Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hail and Farewell—Our Last Day

Our New York Marathon
Day 17
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
We fly home this afternoon, and we are both nursing colds (with all the time we have spent crowded in subway cars and standing in serpentine lines, it is a wonder we didn’t catch something sooner), but we can’t resist one more walk around our neighborhood.

We walk by this Cooper Union building just about every day on our way to the subway. It is flanked by an elegant nineteenth century home in the foreground and the curvy high rise Cooper Square Hotel in the background. We have found architectural splendor wherever we have roamed around New York over these past couple weeks.

No subway today--we walk to the Farmer’s Market in Union Square, where an amazing variety of products grown and made around here are for sale by what looks to be over fifty different purveyors. Ostrich meat and ostrich eggs, honey, herbs and flowers, lots of baked goods, fresh picked root vegetables, leafy greens and strawberries, sunflower sprouts, juices and smoothies, fish and seafood, free range poultry, New York wines, goat meat and goat’s milk cheeses, pickles and preserves . . . the sights and aromas are a feast in themselves, and the mood is decidedly festive. Regulars carry tote bags bulging with their purchases.

Who are all these farmers, and how far do they come from to sell their wares in the heart of the city? It will remain a mystery for us, because we are on our way home, and don’t have time to linger and chat.

Back at the apartment, we zip up our luggage, do a few final cleaning chores, feed Willis, leave the key on the table, and close the door for the last time. Luck is with us, as an empty cab comes down our little street the minute we are out the door.

Our time in New York is done. The memories will last for years to come, and the post-processing of our thousands of pictures could go on forever.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Central Park Cycling Topped Off By Top of the Rock

Our New York Marathon
Day 15
Monday, June 13, 2011
We have saved our shortest bike ride for last—today we will circumnavigate Central Park. A distance of just six miles, we figure it will take us a couple hours, leaving time to stop for pictures. We end up riding, and walking our bicycles, around the park for over four hours.

It takes way longer than we expect for two reasons. First, and most important, the park is far more interesting, scenic, and beautiful than we anticipated. Second, we cannot ride our bicycles anywhere but on the road—counterclockwise. Therefore, every time we want to see something that is off the road along a paved path, or if we realize we have just ridden past something we want to see, we have to dismount from our bikes and walk them to whatever has caught our attention.

Also, before we even get to the park, we are distracted by the magnificent sky scapes around Columbus Circle, where Donald Trump has built his hulking black glass tower as a monument to himself, and across the street the Time Warner Center mirrors the sky as it soars above a shiny sculpture of the earth.

But, let’s get to the main attraction—Central Park, which is bustling today with horse-drawn carriages, pedi-cabs, dog walkers, strollers, and lots of bike riders, but no motorized traffic, except in a couple small sections of the perimeter road.

We stop for lunch beside a large pond where we watch radio–controlled model sailboats maneuvering around a marked course.

We linger long at the highly ornamented Bethesda Terrace, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead to be the centerpiece of the park. A fashion shoot is taking place on the plaza there, an artist is painting the fountain, a musician is strumming his guitar and singing in the echoing cavern beneath the stairs down from street level to the plaza, lots of rowboats are out on the lake, and the people-watching is grand.

When we get to the Shakespeare Garden it is time for frozen fruit pops, before we climb up the garden-covered hill to Belvedere Castle for a panoramic view of the park below. Everywhere we turn, there are beautiful vistas, artful statuary, interesting people, and many other reasons to stop and look around.

By the time we are done with our ride, we have walked about four miles, cycled over six miles, and taken around 300 pictures.

After we return our bicycles, we head to Rockefeller Center, where the Art Deco architecture and statuary are worth another hundred pictures, at least.

We take the elevator to the Top of the Rock for daytime views of the city to complement the night time views we had from the Empire State Building last week.

And, once again--this turned out to be a busier day than we anticipated, so we were glad to get back to the apartment, feed Willis, and then just walk out the door and have an endless number of dining options within a few blocks of our front steps.

