Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April in New York

 If it’s April, it’s time for my not-quite-annual trip to New York City.

The trip started out as it usually does, waiting in the Walmart parking lot for the Megabus. I was hopeful that Thursday travel would mean that the bus wasn’t crowded; the seating is tight and I didn’t feel like getting intimately acquainted with a new friend. I reserved a seat on the upper deck. It wasn’t exactly the lap of luxury but it beat having to settle for the seat by the bathroom door.

Sure, I would miss the fifty yard-line seat when someone opened the bathroom door and a dead body with a needle still stuck in its arm fell out—something that really happened in State College—but it was a sacrifice I was prepared to endure.

As soon as we were under way, the driver got on the PA and announced that our rest stop would be near Mifflinville. I thought he said Mifflintown—which is en route to Philadelphia, not New York.  If someone could get on the Megabus to Philadelphia instead of New York, it would be me.

My fellow bus riders seemed like the typical Megabus crowd. Most of the people who got on with me were Asian students, but there were a handful of grown up academic types too. I sat across the aisle from two twenty-something granola types. They had lots of organic snacks with them.  The woman in front of me was carrying paperwork from the Allegheny County Jail. I think she might have been a former customer.

Soon enough we’d arrived at our rest stop. The driver announced that we’d be resting for 45 minutes.

Our dining choices were the truck stop’s convenience store, Arby’s, McDonald’s, and Subway. It was a veritable groaning board of fast food. It was no wonder that the bark eating couple brought free range heritage non-GMO organic kale chips flavored with sawdust. After taking the tour of the convenience store, I settled on McDonalds. I was hopeful that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew.

After lunch, I took a nap to make sure that my several weeks’ worth of saturated fats would be sure to settle in where they would do the most damage. I woke up when we hit a huge pothole on the far side of the Delaware Water Gap.  Welcome to New Jersey!

I make jokes about the Megabus being low rent, but my hat is off to our driver. He maneuvered that thing through Manhattan traffic like someone who’d done it a thousand times.  He was always in the proper lane, he didn't take any crap from New York drivers, and he wasn’t cowed by the throngs of pedestrians looking into their phones as they crossed streets, unaware of the world around them.

The bus stopped at 27th Street and 7th Avenue, right by the Fashion Institute of Technology. Banners hanging in its windows advertised an exhibition of the work of Norman Norell. I made a mental note to see it.

After grabbing my bag from the bowels of the bus, I took the subway downtown to my home for the next few days, the W Downtown.

My twenty-second floor room wasn’t a whole lot bigger than a king-sized bed, but the bathroom was generously proportioned.  My father used to say of campers and boats, “sleeps four, screws eight”.  If he’d been speaking about my hotel room he’d have said sleeps two, shits four.

From my west facing window, I could see a sliver of the Hudson River. I also had a view of Battery Park City and Cass Gilbert’s pre-Woolworth West Street Building. I’ve had worse views.

The WTC Transportation Hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava is just a block from the hotel. I've never caught a train there, but it's a great place to take a photo.

Bright and early Friday morning I went out for my obligatory shoe shine. It’s one of my New York rituals. Some folks go to Broadway shows; I get a shoe shine. There’s something very relaxing about sitting in the chair while, for a few bucks, the shoeshine person makes my shoes look better than brand new.  A shoeshine has to be the best deal in the city.

My go-to is Stanley’s, on Church St. in the Financial District. Stanley’s was established in 1957, just like me. It’s the kind of place where the Mets are always on TV, there’s always a New York Post to read, and I can scarcely understand what the employees say.

I usually look at a Playboy someone left behind. Yes, I’m all about the articles. Every year, I think, “Oh, they still print this?” The party jokes aren’t nearly as funny as I thought they were when I was in junior high.

After my shoeshine, I dodged raindrops and the going out of business sale at Shoegasm and headed over to the Whitney Museum of American Art to see the exhibition Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables. He's not to everyone's taste, but I'm glad he may be getting his fifteen minutes of fame.

Lots of his paintings have been reproduced in American history texts over the years, so I was expecting to see some familiar stuff.

Since I’d bought a ticket online I was able to skip the line of New Yorkers, all dressed in black. I was the only passenger in the elevator where the elevator operator called me “young man”. A modern building with elevator operator? What’s up with that?!

I didn’t know, that Wood, in the Arts and Crafts tradition, had tried his hand at metalwork, glass, and fiber arts before landing for good on painting. He designed a corncob chandelier for the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids.

One of his early works, The Adoration of the Home, commissioned by a realtor, made me chuckle.

A guard remarked that I was the only person in the room with American Gothic. I resisted the urge to take a selfie.

The text boxes told me that Wood was a repressed homosexual, though they skipped the opportunity to reference say that his drawings foreshadowed the work of Tom of Finland.

Grant Wood died of pancreatic cancer in 1942, at age 51. I hear pancreatic cancer is a bad way to go.

After Grant Wood, I zipped through some of the other galleries.  I enjoyed the art relating to protest movements, but the show on Zoe Leonard was lost on me. One of her pieces was a big collection of suitcases, one for each year of her life. Oh, she has baggage, I get it.

