what new york is . . . and isn’t . . . for me

We’ve been home for more than a week already, and finally I’m sitting down to reflect on our week in New York. We booked the trip originally to help our daughter with her obligation as home and cat owner while she was in Paris on a combination academic conference/vacation. Now don’t laugh. I turned down many potentially inspiring trips with Hubby the years that one of my three cats at the time required medication and attention I didn’t want to burden my friends and neighbors with. I had the luxury of staying home; our daughter doesn’t. What we got in return was a whole week in the city without expensive hotel bills, living like New Yorkers do, taking advantage of all the cultural offerings, the parks, the food . . . !

And yes, that included the subways. Usually when we’re visiting, I’m about five feet behind Hubby and daughter every time we go out, working hard just to keep up with them. I never know exactly where we are, or how we got there, until we’re there, much like being a child again. This trip, I was right there alongside him so I could see for myself how he knew which train to take–which platform we needed to be on–and the wisdom of waiting for the Express rather than taking the local. By the end of the week I was beginning–but not quite there yet–to feel a little like a native New Yorker. That means I stopped gawking at the artistic tile work on some of the walls, taking pictures, staring at people. I even managed to scan my Metro card with one swipe (most of the time). Walking outside on the street, I practiced the art of focusing on the sidewalk (instead of everywhere else), looking neither right nor left, with a slight scowl on my face and plowing straight ahead. I acted as if I knew exactly where I was going and in a big hurry to get there. Even though I wasn’t–except when we had to be someplace at a certain time–(like the play we went to)–more on that later. When you ride the subway, it’s good to close your eyes and let your head hang to one side, stirring only when the train stops. If you can understand the accent of the subway announcer you can keep your eyes closed all the way. It’s even more effective if you let your head touch other people and then open your eyes quickly as if you’re startled. Then close them again and let your head dangle on your chest some more.

But every now and then, I did look up and let a smile creep onto my face. In spite of myself I even made eye contact now and then, occasionally making a small remark to someone nearby. That taught me something too. That New Yorkers are very often from someplace else too! That makes them a lot like me, and with one exception we got along very well indeed (that story will come in a later story). We got on so well that by the time we left I was feeling as though, like Hubby has always felt since he grew up in a crowded big city while I grew up with cows and hogs, that it might be fun to live in a high rise (no yard work) in a big city. Especially one with great public transportation and every ethnic food you can think of plus some you’ve never heard of, and not all that expensive either. Our daughter lives in Forest Hills. You can shop for just about anything you’d want or need within a few blocks. It took me less than five minutes to walk to the ice cream shop for a gelato after lunch one day.

Thinking back on some of my favorite travel memories, I’m always reminded of that billboard I read more than 40 years ago riding the Staten Island Ferry during my first visit to New York (1968), “Remember that YOU may be one of our visitors best memories on New York.” These are a couple of people encounters I’ll always remember fondly: the greeter at Tiffany on Fifth Avenue who told us what to see (the Ziegfeld Collection and the stunning jewelry worn in the The Great Gatsby movie) and the female sales clerk who taught me a little about purchasing a diamond, knowing (I’m sure) I had no means of buying any at that store (!) and made my day by insisting I try on one of the terribly impressive emerald cut diamond (about 5 carats) that only cost $36,850. And whoever said that New Yorkers aren’t friendly? At the Empire State Building there was the information clerk who was so friendly we chatted comfortably for at least 15-20 minutes (always stepping aside when other visitors needed her attention of course). By the time I left I’d not only gotten a recommend for a new and far cheaper version of skin care product than the one I was currently using, but I knew her age and how many years she had to work before retirement. And even though my friend ML, who had joined us from Pittsburgh and I failed to find the high end store Barney’s we wanted directions for, we found Bergdorf-Goodman instead, and had a wonderful time checking out the (excessively) expensive shoes. Readers, I had no idea there are people in the world who don’t blink an eye at spending thousands of dollars on a single pair of shoes. And here I was feeling all guilty that I’ve had to spend more than $100 for my shoes since chemotherapy and RA have left quite an impact on my feet!

There were “action comic” shoes, “jeweled little bits of nothing strap-wrapped shoes,” even “I wanna tower so tall over men that the heels have to be bowed for balance” shoes.

action comic shoes bg double high shoes bgexotic shoe bg

Like women everywhere, we were soon attracted to the 50% off shoe display in the corner. (Not a single pair did I see for $100.)The ones I singled out varied in price between $650 and $1800 (remember  that’s at 50% off). We found some spiked heels we called secret service shoes because they had not just super high-heels, but literally had black plastic spikes (like track shoe cleats) all over the heel as well as the inset strap. If you worked at secret service and a bad guy (read: terrorist) grabs you from the back or the front you have lethal weapons on both feet for that crotch or buttock kick!  (Sort of like the one of the left below.) And I’ll bet Wonder Woman would have killed for shoes like the one on the right.

   shoes from bergdorf goodman 1ouch shoes bg

The first pair of sandals look like the perfect shoe for the woman who really prefers going barefoot, but doesn’t because “what if there’s dog poo?” The others are very much like those I bought to wear with my saree for my wedding in Pittsburgh (1969).

i kinda feel like bare feet but don't want to step in dog poolike my wedding shoesI paid less than $10 for them at a shoe store near my apartment in Shadyside. Last, but not least, this pair sums up my dilemma every time I purchase shoes of any kind, the “I can’t decide which color I like best shoe.” Remember when the choices were limited to black, white, and sometimes red or black patent?

colorful shoes bgI have many more experiences and people to talk about from our trip, but I’ll hold those until next time. Meanwhile, my new feelings for New York (and big cities in general) are best summed up in these words I stole from a letter written by Anaïs Nin to her lover Henry Miller.