After dinner we went to the extremely popular 16 Handles for dessert. It is a yogurt shop with 16 flavors of non-fat (some of them non-sugar, too) yogurt that you serve yourself, and purchase by the ounce. They have a nifty concept—draw people in to get a low-calorie dessert, then tempt them to try multiple flavors in the bowl, so they end up serving themselves more yogurt than they would normally eat, and have a huge bar of rich toppings and candy/cookie mix-ins and syrups between the yogurt machines and the cash register. I didn’t see anyone in the long line ahead of us that ended up at weigh-in with what looked like a low-cal dessert. Between the two of us, we ended up with $14 worth of yogurt/mix-ins/toppings at the weigh station, and I can assure you that the calories in our desserts far exceeded the calories we had consumed from all the rest of our meals and snacks today put together.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Can This Show Fly?

Our New York Marathon
Day 14
Sunday, June 12, 2011
We begin the day with brunch and the Sunday New York Times at a neighborhood café.  We can’t figure out why we are the only ones there at 10 a.m., until we order the mimosas that come with the brunch, and find that they can’t serve alcohol until after noon.  Oh, yes, the place really fills up fast after noon, our server tells us.

We are running out of clothes—time to make our second visit to the Launderette. (We would have done our laundry first and had brunch afterward, if only we had known about New York’s liquor regulations—one of our very few examples of poor planning for this trip!)  The last time we were here was a weekday, and the place was quite peaceful.  Today the place is hopping with activity, as students and people who work during the week are doing their laundry today.  Sitting next to us waiting for his machine to finish cycling is a man who looks homeless.  His load includes a sleeping bag.  We try not to think about whose stuff might have been in the washers and dryers before ours. (This picture was taken last time we did laundry when se had the palce pretty much to ourselves.)

Tonight we have tickets to Zarkana, a Cirque du Soleil production at Radio City Music Hall.  As Cirque fans from way back, we anticipate this evening has the potential to be the highlight of our trip. 

We begin our special evening with an early dinner at Emporium Brasil.  Off to a wonderful start, our meal is creatively prepared and beautifully presented for a fine dining experience that puts this meal in contention for designation as our favorite of the trip.

It is just a short walk from the restaurant to Radio City Music Hall, the largest and most famous theater in the United States.  After learning of the near demise of Grand Central Station in the 1970s, we are interested to learn that in the 1970s, Radio City was having a hard time making a go of its bread and butter business as a movie theater, due to changing film distribution practices and the theater’s policy of showing G-rated movies almost exclusively.  Plans were in the works to convert the theater into office space, but a combination of preservationists and commercial interests saved the day, renovated the theater and reopened it in 1980. 

Again, we offer our thanks to the preservationists.  Can you imagine the majesty of this theatre being toned down or destroyed to adapt it to use as offices?

We are actually able to take pictures here, as long as we don’t use flash.  If only we had known, we would have brought Dick’s camera equipment, in addition to my little camera.  All the other theatres venues had strict no camera use policies and our tickets for tonight’s performance clearly say no camera or video use is allowed.  But, the guards encourage us to go ahead and take pictures, as long as we don’t use flash, as does the announcer at the beginning of the show.  We decide that they really want people to take lots of pictures and post them on their Facebook pages and on the web as free publicity for the show, which, we will soon conclude, needs all the help it can get.

As veteran attendees of quite a few Cirque shows, we thought we had a feel for the Cirque brand.  We were happy to pay full price for eighth row tickets to have an up-close Cirque experience in Radio City Music Hall.  The headline of the story about the show on the first page of the Arts and Leisure section of this morning’s New York Times is “How Do You Make A Whole Show Fly?” and the subhead states:  “The Creators of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Zarkana’ Walk a Tightrope Between Circus and Rock Opera.”  For our money (and, did I mention we had a lot of money running on it?), this production fell off the tightrope, with a bad balance of both circus and rock opera (and way too many clowns.) 

We love how classic Cirque takes circus acts up a few notches from athletic entertainment to a theatrical art form.  The costumes are eye-popping and other-worldly fantasies by top designers, the acts are amazing feats presented with grace and drama more akin to dance than to Olympic competition, the performers are beautiful people.  This new take on Cirque features a lot of circus performers from Eastern Europe wearing what could easily have been the same costumes they have worn for the past several years while touring small towns in the Ukraine and Russia.  The high wire act men were wearing what looked like 1980s jogging suits.  They were definitely not in shape for Cirque’s usual latex body suits—nor were quite a few of the other men who had strength roles in other acts--big bellies have now emigrated from the real world into the fantasy world of Cirque—heaven help us!

