New York City Redux

Here I am again at Penn Station, on my way back from what has become an annual excursion to the Big Apple. The trip was shorter this time, though somehow it felt longer. I was even bored at points (!), or maybe just immobilized by being unsure of how best to use my time in such an overwhelming place. I feel a bit worn out, no doubt because I’ve walked more in three days than I normally do all month. This is probably why I saw so few portly New Yorkers. And they must blow through shoes every few months. I’d say that I’ve surely lost a few pounds, but then I remember how much I’ve eaten. New York is second only to cruise ships in constant food availability.

My trip consisted mainly of opera performances, two days at the museum, and several dinners with an old friend. My hotel was – interesting. I was trying to keep things affordable, but I might choose to pay up the wazoo next time. You don’t get what you don’t pay for. Hot water would be one of those things (but, presumably, I paid for that).

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The individual rooms were decorated (I assume for free) by different artists. Mine looked like someone ingested pea soup and then projectile-vomited it all over the room. Everything was slathered in a thick coat of slimey green. A plaque on the wall informed me that the color was called “arsenic.” How fitting. The pukey decor was augmented by images of someone’s trip to uninteresting parts of Asia, complete with paper lanterns and Christmas lights strung  from the ceiling. I felt like I was either in a teenager’s bedroom, or a Martha Stewart nightmare. The room was very hot and noisy, with no way to control either affront to my senses. Sleeping a full night was impossible. It was akin to a night on a park bench in Times Square, except there wasn’t the saving grace of a cool breeze. Of course I didn’t come to New York to sit in my hotel room, but it will be nice to get home to my own digs. Comfy. Quiet. No snot-green anywhere.

When I did leave my room, it was to much more grand surroundings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is amazing. It would take a week just to give everything even a cursory look. I gave it two afternoons. I was amazed at times by the great detail artists were able to give their items (plates, pottery, figurines, furnishings) long before modern techniques to paint or mold them existed, and with the great condition items were in that were hundreds of years old. I frequently asked myself “how did they do that way back then without modern conveniences?” Astounding how talented and creative people can be when they aren’t filling their every moment with mindless electronic distractions.

As for the operas, always a treat. The Met orchestra is top notch, and while there aren’t superstar singers the likes of Pavarotti or Callas these days, the singing is far better than I’d hear most other places availabile to me aside from my own (massive) mp3 collection.

And speaking of Callas (whose voice I adore), my friend (the one I supped with) gave me a biography of her as a gift. I was very touched. And bemused. The thing is huge and weighs about five pounds (it’s hardcover and full of delicious pics), and here I am trying to travel light, knowing I have luggage to lug through the streets, stairwells, and subway tunnels of New York. Good thing I didn’t fly here, as I’d have to buy a seat for the book on the return trip.

Spring is blooming in the city, and the landscape is full of mass plantings of tulips and hydrangeas, as well as cheery clumps of  flowers ringing sidewalk trees in the only garden space most residents  have. Space is at a premium, and everyone makes the best of it. I had wanted to spend some time in the fantastic green (yes, green!) vistas of Central Park, but it didn’t happen this time. At least I wasn’t rained on the whole trip; it was just dreary and gloomy, kind of like my room.

Again, like last year, I didn’t see a single person who I felt threatened by during all my subway rides and street walks. I’m not sure what to make of this. I kept near crowds of regular shmoes like myself, tried to blend in and look confident and blase (“hey, I do this all the time!”), and never felt afraid. I’d be more concerned walking around certain dank areas back home. Here, there are people everywhere at all hours in a city that never sleeps, most of them just going about their business. Kids, moms, tourists, working people, largely unfazed with their surroundings or the hour, interacting more with their smartphones than the people all around them. Just like me (I’m typing this in the waiting area at Penn Station). See how nicely I blend?

I got out of my comparatively rural surroundings for a few days into one much more cosmopolitan. I heard foreign tongues everywhere. I sat next to a young man at the opera who appeared to be, like me, alone, and during the intermission I asked how he was enjoying it. He was European, and had seen the opera (Aida) many times in Vienna and other European cultural centers. I noted that during the performance he didn’t have his seat translator on, so he was likely multi-lingual, unlike my boorish American and unsophisticated self. It was a bit humbling.

So while it was nice to get away, it will also be nice to get back to my version of Kansas where I (unfortunately) fit in better. This city knows I don’t really belong here, as much as I may aspire to. But I’ll keep trying it on for size nonetheless, and hope it doesn’t take much notice.

