Friday, July 27, 2012

New York City - Visit #2

Fast forward a number of years from my first visit to New York. I am working at Bloomingdale's in Chicago. I would soon have the Christmas Shop added to the departments I managed for them. I am being flown to New York and put up overnight for the company's Christmas Shop seminar where we will meet the buyers and be briefed on the goods being featured in the stores that holiday season.

Earlier that year, during a winter getaway to Key West, I had met a couple who lived in Manhattan with whom I got along famously. They invited me to visit and stay with them whenever I wished. I arranged two days off after the seminar to do just that. As Bloomie's was paying my airfare this trip would be totally free of cost. I was gonna' make out like a bandit.

After a full work day I caught the train to the airport and boarded my flight. Since it was only a three day trip I was able to get by with just my gym bag. This was prior to 9/11 and carry on restrictions were somewhat more relaxed in those days. After landing in Newark I boarded the shuttle into the city which took me to Grand Central Station, and the adjoining Grand Hyatt Hotel where I would be staying, again on Bloomingdale's dime, that first night. I had to get up early enough to get to the seminar the next morning so ordered room service and waited...and waited and waited. After 2 hours and several phone calls the order was finally delivered to my room. It was on the house due to the problems I had incurred getting it there at all.

The next morning I had breakfast at a diner nearby and took a cab to the site of the seminar, checking my bag at the hotel till I could pick it up prior to going to the apartment of my friends. In accordance with my style sense at the time I was dressed in bright colors. A claret jacket, black pants, red and black print vest and red and black striped tie. I kept my color pallet to two tones and felt I looked stylish but professional. When the elevator doors opened to the space where the seminar was being held I found myself in a sea of gray and navy blue suits. To say I stood out is an understatement. Even the men's ties were muted and if a single woman was wearing something other that a pump with a one inch heel I didn't see her. That morning I defined "Didn't get the dress code memo."

We got through the seminar and were invited to the Christopher Radko showroom a few blocks away. Carrying the bag of Christmas swag we were given by the vendors, I still have the ornaments I received that day, I made my way to the showroom. I stopped along the way to pick up tee shirts for my neighbors who were looking after my cats while I was gone, burying them in the bottom of the swag bag. The vendor representative at the showroom was short, adorable and obviously gay. His butterfly bow tie made him even more adorable. We discreetly flirted as he gave us a tour of the showroom.

Leaving the showroom I picked up my bag at the hotel and headed to my friends apartment on the Upper West Side. One of them was an attorney and made a nice living, the other studying to become a nurse.Their apartment was comfortable, and by New York standards, rather commodious. It had the long,thin living room/dining room, which is ubiquitous in New York, two bedrooms and a single bath. It was a pre war building with many of the unit's period details intact. From the window in the bathroom St. John the Divine could be seen. It was under renovation, however and completely covered with scaffolding. We had a wonderful reunion and caught up over drinks at a nearby bar that night.

As one member of the couple was working and the other was in school I had the days to myself. My plan was to visit the Museum of Modern Art, having missed it the first time I was in New York. Prior to the museum I planned a short visit to the Calvin Klein underwear showroom to drop in on a friend working there who I had met working at Bloomingdale's. After a pleasant chat, I set out again. When I arrived at the museum I discovered that, oddly, the museum was closed on Wednesdays, the day I was there. Finding a map at a subway station I realized I was walking distance from the Metropolitan Museum. With an entire day on my hands I decided to pay it a visit instead.

On previous visits to this institution I was awed and enthralled by the treasures house there. Work had been hectic over the months prior and I was drained. After my time touring the galleries that day I felt as if a portion of my soul had been restored. Great art often has this effect on me.

The next day I returned to the Museum of Modern Art. I arrived prior to the Museums opening time so shopped at the museums store, open even though the museum at that hour was not. When the museum opened I revisited the artworks I had seen on my first New York visit. I was, again, deeply moved by Van Gogh's "A Starry Night". It appeared a special exhibition was being installed so a portion of one floor was closed. I ended up getting through the museum very quickly and finding myself back out on the street with several hours left prior to being picked up for my flight home.