As for the rock opera aspect of the show, the review made a big deal about Zarkana having songs with English lyrics, rather than Cirque’s tradition of songs with lots of emotion and drama sung with syllables that are not any particular language.  If we could understand more of the lyrics and if they advanced a comprehensible plot, maybe being sung in English would be an advantage, but we don’t buy it tonight.

Objectively, this was a really great circus with a good juggler, a good trapeze act, one totally awesome hoop act (the only act in the show we found truly Cirque-worthy), a choreographed flag-tossing act that was worthy of an Olympics opening ceremony (as the critic for the NYT described it), a team of good balancing/pyramid building athletes that were admittedly a step above your average Big Ten College cheerleaders, and a rope act, plus an amazing sand painter and some weird theatre and clown acts in between all that which filled in the time, but didn’t do much we could tell to advance the plot, if we are to look at this production as a Rock Opera.

We weren’t the only ones in the audience not rising to our feet to give the cast a standing ovation, but we were in the minority.  As we were surrounded by gushing patrons in the crowd leaving the theatre, we tried to think of how we would feel about the show if it had not carried the Cirque label, and if we had not paid so much for our tickets.  Our conclusion:  Good circus, bad musical.  Great sets, bad costumes.  The show is still in previews.  Our seats will cost $50 more when it opens officially in a couple weeks.  Woe to the people who can’t buy half price seats for it at the TKTS booth.
Our New York Marathon
Day 12
Friday, June 10, 2011
New Yorkers need to get away from the crowds and concrete of the city as much as we do, it seems.  There are lots of little oases spread throughout the city where people can just sit a spell in a garden or a tree-shaded courtyard, often near a waterfall that drowns out the sounds of the city.  

Today we searched out some of these special spots, and a couple landmark buildings, as well.

But first, we stopped at B&H Photo—a Mecca for photographers world-wide, with an overwhelming expanse of all things related to cameras, photography, optics and associated technology and electronics.  It was the most crowded space we have been in, other than the subway at rush hour.  There was one “take a number” row of 68 sales representatives/advisers to help with purchase decisions, islands for all the major camera manufacturers with sales people to answer questions and provide demos of their products, and countless roving sales people eager to provide advice and sales assistance for merchandise that was not sold behind counters.  You gave each item you wanted to a salesperson as you found it, the salesperson took it and gave you a receipt for it, then you checked out by the front door, where everything you had collected during your visit miraculously materialized.  Other than their awesome knowlegeability about all things photographic, the other thing that was unusual about B&H’s staff was that about 90% of them were male Orthodox Jews.  We understood why the store is closed on Saturday.

Our next stop was the High Line, a linear park developed on an elevated railway bed with a very interesting history.  Back in the early 1900s, Tenth Avenue on the West Side was known as Death Avenue, due to the high number of fatalities resulting from the collision of freight trains with other traffic on the streets of this busy industrial area.  Men on horses known as West Side Cowboys rode in front of the trains waving red flags trying to avert catastrophe.  The High Line, known then as the West Side Improvement Project, was approved in 1930, and built by 1934 at a cost in today’s dollars of $2 billion.  Its 13 mile long elevated track eliminated almost 200 street level rail crossings.  Due to reduced rail traffic, a portion of the High Line was torn down in the 1960s, and the last train ran on the remaining section in 1980 (carrying just three cars of frozen turkeys).  A citizen’s group with a vision saved it from demolition, and the first section of the High Line Park opened in June 2009.  The second section, adding ten blocks to the elevated park, opened just two days before we visited. 

The park is a heavily landscaped rail bed 30 feet above the tenement and warehouse lined city streets.  In some places, it passes so close to the buildings next door, that you feel you could reach out and shake hands with someone standing on their fire escape.  The tracks are mostly covered by blooming wildflower gardens, grasses or planters holding ornamental trees, but they do peek out in spots, reminding us of the origins of the park. 

The one thing the High Line is missing is shade, so we do not linger long after walking its length on the sunny warm day. 

We visit two other pocket parks in Midtown Manhattan, lovely little shaded courtyards with trees and waterfalls where people stop to rest, read or relax with their smart phones or computers.  We are impressed by how many people are plugged into technology here, so that they are present, but not fully present, wherever they go.
In contrast to the quiet parks, we visit Grand Central Station, which is bustling with travelers and tourists, but doesn’t seem crowded, since its huge expanse swallows the masses.  We notice a plaque on the wall recognizing Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts which saved Grand Central Station from demolition in the 1970s.  That decade was a tough time for historic landmark train stations in the way of urban renewal, as we saw with our own Union Terminal in Cincinnati, but it is hard to believe that New York would consider squandering an architectural treasure of this magnitude.  Thank you, Jackie!  There is an audio tour available, but we don’t have time today—maybe later. 

