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.

Two Nights on the Town

Friday last we visited the West Side Comedy Club on West 75th Street. I have to confess I am no fan of such venues. My experiences with them have been uniformly bad for two reasons: (1) many stand-up comics think they have to use foul and often disgusting language and stories in order to get laughs from modern audiences (Rule 1 is “don’t do this,” and (2) I go to shows to be entertained, not to be part of the entertainment for the other guests (Rule 2 is “don’t try to engage me in your shtick.”) Call me old-fashioned if you must, but that’s how it’s been. I therefore approached this particular evening with some trepidation.

As fate would have it, some of my worst fears were realized. Three of the first four comics were guilty of violating both Rule 1 and Rule 2. I am not sure about the other one because I could understand little of what he said. Old ears, I suppose.

Comic Five, one Sherrod Small, on the other hand, was both funny and also making some serious points about human behavior at the same time. He went on a bit long with a series of “jokes” about Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the gruesome murders of at least 30 women. Then he switched to racial jokes and the audience enthusiasm immediately dimmed. Small observed that it was pretty striking that people were more bothered by racial jokes than serial murderer jokes. Anyway, Small’s deal was within the bounds of acceptable comedy club stuff by my rather stodgy rules.

Then came Brian Scott McFadden, a genuinely funny rascal of a man with numerous mannerisms and voices with great comedic timing who wrapped up the evening with a raucous variety of stories and jokes. His riff on the airline boarding process was hysterical because it was so closely based on the truth about what goes on. McFadden brought to mind George Carlin but without the constant cursing. I would definitely see McFadden again.

Saturday night arrived with little in the way of movies to offer so we decided (actually I just went along with the idea) to go to a poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poetry Club in the East Village. With 46 years under its belt, the Club qualifies as an “institution” by any standard. As this photo shows, the Club is not much to look at inside:

Don’t let that fool you. To some extent, this is one of those “you had to be there” scenes that cannot be adequately conveyed in an after-the-fact report like this one.

Nevertheless, while it’s fair to say that the quality of the “poetry” was highly variable, some genuinely talented performances and powerful messages were delivered, many of which went on for close to five minutes. It was clear that these were mostly practiced and confident slam poets but, some 24 hours later, some of their voices still resonate in my mind.

The poets were all volunteers who just signed up on the spot to speak their minds. A couple of young white boys, roughly college age, from Vermont, a 13-year old girl from Washington DC who had a lot to say in a short space about the sanctity of her person and the threats to it in American policy, a youngish woman from Barbados named Birdspeed, with a lot of anger and passion about her position as a black woman in contemporary society and, most compellingly, a black man from Ohio, LJ Hamilton, who delivered an incredible soliloquy that, if it had a title, would have been “I Don’t Want to be Black No More.” One of the Vermont boys, Birdspeed and LJ made the finals based on audience enthusiasm and ultimately, and wrongly in my view, the Barbadian lady was declared the winner. She was good, very good, but I thought LJ was clearly better. In any case the difference between them was small and, upon reflection, it was impossible not to think that these were at least semi-professionals at their craft. You can see Birdspeed here: http://bit.ly/2IyEgdu and hear LJ Hamilton here: http://bit.ly/2Pn5hBd.

As we departed the club, I stopped to speak to LJ and told him I thought he should be publishing. He was visibly moved, asked my name and shook my hand. He said he had indeed produced some books but from what I can find, the books are related to his poetry but do not contain the poetry. They are more like self-help books. Too bad, because his poetry was among the most powerful in content and voice that I have ever heard.

So, two nights on the town and, once again, unrepeatable experiences that we will long remember. As out of character as it may be, it’s highly likely that I will return to the Nuyorican, or another club like it, to hear more young people (mostly) expressing themselves through spoken word poems of power and passion. As troubling as their anger may be, and it seems fully justified, they also convey a strong message that says, “I understand why I am angry and I intend to do something about it.” In that may lay our salvation.

Greenwich Village on a Nice Day

We followed the NY Times suggested walking route that turned out to be a good move because we saw some interesting sights we likely would have missed. There are some pretty famous places in what is also known as the West Village and we saw several. Foremost was the Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of modern gay rights movement..

The Stonewall Inn is famous for an early morning police raid that led to a pitched battle in the streets as the gay/lesbian patrons fought back against a police roust of the bar as was their habit in those days.

A longer  summary of the story may be found at https://bit.ly/2U04IxV

Greenwich Village is also the home of many long-term jazz clubs, including the Village Vangaurd, and these establishments of variable stature::

Many other famous people are memorialized in the Village:

Many other visual delights await the observant visitor.

Home

This weekend I ventured far away from New York City for only the second time since we arrived here in late 2017. The first was a cruise out of Boston in October 2018 that turned into a partial disaster (ship caught in storm, waves crashing through windows, skipping the best port due to high winds and cold and wet almost everywhere we went – enough of that). Maybe it was the close quarters on the ship that made it seem like we were still in New York, but in any case I somehow didn’t feel like we had really left. We were certainly glad to return, from Quebec City by air, but there was little emotional content to the entire event.

This most recent trip was another matter. I made a last minute decision to train down to Washington to join my wife in Alexandria who was there for work. We stayed in Old Town, our former home for many years, the entire time, enjoying meals with old friends, though there was not enough time to see everyone for which failure I feel bad. But, importantly, my wife was able to return to her former hula halau for a practice and see her “hula sisters” with whom she had danced for twelve years. Saturday night we dined alone in an old favorite just down the street. The weather went from unseasonably warm on Friday to cold and blustery on Saturday and Sunday – typical for this time of year here and in New York. We did not see much of Old Town, staying within a few blocks of our hotel the entire time.

Some things struck me as very odd about the trip. The first was the taxi ride from Union Station in DC to the Alexandria hotel. The streets seemed almost deserted, although it was Friday afternoon. Where were all the people? I also noticed that the roadway, at least outside DC, was smooth; no back-wrenching jolts every ten feet like the relief-map profile of Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. It was eerily quiet. Only one driver honked his horn.

The same thing happened on the return trip to the train station Sunday morning. People drove on the GW parkway in two parallel files at the speed limit with virtually no jousting for position. Just silence and moving ahead at a steady, relaxed pace. What was wrong with these people?

On the train back to New York City I realized with sudden clarity that I had actually missed the City. We were returning not just to Manhattan but to our home, in every sense of the word. New York really is now where we’re from and I genuinely missed it. I recalled the old truism that home is where you make it. As counter-intuitive as it might have seemed, I have become attached to Manhattan. I don’t know if I love it, exactly, but it is definitely our home.

Photo below, taken by Dina, is front of our favorite restaurant in Old Town Alexandria.