There was the requisite amount of American Gothic kitsch in the museum shop, including a portrait bust rendered in Lego blocks.  Its price was available on request (member discount: 10%) which is another way of saying “You don’t want to know”.

After getting my fill of The Whitney, I took a walk up the High Line to 245 Tenth Avenue, home of  the Yossi Milo Gallery. Although the rain had stopped, it was still too cold for anything other than a brisk walk. Judging from the snippets of conversation I heard as people walked buy, most of the people on the High Line that morning were tourists from other countries. Perhaps the High Line has turned into one of those things that real New Yorkers don’t do, like the Statue of Liberty?

I enjoyed the few guys here and there who seemed to be getting photographed for their SCRUFF profiles.

I hadn’t heard of either the Yossi Milo Gallery or the photographer Markus Brunetti until shortly before my trip. Thanks to a front page review in the New York Times, I was now in the know.  Brunetti shoots photos of European churches in astonishing detail.

He takes thousands of digital photos and then somehow melds them together into one super high res image.  The images are large—the review said one was 10 feet tall. The detail was so fine that you could see a pigeon sitting high on the façade of one of the cathedrals, just waiting to take a crap on a sculpture of St. Swithin.

The show wasn’t very big but the work is amazing. In fact, I could get into having one of those images in my house. Alas, as J.P. Morgan said about the cost of a yacht, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. I didn’t ask.

Since I was in the neighborhood, the next stop was that Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition on Norman Norell.

I’d not heard of him, but he was a big deal as a women’s clothing designer in the 1950s and 60s.  He died in 1972, on the eve of an exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to Wiki, Norell, born in Indiana as Norman David Levinson, was “sickly” as a child. He loved the theatre and moved to New York City as soon as he could.  Sometime after arriving in New York, he stopped being Norman David Levinson and “adopted the more soigné moniker” Norman Norell.  My guess is that he was an unrepressed homosexual. It’s hard to be repressed and have a soigné moniker at same time.

I don’t know much about fashion, but I did learn that Norell was a great at a Pilgrim collar. Actually, I didn't know that there was a thing called the pilgrim collar. The secret is in the interfacing, whatever that is.

The mermaid dress, that was one of his successes too. Don’t quote me on this, but a mermaid dress might be something made from jersey and covered in sequins. Then again, it might be something else entirely; the room was pretty dark and the evening gown competition was never one of my better events.

After a quick bite of lunch, it was time to head up to Grant’s Tomb.

Yes, I know you’re asking the question. Who goes to New York City and goes to Grant’s Tomb?

No one.

However, I’d just finished the new U.S. Grant bio written by Ron Chernow and so it seemed like the right thing to do.  Officially known as the General Grant National Memorial, it’s the biggest mausoleum in America. It houses the earthly remains of both U.S. Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant—who, interestingly enough, became a friend of Mrs. Jefferson Davis when they were both widows in New York.

There were a handful of other visitors there when I was there. And I do mean a handful—there weren’t more than five of us at any one time. They’d probably read the Chernow book too. Not all that long ago, the place was in a terrible state—think Detroit ruins porn on the Hudson—but it looks pretty good today.

Getting to the memorial is half the fun—it’s a long ride on the #1 train—and then quite a walk from the station. Even so, you should go once, just to say thanks to a real American hero who, if not forgotten, has certainly fallen precipitously in the public’s esteem.

It's a huge thing, but then, at his death, US Grant was as big as Obama, both the Bushes and Carter combined. And marking death with a big something was hot in the 19th century. Napoleon and Prince Albert are not exactly wilting violets in the memorial department.

Right after Grant’s Tomb, I walked across the street to Riverside Church, constructed in the late 1920s through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. If Gothic churches are your thing, you’ll love it.  It’s stunning. There was a choir of young adults making a joyful noise to The Lord.  It sounded lovely. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long since I wanted to go back downtown to see a show at the International Center for Photography.

The show was Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

In early 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring Americans of Japanese ancestry living in the western states be relocated to internment camps.

Though today it seems inconceivably racist, Roosevelt’s decision was later backed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. US

Approximately 120,000 US citizens and resident aliens were uprooted from their homes and businesses and forced to move into camps located in remote parts of the west. While this is a shameful episode in American history, no one should confuse the camps with Japanese or German concentration camps. No one was gassed, there were no crazy medical experiments performed on inmates, and prisoners were not forced to build a railroad through the jungle, as in The Bridge on the River Kwai

The exhibit documented the lives of the camp residents from FDR’s issuance of Order 9066 until late in the war when the “threat” had passed and the camps were closed. Some of the photos are by famous photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, while others were shot by unknowns (at least to me). It’s quite moving.

As I checked out the exhibits, they reminded me of the only time I remember my father writing his congressman.

The Federal government was considering giving financial settlements to Japanese Americans whose lives had been uprooted by internment. As you would expect from someone whose foreign policy views were best expressed by the maxim, “the only good German is a dead German”, he was against it. He pointed out to Rep. William F. Clinger that his high school classmate who went down with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor did not receive a settlement from the Japanese government. 

