Summer in Central Park

Summer this year did not begin for us until June 1. We had been in lockdown from March 13 and did not venture out except to pick up packages a few times a week from our concierge desk. There were also a couple of short walks for medical tests, which, in my case, were denied. Readers probably know that my wife was very ill with COVID for a good two really horrible weeks. My experience was comparatively mild though the taste/smell issues have lingered to this day.

So, when June 1 arrived, we were relatively healthy again and the city was beginning to “re-open” in stages. Governor Cuomo was, and remains, very cautious to avoid restarting the horrors that New York City in particular experienced. Good for him and us. Central Park, which has always been a key attraction for us, become an “essential fix.” We started walking every day and most times visited the park. I took my camera sometimes to record the evolution of re-opening as New Yorkers came out to recover. This post reflects a partial synthesis of what we have seen.

We start with July 4, when the city promised fireworks from the top of, among others, the Empire State Building of which we have a direct view from our 50th floor aerie. The result was an overblown dud, but given the circumstances, we were fortunate to see anything at all. Here, then, are a few shots of that experience:

There are quite a few animals in Central Park, although sightings are relatively rare. I suspect none of these will surprise you:

The Park attracts a diverse audience for diverse purposes. Various forms of relaxation abound, often leading to visitors nodding off:

There are, of course, many more active pursuits, some of which are surprisingly common, though not all:

And there are plenty of just plain “scenes” that capture the eye and the imagination:

Finally, saving the best for last, there are the birds. We have learned that, during the course of a year, the Park attracts some 200 species of birds. Many are “tropical” birds that traverse the United States when flying to and from feeding/nesting grounds in the far north and the tropics. These can be seen by astute observers during their stopovers in the woods, lakes and streams in this oasis within the metropolis. Some of them are so gloriously beautiful that we have become involuntary “birders,” that more than a bit obsessive clan of people you often see carrying long lenses and binoculars/note pads peering into the trees and bushes for the sight of something small and cautious or studying the waters for the stunning sight of the Great Egrets that fish there. There are predatory hawks and tiny thrushes. Happily, my wife has a very sharp eye for animals in the wild and I take an occasional nice photo, so, birders we have become, for better or worse. We have watched the stunning documentary entitled “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” available through Amazon Prime. As birthday presents this year, I now own the “Birds of Central Park,” a gorgeous book of bird photos, as well as “Seeing Central Park,” a beautiful guide to the varied and fascinating places of interest.

So with that background, here are some of the results of our partial summer in the Park:

And, finally, wait for it ….

 

 

New York in Recovery??

We have survived the coronavirus, with some difficulty, and are thrilled, sort of, that New York City is now, finally, in Phase 1 of “reopening.” Roughly two weeks ago (it seems more recent), we began to go out again for short walks. With the exception of a couple of medical visits, this was the first going-out since the pandemic and lockdown began in mid-March. By then, unbeknown to us, the die had been cast. I was infected sometime just before the lockdown and passed the infection to my wife. I will spare readers the grim details. We are both better. I had it easy. She, the opposite. Trust me on this one thing – if it isn’t obvious to you from the statistics, accept that this is disease is, as I have previously reported, mean as a junk yard dog.

Which brings me to the point of this post. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, a man both revered and despised by different people for reasons with which I am largely unacquainted, has held daily news briefings for more than 100 days and throughout that time has begged, demanded and cajoled New Yorkers to “be smart.” New York City in particular was the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, with a rapidly mounting hospitalization and death toll beginning in early March, threatening to overwhelm even the vast medical resources of the city.

The steep rise in cases and deaths continued until one fine day when it began to level off (“flattening the curve,” was the term applied), stayed more or less level and then began a slower decline to where it is now, with daily deaths attributed to COVID in the neighborhood of 35. The Governor has made clear that the reopening of the state and of New York City was strictly dependent upon the data. If there are upticks, restrictions will be swiftly re-imposed. “Be smart” about how you conduct yourself, he has repeatedly urged, and we will be fine. Each region of the state will be separately evaluated every day.

