park from West 86th Street and saunter along beside the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (named after her because apparently she often jogged alongside it) across to Fifth Avenue and the Met.
On our return from the Met, many delightful hours later, we decide to take a different route home and enter the park from the other side, south of the museum. On our twisting way we discover the Shakespeare Garden, a lovely patch of flowers and shrubs that offers occasional signs in the greenery with quotes from Shakespeare plays that mention flowers or plants. The path twists entrancingly down a small hillside, filled, in this season, with tulips and other spring floral plantings. A wooden bench invites a few moments’ contemplation.
The previous spring, our timing was lucky, for Central Park was at the height of its gaudy flowering on our arrival. It seemed every other tree in the park -- cherries, wisteria, magnolias – was blooming with white or purple or yellow blossoms, the floral plantings were at their most ebullient and the park fairly throbbed with spring energy and loveliness. Even the sweating joggers had smiles on their faces. I have never experienced a park where such expense and attention is given to the plant life. The horticulturalists of Central Park are green-thumbed gods, the true children of Chloris, Greek goddess of flowers and the spring.
This visit to the Met is my third attempt to obtain access to the Chinese art section. My previous attempts were frustrated by periods of renovation and a special event ‘for members only’ from which I was excluded. But at last I am admitted and, as my luck has turned, the Met has two exhibitions on offer that interest me: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Met Collection and Celebrating the Art of Japan. We spend the better part of a day exploring these two magnificent shows.
I’ve always had an attraction to traditional Chinese landscape painting, characterized by depictions of the vastness of nature with minimal human presence, often referred to as ‘rivers and mountains without end’, and this show displays a number of traditional works. One, among many, that stands out is a painting on a fan, by Anonymous. Early Spring Landscape depicts an ancient scraggy tree leaning out from a mountain cliff. The background is simply empty space. More than half the painting is blank. What daring it must have taken for the artist to use space in that way.
A description of another painting, of two finches, points out that the eyes of the finches in the painting are given a touch of glitter through the application of a minuscule dot of shiny black lacquer. How true to life to represent the eyes of birds in this way. In another, a monk holds out a begging bowl that has sprouted flowers, a marvellous metaphor for I know not what, but I like it. Two quotes from the ancient Chinese, among the dozens of wonderful landscapes, attract my attention: “Prove superior wisdom by remaining silent” (a saying that reveals a deeply intelligent meaning with a remarkable economy of words, thus actually attempting to practice what it preaches), and “Clouds paint the bamboo a deep green”, a splendid poetic phrase from Deng Yu. The exhibit also includes a contemplative courtyard, with shy but real fish in its little pond, and structures with typical, traditional Chinese designs.
The Japanese exhibit contains contemporary art as well as traditional works of Japan. Arguably the most fascinating work is a small deer constructed entirely of glowing glass globes of various size. That in itself is intriguing but a close look at the description mentions that this imagined deer is built around a real deer that has been subjected to the indignity of taxidermy. (What an odd word, ‘taxidermy’ – anything with the word ‘taxi’ in it echoes repeatedly in New York City.)
Among the many wonderful paintings, screens and sculptures, I come across five or six 17th Century examples of the Zen Ox-herding pictures, a favourite classic work in the Zen tradition that depicts the journey a practitioner might take from normal life to enlightenment and beyond, and ultimately back to the ordinary magic of the everyday, all through the eyes of a boy herding an ox. I wonder if the Japanese could tell the same tale, using, instead of an ox: a fish? a monkey? a cicada? an atomic bomb? Or if New Yorkers could do the same with Yellow cabs: the Zen Taxi-Herding pictures of NYC.
A final thought: because the Japanese spend so much time living with and observing seascapes, it seems to me that they excel at depicting water and waves; and because the Chinese spend so much time looking at landscapes, their artists excel at depicting pines and bamboo.
On our last day, for lunch we decide to purchase pork buns at Momofuku Milk Bar on Columbus Avenue. The week before I had seen Steven Colbert sampling this treat on his late-night show and the ‘bar’ is only a few blocks from our hotel. It is also around the corner from a lovely little pocket park we have rested in a number of times along West 87th Street. We purchase drinks and our buns (one veggie, one pork) and stroll over to the park.
The pocket park is found in what was formerly a narrow empty lot between two three-story residences. It consists of two outdoor tables with chairs, several benches and a meandering garden of trees, bushes and flowers (tulips, etc. in this season), always well-kept and relatively clean. A few people are present, a couple eating lunch at one of the tables and two ladies working in the garden. We find a bench, pour the hot sauce on our pork and veggie buns and proceed to gorge. After a while, we move to one of the now empty tables and ask one of the gardening ladies about the park. Soiled white gloves on her hands, she informs us that the park used to be simply an empty lot littered with broken bottles and debris. When the city decided to repave Columbus Avenue, they asked the local residents if they could park their heavy machinery in the empty lot for two years. In return for this, the city would clear the lot, lay down some soil and give it to the local residents to use as they wished. The locals turned it into a garden, which is kept up by the people who live in the neighborhood, including the two ladies with their hands in soil on this lovely day. There is something charming about this arrangement. It seems as if this is the same mentality that keeps Central Park alive, as if this little pocket park were Central Park in miniature, the seed of something vast and pleasant that bespeaks a sense of community and the always refreshing, revivifying quality of the natural world, right here at the heart of one of the world’s great urban complexes.
So, maybe the heart of New York City, the heart of Manhattan, the heart of America isn’t manic Times Square after all. Maybe the heart is Central Park, and this little pocket park too, and the hearts of people in a community, no matter how large or many in number or wherever in the world, who want to live a life that always remembers the power of nature to heal and help us relax and breathe.