Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An Inconvenient Time

    That's Anne and me, looking into a bright sun,
     on the Brooklyn Bridge on a lovely Sunday morning!

Twenty to thirty-thousand people are homeless in the New York City metropolitan area and southern New Jersey; and that’s a staggering number!
by Charlie Leck

While thousands suffered – people without electricity and others without homes – we tried to relax in the Big Apple and enjoy ourselves. It was supposed to be a vacation and a good time and we tried to stick to the plan. Yet, not far from us, people had lost everything – their homes, possessions and, some, even their very lives. New Jersey, the state in which I grew up, was devastated out along its Atlantic shore. The famous boardwalk was virtually gone. The cement peers stood, looking naked with all their flooring, planking and railings gone – blown away and left as chips across the inland roads, yards and parks of these seaside towns. Houses were smashed and splintered by the roaring winds and rising waters, as if they were but children’s toys.

People, who had evacuated, as asked, – people just like I and you – suddenly saw that their homes had been washed away. With these homes had disappeared all the recorded and photographed histories of their lives. The lovely chair that Aunt Lea had so sweetly given them at their marriage was washed away somewhere along with all the other mementoes that accumulate over the years.

Trees – thousands and thousands of trees – were uprooted or splintered and smashed by the fierce tempests and the rising, angry sea. Neighborhoods that had been made beautiful by their trees and landscaping adornments were now naked, looking like the elderly without their clothes.

We went to see a movie with our daughter on our first night in Manhattan. This small city boy was left in awe by the visit to the giant complex at 66th Street and Broadway. Theatres and theatres on many levels – dozens of full-sized cinemas from which to choose. We settled into nearly front row seats, in an absolutely full house, to see Argo, about which everyone has been raving. It’s a stunning dramatization of a 1979 incident in Iran, at the time that nation held a number of our embassy workers hostage. Six of those workers had escaped at the time of the embassy take-over and, unknown to the Iranians, they had found shelter in the Canadian embassy (where they stayed for weeks). The story is about their plot to escape with the aid of the CIA and a couple of movie producers in Hollywood. A true story, we were told, and my wife likes those kinds of movies. Certainly it was dramatized, but I’ve already said that. The motion picture has received rave revues and we mimic them here and tell you not to miss this thriller. See it on the big screen with other people around you so that you’ll sense their tension as it mingles with yours. It’s a movie like those of older times that allows you to cheer in joy and gasp in awe.

We dined that evening a popular Peruvian restaurant up in the Harlem area. Harlem has changed in the last few decades and its night-life is so popular now. Pio Pio is on Amsterdam Avenue at 94th Street. It’s very casual, always crowded and always noisy. All of this is overcome by the wonderful platters of delicacies they serve in great abundance. It’s my first time dining Peruvian and I loved it. The food was very worthy and the prices were very modest. I’m so glad our daughter knew about it.

Speaking loudly, to be heard above the din, we discussed the movie and the tragedy out on Staten Island and over in New Jersey. We described the photographs of trees pulled out by their roots and flung across streets and highways and dropped on cars and houses. Dozens of huge utility repair trucks were being air-lifted from California to help with the repairs and the rebuilding. A large contingent of expert tree workers and their chain saws were on their way from Minnesota. Hospitals in lower Manhattan had been evacuated and their patients were moved wherever empty space could be found. Over a variety of beautiful desserts, we wondered if we’d ever eaten anything like this or that before.

Someone, at the next table, said that he’d heard that over 30,000 people are now without homes. More than a million were without electricity. We looked at each other and wondered what we could do beyond sending contributions to the Red Cross or other emergency aid organizations.

Oblivious to the storm damage around us, we took a train to Tarrytown the next morning (Saturdday). We’d been invited to visit a horse farm up there and we looked out over the Hudson River as the trained rolled smoothly north. The distinguished owner of the farm had purchased one of our horse-drawn carriages – one of our favorites – and she’d had it completely restored and redecorated after it had been damaged in its truck travels from our farm to hers. We arrived to find that the Hudson River had flooded the town, knocked out power, telephone service and cell services as well. We couldn’t reach anyone to transport us from the station to the farm. Had we, they would have been shocked to find that we had come at such an inconvenient time, even with an invitation. Embarrassed, we caught the next train back to the city with a better understanding now that the storm had possessed wider arms than we had thought. We sought the serenity again of Midtown and Upper Manhattan.

We disembarked at 125th Street and walked west to Lennox and found a wonderful, little Harlem restaurant we had been reading about. Booked way ahead with dinner reservation, we settled for lunch. It had been opened as the Red Rooster by a chef who had built a reputation at the Aquavit in Minneapolis. It seemed an odd place – Harlem – for a small restaurant featuring Scandinavian dishes; yet it had worked. Tables were in great demand. I had the very best sandwich of my life – a hearty gravlox delicacy with wonderful complimenting herbs and greens on thin, crisp pumpernickel bread. It came with a delicate and subtly flavored green salad as a side. May one call a luncheon salad and sandwich a triumph? It was! And, it was so large I could only eat half of it. My daughter was delighted to carry the other half to her home only a few blocks away for storage in her frig. [Be sure to take a look at the web site of this unusual restaurant and its unusual setting!]