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Life in the big city – Day Five

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Well, I’m up to 750 photographs taken in five days. There is so much unbelievable eye candy in New York, and I’ll bet the people who live here don’t even see it. It’s been great being able to share these pictures and experiences instantly with people back home. It’s like having travel companions, and makes up for the fact that I don’t. Everyone’s comments have been great – thank you for following along as armchair travelers.

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I started my day as usual, having breakfast at the bagel shop around the corner. I’m starting to become a regular there. Then, since it was raining – again – I decided to make it a museum day and visited the Museum of Modern Art. This museum is spread out over six floors. I wasn’t very interested in the bottom four floors, and was starting to wonder if I’d wasted my money. Plus, the place was incredibly crowded. It reminded me of being in a supermarket the day before Thanksgiving, but I had no carriage to ram anyone with. It was hard to walk through the exhibits, and even harder to find a place to sit and rest (museum browsing can be exhausting). Then I discovered that they keep the good stuff on the top floors.

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The upper floors had some prize pieces, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and famous works by Degas, Cezanne and Matisse, among others. Even a relative art neophyte like myself knew and appreciated these works. I tend to be drawn to the especially colorful pieces. That probably gives me the art acumen of a two year old, but hey, I know what I like. And there were a few works that convinced me that just about anything can be called art, and anyone an artist. And that’s okay.

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Next, I headed way downtown to the National September 11th Museum and Memorial. Wow. What a place. I’ve never been one to get overly sentimental about September 11th, but the symbolism and detailed chronicle of that fateful day here is astounding. I don’t think I could have been more impressed. It was informative. It was poignant. It was tasteful. It was dignified. That there was so much controversy surrounding it kind of surprises me, because the end result is absolutely fantastic.

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Above ground, as you approach the site, there is a massive white sculpture that resembles wings, perhaps those of a dove. It is elegant and striking (it, too, was controversial). As you walk further into the site, there is a sizable plaza populated with newly planted trees that surround the memorial pools.

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The pools – there are two of them – occupy the exact footprints of the Twin Towers, each an acre in size. Water cascades downward from all sides into a central abyss. Surrounding the pools, the names of every person who died in the tragedy are carved in metal and backlit from underneath. Many of these names have flags, flowers and other mementos left by loved ones in remembrance.

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The museum itself is completely underground and goes down several stories, essentially occupying the same space that the Trade Center’s underground sections did. The space is cavernous. You can listen to an audio tour on your smartphone explaining each exhibit. Many of the exhibits are educational in nature, detailing the events of that day (many today are too young to remember) in the words of the people who experienced it – the rescue workers, the eyewitnesses, the news anchors, and some of the victims themselves via final phone calls made from the plane. There are also many relics from the tragedy – pieces of the building, pieces of rescue equipment, even one of the staircases that proved to be a lifesaver and allowed many people to escape to safety.

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One of the most moving parts of the museum for me was a large art installation called Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning. It consists of almost 3,000 panels – one for each victim – in a different shade of blue. Spanning these panels is a quote from Virgil, the letters of which were made of steel from the wreckage: “No day can erase you from the memory of time.” Behind this wall are the remains of many victims that could not be recovered.

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In an equally moving exhibit is an 8 x 10 color photograph of every single victim, arranged in neat rows and columns, covering four massive walls. Deeper within this area is yet another, darkened room with a glass floor and benches along all four walls. Projected on the walls, one at a time, is the name of each victim, which is also read aloud. A little bit of their life story follows, as well as their picture and audio remembrances from loved ones. Together, these two exhibits put a very personal face on this unspeakable tragedy. Out of respect, photographs were not allowed in this area.

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There was much to absorb at the Museum, and it would really take the entire day to examine every exhibit ( I spent three hours there, and by the end of that was a bit overwhelmed). In some sense the museum is also a library, containing far more information than can be absorbed in one visit. It was a moving experience, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting New York.

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After my visit to the museum I headed back uptown, hoping to go to the top of Rockefeller Center and take in the breathtaking nighttime view of New York City. Unfortunately, it was very overcast tonight and the view from that height was non-existent. As this was my last night in New York, this is one of the few things on my bucket list that I was not able to accomplish on this trip. So instead, I absorbed the nighttime ambience of Rockefeller Center and headed back to my hotel room for my last night in the city. Tomorrow I may visit Brooklyn, and I will follow my wrap-up report on the train ride back home.

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