So, with that as background, we emerge from our “bunker” and begin to take walks of up to 2 miles, just in the neighborhood and sometimes into Central Park that is about a third-of-a-mile away. We try walking early, say at 8 or 9 am, on the theory that there will be fewer people on the street at that time, but this is not apparent when we’re out there. We also walk at noon and in the early evening. It’s the same. As the days progress, both pedestrian and automobile traffic noticeably increase everywhere we go. But in no sense is it crowded. It just seems that way. The psychology of the pandemic, I suppose. Open space feels cramped when every person you encounter is seen as the possible source of re-infection with a disease that could kill you.

As we progress through the two-week period, a couple of things change. Mask-wearing seems to be diminishing. It’s not a scientific determination, more of a gut judgment, but it feels quite accurate. At the beginning, the end of May, we estimated non-compliance was around 10 percent of people we saw. That seemed high and mildly concerning, but as we approached June 8, the official reopening of New York City, non-compliance rose to about 20 percent. Not a comfortable or encouraging situation. The infection rate is also creeping upward, slowly but inexorably upward according to daily reports from covidactnow.org. On May 3, the 7-day rolling average infection rate was .63 and on June 2 was .84. As long as that number is below 1.0, the total number of COVID cases will continue to decline, but the projections indicate a rate of .9 by June 9, now three days ago. We anxiously await updated numbers, but we are getting perilously close to the point at which the Governor has said he will order another lockdown. In a few more days we likely will begin to see the results of the massive protests that recently occurred throughout Manhattan and the boroughs.

The Governor now says that the key number to watch going forward is the “tested infection rate” that is holding in Manhattan at 1.2 percent based on about 50,000 statewide tests per day. Time will tell.

Non-compliance in the neighborhood is not limited to any group. It is young, old, bike riders, casual strollers, mothers with children, delivery personnel. “My mask protects you; your mask protects me” seems to be a hollow sentiment to those who shun masks or wear them under their chin. Smoking on the street is still seen. We try hard not to breathe exhaled smoke. Any breeze is always a welcome relief because we’ve been told that the virus does not remain concentrated in moving air.

Yesterday, our early evening walk took us to Columbus Circle where we observed, for the third time, a phalanx of police vehicles and Central Park West closed by metal railings, all to protect the Trump International Hotel. A large number of police were present as well. My inquiry as to why NYPD was set up to protect the private property of Donald Trump who does not live in this hotel (it’s just one of his branded commercial properties), an officer said they were expecting protesters. Since Trump can easily afford his own security for the businesses he continues to own while serving as president, I resent the use of city resources to provide security services for his properties.

Finally, a few nights ago, we came across a restaurant on Broadway that was open for business outdoors, with numerous tables occupied by un-masked dinners/drinkers. A large sign in front proclaimed “open.” I reported this to the mayor’s office and the city health department. We haven’t been back that way yet to see if it’s still violating the reopening rules. The fact that this happened so openly is not a good sign for the future of reopening. If that restaurant is not stopped, competing restaurants may decide to follow suit and the proverbial barn door will be open.

The data from states that have reopened incautiously is not encouraging. Virtually all of them have experienced significant spikes in infections following their reopenings. Today the Governor reported 23 states with spikes, of which 15 are experiencing their highest- ever infection rates. Their political leadership seems not to be concerned and under the sway of those who scream that their “rights” are being violated by lockdown orders. We truly live in insane times. I don’t know what else to say. Stay well if you can.

 

 

Angels in New York

Just when you least expect it and are sinking into the despair of self-isolation with a sick spouse and extreme personal vulnerability to the coronavirus, someone appears as if by magic to save the day. It’s not magic, of course; it’s human kindness and generosity at its best. I referred to her as an angel in an email and, with no prompting from me, my wife used the same terms. It must therefore be true.

