With the Republican National Convention soon to begin in New York City, I thought I would post this nostalgic entry. It’s account of a trip to a wintry, snow covered Manhattan in the carefree pre- 9/11, pre- George Bush, pre- recession days of early 2000. It was a magical two weeks in a magical city; and though I’ve been back several times since then (and the other main character in this narrative has relocated there permanently), I’ve not had a better visit since.
I wasn’t really sure if I would write about this trip to New York, as I have been a periodic visitor there for nearly 25 years. I made my first, brief, visit to New York in 1976 with a college roommate. Like all first-time visitors I was then simply amazed by the hugeness of it all: the skyscrapers, the subways, the architecture, as I suppose all first time visitors are.
I returned, alone, twice in the early 80’s. I stayed, on these visits, with a friend of a friend—a doctor who worked in a New York prison and lived in a large loft in the then decidedly unfashionable East Village between First and Avenue A. Today of course, this is prime real estate. These trips, visiting on my own, allowed me to really explore the city, and I did have the late writer and film historian Vito Russo as an occasional guide to the City’s nightlife. (Vito lived in then unfashionalbe Chelsea).
I made two short visits with my family. Once we stayed in a grand but faded suite atop the midtown Iriquois Hotel—a bargain because the hotel was in the process of being closed—piece by piece. When I next saw it, it was dark and abandoned; I meant to see on this visit if it had been reincarnated as a luxury hotel—as so many old places have recently, but I never got around to it. I have photos of my sisters ice-skating in the rink at Rockefeller Center.
On the next family visit, on the occasion of my brother’s graduation from West Point, my sister booked us into the garishly tacky Milford Plaza off Times Square (I can still remember their television commercials). Times Square, as you have no doubt heard, is now another world.
I returned to New York with Michael Logan one very hot week in July of 1984. We stayed at the fabulous Algonquin Hotel and saw Sondhiem’s “Sunday in the Park with George” which still impresses me with the way Seurat’s famous painting was recreated on stage by live actors. We visited Keith Haring’s Pop Shop and saw a very young Madonna hanging out at the Boybar. We lunched (twice) at the café which in summer replaces the ice-rink at Rockefeller Center, marveling at how much money one could spend on a hamburger and iced-teas. That sense of amazement at New York prices hasn’t changed.
I made three trips to New York in the 1990’s. A trip alone, by train from my brother’s house in Baltimore. I stayed with my Berkeley friend Jeremy in the East Village (the East Village of the musical Rent—edgy and hip, but not yet trendy). There was a great place, the Life Café, on the edge of Tompkins Square Park—it was a reflection of the neighborhood that it opened for breakfast at noon. That trip was devoted mainly to the museums and the theatre; the highlight for me being the totally amazing Part One of Angels in America.
I was also there briefly on a cross country driving trip with Konrad Kemper in 1996, and again for a few days to see the very talented Jeff Burton’s first New York photography show at the Casey Kaplan Gallery.
On both of these trips I stayed with Scott Robbe, newly returned to his long time home of New York after four years in Los Angeles, where we had the good fortune to meet through my friend and traveling companion, Rufus.
On this trip as well, Scott was kind enough to house Rufus and me (for two weeks!) in his rather spectacular apartment overlooking both Madison Square park and the famous Flatiron Building. But more than the accommodations, Scott is an enthusiastic host, and spent much of our visit introducing us to friends, taking us to restaurants, bars, a favorite show, and acting as a tireless guide to the New Manhattan.
And as you have heard, New York has changed dramatically in the past few years. Not just Times Square, but long, once desolate blocks all over the city are now alive with trendy cafes, galleries, shops and the ubiquitious Banana Republic stores. There is virtually no graffiti in Manhattan—a transformation that amazes me; and the city feels, for the first time in my experience, utterly safe—as safe as a big city in Western Europe. The downside to this prosperity and order? Everything is wildly expensive—especially housing, which is prohibitive. Anyone with a decent apartment in Manhattan occupies it through some very baroque and quasi-legal arrangement (some long ago resident’s name is always on the buzzer)—or else they live in Hoboken. The cleaned up city also means that nightlife—especially gay nightlife—is frightfully dull. Forget the 70’s entirely, it’s a mere shadow of what it was even in the early 90’s.
Still, it’s a city where even in two weeks we could not visit all the sights, museums, exhibitions, or theatre that we would have liked to have seen. It’s a city of fabulous restaurants and a city where you can get any sort of food, from any culture in the world. It’s a city where you can find and buy anything—if you have the money. It’s the only American city I know where you can routinely hear half a dozen languages being spoken at any one time. It’s noisy, it’s fast, it’s busy—but the drinks are strong and the people (like Paris, contrary to reputation) are by-and-large friendly. There’s a craziness to New York—you overhear it in the conversations of people who have tried too long and without success to achieve wealth or fame—but there’s an excitement too, which becomes a bit contagious.
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Arrived in New York on a Monday early evening in January, on a day of record subzero cold. Rufus, who had already been there nearly a week, met me at the Newark airport. He has already arranged a multitude of activities for our stay in New York: restaurant reservations, Broadway shows, etc…
The night of my arrival nothing is planned, though. Scott serves us wine and nibbly things—we are staying at his fabulous Madison Square penthouse. We go out to dinner at L’Express, a nearby French-ish bistro; I have onion soup and steak au poivre. The soup is good and the steak is especially good—but the unpeeled frites are very unFrench. After dinner Scott takes us around the corner to a very old New York bar, appropriately called the Old Town Bar—it still has it’s original 1910 interior. They have basketball on the TV and showtunes on the sound system, so there is something for everyone! There is almost no one there however, because it is extremely cold out and it’s Monday; the high temperature for the day was well below freezing and really you can only walk a couple blocks before it feels like your face is going to freeze off! In honor of my recent arrival, I have a Manhattan, which is especially tasty; then a second. My mistake though is the third, because after downing that I am extremely drunk. We take a cab to another bar—the Boiler Room—a gay/hipster joint in the East Village; there is no one there either. I have a club soda, but I am still reeling from the Manhattans. Fortunately we don’t stay long, and I am soon in bed where I belong.
