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:

 

 

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.

What If a Man (Woman) Could Fly?

That line from one of the early Superman movies came to mind the other night as my wife and I were privileged to see the New York City Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty. At times I had to remind myself to breathe as the dancers leapt, spun and “flew” to perfect landings again and again.

What was I worried about? The answer, I think, was the mind’s innate reluctance to accept so much defiance of the laws of gravity and the normal limits of physical stamina, all accompanied by the NYCB full orchestra playing the extraordinary music of Tschaikovsky, brilliant costumes and staging, and on and on. Just stunning. No other word for it.

I readily confess I am no authority on this art form, but one particularly interesting thing occurred last night. By virtue of a membership my wife bought, we were able to attend a full dress rehearsal of the performance a week earlier. We only stayed for the first act and thought it was amazing. The rehearsal was only stopped twice, for very brief consultations; otherwise, it was the complete show, so we thought. But the real performance was almost like a different ballet. Everything about it seemed outsized, bolder, more precise, more … powerful.

This was clearest in the performances of the Lilac Fairy danced by Miriam Miller, a member of the corps de ballet, and of Princess Aurora danced by Lauren Lovette, an NYCB principal dancer. As great as all the dancers were, these two seemed to be at a different and higher level. Miller’s use of her long arms made her seem, in my wife’s word, ethereal. Lovette exuded power, grace and confidence. And several dozen students from the School of American Ballet performed in the huge cast – they all looked like seasoned professionals to me.

I have nothing more to say about this without blathering, but if you ever have the chance to see Sleeping Beauty at NYCB, don’t pass it up. Or any of the other amazing performances at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. You will be convinced, as I now am, that a man and a woman can indeed fly.

 

Sign of the Times, Just Rude … or Both?

I have played Mr. Nice Guy about New York City for almost a year now, and that has been genuine. I actually do enjoy living here. At times though, it’s like being a menhaden or other schooling fish. You go where the other fish go and try to stay out of their way when they, driven by mysterious forces, suddenly decide to change direction. If you prefer a flocking bird metaphor, that’s fine too.

So, it’s time to unload a few frustrations. I’m pretty sure these are not unique to New York. I am reliably advised that Washington DC has similar issues but, having lived in the Virginia suburbs for several decades, I mostly steered clear of DC.

There are four things: blocking the sidewalk, wearing giant backpacks on the subway, removing shoes at the ballet and, last but certainly not least, making out during a Broadway show.

First, the sidewalks. Even people who’ve never been here have seen enough movies to know that NYC is crowded. There are people everywhere, often in large numbers, and they are usually in a hurry. Yesterday, a Sunday, the area around Macy’s and Herald Square was mobbed. I have written about the rushing before, but this issue is about … not rushing. It’s about people who are walking along and suddenly stop to look at a life-changing text message … or to send one they just thought of – or to catch up on the news, or, more likely, to check again since the last time five minutes ago to see if a friend has posted anything new on Facebook or Instagram. These people seem to be oblivious to the fact that there are other people trying to use the same sidewalk to which they have now staked an adverse possession (legal term, sorry) claim. Another variation occurs at the city’s numerous hotels when departing guests, waiting for their rides, park their suitcases in the middle of the sidewalk while they chat, smoke or, yet again, check their phones for incoming messages of earth-shattering importance while ignoring the other pedestrians just trying to get somewhere. There oughta be a law.

Second, I get the idea that people want to carry a lot of stuff when moving around the city. People need their work papers and, of course, laptops, iPads and other “devices.” I also see a lot of water bottles (in case there is a water shortage) and enough “stuff” to support a Himalayan expedition. If you have to carry all that stuff, take the damn thing off and place it between your feet or clutch it to your chest. Anything but occupying the space of two people when, as is often the case, there is only room for one-half a person in the first place. I think the city should revise its passenger counts for subway usage to include an extra person for every large backpack. The data would then show that more people used the subway than could possibly fit in the total available space unless they were stacked in their like logs. Well, they often are.