The story is simple enough. My wife has come down with what appears to be COVID-19. We don’t know how it happened. We’ve taken all the precautions. Nonetheless, a doctor in a televisit said she thought it was COVID. It fits the symptoms list perfectly. Fortunately, so far, there are no breathing issues. But you may take my word for it – this virus is mean as a junk yard dog. Everything bad you’ve heard about it is true.

Anyway, my own vulnerability has led my wife to vehemently object to my leaving the apartment. Since she became ill six days ago, I have left only twice to pick up food deliveries and packages at the concierge desk and that was over her protest. When she started to need some things we had consumed, like ginger ale, I found that it is impossible to order online at CVS for delivery of items sold “only in store.” We then recalled that a few people in our building (700 apartments in two towers) have volunteered through the resident portal to help people like us. One of them was recent. I found her message and we began to communicate.

Skipping some of the details, she instantly agrees to trek to the CVS around the corner to buy whatever we need. Faced with imminent store closure (it’s Saturday night at 8 pm and the normal “open 24 hours” has apparently been suspended), she makes them stay open until she gets everything we asked for and delivers it to our door. She exhibits no impatience whatsoever as we text back and forth about the options/brands, etc. She wants us to have exactly what we want, not just what is convenient for her to grab and go. I am a bit overwhelmed.

This leads to a second trip the next day when we discover other needs. She texts me from the store to recommend an over-the-counter medication that may help my wife’s nausea (it did) after consulting with the pharmacist about it. She sends photos of various options so I can choose specifically what she should buy.

She patiently helps me struggle to reimburse her through her website (standby re that), but refuses to accept anything beyond the actual cost of the purchases. She says: “no way I’m taking anything other than exact amount.  Grandpa, who stormed the front in Battle of Bulge, would be horrified and embarrassed if I were to dishonor family name during time of national crisis.”

Now, I know I’ve encountered someone very special. An angel in human disguise. In New York City. We exchange a bunch more emails and texts after I check out her website where she manages, as a hobby, a meditation/mindfulness training program for working people. My wife in particular is interested in this for her post-recovery work life. It turns out this new friend-by-text and I are both alums of Yale University (me, Yale College, she the Law School) and Harvard (me the law school, she the Business School). To respect her privacy, I will not identify her by name. Her resume is intimidating. I joke that I and members of my class often observe that we probably couldn’t get into Yale now and her background shows why. She finds this amusing. She has a sense of humor and an infectious positive attitude toward life. [Is it a pun to refer to “infectious positive attitude” during a pandemic?]

I explain that since there is an immutable rule of life that no good deed goes unpunished, there will be two consequences to her work as Good Samaritan for us: one is that my wife must make dinner for her when the lockdown ends and life returns to some semblance of normality. The other is that I will write about her in this blog.

This is a story that must be told and included in my tales of life in New York City. She demurs on the blog but we agree she will bring dessert of her choice to the dinner. She sends me a remarkable photo of a multi-color dessert cake she had baked and says, “be afraid.” Date to be determined but I am optimistic we will make this happen.

And, for sure, my wife and I will be made better by having known this generous, ebullient, kind-hearted person, an unexpected benefit from the pandemic. As I conclude this post at 7 pm, I hear the New Yorkers that have balconies applauding, banging pots and cheering for that other group of angels working in the Emergency Rooms and ICUs around the city. This happens every day and apparently has started a national “movement,” as well it should. Giants and angels come in all sizes and in many disguises. If you’re lucky enough, an angel will find you too. I hope so.

 

New York Philharmonic Orchestra Pandemic Performances

Everyone knows by now that all live music and dance performances on Broadway, jazz clubs, Lincoln Center and elsewhere in New York City are on indefinite pause. For those of us who can’t get enough of these extraordinary “gifts” of this city, this is a particularly dark time on top of the, obviously more serious, general lockdown that has necessarily been imposed.