Today I had to sleep late because of all the bourbon. Then Rufus and I met the photographer Ethan Hill for lunch. It is still bitterly cold out and the café we had chosen to meet in had a malfunctioning heating system! The waiters and few patrons were bundled in coats and gloves and you could see your breath inside the restaurant! Sensibly we went elsewhere—to the Union Square Coffee Shop—a sort of fabulous forties old place with a hipster crowd and designer-American food. Tasty though; I had a Cuban sandwich and Rufus had meatloaf. Ethan is doing very well shooting ads for Dell Computers and lots of other lucrative stuff. He made a beautiful portfolio on his Epson printer which he then bound in hardcover and slip-cased. It’s a thin little thing, but beautiful and has only portraits— his specialty.
We didn’t have plans after lunch, so we wandered a bit—even though it was too cold for it, really. We went into the newly hip Meatpacking District to a very silly shop called Jeffrey. Absurdly expensive designer clothes (you really couldn’t be too rich or too thin) and extravagantly overstaffed with cute shop clerks. Across the street we went to a gallery that sold art glass—lots of pieces at a hundred thousand dollars each—and most of them sold! New York is so rich; well it’s the same in LA and San Francisco—so much wealth. And desperate poverty. But New York does have a glamour that California lacks. That’s it really—its just so glamorous: women in furs; fancy stores and even fancier restaurants—by the hundreds. The extravagant 20th century architecture. We indulge ourselves in that glamour this evening with dinner at Tabla—a stylish and beautiful restaurant in the lobby of an art deco former insurance company building on Madison Square Park. It was lavish, and well, glamorous. Scott knows a couple of the waiters there (beautiful boys, glamorous in their own right). It’s an experience. From the moment you walk in the door and they rush up to take your coats and sweep you up the grand staircase to the dining room! The food is billed as Indian fusion—but it is pretty darn unique; I don’t know that you could classify it at all. The sauces and preparations are pretty unusual, but they do work. I wouldn’t say it’s the best food I’ve ever had, but it was very good—and certainly interesting. They sent us several extra things, and those were the best: an amuse bouche of pureed pumpkin, an in-between course of a shrimp (fabulously flavorful and on a excellent concoction of greens and star anise) and an extra dessert of warm chocolate-date cake. I had a starter of crispy sweetbreads in an incredibly rich sauce and a main course of scallops on a bed of chopped vegetables—those veggies were a bit of a disappointment. Rufus had an oxtail which was delicious and very rich, and Philip had a crusted skate wing that looked fantastic. Yes, the composer Phillip Littell joined us for dinner—he’s been living in New York for a while now and doing theatrical projects for Disney. It was great to see him again. He and Scott had not met before, but of course they know all the same fabulous people in New York and Los Angeles!
After dinner Philip was off to a club called Beige (the haunt, I’m told, of aspiring fashion models—everything in New York is so specialized) but we just came home to rest. It gives me a chance to make these notes.
The next morning I was still not fully recovered from travel and stayed in bed while Rufus went off to meet travel writer Rich Rubin for lunch. It was 3 in the afternoon before I got moving; but then Rufus and I took the subway uptown to the Whitney to see the “American Century” show. It was mostly pretty familiar work, but the presentation was interesting. And there were a few unfamiliar things—a positive result of being ‘inclusive’ with some works outside the white male artworld canon. This provided some new and unexpected work. We didn’t quite manage to see it all of course, so we may have to go back. Rufus especially would like to see Nan Goldin’s ‘Ballad of Sexual Dependency’, a slideshow that runs about 40 minutes; and there’s a Bill Viola work I’ve never seen.
After that we dashed over to Times Square on the subway so Rufus could deliver a note to a cabaret artist he dated in college—he’s now performing in New York. So I had a brief whirlwind tour of the new Times Square.
We had a play to attend at 8: Wit, the Pulitzer prize-winner from last year about a woman dying of cancer. It was very well written, a great character, some humor, but ultimately rather depressing. Intelligent and affecting though; only the very, very end seemed a bit overdone.
After that we had dinner at the Blue Water Grill, a seafood place in an old converted bank building. Very friendly waitress. We had some cold shrimps with cocktail sauce and then shared the fish special. It was a red drum fish from Florida—the waitress said it was a delicious, but very rare, fish. We hoped we weren’t eating the last of an endangered species. It was pretty tasty though.
We ended the evening by going with Scott to Pork at the Lure, a gay ‘scene’ where people stand around and sneer at each other. We met Scott’s friend Alan there and his boyfriend Lee from Tabla, and another waiter, Kane. Actually Rufus had met them all last week. Lee is rather intense and asks lots of questions and likes to discuss literature—an odd topic in a gay bar. Kane is astonishingly cute in an out-of-the mainstream way: he’s small and really skinny and has a very cute but perhaps oddly shaped head. The club was fine because of the company, and they had an artist doing portraits which was fun—and they looked good in the dark and after a few beers! The artist has an opening tomorrow in a gallery so I might go check him out in more critical surroundings. At 2am everyone left—really nearly everyone—but Rufus and I stayed another 45 minutes talking to Kane.
Thursday morning New York City was a winter wonderland. The snow swirled in huge flakes outside our window overlooking a white and gray Manhattan. The snow kept up all day long, and the city turned white. The temperature increased to a still-cold-but-at-least-tolerable-to-be-outside temperature, though the snow made the sidewalks uncomfortably slippery for me. I managed not to fall down, remarkably, but it did slow me down considerably. We grabbed a bit of lunkfast at the nearby Mayrose café (I had a huge and tasty American baked macaroni and cheese). Then we took the subway to Central Park and strolled through the south end of the park. The snow was still coming down and the park was all wintry white and bare black-brown elm trees with snow dusting their branches. We walked through the zoo, all beautifully restored, and the promenade down to the Bethesda fountain, and the boathouse in a frozen lake. There were a few people out, lots of children playing and sledding a throwing snowballs; and people taking pictures. We walked about an hour, until our toes became frozen in our boots and decided to stop in a fancy Central Park hotel for a warm beverage. We had our choice of the Plaza, or the Pierre, or the Sherry-Netherland, which was the one Rufus chose. It has a tiny, unprepossessing lobby and the only bar is the adjacent Harry’s Cipriani (as in Venice) very understated and very expensive! We each had an Irish coffee (30 bucks for 2 with tip!) We were entertained by eavesdropping on this group at the next table—some sort of Texas cattle baron and his wife from Dallas and their polo-playing investment bankers! It was like something out of a movie. They could not have been more stereotypical—we just couldn’t stop listening to their conversation.
