My visit to New York City in September 2018 was soul satisfying when I needed it the most. I had to have a break after losing my job in July, something to help me start building a new life and get some self confidence back after getting knocked down so brutally. The city is, after all, my birthplace, though relatively few people in my life know that. I have lived the major portion of my life in the South but made trips back to New York as a child, teen and adult. I have always loved the energy, the buzz, the soul of the place! Yes , and strangely, the grime, too.
I was born during a blizzard in February, 1958, at the French Hospital on Manhattan, Mother transported by limousine because the roads were so bad. The building is located in Chelsea and is now an apartment house. I first went home to an apartment in Brooklyn near Prospect Park and before I turned two, my parents, sick of winter weather, congestion and New York accents, moved us to South Florida. What was left of my mother’s family stayed around New York, though there were visits back and forth every year.
I remember a visit to Brooklyn when I was about 5, staying with my mother at the apartment of a cousin in Greenpoint. Stefan was a bachelor and lived several floors up, no elevator. His open windows fronted on the street. What great fun it was to people watch from those windows! So different from our Florida home (single story, mango tree and swing set in the backyard)! Of course, as I was watching, others were watching from their windows, too- men in their undershirts, grandmas in printed house dresses with flabby underarms. Colorful laundry hung from lines strung between the buildings. There was talking, singing, arguing in the street,yelling from windows, kids riding bikes, playing ball, cars fighting for parking spots, honking, sirens. The smells of meals cooking wafting from the windows- garlic , cabbage, meat, strange spices!
Out on the street, Uncle Stefan would take me to taste my first fruity Italian ices or we would pop into a corner market for more milk and I would marvel at the narrow aisles and stacks and piles of everything from fresh vegetables to dry goods and the smells of nearby butchers, bakeries(my child eyes had never seen such assortments of cakes, pastries and cookies!) and stinky fish shops. We shopped at Publix once a week at home, wide aisles, big shopping carts and perfect hygiene.
So we come to my latest trip. Kindly invited by Emily, who is the mother of my great-niece Isabel, to stay at her apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn many times, I finally decided to take her up on it. Found a fairly cheap midweek flight from Knoxville to La Guardia, packed one bag and my small backpack and off I went. Trepidation? Honestly, yes. I had found the subways and buses very intimidating on previous trips, almost to the point of being paralyzing. Last visit I walked myself to the point of serious foot pain that lasted long after I got home, all because of that confusing subway. I could have just said, “No more New York for me!”, but could not stay away. I fretted over which shoes to take and finally used an old pair of Merrell’s I had worn in Europe and bought some new Doc Marten’s canvas oxfords to alternate with.
Two innovations changed this trip, Uber and Google Maps. I had learned to use Uber on a trip to Oklahoma City earlier this year, so activating it to get a ride from the airport was easy. 40 minutes or so later, I was at the door to Emily’s building. I called her superintendent, John, who kindly let me in to the apartment. I met Pippi , a lovely blue-green eyed cat, who was rather confused about my identity but friendly. Found keys and instructions on how to get to the subway. Lunch I bought at a fragrant local Indian restaurant, Ayurvedic Plate: curried chicken, eggplant and spinach, fresh tandoor bread brushed with garlic butter- a very tasty first meal and not my last there.
On to my nemesis the subway! Emily had given me great directions to the Brooklyn Museum but I also plugged into Google Maps so I could learn to use it. The subway station, a rather dilapidated Art Deco style structure, was only a half block from the restaurant. I bought a seven day pass from a machine and descended in the direction of Manhattan. Waiting for the train has always been exciting for me, tinged with adventure, kind of like a dog going on a car ride. Looking down the tunnel for the light, listening for the screech of the brakes, waiting for the gust of wind as the train displaces air from the tunnel…so cool! Of course, this is nothing to New Yorkers, who have on their headsets, are reading books or texting on their phones, completely oblivious. And naturally I stand out as a tourist because I am looking at everything around me both on and off the train, but no matter.
