I’ve always loved New York. My first trip there was as a little kid in 1964. My father drove us down from Massachusetts to visit the World’s Fair in Queens. I’ll never forget that trip. The car ride was so long and I was so tired, that is until we arrived. Once there my eyes were suddenly wide open to everything. I remember eating for the first time in a diner with its bright neon signage, shiny surfaces, long counter and deep booths with cushy red seats, seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta depicting Mary as a beautiful young woman, and standing by the giant 12-story high stainless steel sphere of the earth. Since then, every time I fly into JFK I look forward to seeing that big steel globe on my way to and from Manhattan. This trip over the Halloween weekend was no different. There it was peeking out at me to announce that I had arrived as the taxi jostled us through the traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway on the way to the island of Manhattan.
Once there and checked into our SoHo hotel, The James, a just-opened addition to New York’s burgeoning boutique hotel scene, we said a quick prayer that we would be spared bed bugs (we were), dropped our bags in the room, and headed out onto the streets in the dusk of a warm Thursday evening.
The sidewalks were alive. Their grates like giant nostrils breathed out hot steam from their vast underbellies and their uneven surfaces greeted food carts, street vendors, and people, all kinds of people, some hurrying and some not, gesticulating and speaking so many different languages, English, French, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese. French was everywhere. Had I closed my eyes I would have sworn that we were in Paris. Why so many French? Had they fled the recent public unrest in their own cities to find refuge in this one? I doubted it. More likely, the cheap dollar and their love of mythic America had brought them here. “What?” you ask, “The French love America?” Yes, in a way they do; they love the idea of America. One can see it quite clearly in that great lady of liberty, given by the people of France to the people of the United States in 1886. She stands regally in the harbor and is easily visited or simply admired from the Staten Island ferry, the best ride in town. Or just walk on any sidewalk downtown or midtown and listen for that most distinctive lilt of spoken French. It’s everywhere.
There are so many things to do and see in New York that it’s impossible to do everything in one trip. Better to plan a few things and let the City surprise you. Sometimes, we do music, sometimes its theatre and dance, other times it’s art or shopping and sometimes its sightseeing. This time it was parks, libraries, and a smattering of museums. Well, to be honest it was also eating because New York has so many delectable options and one has to eat, right?
New York is a city of parks. Not just the magnificent 843 acre Central Park with its miles of roads and running trails, its picturesque ponds and reservoirs, its stunning gardens and quiet woods, but also its smaller, more intimate ones.
One of my favorites is Bryant Park. I love its friendly scale smack in the middle of towering midtown, its little chairs and tables, gravel walks, and pretty gardens. This past weekend these were dressed in rust and gold chrysanthemums to welcome the first ice skaters of the season.
Another is the new High Line Park. Built in the 1930s, the High Line took dangerous freight traffic off the streets of New York and instead ran it 30 feet up. By 1980 it was no longer in use and by 1999 was in danger of demolition when the friends of the High Line came up with the brilliant idea of turning it into a park. Today you climb up (or at certain entrances you can take an elevator) and can walk from Gansevoort Street (just below 14th Street) in the Meatpacking District to 20th Street. When completed you will be able to go all the way to 34th Street. Along the way, you can rest on wooden chaise lounges mounted on the old rails, watch the river traffic on the Hudson, spy on the goings on in New Jersey, sip a cup of coffee, experience art like Richard Galpin’s , Viewing Station, track your progress with the changing views of the Empire States Building, or just lose yourself in your own thoughts. It’s wonderful.
New York is a city of libraries. There are the public, the private, and the quirky. Some are grand; others not so. But all of them bear gifts of discovery. The public library is actually three separate library systems: The New York Public Library serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, the Brooklyn Public Library , and the Queens Borough Library. The private include those of the many universities that make their home here. Offering their students and professors large and important library collections these are typically not open to the public except by obtaining a special pass. Then there are the quirky ones like City Hall’s which is New York City’s official depository for all agency published reports and studies. Operating since 1913 you can research neighborhoods, streets, city council meetings, rules and regulations. They even have microfilm of The New York Times here.
The New York Library building, opened in 1911 with more than a million books, is famous for the pair giant marble lions guarding the entrance and its amazing beaux art reading room and book delivery system atop seven stories of stacks. The lions, nicknamed Patience (to the south of the steps) and Fortitude (to the north) by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s for the qualities New Yorkers would need to survive the years of the great depression, are still revered today and serve as the library’s logo. On the day we visited, the steps were teaming with tourists taking pictures with Patience and Fortitude and citizens lounging in the warmth of a sunny Sunday afternoon. Inside, the atmosphere was grand yet subdued but not for lack of people or activity.
Before wandering through its rooms we visited “Three Faiths,” an exhibition of rare Judaic, Christian, and Islamic works created over the past 1500 years. Not only were the manuscripts and texts beautiful, they were also powerful because they told the story of how closely the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are linked through geography, culture, and belief. One of many curious manuscripts was the Harkness Gospels. Written in Latin before 917 it depicts the apostles as human figures with fantastical beast heads. Mark is depicted with the head of a horse and John with that of some sort of bird; we thought he looked like a penguin but then, how would the scribe know what a penguin looked like? Later I learned that this way of representing the evangelists was common in celtic culture during this period and is called zoo-anthropomorphic. The exhibit runs through February 27, 2011. Catch it if you can or experience it online.