Our next destination is the Flat Iron Building, where we find the city has closed off a section of the street out front and made a little garden with café tables.  Every New Yorker must have a little green space to enjoy nearby, if only they know where to look, it seems. 

Then we are back on the subway to Brooklyn, where we meet Dick’s son Matt, who was been conducting a workshop at PS 261 there.  We got together at a coffee shop for a quick bite, then Matt catches a taxi to the airport, and we head back to the Lower East Side on the subway.
In spite of all the time we spent in peaceful park-like settings, this has turned out to be a far busier day than we anticipated when we started out.  We vow to slow down tomorrow.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Two Museums and a Musical

Our New York Marathon
Day 11
Thursday, June 9, 2011
We packed two museums and a Broadway show into this very full day.

We began with the Museum of Sex, whose avowed mission is “to present the history evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.  This Museum hit our radar screen when we read a very favorable review of their Burlesque exhibit in the New York Times shortly before we left home.  It was listed in our Frommer’s Guide to New York as a “find.”  

Well, overall the museum was a very seedy and poorly maintained place, a lot of its video graphics were too grainy or out of focus to do justice to the points they were trying to illustrate, a bunch of the other exhibitry was a bit graphic and prurient for our tastes, and the Burlesque exhibit took away all the glamour from the form, with (in this case in focus) videos of elderly women who no longer resembled their promotional posters reminiscing about the old days when their stars shone bright.  The most educational part of the exhibit was a quote attributed to present-day burlesque performer Scotty the Blue Bunny: “The difference between a stripper and a burlesque performer is a stripper will get upset if she doesn’t get money, a burlesque performer will get upset if she doesn’t get applause.”   Sorry, Sex Museum, no applause from us. 

On to The Frick Collection, which couldn’t be more different in every way.  Henry Clay Frick liked very high quality representational European art, and, since he made a fortune in coke and steel, he had plenty of money to buy the very best.  He built a French style mansion on Fifth Avenue where he could be surrounded by his beautiful collection in 1914, and unfortunately he didn’t get to enjoy it for very long--he died just five years later.  Fortunately for us, he arranged in his will for his collection to continue to be maintained in his home for our enjoyment today.   

They don’t allow photos in the house, but they made an exception for the New York Times, because the day after our visit, this photograph of “St. Francis in the Desert,” by Giovanni Bellini, illustrated a critic’s review of the painting.  It was in the spotlight, having been recently sent out for conservation and study.
There were plenty of other paintings to enjoy.  Frick collected three of only 34 attributed Vermeer paintings in the world—only the Met and the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam have more.  He also collected four Rembrandts, Hans Holbein’s famous painting of Sir Thomas Moore, and many French Salon and Barbizon school paintings.   

The paintings are impressive, as is the house itself, and the exquisite furniture and decor.  He redesigned one of his rooms to accommodate six huge panels originally painted by Fragonard for Marie Antoinette.  The panels cost him $750,000, and the rest of the period furniture and décor for the room cost five million dollars.  

The art is exceptional, the setting beautiful, the acoustiguide which is free with admission provides interesting stories about the artwork—this museum is a treasure. Thank you, Mr. Frick, for sharing your wealth with us.   

Our enjoyment of art today was not over yet.  Here is a picture of us on the subway at Broadway-bound rush hour.  We were on our way to “Memphis” at the beautiful historic Schubert Theater.    

Based loosely on the life of Dewey Phillips, the musical tells the story of a white DJ in Memphis in the 1960s who plays black music on a white radio station and falls in love with a black singer, creating controversy and scandal in both black and white communities.  It got the “Best Musical” Tony Award last year.  The show has a compelling plot, a great musical score by David Bryan (a founding member of Bon Jovi), and the cast members are dynamite singers and dancers. What’s not to like-- except maybe the caricaturish acting of Chad Kimball, who plays the DJ—but we forgive him, because he is such a fabulous singer and dancer.  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Happy Oceans Day at the Natural History Museum

Our New York Marathon
Day 10
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Our calendar says today is Oceans Day—it seems an appropriate time to visit the American Museum of Natural History.  The subway has a stop for the museum—and the walls at the stop are decorated with many tile depictions of animals.  Isn’t this life-size subway seascape a wonderful first photo for our Oceans Day log?  