I went to the Brooklyn Museum looking for a display of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings that I’d read was there; apparently that was LAST year. Of course when one is in a world class museum, there are many wonderful works to see. An exhibit dedicated to the color blue with porcelain, china, jewelry, weaving, and paintings from cobalt and lapis, to turquoise and sky blue and back again was very stimulating to my brain. Rob Wynne’s “Float”, made up of swirls of mirrored glass, was displayed in a room full of wonderful old Roman style marble statues of women and they provided the perfect foil for each other. Nona Faustine’s semi nude self portraits on the grounds of the Lefferts House were stark and told me a story I needed to make room in my brain for: one, that Brooklyn had once had farms, and two, that these farms had slaves.
And then there was Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party”. I had wanted to see it for many years and finally had my chance- it was breathtaking! The exhibit also made me want to take up embroidery again. I made my way around the table slowly, trying to let every symbolic detail, sultry color and stitch sink in.
The afternoon had gone by quickly and I could see that it was raining outside. Rush hour was approaching, so I dashed across the courtyard (had forgotten my umbrella) to the subway entrance and made my way back to Flatbush and the apartment. Emily arrived home from work after a time and we decided to have dinner at an Austrian restaurant, Werkstatt. Emily is mostly vegetarian but likes the fried fish at Werkstatt and I never turn down a properly made weinerschnitzel. She decided to drive her car so she could move it to another spot, a system I am unused to. She has to move it every week, and also drives an older, beat up car because she never knows when someone might dent it.
Soon we were at Werkstatt, sipping cool rhine wine and catching up. Emily is a kindred spirit if there ever was one and we would have many great talks during my visit. For a change, I ordered the vegetarian schnitzel, which was made with slabs of celery root. This turned out to be pretty good and definitely not something I could find at home, another one of the pleasures of travel.
Back at the apartment, we went to bed, both of us tired. It was Emily’s first week back at the transfer school where she teaches. The weather was mild, so the windows were open and we settled into sleep. Then the noise started in the street. A party on Wednesday night courtesy of some kids across the street. It went on and on. I finally, wanting to be a good guest, put in some earplugs and fell asleep. The next day, Emily was furious. This had apparently happened several times before and the kids had been warned. They were part of a gang. She didn’t want the police called because she was afraid the kids would be mistreated, like many of her students were, and started on the road to jail.
When I woke up in the morning, Emily was already gone. I grabbed coffee at the corner deli and headed for the subway. I was not prepared to be entertained by acrobats. The train was not very full when several young African American men came on with a boombox and announced they were going to put on a show. They proceeded to take turns spinning, jumping and flipping around the safety bars, sometimes just inches from the passengers. They were quite good at it. Other people came on as well, making their way from car to car through the connecting doors while the train was moving and proclaiming their hard luck stories before passing cups for spare change. There was even a violinist who performed.
I got off at Times Square just to look around. I had been there on many occasions before, even during the years it was full of sex shows and porn. Hungry by this time, I stepped into Cafe Europa for an early lunch: egg salad sandwich, linzer cookie and sparkling water. I took my time. Outside was full of tourists, congestion and loudness, here was a little oasis. When I stepped out again I was in a sea of people hawking boat rides around Manhattan, rides on the triple decker buses and tourists. I looked for the Naked Cowboy but did not see him. It was hot and I wanted away from Times Square. I decided to walk to Grand Central Station knowing it was not far away.
It was hot, the sun had come out and I found myself walking up a hill. Not steep, but a hill nonetheless, in a place I had always thought of as flat. Hordes of people making walking a challenge, and then Grand Central Station. So many memories here. Meeting my Uncle Joe, my mother’s older brother, under the clock. Meeting my dear friend Scott, who had moved away to Connecticut when we were in high school; we took the train back and forth many times to his home in New Canaan. Taking Aunt Lucy to lunch at Cipriani Dolci with my family when I finally had enough money to take her out for a meal. Her hair was a bright, furious red with henna, which shocked Kevin and the kids, but she enjoyed herself so much. The view of the Grand Concourse from the restaurant made us all feel elegant for just a little while. I love the ceiling there with its turquoise hue and depictions of signs of the zodiac. When I walked in this time and looked up, I was right under Pisces, my sign, and it seemed a good omen.