From the bar we walked down Fifth Avenue, stopping at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and (more prosaically) at Banana Republic, and then at Saks. The Saks store is so incredibly elegant and beautiful—it’s rather amazing that the original at Fifth Avenue is so different form all the branch stores—which seem rather ordinary. I bought Rufus a belated Christmas gift—a DKNY sweater that he liked that had been marked down four times, so it was at last a reasonable price.
We got the subway at Rockefeller Center and went to an art opening in Chelsea at the Gallery 220—the artist we saw drawing portraits at the Lure the night before. Actually the show was titled Men at the Lure (Grant Schaeffer was the artist). It was a small gallery with a gay/hipster crowd (not unlike the crowds we used to get at the Gallery at The Doyle/Logan Company—and just as cheap; lots of drawings at $300 with no takers). Actually the portraits were quite nice: interesting, well drawn and nicely presented.
We came back to Scott’s to drop off stuff and change and took a taxi down to Sixth Street for an Indian dinner. Ate at Mutani where we had fantastic starters—wonderful meaty samosas; a concoction of spicy garbanzos with a puffy bread; and a fantastic sweet coconut soup that I remember from my very first Indian meal, also on Sixth Street 20 years ago. We shared a main course combo plate of more traditional Indian things that was fine, but not outstanding like the starters—I suspect we should have been more adventurous in our ordering.
After dinner, as we were in the East Village, we went out for a bit of gay nightlife. First we stopped at Wonderbar, which was cute, though not too busy. We had a comfy seat and sipped club soda and watched people come and go. From there we went to a ‘club’ at The Cock, which really was less interesting than it sounds. It wasn’t too busy either, but they had a five dollar cover and a couple of go-go boys. It was hard to tell who was less interested in the show though, the audience or the dancers. We left by 2.
Today we got up and went to lunch with Rufus’ friend Cindy. She is from Big Stone Gap and they went to school together and then to UVA together and she even lived in LA for a while. I met her once before but remembered her very differently. Now she is a lawyer and works for a small firm with offices in the Empire State Building. We went to her office (so fun—the Empire State Building!) and she introduced us to everyone who worked there and then we went to lunch. We went to an Italian place nearby and I had fettuccine alfredo for breakfast! (I really have to start getting up and about earlier in the day). After lunch, she gave us building passes to the observation deck so we went up to the top of the building for the view. It was clear today (the snow stopped and mostly all swept away) so the view was incredible—but so was the wind! So mostly you had to admire the view from inside the tacky souvenir shop that fills the enclosed part to the observation deck. On the plus side—not too crowded today!
After that we did a bit of shopping around Union Square; coffee and browsing at the huge Barnes & Noble bookstore and I bought a pair of pants at Banana Republic to take advantage of “no-sales-tax on clothing week” in New York. At 5:30 we met our friend Lauren, a producer at Nickelodeon, and her friend and colleague Dennis, back at Scott’s. We drank a bottle of wine and then all ventured out in the frigid wind to go to dinner. Scott led us to a really good little Thai restaurant in Chelsea with the rather uninspired name of ‘Regional Thai Taste’. It was very good though: lots of seafood, very clear flavors, lots of spice.
Dennis deserted us after dinner but Lauren stayed for one drink at Blu—an odd Chelsea bar that would have been very comfortable (couches and tables) except for the dance music blasting at full volume. We had cosmopolitans—tasty but (yet again) expensive.
Lauren went home after we left Blu, and I was feeling lively enough that I would have continued on from there—it was only ten or so—but we made the mistake of returning to Scott’s house to regroup. After sitting in the warm for an hour, going out seemed less appealing. Rufus wanted to go to club 1984 at the Pyramid in the East Village—which I’ll admit sounded amusing, and which might have provided a reason to venture out. Scott was coordinating meeting other friends however, and they wouldn’t be going out ’til after midnight, and by that time there would be a long line at 1984, and so then we would just go to an East village bar with a jukebox—and that didn’t seem worth going out in the cold for to me. So I decided to stay home; and then Rufus put on his pj’s and went to bed, and only Scott went out. So I’m sitting up to write this. It is very windy out!
An amusing weekend in New York. (Firstly, it’s probably good for the rest of our weekend that we did not venture out with Scott on Friday night—though it seems a very fun time was had by all—but the evening lasted until 7 am, which might have made it difficult to enjoy Saturday day. And our Saturday was great!)
We got to breakfast a bit before noon: just a quick bite at the nearby Mayrose (actually I had a grilled chicken sandwich). Then took the subway uptown to a matinee of “Cabaret”. We got there early so walked around a bit by Central Park South and past Columbus Circle (ugly and unimpressive) and then to Studio 54 for the performance. Studio 54, the famous disco era nightclub, has been stripped of its slick, dance-club interior (so I’m told—I never actually went there in it’s heyday), and has been returned to a somewhat decaying early 20th century theatre, but outfitted with café tables, each with a little lamp, so the interior is like a grand, but faded…cabaret. And, naturally, you can order expensive drinks as well. Actually we had decent bottle of French Champagne for 35 dollars, so they weren’t that bad (90 bucks each for the theatre tickets though. Ouch!). The production was quite good though, and the whole atmosphere is very fun. Some of my favorite songs in the show belong to Frau Schnieder, the landlady–and these were cut from the movie along with her plot line! It’s hard to see the show and not think of all its other incarnations: Isherwood’s fiction, and his autobiography, and the movie and Bob Fosse. Still it holds up well and has some great songs.
After the show we walked cross town to Bloomingdale’s. It wasn’t that exciting though. I don’t think I’ve been there in 15 years, but I remembered it as being rather glamorous—with lots of wild (if unwearable and/or unaffordable) designer menswear. It just seemed like a typical department store—the Bloomingdale’s in Century City is more interesting, if I dare to say so!
