London Versus New York City – An Unscientific Comparison

We recently spent a vacation week in London and were constantly reminded of the similarities and differences, large and small, between that great city and New York City that we now call home. To avoid any wrong impressions from what follows, we had a great time in London. Among many other things, I rode on the London Eye, my first time on a “ferris wheel” in many decades. Very good experience.

The first afternoon we took a bus tour of the city, something I would normally not want to do, but the tour guide was a semi-retired lady with sharp English wit who provided many comical moments as we drove through the relatively calm Sunday afternoon. We walked along the south bank of the Thames, now a thriving public space for foot stalls and buskers. And, of course, we paid a visit to Harrods and Selfridges for a little shopping.

One of the largest differences between the cities cannot actually be seen from the ground – London occupies almost exactly twice the square mileage of New York City including the boroughs. If you look at a map while you’re there, it’s clear that London is simply enormous. At the same time, it is not as vertical as New York City. There are a few very tall buildings, but most of London is open to the sky.

The most obvious similarity is the traffic congestion. It actually seemed worse in London because there were so many times when it did not seem to move at all for long periods. New York’s congestion does usually creep along, albeit with much horn honking and other irrational responses to the frustration. Oddly enough, there was much less horn honking in London. We quickly realized that the only smart way to get around during the day was The Tube, the London equivalent of the New York subway.

Except that the Tube and the New York subway are not equivalent. The list of differences is long and important; in London’s Tube,

No trash on tracks or in stations        High frequency of trains

Padded seats                                      Did I mention padded seats?

Clean cars                                           Large windows

Light traffic most places during day    No foul smells

Lifts and escalators mostly working    Trains relatively smooth & quiet

On the other hand, the Tube had

No air conditioning in the cars

            No disabled access

Small signs to the lifts where they existed

The lack of air conditioning resulted in very hot cars most of the time and compounded the failure of many young Englishmen/tourists to use deodorant. Thankfully, the scale of the Tube combined with its frequency, at least at the stations we used, meant that we could get around the city very quickly and, in our experience at least, reliably. Access to the Tube made our entire trip work.

I noticed a few other things. This may well be “eye of the beholder,” but the English are justly famous for frumpy clothing and it was on full display during our week there. Because of the crowds in the main shopping areas especially, Londoners exhibited another tendency we’ve seen a lot in New York City – the commandeering of sidewalk space by people who suddenly decide they have to consult their phones, a map or just stop to chat with each other. Likely, many of these were tourists but it was so common that I strongly suspect the indigenous population was also guilty. It was early summer, so, of course, there were plenty of tourists on hand. You’d think many of them had never been away from home before.

There were a few other rough spots. One was what I will call the VAT tax refund scam. It turns out the only way you can recover the money at the airport is to have in your possession the physical items you purchased, which means holding them out of your suitcase when you check in.

Rough spots aside, we worked very hard to avoid what is known as “British cuisine” and were, for the most part successful. We ate at some fine restaurants and while they were generally a bit expensive, this was a cost well worth incurring. We largely enjoyed most of our meals except a forced lunch at a pub on Sunday, the only eating place open in the immediate area on a Sunday. The food was simply awful. Not so at the Richoux tea room for lunch during the week. Great food and ambience. We enjoyed a fabulous fish dinner at Milos before a show and the last night an incredibly tasty Indian cuisine at Matsya in Mayfair. Bill’s in Islington was funky but very friendly people and interesting food.

London has a thriving performing arts scene, which we undertook to enjoy to the fullest on our short visit. We saw what I can only describe as a largely “experimental” dance/ballet performance at the somewhat remote Sadler Wells Theatre, as well as two traditional shows, Mama Mia and Les Miserables. The musicals were wonderful, marred only by the necessity for the house manager to threaten to remove some of the teenagers who came en masse to see Mama Mia but mainly to talk, check their phones and generally act like jerks. Les Mis was presented in a small theater, magnifying the power of the show even more than usual, a spectacular performance.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Churchill War Rooms, covered, very partially, in the photos below; it was a genuinely unique experience. One important note for anyone interested in seeing the War Rooms: make your reservations weeks or even months before you arrive. If you don’t, you’re likely looking at a multi-hour wait in line, outside.

Finally, we spent an entire day on a private tour of the Cotswolds, a beautiful section of English countryside that is well represented in the photos at the end of this post. We highly recommend this to anyone visiting London.

Finally, finally, I have to add in closing that our hotel and room were among the more bizarre designs I’ve seen in many years of traveling. there was no way to plug the sink to create a pool of water for shaving. The shower had a sliding door that resulted in water accumulating on the bathroom floor. We tried everything to stop it, without success. The hotel restaurant had a decent menu, but for breakfast the buffet was the identical collection of items for seven straight days.

