A New York State of Mind
We used to frequent New York every year or so, but lately our visits to the States go west towards California or to our daughter in Philadelphia. But this year determined to avoid birthday drama, we returned to the city that never sleeps. At first the overwhelming sea of people in Manhattan threatened to absorb and drown us, but very quickly we adjusted and remembered why we are drawn to the hubbub of this place. For me, the best part of New York is the visual art, whether in the shops, the galleries, or walking on the streets. It reminds me of my previous trips and how my desire for travel was first engendered.
When I lived with my parents as a girl, we could not afford much, but every summer we would set out for a destination, usually at the end of July. There was one particular trip to Florida where we all got sunburned and ate only pink watermelon to cool our burning bodies, wearing as few clothes as possible; we were so scorched that even light garments seared our delicate bodies. The other road trips were targeted towards children’s museums, specialty toy shops, or some specific landmark of interest such as the giant Paul Bunyon Statue or Ausable Canyon. But my father possessed a predilection for all things electrical, moving and complex :trains, planes, vintage cars, electrical contraptions, things that whirled fascinated him.
Before he was stricken with polio, he and a load of guys would almost annually head for New York usually Times Square to discover the newest in technology, gadgets and machines that were yet to be revealed in Canada. I imagine a clutch of cool types, my father the coolest in a worn brown leather jacket and fedora that framed his dark good looks, deep eyes and hair, looking much like a young Brandon.
As kids, we, too, were packed in the car and driven to New York. By this time he had endured polio and its accompaniment of crutches and braces, refitting the drive shaft with a hand control. He could not feed gas because the muscles in his legs had been ravaged by the disease. For some queer reason, I recall staying at a tiny dusky hotel named The Oliver Cromwell in downtown Manhattan, that a bell boy actually carried our bags to my father’s disgust because he would have to tip him, that there was a tiny elevator, and that my father was disgruntled by the choice of the hotel as he usually chose motels like the Howard Johnson, teasing me that it was because of my aristocratic taste. We certainly would never reserve. Likely his annoyance was due to the cost.
In any case, my mother took my sister and myself to see the leg-swinging Rockets at Rockefeller Centre and there is a faint memory of a long line of high kicking gals in little hats and bathingsuit costumes. As my father was no fan of musicals ( a trait I share with him) although his avocation was music, he did not accompany us. I wonder now where he might have been? Maybe sitting in his car with a Popular Mechanics magazine or drawing his endless circuits for improved high fidelity on small bits of paper in the dingy hotel room.
He did accompany us to the Hayden Planetarium where we all tilted back in our seats so we could take in the night sky and listen to the thundering guiding voice, likely of Lorne Green or some other actor who explained the stars and constellations. But I wonder where did he park or did he lumber on his crutches for blocks? After all, this was New York, downtown New York with no broken down curbs for the handicapped or delayed crossing or permits that considered a man with sticks might not be as fast as the rest of the population. To my parents’ credit, they never complained of the inconveniences, the bumps and pitfalls of his disease. We might catch a look of frustration, despair or plain anger on his face, but they did not speak of his limitations out loud. He resented being referred to as “ crippled”, preferring the term “handicapped”.
As I age and especially on this past New York trip jostled by the endless crowds, I reflect on his bravery, his stick-to-it-ness to accomplish what he did, with only the support of my thin and determined mother.
I returned to New York when I was older in my teenage years and then, after high school. My aunt and uncle who had been imprisoned on Ellis Island for seeking to help the Rosenbergs, so the story goes, primed me for my first unchaperoned visit to the Big Apple. They told me I must stay at the Barbizon Hotel for Young Women on Lexington. The cell-like rooms had one tiny window, and with barely enough room for a suitcase which might be pushed beneath the bed, but the location so close to 5th Avenue was glorious. I roamed the streets, tossed the phone numbers of far flung relatives I should contact for help. My eccentric aunt had sat me down in her Forest hill home and explained in detail what I should see and do, most included galleries and museums, but she also gave me a list of three items to retrieve for her.
Not unlike Theseus, I wanted to keep my word, but my aunt who spoke long and with great detail in her monologues on travel reassured me that her items were not available in Toronto and so requested bizarre trinkets. The one I recall was a spool of a particular red thread. I did go to Woolworth’s and perhaps Macy’s, but finally decided the quest was not only futile, but ridiculous. However, she had helpfully related that on Broadway there were Chock Full of Nuts restaurants where a delicious sandwich of cream cheese on datenut bread could be purchased- at a reasonable cost. No longer on street corners, these iconic coffee shops were memorialized on the internet,
“Like any respectable coffee shop, they also served food along with their drink: a modest menu of dishes like lemon cream pie, whole-wheat donuts, and green pea soup. One of their offerings, however, would become a signature—a dish so deliciously simple and practical that it would nearly eclipse the coffee in nostalgic (if not retail) value: date-nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches.( Leah Koenig,Politico Pro, August 25, 2015)”
It’s funny today to think of hotels for ladies, or “respectable coffee shops” or even Woolworth’s but that was part of my context in the 50’s and 60’s. So my memories of planetariums, even from long exhausting car rides as a child where I would announce every 15 minutes “I’m bored,” and query, “ when will we get there?”; and those delicious free jaunts by myself on the stylish streets of New York fostered my desire for that city.
On this recent trip with my husband, we also experienced new and wondrous events: the first lesbian protagonist in Funhome ; and the amazing state of the art staging of The Curious Event of the Dog in the Night time. These productions were breathtaking, raw, but also polished with talented casts. They provided their audiences with dialogue and ideas that extended far beyond the performance , addressing weighty and confounding issues about life and living in the 21st century.
We saw the famous Gustave Klimt painting Woman In Gold recently popularized in the film in which Helen Mirren starred. We discussed and considered the legal ramifications of repatriating war goods, ascendancy, inheritance, survivor claims and public enjoyment. We went to the Met and viewed paintings of JJ Sargent’s friends, Baudelaire, WB Yeats, and others in styles that moved from classical portrait painting into the Impressionist genre. We found that attempting to see everything at the New Whitney was an impossibility: a reason to return.
We walked, we talked, we talked, we discussed, we debated, we were silent with thought, we walked long walks, we rambled in Central park, we waited unsuccessfully for taxis, we ate, we rested. We were hardly sated with questions and concepts and one another.
As I write this, I think that New York was, IS, a stimulus for thinking, for looking and pondering, for stimulating your senses to be a more sentient person who not just moves through the world, but someone who can be truly engaged experientially, not just washed over or washed away. New York taps you at the side of your head and makes you cogitate. It wakes you up, with a slap or a caress, and brazenly invites you respond. It is that assault on your senses and your mind that stimulates talk that means something so you engage with it, with others: through the arts, in the streets, tempting you to return and return: to see what it’s new, and different and interesting and bubbling up.