Gasoline was at a premium in Manhattan and it was hard to get. The mayor had ordered that no cars could come on to the Island without at least three people in them. He also made public transportation available to all at no cost, to encourage people not to use their autos. Of course, below 34th street the subways were flooded out and not in use. It was a time for walking and we walked a great deal, seeing Manhattan better than we ever would have from cab windows or from down below in the city’s transportation tunnels.

We did the theatre on Friday night, visiting the Ethel Barrymore Theater on 47th Street at Broadway to see Chaplin, the Musical. My parents were big Chaplin fans and had seen all of his silent films. I’d heard them talk about him so many times. Anne and I were thrilled with the play and took great joy from it, applauding vigorously. The kids? Not so much! Chaplin was a couple of generations removed from our daughter and her boyfriend. The play ended with the cast coming out into the crowd to ask for donations to the actor’s relief fund – a fund that would help actors and theatre personnel stranded by the storm. It continued to be an inconvenient time.

New York was carrying on, trying to be itself at a time when part of it was badly injured and in pain! The New York Marathon was announced, first, as a go and then a few days later it was canceled. Runners had come from all over the world – thousands and thousands of them. They had mixed emotions about the cancelation. Most of the angry runners we talked to wondered why it hadn’t been canceled earlier, when they could have also canceled their expensive journeys.

“Because New York is a conceited town,” I explained. “It’s a town that believes it can overcome any adversity and stare down any threat. This town really believed it could pull it off. It would give Mother Nature the finger and run anyway. The truth, or facts of life, came slowly to the Mayor, and, while he blushed, he sent an underling out to announce the change and the cancelation.”

Runners ran, neverthess. They ran around us as we wandered up to Columbus Circle and to the Metropolitan Opera House to see a matinee performance of The Tempest on Saturday. Thousands of runners were running everywhere, sight-seeing all of Manhattan as they went. It was an incredible, energetic sight.

The Tempest! What an appropriate opera for this particular weekend – this thoroughly inconvenient time.

I had never been to Lincoln Center or to the Metropolitan Opera. I was awed by the Center’s size and how much it included. I’d splurged on the best of seats in the house for the performance of The Tempest and I saw the eyebrows of ushers raise slightly as they examined us when we presented our tickets. And, what incredible seats they were. Front-row-center in the parterre. (My wife took a call last night, on our first night back, from the Opera, explaining they were calling their Minnesota supporters and wondered if we wouldn’t give them a two-thousand dollar contribution. Oh, the price of those expensive tickets is higher than I thought. My love negotiated them down a bit.)

I’ll not review The Tempest here. I’ll just say that I think Shakespeare’s language should not be tampered with or ever modernized to a contemporary idiom. Who is genius enough to do such a thing? The production was glamorous and the sets spectacular. The choreography was breathtaking and the colors ingenious. The orchestra dazzled us and its music flowed so beautifully and dramatically with the story. Only the lyrics seemed discordant to me – definitely not of Shakespearean quality and even fowl at times. Yet, attending the opera here was such a delightful, wonderful, breathtaking and overwhelming experience. What a setting! It is something every lover of the arts must, at least one time, see.

    That is I, with a Starbucks in hand, on 1st Avenue,
    near the UN Building. The damage to the Island
    begins at this point and runs south to Battery Park.

Here’s another triumph for you. We walked all the way back to our hotel – all the way from 66th and Broadway to 49th and Lexington. My knees were afire by the time we got there, but we had seen so many delights and festive things about the city. We applauded runners as they jogged past us and they smiled and waved happily to us.

Dinner that night was with one of my wife’s cousins in a lovely restaurant (The Island) in a quite posh neighborhood a block east of Central Park. I had curried chicken. Nice! A good glass of wine and lovely bread! Family talk! A good evening with a terribly nice man – that’s enough for anyone.

We had a quiet Sunday – time at Starbucks (there seems to be one on every block) for breakfast coffee, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (with runners all around us making believe the Marathon was still on and we applauded them with vigor), a visit to a food fair in Brooklyn (Smorgesburg), a cab ride to the International Center for Photography (where our daughter is now studying), a journey back up to Harlem to watch some late afternoon football at Harley's Smokeshack (335 E 116th St) with my daughter’s boyfriend, a hopeless NY Giant fan (they lost to Pittsburgh). From the corner of my eye I watched my Vikings fall to Seattle. They looked awful.

That’s my little travelogue. The journey on Monday morning to the airport and the flight home were totally uneventful and easy going. The planes in both directions were not even a quarter full. New York is not popular at this moment. During the flights I read Wes Moore’s very extraordinary book, The Other Wes Moore, and I highly recommend it.

t’s always nice to return to our peaceful, quiet home.

We left behind the ravages of New York and New Jersey. We sorrow for them and the rebuilding they must now do; however, we know New York and its tenacity and toughness. Rebuild it will. It will always be a wondrous place to visit and, according to our daughter, an incredible place to live.

Now, to face up to the news and the election results pouring in. My fingers are crossed, but I feel helpless and very small at this momentous time.

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