So, that’s it in summary. The photos, a fraction of what was shot, follow.

Hotel

General London

Churchill War Rooms

Cotswolds

A Trip to the Bronx Zoo

Some months ago, we discovered two interesting but similar TV series, one entitled Secret Life of the Zoo and the other just The Zoo. The former production covers the Chester Zoo in England and the latter is about the Bronx Zoo in … the Bronx.

Both shows take you to the back of the house and involve mainly efforts to breed endangered species or to help injured or sick animals under the zoo’s care. The overall thrust of the shows is that most of the species there are threatened with extinction in the wild and the work of the zoos is one of the main, if not only, programs to increase the number of animals in such species and, in some cases, to release them into the wild. While there are some occasions with an unhappy outcome, the shows definitely fall in the “feel good” category.

Having watched numerous episodes of The Zoo, we finally were able to visit the Bronx Zoo. The experience was spectacular. The only negative was that a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm in the afternoon defeated our plan to ride the monorail. We did not see the entire zoo in the time we had; the property is enormous. Pick up a map when you enter or you will get lost. Photos of some of what we saw are attached. The quality of some shots was affected by having to shoot through dirty glass.

Fun Times in New York City – Another Blackout

By now everyone surely knows that, exactly on the 42nd anniversary of the Great Blackout of 1977, much of New York City was plunged into darkness shortly before 7 pm Saturday night. Thankfully, there are no reported deaths or serious injuries attributable to the blackout that lasted for some parts of the Upper West Side until just before midnight. The New York Times reported there were some 900 emergency calls related to the blackout involving some 400 people stuck on elevators.

Our personal story had a good ending. We were sitting in the Walter Reade Theater at 165 West 65th Street, watching the Film Society of Lincoln Center short film program, Dance on Camera 2019 Shorts Program I, not altogether happy with what we were seeing, when the screen and the side lights in the theater with about 200 present suddenly went dark. Having grown up in the age of actual film, our first reaction was that the film had broken, leading to some automatic shutoff of the theater lighting. That, of course, was bad thinking.

There was no panic. The theater staff suggested everyone turn on their cell phone lights and await developments. After a brief delay, we decided to leave and return to our apartment near West 59th and 9th Avenue. On the way out, we heard someone report that the lights-out condition extended to Columbus Circle, not a good sign.

Indeed, our apartment building was dark with some residents wandering around the concierge desk near the front door. The staff was openly distraught as they thought there were residents stuck in the elevators of the two 51-story towers. We later learned that, miraculously, no one was in the elevators when the electricity brought them to a halt.

Since we live on the 50th floor, climbing to our apartment was out of the question. And while the weather was relatively mild for a July evening, our apartment would not have been a good place to be without air conditioning or a fan working. We decided instead to walk to my wife’s office at 50th and Broadway, hoping that the blackout had spared the building and refuge could be found.

Our uncertainty was fueled by the fact, stunning to me, that at least a half hour into the event we had nothing resembling information from the City, particularly the street parameters describing the extent of the blackout. Notify NYC, an app to which we subscribe, had no useful information.

Along the way to my wife’s office, we inched through massive crowds of aspiring, and perspiring, theatre-goers waiting hopefully, and hopelessly as it turned out, for the power to return. Curiously, the Winter Garden, directly across the street from her office, and the adjoining Stardust Diner, were lit up. But there was no hope for an office refuge. The power was out there too. The security staff very kindly let us use their restroom and we returned to the maelstrom on the streets.

Much has been made about the “resilience” of New Yorkers in times of stress and from what I have observed, this is largely accurate. In the midtown madness and what must have been enormous frustration in the defeated ticketholders who would not see their shows nor likely get refunds, the anxiety of tens of thousands of tourists locked out of their hotels with no place to eat or use restrooms and precious little information about what was going on, it is amazing that there were few, if any, incidents arising from this blackout. New Yorkers have seen much worse and, by and large, know what to do and not do. In several cases, entertainers from closed shows entertained people on the street in impromptu concerts. From what we saw, the much-larger-than-normal crowds everywhere in midtown were well-behaved and orderly.

However, and this is a big ‘however,’ the lack of reliable information about the extent of the outage was a real black mark against the City. Thinking of a situation much more threatening than a simple loss of power, the lack of output from the sources that should have known is astonishing and unacceptable. Our building management put out a notice at 7:23 pm, a bit more than a half hour after the incident began, informing us that our building was without power and that we should look to ConEd.com for information. ConEd’s Facebook page reported returns of power by number of customers but not by area of the city, largely useless for the people on the streets. Our building reported by email at 11:59 pm that power had been restored and that systems were being returned to service. Notify NYC never had specific information about the scope of the blackout.

