Posted: March, 2013 by John
New York, New York, New York…. (x 15)
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The Big Apple Beckons
It’s my favourite city to visit. It must be…we’ve just returned from what I think was my 15th trip there since 1965.
In July 1964, National Geographic carried a story, “The World in New York City”, coinciding with the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. It was probably the only article in that magazine that ever made a lasting impression on me. I remember how overwhelmed I was by the sense it gave me of the city. I told a friend I’d love to live there.
The next March, I jumped at the chance to go there on a 5-day school trip. It turned out to be all I hoped for, and more.
The things I fell in love with then are still many of the reasons I keep going back: the sights and treasures, its sheer size (and height), the hustle (pedestrians simply ignore traffic lights unless they’re very likely to get run over), the noise (well, within limits…). I loved its walkability…
…and the fact that from that first trip, I discovered how simple it was to find your way around most of Manhattan, and underneath it, in that amazing subway system.
A side note: on that visit, we stayed at the now-demolished Great Northern Hotel, on 57th Street, a few doors from Carnegie Hall and home for a time to both Isadora Duncan and William Saroyan. And, somewhere around the same time that I stayed there, my future sister-in-law performed as a Flamenco dancer.
My next trip was in October, 1969 In the office I worked in then, we had been listening — as people did in those days — to the World Series on a transistor radio. Amazingly, the “Amazin’ Mets”, those lovable losers, actually won (video). I said something to the effect that it would be great to be in that city, and a fellow worker took me up on the idea. (This was in the days when under-25’s could fly standby for half price). So off we flew, I met up with someone I knew who lived there, and we hit some of the party bars; later ending up sitting on a park bench on the edge of Central Park until we could catch a morning flight and head back to the office…
I had a couple more trips in the 70’s; Oksana and I went there for the first time together in 1980, and on…
Passages: Celebrations & Loss
Since that first trip together, Oksana and I have been often. I’ve marked the passage of three decades there:
- For my 40th birthday, we caught some Blue Jays games at Yankee Stadium. That was (like now) a time when the Jays had a number of Dominican stars, and the NYC Dominicans were out in force. We picked up our tickets at the Will Call window, standing behind George Bell’s brother who took a huge stack of comps. There were numerous Dominican flags in the stands, often with Blue Jay logos. The Jays swept the series.
For my 50th, we walked across Brooklyn Bridge (we’d done the Golden Gate the year before), and that night we went to one of the city’s great, eclectic clubs, Joe’s Pub to see the Peruvian singer (and later Minister of Culture), Susana Baca. Her back-up musicians included David Byrne, Marc Ribot and John Medeski. (Video from that show here)
- On my 60th birthday, I went to my first Broadway musical since seeing Hello Dolly (yes, original cast!) back in 1965. How could I resist FELA! the Musical? African music is one of my passions, and the idea of a Broadway musical about the late Afrobeat legend & political troublemaker seemed to fall into the “I’d never have believed it” category.
We’ve also been there for two anniversaries, an Easter, and New Year’s Eve, 2001. That was just three months after 9/11 and the scars were still everywhere, with memorials, and photos of the missing posted around town and on New Year’s Eve, heavily armed police walked the city with dogs. Traffic was closed off in a wide area around Times Square, and all the manholes were sealed shut.
But we spent the night at the late, lamented Greenwich Village club, The Bottom Line (1974-2004) seeing Buddy & Julie Miller. That was when I first discovered Buddy, who’s since become one of my favourite musicians. (It was a show of his that became my excuse for going to New York this month).
Buddy & Julie (with Emmylou Harris):
But in addition to celebrations and decades, New York seems to have had its tragic side for us. In the last 12 years, while we were in New York over the space of 6 visits, both of our mothers have passed away: Anna Kuryliw, in March 2001, and Eleanor Leeson in June 2010, just two months after her 100th birthday. On our last day in NYC on this most recent trip, I heard the news that my mother’s last brother died, a few months short of his 100th birthday. And flying home from another visit, I read a notice in the paper of the death of one of my mother’s closest friends.
The eclectic city
That National Geographic article’s title nicely summed up New York. It does contain the world, or perhaps more accurately, many worlds. I’m always fascinated how you can descend into the subway, take a 10 minute ride, and come up into a completely different “world”.
On one of our early visits, we went one night to an opera at the Met; left at intermission (we just had standing room tickets), grabbed a bite to eat, and then cabbed over to the Upper East Side where we caught a show by the now-late, legendary R&B singer, Ruth Brown.
Ruth Brown, 1955:
That seems to be the way we see New York. On our most recent visit, we again saw Opera at the Met: Rigoletto, transported to 1960’s Las Vegas, complete with a pole dancer and ’62 Cadillac; and also country/Americana stars Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale at the Bowery Ballroom (review). We visited the sacred (the beautiful Cathedral of St. John the Divine), and the sexual (the fascinating Museum of Sex). Although, I’ve since learned that that sacred Cathedral is actually sinister for some.
We can almost always count on the raucous (easy to find) and the peaceful (not that difficult to discover). One of the most serene places we’ve visited is the Cloisters, home to an amazing collection of thousands of pieces of medieval art, housed in buildings built from remains of European cloisters and abbeys, in a four-acre site on the Hudson River. A visit is highly recommended.
We’ve also been (very pleasantly) taken aback at least a couple of times, after the noise, speed and fatigue of a New York visit has begun to take its tool, we’ve somehow accidentally ended up in a quiet and relaxing restaurant, with great food and service. Once late at night, a small French bistro on the west side of Greenwich Village we chanced upon soothed us with Edith Piaf songs, fine food and wine. This month, it was the Japanese restaurant mentioned below. Restorative.
Over the years, we’ve stayed in the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, a few times in Greenwich Village, and numerous places in between. We’ve been at hotels and (not always legal) B&B’s. While, like most, we’ve spent the bulk of our time in Manhattan, we’ve also ferried to Staten Island, subway’d to a few parts of Brooklyn, and still have Queens in our sights. (I’d love to see this spectacular former movie theatre, now a church).
Although we only rarely see anything on Broadway, music is always on the bill. I’ve seen some of my favourite concerts there, including Malian star Salif Keita (video) in 2002, and the Malian-Cuban supergroup Afrocubism in 2010. Seeing Afrocubism play live means there are more of my favourite musicians on one stage than at any other time. (Video of that group playing the classic Malian song “Jarabi“). Two days after that show, we got to Carnegie Hall for the first time, to see Angelique Kidjo (from Benin), in a concert which featured guest singers Youssou n’Dour, Omara Portuando & Dianne Reeves!)
We manage to balance out our entertainment selections: I pick African or country, and Oksana books the Met.
From the end of that Angelique Kidjo concert at Carnegie Hall:
Food & Drink
New York of course is a treasure trove for food, whether on the street, in stores, or in the vast selection of restaurants. On this last trip, our first meal was in a classic Jewish deli, and we followed up with Italian, Turkish, and a great Japanese lunch at Robataya in the East Village, served by a Japanese-speaking Mexican waiter, and a chef who knelt behind his grill like a Taiko drummer, serving the dishes with a long pole. It was a fabulous meal, with excellent sake and rice beer.
So after these visits spread over 48 years, what’s next for us in New York? I don’t know, except that I won’t wait for my 70th birthday to return.
See this page for some more photos from our recent visit, and watch below for a taste of some bluegrass: