The Casual Blog

Tag: New York

Getting overheated, and looking around New York

Our air conditioning was out again for several days, and it was a tough, with temperatures in the 90s.  Our first repair guy said our unit was dead, and proposed to sell us a new one he had in stock. We finally got a second AC guy out late this week for a second opinion, and he got it going in twenty minutes, and advised us we could either do a pricey repair or buy a new unit — for about $10,000 less.  We concluded with sadness that the first guy was a scam artist. He seemed really nice. But he may have figured we would get so hot and desperate that we’d go for his story — which we nearly did.

We escaped to New York  last weekend (Labor Day), where we stayed on the lower east side, a short walk from Jocelyn and Kyle’s place.  It’s a lively, funky neighborhood, with colorful graffiti. I got up early to walk along the East River, where there were good views of the bridges, and people fishing and doing exercises.  I also poked around Chinatown, Little Italy, and nearby areas. There were guys working hard unloading trucks full of carrots, potatoes, and onions.

I’d planned to look in the lower east side and Chelsea galleries, but most were closed for vacation.  I got the Guggenheim to see the Alberto Giacometti exhibit and One Hand Clapping, an exhibit of mostly Chinese artists.  At some point I’d formed the view that a little Giacometti went a long way, but I found more than I expected to think about in his work.  And I particularly liked the video work of Cao Fei about automation and artificial intelligence in Chinese factories. 

 I made a stop at the Neue Galerie to look at their collection of German Expressionism, and a joint exhibit of Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele.   I also got over to the Whitney to see retrospective of the work of David Wajnarowicz.  

Jocelyn found us some fun bars and restaurants.  She also organized a brunch for us with Kyle and his mom, Debbie, and we really enjoyed getting to know her.  Joc also got us tickets to The Band’s Visit, a Broadway show about a small Israeli town that gets visited by mistake by a group of Egyptian musicians.  The musicians could really play! We liked the show.

Our NYC weekend: travel troubles, eating, and looking

Leaving NYC from Newark

We did a three-day trip to New York last weekend with three objectives: see Jocelyn and some old friends, see the NY City Ballet, and see some art, including the Whitney Biennial. As always, New York was challenging and invigorating.

We flew from Raleigh to Newark on United, which could have been worse.  At least we weren’t physically assaulted and dragged off the plane.  But really, how do we keep getting assigned the last boarding zone?  Yet again, there was that unwelcome anxiety of whether there would be a spot in the overhead for the roll aboard.   And why did they switch to those seats with backs as thin and hard as church pews?

Is the point to remind ordinary customers, the non-elite economy class,  of how far down the pecking order they are, and make them consider paying more?   In fairness, I should say, the flight attendants were really sweet, and I was grateful for their not charging for a vodka tonic.

Transportation near and in Manhattan is more challenging than ever.  We consciously chose  Newark airport this time, since a cab from LaGuardia to Manhattan has been taking longer than the flight from NC. The NJ Transit train to Penn Station picked us up promptly, but went out of service after one stop, and we had to wait for another train.

Stuff like that kept happening.  We were determined to use the subway for longer trips, but there were long delays said to be from signal problems.  And when we wanted a yellow cab, they all seemed to be occupied.  In desperation, we tried Uber, but that was very slow, too.

But no matter, we always eventually got to our destination, and there’s just nothing like New York.  One big thing I learned this time was how easy it is to explore art galleries.  From time to time I’ve gone to gallery shows  when there was something I heard about that sounded interesting, but I’d never before just poked into a bunch of galleries.  I wasn’t at all sure whether they expected you to call ahead, or to show interest in actual purchasing.

A charcoal drawing by Robert Longo from The Destroyer Cycl

But after visiting several galleries on 24th Street on Friday and 57th Street on Saturday, I can say this:  they don’t mind at all if you just pop in and look around.  There are neighborhoods that are full of galleries, cheek by jowl.  I saw some things I liked, and some I didn’t.  But my major takeaway was that art is alive.  Amidst all the luxury goods on Fifth Avenue, art objects might be just another status symbol.  Yet there are real artists saying meaningful things, making us see more and feel more.  

From Keep Out, by Jay Heikes

On Friday, there was a torrential rain, and we got wet doing the Chelsea galleries, and then  soaked getting to 14th Street for lunch with our old friend Bob Dunn at a wonderful Sichuan restaurant, Auntie Guan’s Kitchen.   The rain was gentler when we finished eating and Ubered down to the Whitney to see the Biennial.  This is an exhibit of young, or at least living, artists, with several works of each of the featured artists.  