If people on the streets had received alerts on the precise scope of the blackout, recognizing that as time passed, it actually spread further downtown, they might have realized that walking to the east side of town would have helped them find food, restrooms and respite from the heat.

This Monday morning, our building still did not have internal communications from the lobby to the apartments. At about 10:30 am this morning I walked to the Wells Fargo bank at West 56th and Broadway to find that the bank still was without power. The ATMs were not working.

My wife and I did not suffer during this episode. We walked from her building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal at West 41st and 8th Avenue, hoping to catch a bus to Ridgewood, NJ where my daughter lives. Amazingly, the Terminal was virtually empty, fully lit with working air conditioning, toilets and Hudson News’ stands open almost two hours have the blackout began. We bought tickets, caught the bus a short time later and were in Ridgewood before 10 pm. As we left the city, we looked back across the river and saw a stunning sight of lower Manhattan illuminated and upper Manhattan in darkness.

Monday users of the Terminal may not be so lucky, as the Authority reports:On Sunday afternoon, officials said the Port Authority Bus Terminal was still working to fix equipment outages affecting some escalators, elevators and kiosks. The air conditioning system was also not fully operational.”

Overall, the result was amazing. The emergency responders did their jobs and the public reacted to the situation with patience. We felt bad for the theatre-goers and, more importantly, for the elderly and infirm who were trapped in apartments with no ventilation or meaningful communication. Likely, neighbors looked after these folks but I continue to think the City can and should do better in communicating. In a more serious situation, the level of information available from the City will be critical to the safety of tens of thousands of people. I fully understand that in the Saturday night episode, the complexity of the electronic grid means that the true cause of the disruption may not be known for a while. But the most critical information for the public – the extent of the blackout condition – should have been known sooner and distributed through Twitter/Facebook and other accounts that would have informed most of the people who needed to know.

Streets Belong to the People

One of the things I have been particularly surprised by is the New York City practice of shutting down major roads for street fairs on weekends. I mean “major” as in 15 blocks of Ninth Avenue (from West 42nd to West 57th) on Saturday and Sunday in the most recent experience. The days was unusually warm for a mid-May day but that just meant the crowds were even larger than normal for the 9th Ave. International Food Festival.

Entering at 9th and 57th, we immediately encountered Japan.Fes and spent a good half hour watching their amazing drum show. Nothing I can say will add to it, so just look at the photo gallery below for a sample.

A brief video can be seen at https://bit.ly/31ywfvn.

The rest of the fair was just food booths and some music, including this man whose playing (theme from The Godfather) rivaled anything we’ve heard in the best jazz clubs in the world.

Needless to say, the news of the street fair blocking a major north south avenue did not reach everyone, with the result that enraged drivers forced to change plans at 57th Street felt compelled to let everyone know with their horns. As usual, that didn’t change a thing, but I suppose it made them feel better to express their objection.

The rest of the fair that we saw is here:

 

 

Preparation is Nine-Tenths ….

As previously mentioned, one of the great aspects of living in New York City is easy access to both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. NYCB was co-founded by George Balanchine, and Misty Copeland is the first African American female Principal Dancer at ABT. One benefit of a membership is the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I recently attended one of the final orchestra rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at NYCB.

The experience begins with a short lecture by one of the volunteers, in this case, Frank, with 10 years under his belt. He explained how Balanchine had developed the score for this ballet by borrowing music from multiple sources and, in effect, cutting and pasting them together with Mendelssohn’s 45 minutes of original music set to the story, so that in total there was enough music for the dancing.

When admitted to the theater, the rules are made very clear: once the rehearsal begins, no talking, texting, applause, photography, recording. Violations will be met with immediate expulsion. There were about 50 attendees and they all got the message. Throughout the rehearsal they seemed almost spellbound by the music.

Now for my usual disclaimer. I am not qualified to judge musical performance. I know what I like, of course, and while I learned a lot about the construction of music during my futile 4-year struggle to play the classical guitar, that effort ultimately failed. That said, I can say without fear of contradiction that the orchestra at NYCB is every bit as good at what it does as the dancers are in their craft.

By the time of this rehearsal, near to performance date, the musicians well know what is expected of them, but as a collective with different roles at different times, they need a conductor to keep time, tempo and, partly through body language, to guide the expressive power of the parts and the whole of the ensemble. This power is more than just volume – it’s timing and something else, as well, something … mysterious, at least to me.