Deciding where to go first is easy—the ticketing agent gives us tickets to the next Planetarium show and sends us off get in line for it right away.  It is a great show about how stars and planets form and die with lots of beautiful light show projections on the dome and special effects.  We think that an experienced educator decided that the effect that combines a surround-sound explosion with vibrating the seats has to happen at least every six minutes to keep the audience awake, and then they wrote the script for the show accordingly.  It worked for us. 

After that, the museum is so huge it is hard to decide what to do.  We wander around the gems and minerals (boring presentation) and the birds (the stuffed ones in the dioramas are very old and faded, and a lot of the exhibit is just study skins arranged on a wall—boring again).  We finally find our way into the evolution exhibit, which is captivating—clearly, someone has put some time into refreshing the content in the past thirty years, unlike most of the permanent exhibits.  The African animal dioramas are beautiful—renovated in 1972, the plaque says, giving us a hint as to how much longer ago it must have been that anyone touched the bird dioramas.   

We save the best—the Museum’s impressive dinosaur collection—for last.  There are no robotic life-size models or monstrous sound effects, just big breath-taking bones and excellent labels telling about how they were discovered, and urging the visitor to notice the clues that tell us how the dinosaurs moved, what they ate, and other aspects of their lives. We spend a very long time admiring the dinosaurs, and leave on a high note.  

We don’t do a lot more than this today.  When dinnertime rolls around, we think about all the different ethnic foods we have had lately, and decide it is time to add to our repertoire by strolling over to our own neighborhood’s Little India.  Just a few streets over from ours is a block that has around a dozen Indian Restaurants to choose from--each with an Indian standing at the door urging us to come on in and enjoy a free appetizer, or free music, or air conditioned comfort.  We pick one that looks particularly lovely and busy, and enjoy a wonderful meal . . . and a great end to yet another great day in New York.

We Discover the Secret Life of Willis

We suspect that Willis, our reason for being in New York, is secretly a celebrity model cat.  We have seen his picture on the side of trucks driving around town.   

A Day of Biking (Mis)Adventures

Our New York Marathon
Day 9
Tuesday, June 6, 2011

The Hudson River Greenway is the busiest bikeway in the United States.  Stretching from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan to the Little Red Lighthouse at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, it offers eleven theoretically car-free miles of scenic riding pleasure.  The car-free nature of the trail is merely theoretical, since the day we rode it, there were two detours which sent us out onto the streets—in Harlem, and, more terrifyingly, in the Financial District at rush hour (where I came within inches of being flattened by a limo).  But those detours were nothing, compared to our big flat tire adventure.
We rented our bicycles from Master Bike Shop, located just half a block from the middle of the Greenway, and reputed by comments on the web to be a helpful and friendly place.  We did not find   much evidence of helpfulness in our transaction, and they were close to surly when we expressed concerns about our seats slipping from their adjusted position, but we took the bikes and got out of there as soon as we could, ready for an enjoyable ride.  And, except for a few stops to readjust our slipping seats, that’s just what we had.     

We headed north along the trail first.  The trail passed through parks and green spaces, and paralleled busy Riverside Drive, where cars were going far more slowly than we were.  We shared the trail with joggers and dog walkers, skate boarders and other bicycle riders, and plenty of people who came just to sit on the many benches along the way to watch the river and the passing parade on the Greenway.  

We turned around at the Little Red Lighthouse, where a large school group was on a field trip of little visible educational value (a pattern we saw on our Circle Tour and will continue to see at each museum we visit here).  Having seen the Little Red Lighthouse on our Great Loop cruise years ago, and again on our Circle Cruise last week, it was a treat to stand at its base on land a get a good close look today.  

We stopped at a trailside grocery store in Harlem to buy picnic supplies, and immediately thereafter, Dick got a flat tire.  When he called our “friendly” bike shop for assistance, they told him to call the operator to ask where the nearest bike shop was and to go there to get it fixed.  We brainstormed our options over lunch, and Dick used our maps and smart phone to come up with what seemed like a good idea at the time.  We would walk to the subway, take the train ten blocks, come out right by a bike shop, and be all set.