When I first arrived I paged through a copy of the New York Times. Carol Burnett was opening in a new play on Broadway. I noticed at the time that there was a Thursday matinee. Theatre matinees are usually on Wednesdays so this stuck in my head. I quickly obtained a copy of the Times, checked the arts section to see what theatre it was at and raced, through a New York lunch hour crowd, to the theatre.

There is an odd sensation I have experienced on each of my visits to New York. The air is so dirty and sooty that I can feel a film building up on my face as I move through the streets. This may be a projection or imagination on my part, but I swear that is true.

The play was at the Martin Beck Theatre, renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2003. Built in 1924 it was designed to be the most opulent theatre of it's day. It's beautiful Moorish inspired byzantine style interior added to the experience and enjoyment of going to the theatre. The play, "Moon Over Buffalo" was slight, silly and a triumphant return to Broadway for the legendary Carol Burnett after an absence of 30 years. It garnered Tony nominations for her and her costar Philip Bosco. It was a delightful end to my short stay.

After the play I raced back to the west side and grabbed my bag from my friend's apartment. My hired car took me back to the Newark airport where I boarded my plane for home. When I returned and mentioned to a friend that I had just come back from New York she said "And when you got off the plane in Chicago you looked around you and said Sky! Trees! Air!"

I did indeed.

New York City - Visit #1

When I was in my early twenties one of my best friends from high school, in fact the girl I took to my senior prom, was studying at Columbia University in New York City's upper west side. She was living in a student apartment with several others. Each had their own bedroom, there was also a shared kitchen, common room and bath. I would be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor in her bedroom. She picked me up at JFK airport, city map in hand and gave me a briefing as we rode the bus into the city.Her boyfriend at the time was unemployed and living with his parents in Greenwich, Connecticut. He came into the city to be my guide for a portion of the week I was there.

Our first stop was the area around her apartment, taking in the west side of Central Park. Her boyfriend and I later rode the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty, viewing the city's skyline from the observation windows in her crown. We went shopping at Macy's. We wandered through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. I found myself awed by the Egyptian Temple, sitting in it's glass walled space with it's view of the park and overwhelmed by the other vast and priceless collections housed there. During days on my own I walked from downtown back to the upper west side. Past the rows of mansions off of 5th Avenue and crossing the green urban oasis of Central Park. I wandered through the theatre district, seeing for the first time the performing arts venues that I had read about for years in theatre books and the arts section of the New York Times. I attended an evening performance at Circle in the Square and went to a matinee performance of a one man show.

The tiny crowd at the performance that afternoon included the actress Geraldine Page. She was dressed in a denim skirt and vest, both badly in need of cleaning. Her filthy hair was twisted and held atop her hair by two large bobby pins. She played with a long tie dyed scarf as I approached her and told her how much I enjoyed her performance in "Interiors". "Why thank you," she replied, pulling the scarf through her hand behaving and appearing as crazy as a loon.

I visited the Frick, which is more about the space than the art displayed there. Picasso's "Guernica", long housed at New York's Museum of Modern Art, was being sent to Spain, per Picasso's will, after the death of Franco. A massive retrospective of his work was exhibited as a farewell to the famous and controversial piece. The exhibition had closed, unfortunately. The museum was also closed because of the work involved in dismantling the show. As I paid a second visit that trip to the Metropolitan I discovered, in the far corner of an upper floor, the temporary home of the Museum of Modern Arts European collection. It was the first of three times I have been able to view Van Gogh's "A Starry Night". I was transfixed as I could almost feel the emotions of the tortured artist flow out from the remarkable painting. Each of the times I have seen it it has left me slightly stunned.

For my birthday my friend and a friend of hers took me to "New York New York", one of the clubs of the moment at the time. It would not have been my first choice of where to go but I was given little say in the matter. Her friend allegedly knew where the action was. It being midweek and arriving fairly early the club was virtually deserted. We did not stay long.

I saw great art and experienced places for the first time that I had only previously read about. However, several years later, when choosing where I would move upon leaving San Francisco, this trip convinced me to strike New York from the list.    

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Watching the Moon Disappear

A full lunar eclipse was forecast. I planned to make my way to Chicago's lake front park to witness the event, perhaps hitting gay bars afterward to celebrate in true pagan fashion. At the time I was living in a neighborhood that was largely Latino. A smattering of young bohemian types, my personal genre at the time, shared the area with them due to the low rents there. I called a cab to transport me to my desired viewing spot.