The conductor, Daniel Capps, had postponed the start time for the rehearsal by a half-hour to 10:30, and exactly at time, he said, “here we go.” He takes the entire orchestra through various parts, commenting after each, requiring some replays, directing some changes: “Strings, at 320….” I cannot make out much of what he is saying. This is serious work and it’s just between him and the musicians. The musicians are at the top of their game and can start and stop anywhere the conductor chooses. He’s like a coach, urging his team to execute complicated plays. In some sense he resembles a magician, with the wand in his right hand keeping time/tempo and his left hand directing/beseeching variations with a fist, an open hand gesture, a pointed finger or splayed fingers for different sections of the orchestra.

Two women sit directly in front of the orchestra, but outside the pit, with sheet music, making notations as the orchestra moves along. I believe they must be notating the changes the conductor is mandating, but I’m not sure.

A musical orchestra is an ultimate example of how cooperation and collaboration can produce something entirely new and special that could not exist otherwise. The conductor hears things (e.g., “sluggishness”) that likely few others hear and when he calls for more pace or more power, the collective gives it to him immediately. This is not a debate; it is a performance and the conductor alone is in charge. On a few occasions he speaks to the orchestra while they are still playing. One of the deepest mysteries for me is how each musician can block out what is going on around her and concentrate on what she must do and exactly when, a talent I never acquired but must be essential to keep playing while the conductor is commenting on what is happening but not stopping for evaluation. Obviously, he won’t do this in the actual performance.

The overarching principle here is that the music is being performed so that dancers can dance to it. There are expectations about pace and timing of pauses that are critical to everything synching up in the final realization of the ballet. This is not just another music concert – it is music in concert with dance before the discerning eyes of ballet cognoscenti who have paid a lot to see everything be done perfectly. And it almost always is.

We had been told at the outset that there would be no dancers on stage during the rehearsal, but in the event a number of ballerinas appear from the sides and cruise across the stage silently. During the famous Wedding March, a male dancer appears, going through steps, and then doing hand stands. More dancers appear and cross the stage. The males reappear, doing pirouettes and other moves, clowning to the music.

I don’t think this activity can be pleasing to the conductor and, indeed, after a short break, we return to the theater to find the curtains closed.

I had forgotten how familiar many of the themes from Midsummer Night were familiar. I’ve always liked Mendelssohn’s music, the New Hebrides Overture in particular. The price of the membership that enabled this unique experience was tiny compared to the value received. This Saturday we will see Le Corsaire at ABT and it’s going to be great.

How to Meet People in New York

Here it is – the key you’ve been waiting for: how to meet people in New York. The city has a reputation for being a huge, forbidding, isolating place, packed with people who, for the most part, seem to want nothing to do with each other. But we know that’s not true. People get lonely. They buy dogs. Men even buy dogs to attract women’s attention in Central Park. This is well known. In my (limited) experience, the people of New York are just like people everywhere else and maybe more so.

Of course, you can often succeed in starting conversations by having a cute animal on a leash. I discovered yesterday that you can also succeed without buying an animal or acting like one. I went for a walk wearing this:

 

I was one of the most popular people in New York City. Here’s how it went down.

I walked from my apartment building near West 59th Street and 9th Avenue to Columbus Circle, across the Circle and into Central Park. It was a glorious spring day with plenty of sun, a light breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s. Doesn’t get much better than that here. I wandered down toward the ball fields, hoping to catch a softball game in progress. I arrived, however, just as the “senior” pitcher was recording his 4th consecutive walk and losing the game. He came off the diamond furious, slamming his glove and screaming about the umpire cheating him on “perfect pitches!” His teammates tried to calm him down as the observers, myself among them, inched away from this guy who was taking a pickup softball game a bit too seriously.

At that moment a youngish man, one of a pair, spoke to me, smiling: “Ha, you wore the wrong shirt.”

“What?” I replied, also smiling. “Why is it the wrong shirt?”

“It should say “I love New York,” laughing. I laughed back and said I loved both Hawai’i and New York. We moved on.

Upon leaving the park back at Columbus Circle, I ventured into the basement of the Time Warner business complex to see if the Whole Foods located there had any smoked salmon for sale. While studying the options in the smoked salmon display, a voice penetrated my awareness: “Youngish fella, I agree which you.”

“What?” I am starting to repeat myself. It took me a second to translate “youngish fella” as related to me. I am looking into the face of a mid-30’s man who is ripping open a box of some kind of food product and obviously works for Whole Foods. “I agree which you. That place is sure better than here.”

Now I understood and smile, mumbling something about how I too agree with him. I departed empty-handed.