It’s hard to sum it up, since there were many different ideas and media.  There was a strong vein of protest and political engagement, and also some fascinating uses of technology.  As Sally noted, there were a few things that were repellent, but a little shock therapy can be good for you.  My favorite piece was an environment involving mirrors, interiors, and exteriors by Samara Golden called The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes.  It was at once disorienting and liberating.   I’m sorry to say, it is unphotographable.  You’ve just got to see it.  

At the Whitney Biennial: Exodus, by Jon Kessler

We met Jocelyn and Kyle for fancy drinks at Up and Up on MacDougal Street, and then walked to dinner at Olio e Piu.  My mushroom ravioli was delicious, and the conversation was wide-ranging.

On Saturday I went to an exhibit of ancient Greek art at the Onassis Foundation at 5th Avenue and 51st.   The works were mostly from 500-300  B.C. and drawn from great collections around the world.  The theme was emotion in Greek art and life.  This was a good lens for looking at the work.  There was love, jealousy, anger, and violence — the same emotions we know.

That evening we had a fine dinner with friends at Rosa Mexicano, and then walked over to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet.  The program, one of the Here/Now series, included works by well established choreographers (Martins, Wheeldon, Ratmansky), and a couple of new choreographers from the company.  The dancers were excellent!  We particularly liked Wheeldon’s passionate pas de deux After the Rain, and Ratmansky’s brand new tango-ish piece, Odessa.

In New York with my kids, and a Snap Pea dinner in Raleigh

St. Patrick's Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

St. Patrick’s Cathedral from the 35th floor of the New York Palace

After the Softer Freedom Law Center conference on Friday, I grabbed a cab and headed downtown. The plan was to meet up with Gabe, Jocelyn, and J’s friend Kyle for Italian food and then some jazz. I allowed an hour for the trip from Columbia (116th St.) to the West Village, but the traffic was epically bad, and the trip took almost two hours.

My cabbie was a compulsive talker, and he really wanted to talk about Trump. Out of desperation for another subject – any subject — I started asking him about himself, and learned about his upbringing in Ecuador, his work as a commercial printer with diminishing opportunities as those jobs moved abroad, and his plans to move to California. I ended up liking him.

Olio e Piu, a fine Italian restaurant on Greenwich Ave., was crowded, but they quickly got us a table. My ravioli al funghi was to die for. Afterwards, we walked over to the legendary Village Vanguard and listened to a quartet led by the pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.

Pieranunzi had the elegant pointillism of Bill Evans joined with the percussive emotionality of McCoy Tyner. His original charts were both engaging and bold, and three bandmates were excellent. I particularly loved drummer Clarence Penn, who was a hard-driving yet subtle polyrhythmist with a huge smile, and tenor Seamus Blake channelled the smoldering intensity of John Coltrane. I couldn’t find any online recordings of this current group, but here’s a sample of Pieranunzi’s playing.

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On Saturday afternoon Gabe and I went to the Frick. Since he’s well along in his graphic design program at Parsons, he’s got a high level of visual sophistication, but he hadn’t yet experienced the world class collection of old masters there. It was fun sharing some of my favorite paintings, including the Vermeers and Rembrandts. We had an espresso afterwards, and then he headed downtown to do some studio work, and I walked over to the Met Breuer.

There, I had my second close encounter with the fantastic Diane Arbus exhibit (leaving Nov. 27), and my first with the paintings of Kerry James Marshall. These included some very large-scale works with a lot of painterly quotes, references and influences, with most of the works prominently depicting black people.

Marshall’s art is political in a vital sense: it makes visible previously hidden social forces and assumptions that limit us. Marshall points up that blackness is normal and part of us, but black people have been largely excluded from the paintings in our museums. The implications of this are interesting. His black people as really black – darker than any American with African ancestors that I’ve ever seen. That seemed to be part of his playfulness, but it was also provocative.

A view of St. Pat's from the hotel gym.

A view of St. Pat’s from the hotel gym.

Afer that, I walked over to the main Met to check out the work of Max Beckmann. He’s generally thought of as an Expressionist, though he rejected that label. His best work has the psychological depth and penetration of Picasso. Some of it was dark and macabre, but there were also elements of humor. I liked it. I also spent some time with the pre-Columbian collection and a small current exhibit of Native American work.