There’s a subway stop in the basement though, so we took a train down to Grand Central Station to have a look at results of the renovation. It’s spectacular! The main concourse is beautiful—and it is probably the only public space in New York City with no advertising! There is a fancy restaurant on the balcony with a spectacular view over the room, but we headed to the basement to the famous Oyster Bar. It’s not chic, but it’s pretty cool, with long counters to sit at and fabulous fresh seafood. We had a couple glasses of Muscadet and a plate of fried oysters and fresh some clams on the half shell from the raw bar. Delicious—and I rarely eat raw clams or oysters. We could have gorged on more raw things and chowders and crab cakes, but we had an invitation to dinner, so just a snack. We left planning a return in the coming week.
There’s also a big food hall beneath the station, and a wine shop, where we picked up a bottle to take to dinner. We took the train back to Scott’s and picked him up to go to dinner with Alan and Lee. They live in the West Village, and had invited us all over for a home cooked meal—which seems to be something of a rarity in Manhattan, where everyone either goes out, or orders in. It’s the only city I know where you can even get breakfast delivered! Lee is Korean, and from Minnesota, and apparently he likes to cook. Alan, a true New Yorker, never enters their kitchen. They have a cool apartment in old building which, in an arrangement typical of new York, they occupy with some kooky heiress who is hardly ever there. We didn’t meet her; she wasn’t there. Lee made a very nice dinner for us. First we had cocktails and gorged on cheese then sat down to a dinner of chicken baked with apples, potatoes, and pea pods. Scott brought a tiramisu cake for dessert. We sat around talking ’til almost 1 am—Scott and Alan didn’t want to go out because of the excitement of the night before. Rufus and I left finally to go to the East Village clubs. Rufus wanted to go back to The Cock where they have some sort of vulgar but funny show on Saturdays, but by the time we got there there was a line—it was short but it never moved. It was also a bit worrisome because everyone in line seemed to be some kind of greaseball—not at all appealing and it didn’t seem to bode well for the crowd inside—so we bailed and went to the Phoenix. It’s just a casual sort of place with a jukebox. It was fun—we had a couple of beers and watched the crowd. Then we stopped at Dick’s—not too busy—but they have a mad jukebox (it had been overridden by a DJ for Saturday night sadly) loaded with obscure New Wave discs like ‘the Xray Specs!’ We left there and went to The Boiler Room where everyone was really friendly (and really drunk) ‘cuz it was after 3 am. Then we got into a cab and came home.
Sunday began with a very late brunch with Scott. Nothing Fancy, just a typical American breakfast at a coffee shop on third avenue. Really good waffle and bacon—really bad coffee. One thing that hasn’t changed in New York is the coffee—it is still the worst in the world. I swear that they leave it simmering on the hot plate for a full day before they deem it ready to serve. Even the lattes and cappuccinos are mediocre at best. The ubiquitous ‘Starbucks’ that have sprung up everywhere are most welcome here—but of course they don’t have decent food.
After breakfast (at 3pm!) we took the subway all the way up the East Side to 103rd street to the little-visited Museum of the City of New York. At 103rd street, the railroad tracks that run under Park avenue have emerged from underground and run along an elevated viaduct and the ultra-posh Upper East Side has given way to a more Harlem-esque cityscape. Fifth Avenue though, with its views over the very north end of Central Park maintains an air of grandeur. The Museum of the city of New York, at Fifth and 103rd, is rather grand itself, though the building is far more imposing than its collections. There was a nice temporary exhibition of photographs of the ruined hospital buildings on the unrestored half of Ellis Island. There was an interesting ‘history of New York City’ room, with a timeline and fun artifacts from the last hundred years. There is also a big Broadway/theatre section of the museum, with artifacts from the Gershwins and South Pacific and Cole Porter and Noel Coward. And there were temporary exhibits of costume/fashion. There was also a collection of 19th century furniture and a few paintings, but we ran out of time and just sort of dashed by these. There is a nice shop at the museum that has good books (Dawn Powell novels) and really nice photographic prints of views of New York made from the negatives in the Museum’s collection.
Since we were on Fifth, We caught the bus that runs all the way down Fifth Avenue and got off at the stop that is directly in front of Scott’s building! It’s sort of a fun ride, as it takes you past many of the monuments of New York: The Guggenheim, the Met, the Plaza Hotel, Rockefeller Center, The Library, the Empire State Building…). We had intended to rest up a bit when we got back, before our big dinner (we had reservations at Balthazar—one of the city’s most in-demand eateries). But instead of resting we went with Scott to the Mercer Hotel for a drink. A friend of his from LA (who directs commercials with American stars for Japanese television, for products they wouldn’t dare be seen endorsing in the US) was in town to shoot something and staying at the Mercer. It’s very cool-sophisticated; spare and beautiful—and arranged so that you can’t actually sit close enough to anyone to carry on a conversation with them! Big leather sofas and chairs, very far apart. There was a whole wall of cool art books in the lobby though, so it would be a fine place to hang out alone.
Our restaurant, Balthazar, was near the hotel, on Spring street in Soho. We had heard and read great things about it, and getting a reservation was quite the process involving a call a week in advance to get the reservation, and a mandatory call back the same day to confirm the reservation. On the plus side, we were seated immediately upon arrival, and the place was very busy. The place is a pretty authentic reproduction of a French Brasserie—tiled floor, antique mirrors, dark wood, and tiny tables jammed together. There’s a raw bar with oyster shuckers—though it’s inside and not out on the sidewalk. Rufus was expecting—from all the hype—something a bit more. As he commented “this is just like any restaurant in Europe!” Well, yes and no. The food was typical French brasserie/bistro and totally excellent. We started with steak tartare—which was rich and delicious—and a very good goat cheese tart. For main courses Rufus had a large, beautiful pork chop and I had the cassoulet (served only on Sundays, and perfect). We drank a very good, and reasonably priced 96 Chinon. The service however, could not have been less French. It was rushed, and fussy, and bordered on inept. Things came to the table much too quickly—starters arrived before the wine, main courses arrived as soon as the starters had been cleared, and some one was always pouring water or wine—and worse—reaching across our table to pour water or wine for the adjacent table. We really just wanted to tell the waiter to go away and leave us in peace for twenty minutes! We settled for lounging after the main course with the dessert menus and refusing to order anything for a good long time. Finally I had some profiteroles and Rufus had a glass of sherry. In the end we stretched dinner out to a respectable 2 hours, without any coffee. Despite the service, the food was really good though, and I’d love to go back—though I would go next time at an off hour, perhaps after ten when the frenzy has died down.