Another thing I like about Grand Central is the shops. I had once bought a lovely little black Japanese ikebana vase there and some peridot earrings to take back to Tennessee. Today I wandered and saw that most of the shops were now chain stores. Not needing anything except water, which I found at a fountain, I made my way out again into the heat and crowds.The sun was out again during what was mostly an overcast visit. I made my way back to Times Square and down to the subway where I caught the Q train back to Brooklyn. That night Emily had plans, so I made do with a burger and fries in her neighborhood and had a look around.
This part of Flatbush is a mixture of apartment buildings and large, often Victorian style single family homes that used to function as summer homes for wealthy folks from Manhattan. Of course they are now very expensive homes but they have small yards and trees which I had not expected to see. People in this neighborhood don’t hang laundry lines between the buildings.
The commercial part of the neighborhood has everything necessary: several grocery stores, a hardware store, doctor and dentist offices, hairdresser, barber, delis, liquor store. Also there are several restaurants and the ones I ate in were very good. There was even a dance studio with the door open to the evening air, so I looked in and watched some adults taking a salsa lesson. The people in this neighborhood are from everywhere: Latinos, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Haitians, Caucasians. You hear quite a mixture of languages. Lots of strollers with babies and toddlers.
I went back to the apartment not long before Emily got home and we were able to visit for awhile, drink some wine and watch old episodes of “Parts Unknown” with Anthony Bourdain.
The next day was Friday and I wanted to hit some more museums. Of course I always go to the Metropolitan. Going in to see the Impressionist Collection is like seeing old friends. To my surprise they had arranged a three day pass to all three of their museums, the Main, the Breuer and the Cloisters for the price of one ticket. It was quite crowded and many people were at the relatively new exhibit “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. I had seen photos from the last Met Gala boasting Rihanna in a bedazzled bishop’s mitre and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. There were both standing and suspended mannequins in solid colored couture clothing encrusted with symbolic embroidery, jewels and crosses, crowns made to look like enormous haloes, dresses with priest’s collars. Fantastic capes with standing collars, floating angels, lots of gold, silver, stars and colors: scarlet, dark and light blue, royal purple, black and white. Widow’s weeds, shrouds, amazing trains in sumptuous satin and velvet. Religious organ music accented the feeling of being inside a church.
After this I decided to go outside and found it to be sunny and hot. I grabbed a fresh fruit smoothie from a nearby food truck and headed for Central Park. From a bench I considered my next move. My google map showed Neue Gallerie a couple of blocks away. I knew I had heard of it before so I looked it up. Klimt! One of my favorites!
I sat and absorbed the Klimt paintings to my heart’s content, then heard the clinking of china in the downstair’s Cafe Sabarsky. Finding that the line was not too long, I decided to have lunch there. A tall cold pilsner, grilled sausages with riesling sauerkraut, potato salad and bread- I had really gotten into an Austrian carbohydrate vibe on this trip without really knowing why but the food was good and filling and I was walking a lot.
Emily and I planned to meet at Prospect Park in the evening and I realized that my phone battery was getting dangerously low. I had not brought my charger(a mistake I won’t make again) but a quick text to Emily advised me to find a Verizon store nearby and go there to recharge. One turned out to be about 3 blocks away and they were very accomodating. After a quick juice up for me at Papaya King, I was soon back on Madison Avenue making my way towards the Met Breuer.
So here I was walking around the Upper East side of Manhattan which definitely had cleaner streets and sidewalks and doormen in front of apartment buildings. Children out for walks and strolls with their usually darker skinned nannies. Manicured shrubs fronted the buildings.
After walking along Madison Avenue, I came upon the Johnny Was store. Knowing it was expensive, I went in anyway. I’d learned about this brand on the internet and wanted to see what they had. I walked out with a lovely wine-colored tunic heavily embroidered with blue, purple and ivory flowers.
I found the Met Breuer and the exhibit I wanted to see, which was Picasso and Egon Schiele (who was a contemporary of Klimt). Had to hurry though because Emily texted she was on her way to the park. Where had the afternoon gone? I made my way back to the subway which was by now quite crowded and stood all the way back to Brooklyn.