I walked back on West 58th toward my apartment and decide to continue on to 10th Avenue; it’s so nice out and the extra steps will do me good. As I approached the corner at 10th, I see an older (even than me) man walking toward me somewhat unsteadily, due to health, I think, and very slowly, carrying some plastic bags. His hair is snow white and bushes out chaotically, matched by a large and equally white beard. As the distance between us narrows, he starts pointing at me. I can’t exactly understand what he’s saying but it sounds like “you, with the red thing on your chest….” I elected not to engage, respond with a nod, a smile and a thumbs-up. As I rounded the corner, he was still hailing me. I ignored him and moved on.

Turning right on West 59th to return to my building, I passed the emergency entrances to Mt. Sinai West Hospital and the bays into which the ambulances deliver their charges at all hours of the day and night. A man in uniform emerged from one of the bays as I approached. He was moving quickly but saw me and spoke, “I love it too.”

Me: “Yeah, it’s great.” I kept moving and chose not to see where he was going.

So, I returned to home ground. The roundtrip took less than two hours, including time sitting on benches in the Park, and four people spoke to me about my shirt. It’s clear the shirt was the key because today I replicated most of that walk, wearing a plain heather colored tee shirt and not a single person spoke to me. What’s that old saying: the clothes make the man? What is not so well known is that Mark Twain said that, followed by “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suspect, however, that Twain never made it to the Big Apple. Naked people likely have a big influence here.

And the Audience Went Wild

Saturday night we went to see New York City Ballet in a three-part program entitled “Balanchine Meets Peck.” As admonition/confession up front, I once again state that while an enthusiastic fan of ballet, I am not qualified by experience, study or otherwise to be a critic. But I paid for our tickets and am entitled thereby to speak my mind. So I will.

In truth, I am in thrall of what ballet dancers are able to do. Their physical discipline and skills, musical sensibility and endurance are beyond my ability to relate. I noticed on this particular night that I was actually holding my breath as they began the program. I had to remind myself more than once to breathe while I tried to focus on one or two individual dancers at a time while the action swirled around them.

The first section, entitled Principia, choreographed by Justin Peck, listed in the program as Soloist, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor to NYCB. The name roughly translates to “first principles” and is explained on the composer’s website this way:

“The new ballet is called “Principia,” based on the work of Isaac Newton and inspired by the neo-classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed Newton’s Cenotaph (though it was never built). We can think on the order of the universe to better understand our role in it. Ballet is a great vehicle for investigating the basic principles of life—of movement, physics, thought, aesthetics, politics, and behavior.  New York City Ballet is a great company to see right now as they undergo big changes and return to form. We live among the chaos and according to the laws of nature (and society). Let us not forget ourselves for what we have become. Let us remember who we are called to be.”https://sufjan.com/

Even after seeing the performance, that description escapes me. Nevertheless, there was both structure and connection between the dancers and the music in the performance and, though I am no fan of “modern music,” the performance captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The audience was enthusiastic in its applause for what had to be challenging for the dancers.

The middle section, Symphony in Three Movements, was a wholly different matter. The music was by Igor Stravinsky who, for reasons I cannot explain, is one of my favorite classical composers. George Balanchine choreographed the dance; there is nothing I can add in that regard that would be worth reading. Everything about this was magnificent and, in my view, the audience reaction was stronger than for Principia.

Then, the show went off the rails. The third installment, The Times Are Racing, performed to music by Dan Deacon and also choreographed by Peck, was for me a total failure. It had little to nothing to do with ballet, as I understand the concepts. The music was a monotonous repetitive electronica beat that sounded like what I would expect to hear in a video game arcade. The dancers wore what looked like street clothes, including tennis-style shoes, and I could detect no unifying concepts in their movements or any real connection to the music, such as it was. It’s obvious, of course, that only highly skilled dancers could have “enacted” this performance, but it was not “ballet.” It would have been quite at home, I think, at Paul Taylor Dance Company.

I have to report, however, that the audience response, that I do not begin to understand, was more enthusiastic for this piece than either of the first two or, perhaps, the first two combined. Such are the mysteries of the arts.

No need to belabor this, but I am concerned that Justin Peck’s vision for New York City Ballet is going to dominate the future of its culture. That would be very unfortunate, because I believe this approach to “ballet” at one of the city’s great art institutions will ultimately cost it a large share of its audience. Experimentation is a good thing in art – recreating classical works only goes so far – but if NYCB is going to be dominated going forward by the type of music and dance exhibited in The Times Are Racing, it is headed for trouble. Just one person’s opinion, but strongly held.