After dinner we came home and changed, and went out to check the Sunday night scene at New York’s bars. And what we found is that there isn’t one—on Sunday night ‘the city that never sleeps’ seem to be, well, sleeping. We went to the Spike—a half dozen people and very bored bartenders. The Eagle—a few people—but very unattractive. The Lure—us, two other patrons, and the bartender. We had a very long chat with the bartender though, he was very nice. From there, we decide not to press our luck, and returned home.
Today (Monday) we were slow to get started as well; however we did drop off our clothes at the laundry—an accomplishment! We went to the Mayrose for lunch—I do like their macaroni and cheese (I sound like my nephew!). Rufus went back to the apartment to work on an article he was writing, and I went for a walk. Today the weather has warmed up considerably—it was only chilly—and quite pleasant for walking. I didn’t even need my hat. I walked down Broadway, past Union Square, past the antique shops, past the discount clothing shops. Stopped at Shakespeare and Company to look at books (Umberto Eco essays and the book about Hitler’s Pope), The Gap to look for cargo pants on sale (none), a discount store to look for cheap jeans (all of them cheap but the Levis). I walked all the way down into Soho and ended up back at Balthazar, where I got a café latte and pain au chocolate from their boulangerie (I couldn’t resist) and ate it sitting on a bench out front and watching the people pass by. (Good latte by the way—thank God.) The pastry was good but not sublime—I was hoping for sublime; everything looks delicious.
I was going to take the subway back home (mainly because I had to pee, and New York has no public facilities even though the mayor just last week ordered that anyone urinating in the street be arrested) when I noticed I was right in front of the Guggenheim Soho, which is open ’til 6 and is free. So I went in and used the bathroom and saw the show. It was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper”, paintings and silk-screens and drawings all based on Da Vinci’s last supper and also Warhol’s last work before his death. It was worth seeing, and it was just me and the security guards up there—and they have nice restrooms FYI.
Thus rejuvenated I walked back to Scott’s; first over to Washington Square and then down Fifth Avenue. When I got back, Rufus wanted to go to the movies, so we took the subway back to Soho and saw Pedro Almodovar’s film “All About My Mother” (which we had to see in the states because we really needed those subtitles to be in English). After the movie we walked to Greenwich Village and had slices (pizza slices—really good ones; one of the things you cannot get in the Netherlands is really good pizza). Then we walked some more, into Chelsea, and had Krispy Kreme donuts for desert.
Tuesday we were prompted out of bed at a reasonable hour by the arrival of some workman to replaster part of Scott’s hallway wall. So we left the apartment around 9:30 and set off to get a small breakfast. We went to the café at the ABC home/carpet store just down Broadway; it’s quite a mad little place—as Rufus remarked, “it’s as if Miss Havisham opened a tea room.”
Everything in it is for sale: venetian chandeliers and marble tables and all sorts of doo-dads. We had Café Latte and a bagel and a chocolate croissant—for 15 dollars. The store is just as mad—lots of odd antiques and faux antiques and decorative junk. After that we went in search of film and stumbled upon this great used camera store. They had a huge inventory of used photographic equipment in beautiful condition; lots of Olympus stuff, including the 100mm lens I have been looking for—but the prices are outrageous! I talked to Scott about it later and he said you have to bargain aggressively with them—something I’m not too good at.
We had arranged to meet Jeremy Proctor for lunch, so at 12:30 we returned to Scott’s apartment. The plasterers had finished their work already. Jeremy arrived about one. He has only recently returned to New York City, where he lived some years ago, after taking an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and masters degree in theatre at Harvard. He also spent this past summer at a theatre company in Moscow as part of the Harvard program. We got updated on all this during lunch back at the hip Union Square Coffee Shop. We ate the afternoon away, with soups and a quesadilla and pasta for Jeremy (who has always been a vegetarian) and a Caesar salad for me and a turkey burger for Rufus. And berry pie. A huge lunch. Jeremy has the classic good looks of an actor—tall, dark haired, handsome. He was really good-looking when he was 20, he’s really good-looking now, some 13 years later, and he will undoubtedly really good looking 15 years from now. He’s been back in the city only a few months, and auditioning for plays and commercials, and TV series such as the Sopranos and City of Angels. With his looks, and his training, it’s pretty easy to believe that there are big things in store for him; although Jeremy seems, unlike most aspiring actors, to be far more interested in acting than in celebrity or money. But he’s always been odd that way! In the mean time, he is working for a design firm—the same firm he worked for when he lived in the East Village eight years ago—building sets and installations for corporate events. After lunch, we walked over to Chelsea and saw the design offices—which are pretty cool, and also have this huge woodworking shop attached.
The weather today was back to being pretty awful—cold, a bit wet, and very slippery. I had thought that maybe it would be a good day to go to the MoMA and hang out indoors, but by the time we left Jeremy it was already almost 4 o’clock. So instead of art we took the subway to the East Village to the Kiehl’s drugstore and I spent 90 bucks on shampoos, shaving creams, soaps and lotions. Crazy I know, but Rufus got a bunch of samples from them a couple years ago when he worked at the magazine and their stuff is really good—and more than a little hard to find. I hope I find the products as terrific as I remember them! From there we went shopping in Soho to try to find Rufus some new boots—without much success. Anything he liked—at the various discount shoe emporiums—was not available in his size.