But, thanks to human ingenuity and determination, all is not lost. Among the many arts institutions offering online streaming of past performances is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Every Thursday at 7:30 pm on the NYPO Facebook page, one can link to a truly amazing experience. Last night, for example, the NYPO showed a May 1994 performance conducted by Kurt Masur that was “attended” electronically by people all over the world. Three Beethoven masterpieces were performed: the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by the orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Emanuel Ax on piano) and, finally and oh so remarkably, Symphony No. 5. You can see the performance at: https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/525953654947771/ and also at https://nyphil.org/playson

[As an aside, check out https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/630361074485568/ where cellists of NYPO perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in G major]

In May 1994, Masur, then the music director of NYPO, was approaching 67 years of age and Ax was just 44. They “brought the house down.”

The program actually began with an introduction by Hugh Downs followed by an interview in present time, with Alec Baldwin engaging Ax from another location where he was holed up. The two artists from different disciplines shared some of their similar feelings of nervous tension experienced before performances, with Baldwin wisely noting that “I would never compare what I do to what you do.” It’s fair, I think, to say Ax is a “genial genius” whose talents were shortly on full display in his execution of the Piano Concerto.

Masur, the more mature of the two in 1994, is described in Wikipedia as “one of the last old-style maestros.” I am not qualified to comment on that but watching Masur conduct is an extraordinary sight. He speaks to the orchestra with his hands, of course, but also a lot with his eyes and facial expressions. He goes from an apparent passivity to what reminded me of lightning in a storm. His passion transfers to the musicians, each of whom is surely a virtuoso in his/her own right. He stood on the riser for all three pieces with no sheet music, an imposing presence at 6 feet 3 inches height and in full command of the music and the orchestra.

Again, I am not qualified to judge but Emanuel Ax’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 is breathtaking to watch and hear. You can see him “talking” to himself as he blasts through some of the faster passages, fingers moving through muscle memory alone over dozens of notes in seconds. He too has no sheet music.

A unique aspect of these presentations is that there are multiple cameras that are regularly used by the unseen director to capture closeups of the musicians, lingering briefly and moving on to another section of the orchestra. Even from the best seats in the house, you could not see these details of what the musicians are doing at any time.

The concert closed with a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The playing was preceded by a talk of a number of musicians who explained some of the features of the symphony that everyone experiences without actually understanding why. It was like auditing an advanced class in music theory and practice. The concert itself was supernatural, all the more so because of new insights gathered beforehand.

Finally, note that on April 3 the Philharmonic did a special presentation of Ravel’s Balero as a tribute to healthcare workers everywhere. Not only were the music and musicianship extraordinary, but the musicians were each playing from home using Zoom. You can see/hear it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3UW218_zPo For a similar experience, by a flash-mob in Spain (2013 when public gatherings were still possible), see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsF53JpBMlk complete with cymbals and kettle drums.

How glorious it is that these masterpieces can be shared this way and enjoyed over and over. I can’t wait for the day when we can return to a live concert hall, theater or club to experience the unbelievable skill and creativity that will once again, one fine day, be on display.

 

Adult Guide to Attending Broadway Shows

Based on a ghastly experience last night at the St. James Theater showing of Frozen the Musical, I thought this guide might be useful, especially if it were forwarded far and wide to people who might actually need the information provided.

When buying tickets for a show, be sure you understand the seating, restroom and stairs/elevator situation in the theater you’re going to attend. Many New York theaters were built many years ago when people with physical limitations never attended shows or if they did, their interests were ignored in the design. Most of the older theaters have chosen not to spend the resources to update their facilities; apparently, the law does not require them to do so.

It is, therefore, common to find that tiny restrooms are not anywhere near your seats or indeed on the same level as your seats. This can be disconcerting during what are sometimes short breaks relative to the lines that form even at the men’s facilities. By way of example only, our balcony seats at the St. James involved a 77- step climb from the entry level, and the men’s room up there had two urinals. There are no elevators. The extent of the climb is not covered on the ticketing website, www.frozenthemusical.com but only in the Accessibility section of the website for the theater where no tickets may be purchased and that took some searching to find. https://www.jujamcyn.com/shows/frozen/

Note carefully whether your show has intermissions. Many Broadway shows run two hours or more without an intermission. This can be challenging for … well, you know.