That evening, Jocelyn and I ate at Rosa Mexicana on Columbus and 61st, where they made guacamole at the table and served fantastic vegetarian hongo tacos. It was just across the street from Lincoln Center, and so we were confident that we’d get to the opera on time. I was very excited about seeing Rossini’s L’Italiani in Algerie, which I’d prepped for with a recording from Spotify. But it was canceled. New York’s Finest were there in force when we arrived. Apparently there was a scare having to do with a patron throwing some brown substance (possibly human remains) into the orchestra pit.
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Jocelyn proposed a Plan B, which was to go to a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. We got in to the 9:30 show off the waiting list. The band was some 14 ace musicians who recreated the hot jazz of the 1920s with passion and erudition. Vince G played tuba, string bass, and bass sax, and sang a bit as well. It was delightful, toe-tapping fun!musicians

On Sunday, my flight back to Raleigh went smoothly. That evening, we went to our first pop-up dinner by Snap Pea with our friends Gerry and Gay. The Snappea dinners are multi-course vegetarian events held in surprise venues (revealed only hours before) with food created around a theme paired with the physical space.

Jacob Boehm, the owner and executive chef, was inspired by an abstract mural gracing an otherwise vacant shop in North Hills Mall, and used different colors for the 9 courses. As each course came out, he told the group about where the ingredients came from and what he’d done with them. He helped you taste more. I especially liked the spoonbread with turmeric butter and the chestnut soup. Jacob explained that the reason he did not use meat in these dinners was for him not premised on animals rights or health, but rather because using plants inspired more interesting experimental cooking and tasting.

NYC: finding a nice hotel, good food, great art, and mildly disappointing opera

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Sally and I went up to New York City last weekend to see sweet Jocelyn, eat, and see some art and some opera. Here’s a report.

Accommodations

For all the great things about New York, one problem for visitors is that good hotels tend to be painfully expensive. In quest of the holy grail of a nice-but-not-exceedingly-dear hotel, we tried a new one: the Carlton, at Madison and 28th. Perhaps because it’s not in a high-profile neighborhood, the value proposition is strong: charm, good service, and rooms under $200.

The high-ceilinged lobby was an eclectic-but-stimulating mix of styles (modern, beaux arts, art nouveau). Our room was quiet and comfy. The shower pressure and hot water supply met Sally’s exacting standards. The furniture and fittings were attractive and modern, except for the bathroom sink, which was old school (rounded porcelain with no shelf space). The gym was adequate and available 24 hours. The location was a comfortable walk from the theatre district and within 10 cab-minutes of everything we had planned.

Food

Jocelyn was waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived, and she’d already scoped restaurants and made a reservation for that evening. We checked in, unpacked, and walked one block to Lexington Avenue and an area rife with Indian restaurants known as “Curry Hill.”

The one Jocelyn picked was Chote Nawab. We love eating Indian, although there are common shortcomings: the food often isn’t very pretty (lots of brown), or the atmosphere is a little formal and downbeat. But Chote Nawab was really lively, with many cheerful young people, excellent service, and delicious curries well presented. Jocelyn was as cheerful and lively as any. She was very excited about her new life in New York, and had lots to report.
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Art

On Saturday we did two very different art exhibits: the Art Spiegelman restrospective at the Jewish Museum (92d and Fifth) and the Dutch masters exhibit at the Frick (70th and Fifth).

I was generally aware of Art Spiegelman as a comics artist, but until this exhibit had no clue as to his wide range and depth. He uses a lot of styles and reference points, with courage, exuberance and also humility. His masterpiece, Maus, is a graphic novel about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, which established the graphic novel as a serious art form. The sections I looked at were intriguing and moving. After the show, I ordered a copy.
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The show at the Frick was headlined by Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). This is a painting generally regarded as a transcendent masterpiece, and one that I’d been wanting to see for many years. Vermeer’s work is extremely subtle, with seemingly ordinary subject matter, and seeming straight-ahead realism, but a mysterious emotional power.

The Girl is, at first sight, a fairly ordinary girl. But with more time, the painting transmits a more complicated message. She looks as though she’s been surprised, but not unpleasantly so. Could something be going on between her and the artist, as Tracey Chevalier imagined in her novel? Maybe. The painting is ambiguous, but the truth seems just barely out of reach.