By the time we returned to the apartment, it was snowing quite heavily. We had a drink there with Scott, then the three of us set off for the evening’s entertainment. We had tickets to ‘De La Guarda’ a mad theater event that Scott had recommended highly—and that people we talked to seemed to love or hate; no one takes the middle ground. We dashed through the snow down to Union Square, to a theatre in an old bank building. The performance, which runs just about an hour and ten minutes, takes place in a space without seats. You enter a dark room, where the walls and ceiling are covered with paper and just sort of wait. Since Scott had been before, he rather knew the best place to position us for the show. It’s not really theatre but sort of circus/acrobatics/performance—but the whole thing is done by performers on bungee cords! There is lots of flying and bouncing and things dropped into the audience. It’s interesting, because there is sound and noise, but no dialogue or language—perhaps a few words of Spanish; the show was developed by a theater troupe in Argentina—but it is completely accessible regardless of what language you speak. I think it is all just action and physicality, and mindless fun—but I can totally see how you could read some deeper meaning into it if you are so inclined. I’m sure some do.
After that we walked in the blowing snow to the East Village, to a sushi restaurant, and had a big platter of sushi and sashimi. That was good—I hadn’t had sushi in a while, and it was a treat. After that we went to the Boiler Room—walking down the now totally deserted East Village streets, with the snow piled high and still falling—and had a scotch; and then to the Wonderbar for another. We ran into Kane and two of his friends there. We had a good time except that Rufus knocked a full glass of scotch and soda into Scott’s lap right after we got there, and that had to be very cold. At least he was wearing black so it didn’t show. We stayed for two drinks then left Kane and his friends. The snow had stopped by the time we left—much to Scott’s displeasure, as he was really hoping for a storm that would prevent him from going to the office—but the streets were snowy and slick and we had the slowest taxi ride ever back to the apartment.
The next day we were a bit slow to get going—naturally! I hung around the apartment ’til well after noon (we had some yummy Balthazar sticky buns that we had picked up the day before at Dean & Deluca for breakfast). Rufus had an article to work on so I went out in the afternoon without him. I walked down to a little diner joint on 16th street called Chat and Chew to have a bite of lunch. I sat at the counter and ate more macaroni and cheese. It was quite good and a dollar cheaper than Mayrose. I was thinking it would be a fun article (for what or whom I don’t know) to write about all the different macaroni and cheese from all the different café/diners in Manhattan. Then I thought I should really do it with my nine-year-old nephew Jonathan, as his favorite food is macaroni and cheese. He, being a child, likes it creamy and mild and I prefer a sharper cheese and a baked crusty top. I think we’d be a good macaroni and cheese team!
Fortified, I took the subway uptown to the Museum of Natural History. There was an old man playing the flute in the subway car. I gave him a dollar—his song was cheerful, but more than that I was impressed that he could stand and play the flute and keep his balance as we lurched in and out of stations.
It was still very cold and the park as seen from the museum was covered in white. In fact the area all around the museum is very beautiful—a monument to the early 20th century. You have the park, with the towers of midtown rising to the south; the museum, built in three styles—a late 19th century Richardsonian Romanesque revival, a monumental early 20th century classical revival, and a late 20th century transparent glass cube. And surrounding the museum and stretching up and down Central Park West are the ornate prewar apartment towers with their setbacks and fanciful roof lines.
The vast museum was nearly deserted, I bought a general admission ticket and a ticket to the tropical butterfly environment. I went to see the butterflies first—they’ve set up a green house which they stock with cocoons of various species and the butterflies hatch and fly about. They had some very large ones from Costa Rica—one landed on me and rode me around while I toured the exhibit. They are very strange creatures, each species of caterpillar will eat only one species of plant; in the cocoon the caterpillar breaks down into single cells ’til there is nothing left of it and the cells reform into the butterfly; butterflies can eat only liquids and live a short time—their only job is to mate. As you can see it was an educational, as well as pretty, exhibit.
From there I visited the one hall open in the new Earth and Space center currently nearing completion. It was all about rocks essentially—and volcanoes, earthquakes, tectonic plates and that sort of thing. Very multi-media and slickly put together. The whole center, when it opens, is supposed to be quite spectacular. From there I went to the fourth floor to the hall of Dinosaurs (and prehistoric mammals). This was only partially open the last time I visited the museum, but now the entire floor has been completed. Visually it is spectacular—with vast reconstructed skeletons and models of the beasts—and scientifically it is quite complex, allowing one to trace the evolutionary lines of different classes of prehistoric creatures. My favorite thing about the exhibit (after watching the BBC series “Walking with Dinosaurs”, where one followed the daily activities multi-colored dinosaurs in minute detail) were the signs all over the museum forcefully warning that we don’t know with any certainty what color dinosaurs were, how they interacted, how they moved or really very much at all about them! The curators are obviously not amused by conjecture presented as fact.
The dinosaur section is huge so I didn’t have time to explore the really old sections of the museum—the huge halls of dioramas of stuffed exotic animals or the cabinets full of gemstones. It was closing time by then, and I was meeting Rufus for a full evening of Broadway theatre.
We arranged to meet at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central. This time we sat at the counter at the raw bar, and sampled a selection of raw oysters selected by the counterman. We followed that with a couple of bowls of clam chowder—good, but next time I would opt for the stew or panroast, which is concocted from fresh seafood right before your very eyes by a chef who’s only job is to make the stew/panroast (I couldn’t tell what the difference was between a stew and a panroast even after watching him make them—but they are served in different bowls). Everyone was ordering them so they must be as good as they look. We were going to order some fried clams or calimari too, but we were full after the chowder. Instead we split a piece of key lime pie.
I have to say the Oyster Bar is one of my favorite places in New York, It’s not fancy, and it’s not really cheap. But the food is delicious and I love the counter and the prewar ambiance of the place.
After dinner it was off to Times Square and the beautifully restored Moorish-style Martin Beck Theatre for the revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. The songs in the show are some of Cole Porter’s silliest; they are also among Rufus’ favorite Broadway tunes, so we just had to go. Both leads were replaced by understudies that night, but it didn’t matter too much to me—I didn’t really know who the leads were anyway. Besides it’s quite an ensemble show—almost every character gets a big number to sing. It was very big and elaborate and fun and the songs (as they should be with so slight a book) were given center stage and presented with (I think) all of their multitudinous and very silly verses.