The devil was in the details.  When we got to the subway, it was elevated, so we had to carry our bikes up several flights of stairs to get to the track.  Then, when we got to our stop, we were underground, so we had to carry our bikes up a couple more flights of stairs to get to the surface.  Ooops, we weren’t where we thought we would be when we emerged.  A phone call to the bike shop where we were headed for repairs clarified that we would have to walk through the campus of Columbia University and through a park to get to the shop.  Pretty campus.  Lovely park, except that it was built on a hillside, so we had to carry our bikes down roughly 100 steps by the time we got through it.  

When we finally found the bike shop, we had walked about three miles in temperatures approaching 90 degrees, and Dick was carrying the back part of the bike, because the tube and tire had completely disassembled from the rim.   The people at the shop were very nice, and fixed the tire quickly.  If they had rented us the bikes, they would have sent someone out to help us, they said.  

They gave us directions back to the bike trail (which was pretty far away, as it turned out), and we continued on our way south.  At Chelsea Pier, tables shaded by blue umbrellas in a colorful garden beckoned us to stop and rest a while.  We bought fruit pops from an ice cream vendor’s cart.  They were so cold they stuck to our lips.  They were so refreshing that Dick got another.

Then we continued on our way, with Manhattan high rises to our left and docks, marinas, a cruise ship port facility and other municipal and commercial ventures along the riverfront. We passed the big Hudson River Park we visited on our walking tour with Joyce Gold, the Intrepid docked next to the pier where we boarded our Circle Cruise last week, and continued toward the tip of the island, where there were more riverfront parks and plazas, a magnificent marina, and the detour that sent us out onto busy city streets near Ground Zero. 

With the detour situation we aren’t sure if we made it to the “official” south end of the trail, but we figured we were close enough.  We turned around, jockeyed our way through the detour streets to get back to the relative serenity of the trail.

We went through Riverfront Park to 72nd street, then rode east to the bike shop.  We figure we tallied up a total of about 23 miles of riding the bikes and 3 miles of walking/carrying them today, and our flat tire fiasco added a couple hours to the ride.  We were disappointed, but not surprised that the Master Bike Shop employee was ungraciously grudging about compensating us for the repair of the flat tire, which included a new tube, commenting that it was pretty expensive. ($13 is expensive for on demand flat tire repair parts and labor in New York? C’mon!)

Needless to say, when we rent bikes to circumnavigate Central Park, it won’t be from them, even though they have an ideal location just a block and a half from the park.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Another Full and Photogenic Day

Our New York Marathon
Day 8
Monday, June 6, 2011
We were not much impressed by our visit to the Folk Art Museum last week, but the art we saw in the East Village during our bike tour captivated us, and we had to go back to get a closer look today.

These fanciful flowers made of aluminum cans, plastic bottles and other found objects line the chain link fence surrounding a community garden that is only open during limited hours on weekends. These festive flowers are always in bloom, they’re accessible even when the garden gates are locked, and they project the spirit of the community instead of hiding it away inside a fence.

There are lots of aluminum security shutters with graffiti painted on them all over the city, but this mural is exceptional for both its artistry and the poignancy to the message.

This is the most beautiful fire escape in all of New York, blooming with brightly painted umbrellas.

It isn’t far from here to the edge of the largest China Town in the Western Hemisphere.  We lunch at a Chinese restaurant where we are the only English speakers, and the only customers who don’t look Asian.  We do not recognize much on the menu except dumplings, but because each item is clearly described in English, we avoid ordering goose web or intestines, duck’s tongue or blood, chicken feet or cold jelly fish.  Our food is good, and they even have a fork for Dick (he is the only one in the restaurant using this utensil).

Just around the corner is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where an outstanding educator leads us on a tour of a tenement building, telling us the story of the neighborhood, the building, and two Jewish immigrant families who lived there in 1900, when this block was the most crowded place in the world. Back then, 2,200 people lived on the block, which houses 300 people today.  There were half a million Jewish people living in the Lower East Side, the largest settlement of Jewish people in the world.  There were also 25,000 homeless children.