Third, and now we’re getting down to the serious stuff, there is removal of shoes at the ballet. Admittedly, I have only seen this once (at Lincoln Center, mind you; Lincoln Center!!), but it has stuck with me like a bad dream ever since:

I suspect this person was sending the message, “see my damaged feet? I’m a dancer too.” But, to quote Rhett Butler, frankly, madam, I don’t give a damn. I didn’t pay all that money to look at your bare feet during the performance.  Or during intermission, or any other time, for that matter. Keep your bare feet to yourself. Please!

Finally, and this one was probably more disturbing than the others combined because it went on, and on …  and on. We went to see the Broadway musical King Kong. I wrote a blog post about the show which was wonderful. The couple sitting in front of us, estimated to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s, could not keep their hands off of each other. They were snuggling, kissing and hugging, and whispering in each other’s ears, throughout the show. He repeatedly put his arm around her, then after a bout of whatever, made a big show of removing his arm, swinging it up in front of my face.

They were oblivious to everyone around them, implying that they behave this way in public all the time. Yet, every time Kong appeared or did something spectacular, the young man hooted and yelled like he was in a country bar. And the guy was incredibly tall so all the sideways movement as he and his lovely came together and separated left me constantly shifting in my seat to see around his moving head. The people behind me could not have been happy either. Then, at the end of the show and while the curtain was still descending, the pair was out of their seats like a shot, not willing to take even a minute to participate in the standing ovation so richly deserved by the cast.

So, there it is. I feel better. I think. Maybe not. Continuing the Gone With the Wind theme, Vivien Leigh famously said, “tomorrow is another day.” It is, but will it be better? It will. We have tickets to The Band’s Visit and the Nutcracker. And it’s a new ballet season. Does Amazon sell blinders for humans?

Barber Shops of New York

When I lived in Northern Virginia, barber shops seemed to be on their way out. I worked for the government in the late 60s, and there was a true barber shop in the basement of our building on Connecticut Avenue. It was as bare bones as you can get. Usually two barbers. Mike, the owner, was much younger than the other barber and seemed to be the favorite for most customers. There were five or six well worn and uncomfortable chairs with a small collection of Playboy-genre magazines to keep your mind busy while you waited. Often there were one or two older men in there, using the place as a social scene, just hanging out and occasionally saying something or other to Mike who was a young man of very few words. He was not into extraneous conversation but did what was necessary to be civil and not discourage these men who would, from time to time, actually get a haircut.

I continued to visit Mike’s barber shop for years after leaving the government but eventually it became too inconvenient. I believe that when that government agency closed around 1985, Mike’s business there ended as well. As is true for so many of the people who play some part in our lives for a while, I have no idea what happened to him.

I ended up going to women’s hair salons for haircuts, a practice that continued, with one interruption, until I left for New York City. The interruption occurred when a friend who was then getting “buzz cuts,” for reasons neither of us could explain, told me how inexpensive his lady barber was. And her shop was just down the street from my office at that time. I went to her three times, I think. The haircuts were no better than fair, but the last two visits she spent the entire time with a phone crooked on her shoulder, cutting my hair and talking loudly to a friend. The thought of what she might inadvertently do to my hair ended our “relationship” and I returned to the much more expensive salon in my office building.

Now to New York City. One of my early questions about moving here was “what is it going to cost to get a haircut in New York City?” And where will I find a salon? Unknown to me at the time, barber shops are plentiful in The City. And they charge half what I was paying the salon in Virginia.

I found one close to our apartment and just walked in. They were not bothered by the fact that I was pretty shaggy by then. The barber was free asked me whether I wanted “scissors or clipper,” a question I had never faced before. In my salon the primary tool was always scissors and I never questioned it. In any case, I am now a regular at Gotham City Barber Shop:

The inside of this classic place looks like this:

Here are some of the tools of the trade, precisely laid out like the instruments a surgeon might use:

 

 

 

 

 

The outward presentation of New York’s barber shops is as varied as the population. Here are some examples:

This one is below ground.