Cole Porter should be enough theatre for one night, but we were only halfway through our evening. By a strange coincidence, an old college friend of Rufus’, from UVA, who he hadn’t seen in eight years was performing that night in a Times Square Cabaret. We dashed (rather literally) over after Kiss Me Kate to the Cabaret room at the Firebird restaurant—a swanky but tiny shoebox of a room with baby grand smack in the middle and a dozen tables surrounding it. We were seated at a table to the side and back (it seemed like the worst table in the house, but I wasn’t complaining because if he turned out to be truly awful I would not want to be sitting front and center). New York seems full of these prissy, expensive cabaret rooms, and one does wonder who spends their evenings in them. Surveying the crowd at the firebird, we found theatrically attired women of a certain age; natty sweater queens of a certain age, and a variety of eccentrics all, one assumes from appearances, working one way or another in “the theatre”.
I have to say, I had quite prepared myself for the worst. Jack Donahue surprised me though with a pleasant, entertaining, and compact collection of songs. He’s strikingly handsome—which never hurts in a singer; he’s very charming and tells amusing stories between songs; and the songs themselves seemed well chosen from, in some cases, very unlikely sources (you can buy his forthcoming CD and judge for your self on that though). He’s got a good voice and sings well, though (as Rufus tells me he trained as an actor) he tends to over act while singing—emoting as if from a theatre stage rather than in a room of 30 people. We met him for a drink across the street after the show, so Rufus and he could catch up briefly on the last eight years, and he is equally charming offstage.
However, before we could leave the Firebird to meet Jack across the street we had a rather interesting encounter. Towards the end of Jack’s show an odd little man took a vacant chair at our table. After the show he began a conversation with us—first a series of fairly awful jokes; then some complaints about his grandchildren, particularly their lack of penmanship; and then the usual complaints about the state of the world. One could tell that he was going to be quite the eccentric because he was wearing pince-nez! It turns out that he is Bill Holt, the owner of the Firebird cabaret, and restaurant, and he is what could only be described by that archaic New York term ‘impresario.’ Did he therefore offer to pay our outrageous cabaret bill (70 dollars for the 45 minute show and two drinks)? I’m afraid he did not. What we got instead was a guided tour of his over-the-top Russian restaurant and highlights from his life story. It seems he married an exiled Russian noble (despite giving every appearance of being something of a mad old queen) and is obsessed with Russian culture. After making a killing in the insurance business he decided to open a Russian restaurant. It’s madly opulent, with Russian paintings (authentic and copies,) ballet costumes in Plexiglas display boxes, family photos, elaborate place settings—all quite mad—and a bit reminiscent of the Russian restaurant in Tallinn, so I’m willing to believe it’s a moderately authentic reproduction. By the time he finished our tour, the staff had locked the doors and were counting great stacks of money.
Across the street at the Irish bar where we finally met Jack for a drink, a rather strange friend of his was singing a Bob Dylan song in a dead-on impression. It was a night of non-stop entertainment.
Thursday we left behind the world of the theatre for the world of art; we decided to visit some of the new galleries in the meatpacking district and the streets just west of Chelsea. Had lunch at a really charming little French café in Chelsea called Le Gamin. Great coffee, slow Euro-style service; and really good croques and crepes. The new galleries are springing up on the cross streets between 10th and 11th avenues—in between wholesale shipping and car repair and what little industry remains in Manhattan. Between the trucks and the building renovations (and the snow and ice) finding, and getting into, some of the galleries was a little difficult. A lot of the galleries, even here, deal in established artists and big names. The mammoth new Gagosian gallery held only one piece: an enormous Richard Serra rusted iron walk-through sculpture which filled the entire building. We saw a very fun video (and I don’t usually have the patience for video art) at the Paula Cooper Gallery (‘Telephones’ by Christian Marclay) made entirely of short movie clips featuring telephones. We also saw some Dan Flavin sculptures (see, names) and I thought again how easy a time an art forger would have with his work. I like them though and thought about making one for myself. We toured one enormous building that was all galleries; here finally were some new and emerging artists. Most of the work was derivative, and dull, and not very interesting, but a few things stood out.
There were some terrific black and white paintings of the surfaces of water done on Plexiglas by Sarah Leahy. These were really quite beautiful and fresh. They were also really inexpensive. There only flaw was that they were attached to the wall with screws through holes drilled in the corners. As a gallery owner, I can guess that this method was used because the artist couldn’t afford the cost of framing the works—but the paintings are really too elegant for this treatment. I wish her great success so that she can raise her prices and have her next series beautifully framed, as befits such fine work. Also, after slogging up eight floors of galleries, we saw some terrific large scale paintings of crowds of men in 40’s style hats. The view was from slightly above so all you could see mostly were the hats. It was an odd gallery though—everyone there busily shouting into cell phones in Spanish and no information at all on the artist—I don’t even know his name.
We were going to continue our day of art with a return to the Whitney Museum—to finish up where we left off and have a look at the Bill Viola and watch Nan Goldin’s slideshow in its entirety. We had thought (along with quite a few other college students and art loving cheapskates) that Thursday nights from 6-8 were free entry—but alas it turns out that that is only the first Thursday of the month, which this wasn’t. Having paid to see the show once, I was loathe to give them another $25 for the two of us to spend an additional hour in the museum. We were supposed to meet Lauren there, but she hadn’t shown up. We were walking up Madison avenue trying to decide what to do (and there is very little to do on these residential blocks of the Upper East Side) when we ran right into Lauren on her way from the subway. After a good deal of walking east we found a café/bar (so unmemorable I can’t recall its name) and plotted dinner over a martini. We were thinking Italian and not too expensive—actually I had a craving for ‘New York’ Italian and when I said I just wanted someone to bring me plates of food, Lauren said she new just the place. We were joined by Lauren’s friend Dennis, who lives nearby, and we all took a taxi down to Little Italy.