The two families whose recreated apartments we visit worked in the garment industry.  There were 23 garment factories on this block—most of them in the tiny three room apartments where families lived—and 70% of residents here worked in the garment trade.  Through photographs, demonstrations, and vivid descriptions, our guide helps us imagine just how miserable life must have been back then, with no electricity or running water, and no cross ventilation in the summer (it was a warm day, so we got an inkling, but could only imagine how much worse it would be without the electric fan and with a stove on to heat the coals for an iron to press fabric during garment construction).   The word “sweat shop” was coined here, and our guide tells us that to this day there are still 300-400 sweat shops in the city, according to city inspectors.  Things may not have changed as much as we would wish over the past 100 years.

After wandering around the Lower East Side for a week now, it does not surprise us to learn that 40% of Lower East Side residents were born in another country. 

We end our day at the Empire State Building, where we stand in a long line to be screened by security, another long line to wait for the elevator that goes six floors below the observation deck, another line for the elevator that takes us up the final six floors, and then we join a huge mob on the observation deck.  The views of the city shining below us are stunning, but we have to wait to get to the rail for an unimpeded view no matter where we go around the perimeter of the deck.  I find myself doing mental calculus to determine whether the aggravation is worth the reward. I think my results may be biased by my lack of affection for heights, but this experience is clearly not going to make it to my top ten highlights of the trip list.  We did get some pretty nifty pictures to show for all our trouble, though

An All-Day Foray to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Our New York Marathon
Day 7
Sunday, June 5, 2011
We chose this day for our visit to the Met because of a special program scheduled in conjunction with the 2011 Science Festival being held in New York this week.   Two Nobel Laureats--Harold E. Varmus (Physiology of Medicine, 1989) and Roald Hoffmann (Chemistry, 1981)--and Met curator Kathryn Calley Galitz explored this painting—Jacques-Louis David's 1788 Portrait of the Lavoisiers--from the perspectives of science, politics, and art, with some feminism, philosophy, and social commentary thrown in, as well. Garrick Utley moderated the lively discussion, which mesmerized me and put Dick to sleep.  So it goes.    


The Lavoisier story in short—Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was the father of modern Chemistry, and his wife was an able assistant to him and a talented artist who illustrated his scientific publications, although she was never given credit for her work at the time. Lavoisier was also an economist and a tax collector, and was fabulously rich—which enabled him to commission this life-size portrait and pay an extraordinary sum for it—twice what the king paid David to paint his portrait a few years earlier. Alas, just five years after the painting was completed, the Lavoisiers lost their aristocratic bourgeois heads to the guillotine.   

A surprising highlight of our visit was a special exhibit of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, entitled “Savage Beauty.”  (No use of cameras was allowed for this exhibit—I pulled the pictures here from the web.)  The show includes dresses and accessories designed by Alexander McQueen, presented in dramatic gallery spaces that include music and videos from his sometimes eerie and always theatrical fashion shows.

Most of the clothing in the exhibit looks like it would be dreadfully uncomfortable, and some of it is downright dangerous, but every piece is exceptionally creative and has exquisite workmanship.  We don’t have a fashion design vocabulary, but we felt that many of McQueen’s dresses and accessories were made with the vision of transforming the wearer into a form of living sculpture or a piece of performance art.    

One dress is made of ostrich feathers and microscope slides dyed red; another is made of razor clam shells.  A flaring balsa wood skirt guarantees no one can get into your personal space, but all will watch you pass in awe.  His Romantic Gothic pieces are surely inspired by Edgar Alan Poe.  Constructed with slashed leather and feathers and bones, one even uses vulture skull bones as epaulets.   Spikey metal collars and corsets resembling external rib cages (one even had a spinal column with a tail!) could be recycled for use in a torture chamber. 

Just when we were thinking that McQueen was unsettlingly dark, we got to the Romantic Exoticism section of the exhibit, full of Japanese and Chinese-inspired creations, re-visioning traditional kimono and obi forms in layers of richly embellished and embroidered silk.   

The exhibit ended with a hologram of a wisp of smoke twisting and expanding to eventually develop into Kate Moss wearing a diaphanous gown, billowing around her in as she spun slowly in the wind, then continuing to twist and disappear back into a wisp of smoke once again.  It was a beautifully haunting image.   

This was contemporary art that caught us by surprise and had a strong impact on both of us, though we are still puzzling over why exactly. 

Our third favorite part of our visit to the Met was afternoon tea.  We shared a tiered tray of fancy little sandwiches and sweets to carry us through the end of our long day in the museum.  The guards had to chase us out at closing time.