Some are located deep inside office buildings like Rockefeller Center or even subway stations:

And some have ingenious, if somewhat mysterious, names:

Just another example of the staggering variety and availability of personal services in the megalopolis.

 

 

 

Planes, Trains and … Chaos

Imagine this scenario — you arrive at the airport, any airport, check in, pass through security and then … you enter the large central space with all the other passengers and their carry-on bags, children, pet carriers, shopping bags, briefcases, etc. and you wait. And wait. And wait some more. You and everyone who is paying attention, which is fewer and fewer people as time passes, stare hopefully at the large electronic board mounted near the ceiling. You wait some more as your attention begins to wander.

Then, without warning, the information on the big board changes and a voice emerges from the speaker system announcing that your flight will be boarding immediately at Gate 1. In keeping with frequent airport design practice, Gate 1 is the furthest gate from where you are standing, down a long concourse full of other nearly hysterical travelers trying to line up according to their station (you know, first class, business class, Ruby, Platinum, Kryptonite, Silver, etc. followed by people with no station who, in earlier times, would have been placed below decks in steerage. Now, in the Age of Flight, they are merely put in window seats in the Coach section near the rest rooms.

They board last. If they bought the latest airline fare “innovation,” they may not place carryon bags in the overhead compartments. They didn’t understand this, but now they do. Seasoned travelers on the flight hate people who are trying to save money and are uninformed. There is congestion in the aisle as the flight attendants frantically try to get everyone seated with bags stowed, large electronics off “so we can have an on-time departure.”

The airport “cattle call” I have described is not, of course, reality, at least not until you board the plane. That’s why I started with the word “imagine.” But this is the reality of a train trip in New York City starting at Penn Station. The track announcements are awaited by the gathering crowds in the center hall of the station. They are posted on the centrally placed schedule board more or less at the same time an oral announcement is made over the general din that pervades the place most of the time.

The crowd then surges toward the named gate and forces its way down the escalator to the track below. curbed.com says that about 650,000 commuters pass through Penn Station daily so it is not hard to imagine the scene. In the Amtrak section of the station, there are 27 gates, accessed through 14 gates/escalators, about half of which are designated “east” and the other half “west,” so it pays to no your directions. Still, your chances of being trampled are pretty good unless you are quick on your feet and can handle your luggage adroitly. If not, you would be wise to hook up with the Red Caps in the Amtrak Waiting Area.

The Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit also serve Penn Station. If you’re good with maps, you can see a visual layout of Penn Station at https://bit.ly/2JbpdXS but you have to experience it to believe it.

Some of the “storied” history of Penn Station can be found at https://bit.ly/2wU3I7h along with the “plans” for its future. I am already a cynic and I’ve only lived here six months. But I’ve used Penn Station dozens of times over the years so my cynicism is at least somewhat justified.

One must wonder why they can’t determine the track assignments at least somewhat in advance of a train’s arrival. I have asked the Red Caps a few times but never got an answer that made sense to me. It is the age of computers, after all, though I suspect Amtrak’s computers are just plain aged. Forewarned is forearmed, so be prepared. And just be glad the railroads don’t run the airlines.

Footnote:  If you are coming on Amtrak into Penn Station from, say, Washington, you have a different issue. First, you will exit the train (minding the inevitable gap between the train and the platform) and, usually, take the escalator up to the main hall of the station. Then your challenge is: take a taxi or take the subway? If subway, you just follow the relatively obvious signs to the subway station you want. If you want a  taxi, you face the question whether to exit at 8th Avenue or 7th Avenue. Bear in mind that 8th Avenue runs one-way going uptown and 7th Avenue is one-way downtown. Also, the never-ending construction around Penn Station may alter the location of taxi stands, so be prepared for that surprise too. But, hey, you’re in New York!