La Mela is perhaps the ugliest restaurant I have ever seen. You might, if you were being very kind, call it fun-spirited and leave it at that. It’s a long, narrow, crowded place; the walls are covered entirely with stapled up snapshots and laser prints of the patrons; the furniture is plastic and covered with the most garishly colored plastic tablecloths imaginable. To top it all off, hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room is a sort of homemade plastic cock and balls arrangement which light up when the owner (owner? Maitre’d?) pulls a string. Well, despite this assault on the senses, the staff is most congenial and the food is just as Lauren described—copious platters brought to the table with no questions asked! First they plonk down two (liter!) bottles of wine—decent stuff—a red and a white from Italy, and then they lay on the antipasto: Grilled peppers, caprese, etc. Next is a huge platter with three pastas: a gnocchi, a penne in ragu and spaghetti. Finally a platter of secondi: garlic roasted chicken, prawns, veal picatta. Oh yes and a selection of desserts.
After dinner we actually persuaded Lauren and Dennis to join us for a drink, so we went to the Wonderbar. Just one though; After that it was home for everyone.
Friday Rufus had a meeting at Travel & Leisure magazine. I went to Chelsea for a haircut at a place called the Service Station, and had a bowl of onion soup at Le Gamin. We met up again at the Museum of Modern Art for the ModernStarts ‘People, Places. Things’ retrospective on the origins of “modern” art. Fridays the MoMA stays open ’til 8pm so we had a leisurely stroll through the galleries—till the very last few rooms of ‘places’, where we were, as usual rushed, by the museum’s imminent closing.
We took the oh-so-convenient Fifth Avenue bus back to Scott’s apartment—the bus stop is literally at the door to his building. Scott arranged dinner reservations at Alley’s End—a stylish restaurant tucked away down some stairs off a little alley in Chelsea. We had a nine-thirty reservation, but didn’t get a table till almost eleven. The place was a complete mob scene with (as the very fun girl behind the bar described them) obnoxious straight guys trying to impress their girls, and a Fellini-esque cast of mob-family characters assembling for a private party. I didn’t mind the wait though—we had seats at the bar and the bartender liked us; the crowd was a hoot, the martinis good. When we were seated we got a really fine booth and the food was really good. I had a ceviche starter then a steak with mashed potatoes; the short menu was all stylish American food. The wait staff, who were very nice, kept warning us that the kitchen was very slow, but to me the pace seemed merely refreshingly European.
After dinner we went for ‘just one ‘ drink at the Phoenix—which of course turned into three before we called it night and headed for bed.
On Saturday, Rufus and I took the Subway to Brooklyn, to meet our friend Jeremy at his new home. He’s got the top floor of an old Brooklyn brownstone with a view across the rooftops to the skyline of lower Manhattan. It’s an old Italian neighborhood with long shopping street full of cafes. He took us to the Harvest, a popular spot with big American Breakfasts—eggs, pecan pancakes, French toast, hash.
After breakfast we had a nice long walk—we walked all the way back to Manhattan as a matter of fact. It was a nice day, not so cold, and very clear. We walked the promenade along the east river in Brooklyn Heights, then took the pedestrian promenade across the Brooklyn Bridge. Great view of both the bridge and the city. We sort of strolled all over lower Manhattan and into the West Village and finally back to Scott’s.
Jeremy had a dinner engagement so Scott took Rufus and I down to Chinatown to a funny little place specializing in Chinese seafood. We had some seafood wontons and salt-baked prawns and a whole steamed sea bass.
After dinner we went back to Chelsea, to the bar Blu to meet friends: Mike Ognibene, who we met a year and half ago in Amsterdam; his Bosnian boyfriend Edin, and Marc Leonard, a friend of Scott’s. We chatted (as best one can above the blaring music) over several cocktails.
Sunday we had another big American breakfast at Chat and Chew then went to the movies to see ‘American Beauty,’ which Rufus had been desperate to see. It actually lives up to its rave reviews; it was much better than I thought it would be from seeing the previews. In the early evening Scott took us to the old gay bars of the West Village—which must now be the dullest gay bars in New York. The clientele at the Monster looked like they hadn’t left those barstools since 1969; The crowd at the Hangar likewise looked as if they stepped out of some 70’s leather bar timewarp—and to top it off they were all watching the Super Bowl! As Rufus said, “For this we rioted!?!”).
We had one more drink at a fashionable Italian restaurant on 10th street—Caffe Torino—in a building that used to be The Ninth Circle—a rather fun bar of the 1980’s frequented by artists and punks and hustlers. Scott and I realized that we had probably both been there at the same time some night long before we knew each other. On my first few visits to New York City, it was the only bar I liked to go to. One wishes it was still there.
We had dinner that night at a little hole-in-the-wall Italian place with great food—run by three brothers, I’m told. It’s called Piadina, in Greenwich Village, and its got great pastas and antipastos. I had ravioli with butter and sage and Rufus had a great penne with a meaty ragu. During dinner it began to snow, and afterwards we went for a walk in the snowstorm—Scott and Rufus throwing snowballs at limousines and café windows.
On the way back, we stopped at Splash, Chelsea’s biggest and glitziest gay bar. They have the usual over-muscled and not too exciting go-go dancers.
There was a bit of a crowd, and we had a drink before returning home. By this time the snow had turned, sadly, to rain.
Another threatened snow storm evaporated by morning, leaving our last day in New York mostly clear and not too cold—and so not interfering at all with our planned departure. We had our final lunch at the nearby Union Square Coffee Shop, and a very American farewell: Chicken tamales, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and kale, and a Cheeseburger with French fries. I never did get the chocolate layer cake I had been craving for days, though!
After lunch I finished the roll of film in my camera—two weeks in New York and I shot only one roll of film—it’s really pitiful. My only excuse is that most of the time it seemed too cold for pictures (its hard to shoot with gloves on); though I do regret not getting pictures of the Empire state building aglow in the swirling snow.
We took a car to the Newark airport, and nine or so hours later a cab to the Berenstraat in Amsterdam, and the first thing I noticed, standing on our street at a quarter to nine on a Tuesday morning, was how quiet it was! No horns blaring, no traffic, no construction. Quiet! The next thing I noticed—but this is a fluke—was how warm it was. Compared to New York where it was below freezing for most of two weeks, we arrived to find Amsterdam mild and clear.
Clay Doyle, January 2000