When considering a show to see, think carefully about the likely makeup of the audience. Frozen’s website says it is “intended for ages 8+ and is not recommended for anyone under the age of 4. If you have already purchased a ticket for a child under 4, please contact Disney Theatrical Guest Services.” All well and good, but there were many children under 4 in the audience on Saturday night. However, candor compels me to note that by-and-large the children were better behaved than some of the “adults.” More on that later.

One of the consequences of a show like this is that many children need booster seats to see over the heads of adults in front of them. This was not so much as issue for most of the small kids, but once the “adults” saw what was happening, they too asked for booster cushions. This led to a cascading effect as people in higher rows were confronted with tall adults now even taller and they too asked for cushions. And so on.

Another consequence of such a show is that many audience members have seen the movie, know the story and react viscerally to events. This led to considerable hooting and hollering at various developments in the show. While audience enthusiasm should be encouraged, it can be disconcerting and overshadow what is happening on the stage. It seems more important to these guests to make noise than to hear what is happening next. Be prepared.

Now, for some rules of “adult behavior.” These are based on observed behavior at musicals, shows and even ballet performances at Lincoln Center.

  1. Do not make out with your partner.
  2. Do not lean on your partner, then shift your body far away, then later back, then ….
  3. Do not talk to your partner when the show is underway. Save it for the break or the end.
  4. Absent a genuine physical emergency, do not leave your seat for the restroom or bar while the show is underway. If you do, you should NOT return to the theater until the intermission.
  5. Keep your shoes on and your feet on the floor. Do NOT put your bare feet on the seat.
  6. During intermissions, do not sit in your seat obsessively taking selfies.

Last night, the young woman seated next to my wife did this during the break, taking photo after photo as she adjusted her hair, changed the tilt of her head, made “sexy” shapes of her mouth and so on. It was distracting and obnoxious.

  1. Do NOT get out of your seat until the intermission.

Last night there was an unexpected break in the show, when a prop malfunctioned. An announcement was made but no directive to remain seated. Two stage staff struggled to fix the problem. Numerous “adults” now decided to go to the restroom or to the bar, then returned after the show started, struggling to return to their seats in the dark. The theater personnel should have prevented this, but regardless, act like an adult and have some respect for the other guests and for the performers.

  1. Do NOT treat the theater as if you’re at a baseball game. This is not the venue for rustling plastic wrappers, sharing candy and nuts and slurping drinks.
  2. The seats in many older theaters are quite narrow and there is little room between rows. Either check your coats or keep your coat and other belongings within the area of your seat.
  3. DO NOT KEEP YOUR CELLPHONE ON DURING THE PERFORMANCE. DO NOT SNEAK PHOTOS OR RECORDINGS. DO NOT TEXT, EMAIL OR TALK. JUST DON’T.

 

I Love the Sound of a Symphony in the Morning

I have once again had the opportunity to attend a New York City Ballet orchestra rehearsal of for both Stravinky’s Firebird and Tschaikovsky’s Allegro Brillante starting tonight. It started at 10 am with a volunteer’s explanation of the background of Stravinsky’s composition of the music for Firebird, after which the group of attendees (perhaps 25 in number) was ushered into the seating area as the rehearsal began. The seating area is near the front of the orchestra, the best seats I’m likely to ever have. And the price ($0) was right.

Even more right was the music itself. While we were told that the rehearsal was not a performance but only a practice that would likely be interrupted by the conductor, the reality was that they orchestra initially played the entire music through from beginning to end before the conductor took them through the changes. Our membership thus earned an opportunity to hear what amounted to a full concert. The music, even without the dancers, is simply stunning. Conductor Andrew Litton clearly knows the score in great depth. After running through the entire piece, Litton worked through many sections he wanted to be done differently, covering all of the iconic sections as well as less well-known parts that tie everything together.