She gave me big, long-lasting goose bumps. I enjoyed the rest of the show, which included works by Rembrandt, Hals, and several other Dutchmen of the 17th century, but nothing that was as affecting. I also revisited the Frick’s permanent collection, which is one of the finest small collections of European painting in the world. Henry Clay Frick seems to have been a particularly brutal captain of industry in the gilded age, but still, he had very good taste. However good or bad the motivation for his philanthropy, I’m grateful.

More good food and some opera

After we finished at the Frick, Jocelyn, Sally and I walked across Central Park as the sun was setting. It was getting colder, so we stopped for some coffee, and then made our way to an early dinner at the Leopard, an Italian restaurant on west 67th Street.
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Jocelyn’s friend Mike joined us, and we had an extraordinarily fine meal. My ravioli with braised artichoke and a tomato marjoram sauce managed to be both hearty and delicate. We shared two desserts, which were delicious, and lost track of time. It was snowing when we got out on the street, and we had to hurry to Lincoln Center to make the 8:00 curtain at the Metropolitan Opera.

We saw Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which is a new production for this season and was completely new to me. I thought the music was gorgeous – as fine as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. But dramatically the thing is puzzling and for substantial stretches fairly boring. Why does Eugene reject Tatiana? Why does he ultimately desperately long for her? I don’t know, and worse, the drama didn’t really make me care.

It was quite cold and snowing when we finished the opera at about 11:15, and there were many more people looking for cabs than there were cabs. We walked past Columbus Circle and over to Sixth Avenue, and finally found a cab to get us back to the Carlton.

A little more art
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On Sunday we had breakfast at the hotel, and then walked a few blocks up Madison to the Morgan Library. They had an exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings and notebooks, including the famous Codex on the Flight of Birds. Leonardo was, of course, an extraordinary individual – a true Renaissance man, curious about everything in the natural and human world, and constantly innovating, or imagining future innovations.

I didn’t realize how few paintings he made, perhaps because he was so interested in everything. His drawings seem effortless and timeless. But his presumed self portrait in red chalk shows an old, bearded man looking extremely remote and grumpy, if not bitter. It’s hard to reconcile his extreme gifts and imagination, which seem reason for great joy, with this persona.

Taxis and Vermeer

When I first arrived in New York right after college, it didn’t bother me that I had barely enough money to share a tenement apartment and eat.  It was just so great to be in the city.  I loved epic scale   — all that glass, all that steel, all that concrete.  All those details — sooty buildings with gargoyles.  The contrasts —  suspension bridges, Central Park.  The super charged energy of New Yorkers, with many ethnicities, languages, accents, customs, gestures, styles.   So many, so much.

I continued to feel that way about New York, and still do.  But by the time I left to go to law school five years later, I’d grown tired of being (relatively speaking) poor.  It wasn’t that I desired any particular worldly goods.  My ambitions involved freedom of movement.  I was tired of running for and missing the subway, and waiting on a lonely platform, or squeezing into a crowded car.  My great fantasy was to take a cab whenever I wanted, and never to look at the meter with anxiety.

Last week I had some great cab rides when I was in the city for two nights.  Catching them was as easy as in a dream:  one appeared almost every time I got ready to raise an arm.   Going up Broadway and down Fifth, up Madison and over on 59th.  The teeming pedestrians —  all ages, colors, and clothing styles.  I was briefly fascinated, then annoyed, by televisions in the cabs, and learned how to turn them off.    Many cabs, wonderfully, now take credit cards.

I was tightly scheduled with meetings, but managed to carve one hour free to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Met.  The centerpiece is The Milkmaid, loaned for the exhibit by the Rijksmuseum.  It was a subtle and powerful work.  The subject is as common as possible — a servant pouring milk into a bowl.  As in other great Vermeer portraits, the light seems natural at first; the impossible vividness of it becomes noticeable only gradually.  There is a hyper realism to the scene, and at the same time a dreamlike quality.

I disagreed with some of  Peter Schjehdahl’s review in the New Yorker, who argued that The Milkmaid did not deserve to be placed in such a position of honor in Vermeer’s oeuvre.  For me, it was worth much more than a cab ride, and perhaps even a trans-Atlantic flight.  But Schjehdahl reminded me that Vermeer, perhaps more than any of the Dutch masters, changes our perceptions of ordinary life.  After gazing at The Milkmaid, I was reminded that there was much more to see in everyday life than we normally notice.  Even within the commonplace, hiding in plain sight, is otherworldly beauty.  Thanks, V.