I got a little lost but managed to find Emily at the edge of Prospect Park. She had already finished her bike ride so we sat for awhile and talked, and as it started to get dark, we walked back to the apartment, crossing the parade grounds in a shortcut. This could be a neighborhood in so many places with people playing soccer, riding bikes, out to walk their dogs, just getting home from work. We came across a street where there was some filming going on and Emily said this wasn’t unusual and generally was a pain in the neck because the streets were blocked. We had to watch our feet walking over miles of yellow cable on uneven side walks, passing bright standing stage lights, and never did see anyone famous. Back at the apartment we opened a bottle of wine and watched some more Anthony Bourdain.
The next day was Saturday and Emily had some piled up chores to do around the apartment, so I set out for the East Village. I had reserved a ticket to see “Stomp!” at the Orpheum Theatre (where it originated in the US). “Stomp!” has been around forever now but I had never seen it. Emily had mentioned a restaurant that she and her family were fond of, Veselka, which turned out to be one I had eaten in several years ago. It is Ukrainian, with dishes very similar to Polish, and I decided to have lunch there. I ordered a pierogi ”sampler” (what’s not to like? Beef, mushrooms, onions,cabbage and potato) and raspberry lemonade to drink at my table outside, while I indulged in some more people watching. I had just enough time to window shop a little before heading to the theatre.
The Orpheum is small, dark and old and “Stomp!” is nothing short of fantastic. By now many people have seen it all across the country, but I found it special to be able to see it where it sprouted, like an oil spattered daisy in what used to be the grimy, infested East Village. Garbage can lids used as instruments, a broom used to set the rhythm, garbage used as props. No dialogue but plenty of expression and meaning exchanged between the actors and the audience. After all these years, the house was mostly sold out.
After walking around the East Village a bit more, I headed back to Brooklyn. I definitely want to go back to the East Village some time for more exploring. Cooper Union, NYU, St. Mark’s Place, lots of art history- I have only scratched the surface, but got a healthy bite.
Sunday found me at the Met again, this time taking all the time I wanted to explore the painters, Impressionists and others. That was a rare treat- to be able to sit down, stroll, compare and not be hurried along. I ended the afternoon at a French bistro with steak, frites, asparagus vinaigrette and a lovely glass of cidre.
Monday, after an eclair and cappucino for breakfast, I discovered more of Lower Manhattan. Eventually I ended up at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. There was so much food! Also a lady hawking meatballs,”Get your Hot Balls here, the best in town!” Each restaurant had set up outdoors on the street and there were were dozens of food carts with everything from Italian sweets to enormous fried artichokes. There were so many people milling around, I got a little nervous about pickpockets and made my way over to Chinatown (very close it turned out) and just wandered among families doing their shopping on the narrow sidewalks. Several stores sold whole fish, whole squids and octopus on beds of ice in open storefronts. It was smelly and wet and I had to watch my footing. I eventually walked back to Little Italy to one of the restaurant and had some eggplant roulades. I was serenaded by a man playing an accordion. I was in heaven!
Tuesday was my last day- I was to head out in the late afternoon from LaGuardia. Emily and I said our goodbyes. She had mentioned the New Museum on the Bowery as being interesting so I headed there. A huge pair of Kinky Boots adorned the lobby! Most of the other exhibits were being changed so I was a bit disappointed but went to the basement to see a couple of avant garde installments. Neither spoke to me. But I will go back to see what else is there next trip. The Bowery is still gritty and has a lot of kitchen supply stores. It began to rain in earnest as I headed back towards uptown, so I pulled out my umbrella. Then it began to really pour, then storm and I went into a little hole in the wall Japanese restaurant where I enjoyed a delicious bowl of beef broth with beef, vegetables and sprouts while the storm crashed about outside.
I received a text message not long after that my flight was delayed, a blessing really since I was able to take a direct flight back to Knoxville. Uber picked me up as scheduled and we began the trek through all the various neighborhoods of Brooklyn and heavy traffic to the airport. I will be back, New York!