The Morgan Library is a beast of another kind. Given to the public in 1924 by Pierpont Morgan’s son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. it houses an incredible collection of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints, and ancient artifacts such as ancient seals, tablets, and papyrus fragments from Egypt and the Near East. On arriving, we were disappointed to learn that the Library was closed for restoration and would re-open the very next day after our visit. But, all was not lost. What we did see in the new museum addition were three very different exhibits. The first on Mark Twain explores through manuscripts and photography his skepticism about the possibility of changing human nature as he witnessed the rise of industrialization and northern cities while holding onto the values of his beloved rural and hierarchical southern culture. What I loved best were the pages from his greatest work and one of the greatest in American literature, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the many examples of his travel writings, and a series of 1906 photographs of Mr Twain taken on the porch of a house in the countryside. The exhibit runs through January 2, 2011. Visit it in person or see it online.
The second, a collection of Edgar Degas’s drawings and sketches, was an intimate encounter with his approach to some of his most favorite subjects including dancers, performers, and horses. Seeing how he employed pen, chalk, and oil on paper was truly delightful. In addition to the studies of dancers, I especially enjoyed a self portrait done as a young artist and a landscape called, Landscape with Path Leading to a Copse of Trees. See it in person through January 23, 2011 or visit it online .
The final exhibit was a bit of comic relief. A set off 55 large scale drawings by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, it showed how he extracted products from commercials and scenes from comic books and brought them into his art. One of my favorites was Keds and I especially liked seeing how he used drafting tools in his work. Have you ever wondered how he did the dots? The exhibit runs through January 2, 2011 and you can read about it online.
There was more to be seen, but by this time we were both suffering severe sensory overload. It was time to sit down, relax, and eat. Thankfully we had a reservation in the Dining Room at The Modern. What was there not to like? Our table overlooked Picasso’s Goat in the MoMa sculpture garden and the food was exquisitely delicious. I ate lobster salad with granny smith apples followed by a creamy, smokey octopus risotto. Antun chose the risotto followed by duck. The duck was so tender that he could cut it with a fork. Desert? What else but the chocolate cart. Yummy. There was even a bit of theater. Our waiter delighted in being overly solicitous of me while ignoring poor Antun. I wondered what you call it when a much younger guy pursues an older woman. Is there a name for that? I watched gleefully as he did the same thing at every other table of couples. What silly fun to watch this guy in action.
Dinner on the night of our arrival at the Market Table at 54 Carmine Street in the West Village got us quickly into the New York groove; we drank a deliciously spicy Rioja Ardanza 2000 and thought our appetizers were divine. In fact, if we go again, we’ll just order appetizers because these were far superior to the entrees which we thought were too large and too heavy. This is a noisy place, too, so if you want to have a conversation in which you can actually hear what the other person says go somewhere else.
Cookshop was a delicious surprise. Hungry from a long walk and little more than coffee one morning our stomachs spied it across 10th Avenue as we came down the stairs from the High Line at 20th Street. To sit inside would be a forty-five minute wait, but given the glorious sun we opted to sit right away at an outside sidewalk table. Unfortunately as soon as we sat down an angry gray cloud wiped the sun from the sky. We huddled against the cold and wind for a good fifteen minutes before retreating to another table up against the side of the building that offered no view but at least protected us from the unfriendly elements. Then the food arrived. I had ordered poached eggs. I adore them but every time I order them in a restaurant I kick myself. They are either hard as leather or dripping with vinegar. Not these; these were perfect. Breaking the yolks into the creamy polenta that accompanied them I thought that this was the simplest most delicious thing I had ever eaten. Antun hardly seemed to notice my delight as he tucked into a pile of nutty french toasts. Go to the Cookshop immediately!
Aurora for dinner was recommended by the concierge at the hotel. Not that she had eaten there, but based on comments by other guests who had she thought it was a good bet and it was. At 510 Broome Street it was literally a stone’s throw from the hotel which made the decision easy. To start we shared grilled octopus with a warm potato and celery salad. Amazing. Our appetites opened I went for the grilled branzino (mediterranean sea bass) while Antun ordered the evening special, cinghiale (wild boar). My fish was perfectly grilled, light, and lemony. Antun’s cinghiale must have been good, too, because he cleaned his plate. A bottle of Fattoria Felsina “Fontalloro” 2006 from Tuscany was a lovely accompaniment. Other than excellent food, delicious wine, and ability to have a conversation without shouting, what more could we ask for? A delightful waiter, of course. Full of happy energy, he was quick and smiley, with just the right amount of attentiveness. Hearing him babble in Italian with his fellow waiters, I thought his accent interesting but I couldn’t place it. “From where in Italy are you?” I asked. “No, Signora, I’m from Argentina.” I should have known! “Ah, you speak Spanish, then.” I said and from then on we spoke Spanish as we queried one another on how an Argentine, a Chilean and a Bostonian had all happily ended up in New York on that evening.
The big surprise of the trip was our discovery that the Village Halloween parade would be starting off at Spring Street just two blocks from our hotel. We’re not much for parades when it’s cold and blustery as it was this night but we did join in the fun by taking a walk through the adjoining streets where the floats and bands were lined up waiting their turn to start down 10th Avenue. The party spirit was high and it was fun to get an up-close-and personal with the musicians, baton twirlers, goblins, vampires, Waldos, Lady Gagas, and Jimi Hendrixes before they took to the parade route.
Then not sure what to do about eating and wanting an early night before traveling the next day, we popped into Boqueria, named after La Boqueria, Barcelona’s large public food market that sells meats, produce, and dry goods while also offering tapas at any number of bars. Boqueria NYC on Spring Street is a fun tapas bar where a standard offering of tapas and raciness are served to patron seated on stools at a long bar or at bar tables. Everything we tried was good but our favorites were the chorizos and suckling pig. The almond ice cream, made with marcona almonds, was tasty, too.
New York is New York, always the same and always different. I love it and am always happy to return.
All original content copyright 2010 Mary E. Slocum