One of the most amazing aspects of a professional orchestra is that the conductor can call on it to start anywhere in the lengthy score and they can immediately pick up the music at that place at the proper pace and volume. Their knowledge of the music is total.

After a short break, the orchestra moved into Allegro Brillante, again playing, I believe, the entire piece before going back to clean up a few details that only the conductor heard.

As I sat there, I thought “how lucky I am that on this frigid January morning, I am able to sit in this beautiful classically-styled concert hall and listen to some of the most extraordinary music ever composed being performed by a world-class orchestra.” Every time this happens, I believe I am permanently changed into a slightly better person. It’s analogous, I suppose, to being sick and receiving a super medicine that makes you well again immediately. It may not work forever but while it’s magic is happening, it is sublime.

Fotografiska New York

Yesterday we visited Fotografiska New York, a Swedish transplant museum dedicated to photography. The museum is housed in the old Church Missions House that resembles an old-Europe church from the outside, situated at Park Avenue South and 22nd Street. The building dates to 1894, squarely within the Gilded Age. Inside, it’s all modern, with a coffee shop in the lobby and five upper floors, four of which contain the exhibits. If not disposed to climb a lot of stairs, you can take the very modest (maybe six passengers) elevator to Floor Six and then walk down.

On Sunday there were two particularly compelling exhibits. A one-woman show by Ellen von Unwerth entitled “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” contained some extraordinary photographs. Be advised, however, that some of these photos are very explicit and not for most young children’s eyes. We were also impressed especially by Tawny Chatmon’s “Inheritance” show, consisting of stunning shots of Black women and children enhanced with elaborate ornamentation added by hand to the photographs. The result are powerful portrayals of people not normally found in museums that tend to feature extensive historical portraits of white people in room after room.

Helene Schmitz’s “Thinking like a Mountain” is a series of large frame shots of natural formations that dramatically illustrate the impact of man’s rapacious reshaping of the natural landscape of even the most resistant zones of pure rock.

Fotografiska is not a large museum – you can see everything in less than an hour. And it’s open early (9 am daily) and stays late, really late, as in 11 pm except for Thursday through Sunday when it’s midnight.

Finally, my one serious beef with the place and this is not unique to Fotografiska. The labels explaining the titles of photographs and some, usually limited, information in small type-face were typically placed at the lower corner so that a person of six-foot height would have to bend way down to read them, often in limited light. This was not only uncomfortable but in many cases I simply could not make out what the labels said. I can’t understand what the thinking was behind the decision to place the labels so low and in dim light or full shadow, particularly in a museum clearly focused on an adult audience. If the positioning is intended to assist visitors in wheelchairs, wonderful, but then why not (1) put some light on the labels and (2) have a second label at roughly eye-level for average walking visitors so that everyone can read them.

That gripe notwithstanding,, Fotografiska New York is well worth a visit.

 

Bronx Zoo Lights

Since we are catching up on holiday photos, I am going to share a large “sample” of shots taken during our visit to the Bronx Zoo for its Zoo Lights exhibit before Christmas past. It was really cold and there were relatively few people there, a fact I would normally celebrate, but during the holidays, making for a somewhat strange experience. That said, we persevered and discovered the mother lode of displays in the back half of the imposingly large zoo.  Here is much of what we saw.

Holiday Lights

Better late than never, I suppose,  the following sample of photos was taken while we were showing a good friend around the city on a cold and not-quite-wet night before Christmas.. The first ten shots are from the holiday fair at Bryant Park and the lion statue at the New York Public Library. The rest are mainly from stores along 5th Avenue, plus, of course, Rockefeller Center where the large tree attracts huge numbers of viewers every night. The sequence of castle-like light displays is from the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue, a spectacular show that also attracts huge crowds.Happy Belated Holidays!