The eclipse occurred on the same night as Puerto Rican Independence Day and my neighborhood was in full celebration mode. At the first corner we came to one of the revelers decided to mount the hood of the taxi. Honking furiously, the driver managed to get him to dismount and we continued to the lake without further incident. I paid the driver, got out and made my way through the park. I found a tree which provided a comfortable back support and splendid view of the upcoming celestial spectacle. Shortly a shadow began to move across the moon obscuring it bit by bit. It began in the lower right hand corner and slowly crept up to it's upper left until it appeared as a black spot in the sky sporting a glowing edge. I was somewhat surprised at what transpired next. I had assumed that the portion of the moon that disappeared first would also reappear first. What actually happens is that  the shadow slides back across the moon in the opposite direction from which it came. The first part of the moon to reappear was the upper left hand corner. Eventually the shadow receded completely and the full moon returned to lighting the night sky.

Several years later my fortunes had changed. Me and my partner then lived on the 7th floor of a 28 story highrise. Another eclipse is forecast and the night promises to be clear and cloudless affording us an excellent view of the phenomenon. We invited several friends to join us on our building's rooftop to witness the event. Our guests gathered at our apartment. The evening was rather cold. After putting on our hats, gloves, scarfs and winter coats we headed upstairs. There was a party atmosphere as we walked out on the deck. Several of our neighbors in the building, some with binoculars, had also decided to watch the special moment from the deck.  The excess heat from the building was released through large vents mounted under eaves which extended from the decks "penthouse" entrance. The warm air flowing down from them had earned them the nickname "the hair dryers". We and our fellow rooftop revelers would duck under them to warm up waiting for the heavens to begin their show. I explained to my partner's boss the mechanics of the eclipse as it began. We all stood gazing at the corona surrounding the black hole in the night sky as the eclipse reached it's apex. We were silent, almost reverent in our attitude. As the moon began to reappear the party mood returned. Photos from the evening show us sitting, lined up under the "hair dryers", passing bottles of liquor encased in paper bags back and forth. Viewing the photos some said we resembled upscale homeless people.

The last eclipse occurred on a deeply frigid winter night. It would be the last one visible for a number of years. My partner and I now lived in our present apartment, 2 blocks from the shore of Lake Michigan. Donning layer upon layer we walked to the lake looking like lumbering Michelin men. We sat on a bench. My partner pulled a blanket from his backpack and we  wrapped it around us. We sat, silent and alone, the only one ones on the shore that night watching the show in the sky reflected off the near frozen water of the lake.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Terror and Eventual Downfall of Rocky Raccoon

A number of years ago, before we lived together, my partner decided it would be a good idea for us to go camping. It is an activity we have only engaged in once. Which leaves to question how good an idea it was in the first place. We had a cozy, two person sleeping tent which we pitched at the base of  a small hill in a national forest in Michigan.

Our spot provided a place to park the rental car,a picnic table and was close to the campground's water spigot and restrooms. Trees shaded the tent so that it did not get too hot in the midday sun. Chipmunks frolicked around the campsite. A short walk away was a small patch of beach along the shore of the river which flowed through the area.

We retired our first night zipping ourselves into the tiny confines of our tent. Our plastic ice chest sat on the ground outside, securely latched. Early in the morning, 1 o'clock or so, while it was still dark, my partner heard a fierce growling outside the tent. Although it was just a few feet from my head, I somehow slept through it. Waking up that morning we left the tent to find the ice chest overturned and our food, or rather the packages our food had been in, scattered all over the campsite. We had failed to take into account the dexterous nature of a racoon's paws.

We headed into the small town nearby to replenish our food stores. The next night, somewhat wiser in the ways of the woods, we stowed the ice chest in the car before going to bed. Shortly after we slipped into our sleeping bags we heard a rustling sound outside the tent. Grabbing our flashlight, we kept it close by for night trips to the restrooms, we unzipped the tent flap and peered out. Gazing back at us were the glowing eyes of a small snarling beast. It was obviously upset with us for depriving it of the feast it had enjoyed the night before. Screaming like little girls we zipped the tent back up and sat cringing in the darkness until we heard the intruder take it's leave.