In 1990, after action by Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush (and my father’s death) camp survivors began to receive redress payments of $20,000 to each surviving internee.

Run, do not walk, to see this exhibition.  Both the photos and the stories they tell are amazing.

Friday evening, I tried out reflexology and so, Saturday morning, with my qi reinvigorated, refurbished, and rearranged, I was ready for an early morning at the New-York Historical Society.

I went to see Pulitzer Prize winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Carol Berkin “explore the complex legacy of Thomas Jefferson”, focusing on his pre-Presidential career. At $48 a head, this was not going to threaten a shoeshine as the best deal in the city.

My first impression was that the two presenters didn’t look much like their photos.  I guess this phenomenon is not limited to realtors or guys on Grindr. Instead of a formal lecture, the two historians chatted back and forth, as if it were a talk show. Ms. Berkin played the part of Jimmy Fallon, and Ms. Gordon-Reed was the big star with a bad hangover promoting her latest movie. After the talk I went to the gift shop and bought Ms. Gordon-Reed’s new book so that I could have it signed.

Signed book in hand—even at the New-York Historical Society the line to have a book signed by a historian isn’t very long— I did the jiffy tour of the other temporary exhibits.

One was on Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the parallels in the last years of their careers. The second covered the use of migratory bird feathers in fashion in the 19th c.  Creepy stuff.

As I tried to go into marquee exhibit on the Vietnam War, a guard stopped me and told me that I needed to show my admission sticker. I explained that I’d paid for the talk and so didn’t have one.

She directed me back to the admission desk where they wanted me to fork over another $21, after my $48 lecture ticket and buying the book at retail. Yeah, no thanks.

I got mad and maybe a little even with a bad review on Google.

There was just time to walk through Central Park (something I’d never done) to meet tour guide Deborah Zelcer for her tour Art Wars! The Founding of the Met, MOMA, and the Whitney, (and What Each Will Argue Is Art). Not exactly a catchy title, but it still sounded like an interesting tour.

I learned about Ms. Zelcer and her business Prowler NYC Tours by listening to the Bowery Boys podcast.  The Bowery Boys (Greg Young and Tom Meyers) talk—in an informal and engaging way—about the history of New York City. Ms. Zelcer was a guest expert on one of the episodes I’d heard.

We met on the street corner across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was skeptical at first. It was cold. It was windy. I’d already walked I don’t know how far, but it sure felt like far enough. I hadn’t had any lunch. But once the tour started, I was all in.

Deborah has an engaging personality and stage presence out the ying-yang. She was a true New Yorker when it came to dealing with wayward bicyclists, trucks, and crazy people, all of which New York has in abundance. They didn’t deter her in the slightest.

We went from the Met to the somewhat defunct National Academy of Design to the Guggenheim via Jackie O’s old apartment building. After the Guggenheim we went by Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie, ending up at the Met Breuer. Ms. Zelcer explained how the design of each building reflected on the movers and shakers who put them up. Her tour navigated that middle spot in a Venn Diagram of the things of interest to historians/architects and things of interest to the wider public.

It would have been nice if we could have included The Frick Collection and perhaps even the Museum of the City of New York in the outing, but I think Ms Z. believed in the show business adage, ‘always leave them wanting more”. I tried to tip her but she said that a good review was better. The next time you’re in New York, go on one of her tours—she offers a bunch. She was great.

After the tour made haste to the Downton Abbey costume show. It’s quite amazing that several years after the show was on TV, an exhibit of costumes and whatnot (more costumes than whatnot) is still packing them in. Grant’s Tomb would be astonished if it had as many people in a day as I saw at the Downton Abbey show in an hour.  The costumes were great, but since I’d learned all about Pilgrim collars and mermaid dresses, I was expecting technical details about silhouette, interfacing, plackets and all that. Uh, no. But hey, I saw Lady Mary’s basic black cocktail dress. That thing was tiny. She apparently did not eat.

Saturday evening was set aside for the traditional (at least for my friends C. and D.) dinner at one of Manhattan’s divey-est of dive bars, The Ear Inn. It’s two small rooms crammed with twenty to seventy somethings trying to be heard over the din created by twenty to seventy somethings who’ve had some cheap (by New York standards anyway) drinks. My friend Molly told me that a friend of hers (a jazz trumpeter) is in the band that plays there on Sunday nights. It would be the perfect place to take a date that you don’t want to talk to, hear, or spend much money on.

Sunday meant taking the train back to central Pennsylvania. I had about an hour’s wait in Penn Station since there was some sort of mechanical problem with the train, but once we boarded it was a pleasant trip.  At first, you look out at the back of every toxic waste dump and scrap metal yard in North Jersey, but soon enough, you’re looking at the back of the never going to be gentrified parts of Philadelphia.

Shortly after we left Paoli, there was an announcement over the PA asking any doctors or nurses on the train to come to the back of the train. They didn’t ask for anyone who had experience with insurance forms, so there wasn’t anything I could do to help. Then the train made an unscheduled stop in Exton. Obviously, something was going on.

When I got off the train in Lewistown, the conductor said that someone had a heroin overdose and had to be taken off the train in Exton.

Yikes.  I thought that only happened on the Megabus!

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