The following morning, enjoying my coffee brewed on our campstove, an idea came to me. When my partner got up I suggested to him that we "mark" the campsite. I recalled in the book "Never Cry Wolf" how well this had worked for the author in keeping himself safe from the wolves he was studying in the wild. We decided it was worth a try. He starting on one end, I on the other, we peed our way around the entire outer edge of our campsite.

That night we zipped ourselves into the tent. Shortly we heard the, by now, familiar rustling noise. It  descended the hill and stopped at the bottom, where we had created our liquid raccoon barrier. A yellow Maginot Line if you will. We heard it move along the line trying to find a safe entrance. Eventually we heard the animal shuffle off, apparently defeated. Our pee plan worked like a charm. We had no further encounters for the duration of our stay.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and The Catholic Dress Code

One of the stops on the summer trip to Europe with my family during my teens was to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The historic, world famous, cockeyed structure appears in life as it does in pictures, careening off at an angle from the earth. This was prior to it's stabilization.

Galileo, according to legend, dropped two balls of different mass off of the tower to prove his theory that objects of different weights achieved the same level of acceleration. No evidence exists that he ever actually did this, or whether he was going to drop the balls off of the high side or the low side of the tower. One presumes the low side because if he used the high side the balls would have collided with the tower, thereby proving nothing. Excepting, of course , that he had not thought the experiment all the way through. In the neighboring cathedral his observation of a chandeliers swing after being lit and pulled back to the ceiling led to the development of the clock pendulum.

I was determined, at my young age, to walk the circumference of the tower on each level during my ascent. I was successful, although on the downward leaning side the feat is somewhat disconcerting. On one level I encountered my sister coming from the opposite direction. Gallantly, suppressing a scream, I stepped aside and clung to one of the towers pillars, allowing her to pass. After reaching the top I did not feel compelled to recreate my actions on the way down. I opted for the spiral staircase on the inside of the tower. Had I not gotten caught in the middle of a group on a bus tour of the site coming down a the same time as I this would have been a good plan. Instead, I had to fight off claustrophobia in the narrow passage at the top of the staircase as elderly tourists slowly picked their way down.

As we were about to enter the cathedral a young "hippie" looking girl, this was 1973, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in me with my patched jeans and long hair reaching the middle of my back, declared "The pigs won't let me in!" She had wrapped a long sleeve shirt around her waist to cover her cut off shorts in an attempt to comply with the strict Catholic cathedral dress code. But, as this left her shoulders exposed, she was still refused entry. My mother, also wearing a sleeveless shirt, as befits the heat of an Italian summer, resorted to tying two of my fathers handkerchiefs around her shoulders before being deemed properly attired to enter the church. God forbid our clothes should piss off God.

To this day some of the policies regarding the proper form of dress in Catholic institutions continue to exist. As you enter the Vatican Museum in Rome there is a sign depicting a man wearing shorts and tank top in the center of a circle with a slash across it. These rules, apparently are not applied to some of the figures in frescoes I have viewed inside these sacred spaces. In several, bared men's arms, legs and torsos are on full display. There is one figure in particular that comes to mind in Florence's Church of St Croce. An adorable, well muscled young man is pictured assisting in  taking Jesus down from the cross. I found myself staring at the fresco for some time. Perhaps some thought I was transfixed by the religious pathos of the work, never suspecting that my interest was of a more prurient nature.

Eventually, these rules and regulations become innate in the veteran traveler. In Merida a gentleman who befriended us at a restaurant took us on a tour of the historic downtown section, at one point taking us into one of the venerable churches there. Due to the intense heat of the Yucatan I was wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. While in the church I felt decidedly uncomfortable. It was almost as if the saints lining the walls were looking down at me, rolling their painted eyes and shaking their heads in judgement of my inappropriate attire.

While in Mexico, it is suggested that men, if they intent to visit the interior of churches, or tour many urban areas, forgo shorts and sleeveless shirts. Since that uncomfortable visit to the church I have attempted to heed these suggestions. I did, indeed, hike barechested, wearing shorts while in the Mexican jungle seeking out Mayan ruins, however, we were the only ones in the area during those treks.

 Since Mexican men, as a rule, do not wear shorts, despite the heat in some portions of the country, outside of those areas that cater to the American tourist, I tend to wear long pants while traveling there. I stick out enough in that country as it is. No need to exacerbate the matter.