It is the suitable scene for my ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically.


flat stanley goes to new york city

Today I’m posting–with permission–a children’s book written by and illustrated by my younger daughter. It’s a new adventure about Flat Stanley. In case you’ve never heard of Flat Stanley, he’s a character created in a children’s book by Jeff Brown in 1964. The plot involves Stanley Lambchop and his younger brother Arthur who are given a big bulletin board by their Dad for displaying pictures and posters. He hangs it on the wall over Stanley’s bed.  During the night the board falls, flattening Stanley in his sleep, but Stanley survives and makes the best of his altered state. Soon he is entering locked rooms by sliding under the door, and playing with his younger brother by being used as a kite. Another special advantage is that Flat Stanley can now visit his friends inexpensively by being mailed in an envelope. He even helps catch some art museum thieves by posing as a painting on the wall. Eventually Arthur changes Stanley back to his normal shape with a bicycle pump. To facilitate easier reading in case the monitor you’re using is smaller, I’m duplicating the text inside brackets under each picture.

[Recently, Flat Stanley visited Queens and Manhattan, otherwise known as New York City! Stanley learned very quickly that many people in New York City do not own cars. Instead of driving, they take underground trains! They call their trains the “Subway.” Stanley was a little nervous about taking the Subway at first, but he decided that he liked the idea of getting on a train and riding along with other people. He watched as people read, talked, played video games, and listened to music on their way into the city.]

[Stanley exited the train at a stop for Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. Then, because he was so deep underground, he had to take a very steep escalator to the surface!]

[Luckily, this station had a helpful map to show Stanley where he had arrived and where he could take the subway from here.]

[Stanley made it to the street! Are you curious about where he went next? Ah, here. Now you can see where he intended to visit in New York City: The MOMA. Can you see it in this distance up ahead?]

[Can you guess what the MOMA is from the picture? And what do you think MOMA means? Here is a hint. Each letter stands for something: M.O.M.A.]

If you guessed that Stanley was visiting an art museum, you were correct! And so, if you guessed that the first letter of M.O.M.A stood for “Museum,” and the last letter stood for “Art” you were also correct! The MOMA is New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. People who study art describe it as “Modern” if the objects were made after 1860. (It’s 2012 now; can you figure out how many years ago 1860 was?) Stanley learned a lot about Art on his visit. As you can see, the MOMA has different kinds of Art all over, on the floors and on the walls.]

[Some of the pieces are famous paintings. This one is by a man named Vincent Van Gogh. Do you know what it is called? If you don’t what would you call if it you pained it?]

[Stanley was surprised these pictures by Andy Warhol are called “Art,” because he recognized the people in them, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.]

[Flat Stanley was also surprised that this painting by Jackson Pollack was Art, since it looked like something you kids could make at school.]

[But wait! Are these examples of Art too? Stanley thought these objects were all kind of funny. He laughed a little bit when he saw them. But then he started to wonder if he understood Art.]

[Now, these pictures by Rousseau, Picasso, and Chagall, and Kahlo seemed a bit more like what he thought he would see at an Art museum.]

[Stanley was confused and wanted to get some air.  He found that MOMA had a lovely garden full of sculptures.  They were cool–but they made him wonder more about what Art was. He sat down and thought a bit about what he’d seen.]

[Each piece of Art was something that reminded him of the things he saw everyday, but they were also a bit different from the things he saw everyday. They made him think more about what he was looking at. He didn’t always know how to describe how he felt or what he was thinking, but he liked that the Art made and feel and think.]

[After the museum, Stanley decided to see a few things nearby, including Radio City Music Hall. There are dance and music performances there. One day, Stanley hopes to see some of them.]

[Stanley’s friend Vimala asked if he would like to go with her to the library to return a book. Stanley said yes, because he loved to read. He was very excited to go back on the subway and see on the map where they arrived compared to where they had been. Can you see how far they traveled by comparing this map to the earlier one?]

[Elmer Holmes Bobst Library – New York University]

[Stanley really enjoyed seeing the library at New York University. So many floors! Stanley especially liked to imagine that one day he will go to college and study Math. Or Science. Or maybe Art? Perhaps Literature?]

[After the library, Stanley went to the nearby park, Washington Square Park. There he saw a pretty arch and decided one day he might go to college to study Architecture, a subject that makes us see and think about buildings as both a kind of Art and a product of Science. In fact, New York had a lot of neat buildings! It would be a great place to study buildings and Art and all kinds of things that interested him.]

[Stanley went back down into the Subway and caught a train towards Queens, where his friend Vim lived. When they transferred from one train line to another, they saw a band playing in the station! So they stopped to listen for a bit. What do you think their song sounded like? Do you know what these instruments are? Stanley did, but he is pretty sure you do too, so he told me not to tell you.]

[Stanley ended his day where he started it, at 75th Avenue in Queens. What a loved day he had, looking at Art, thinking about what Art is, and then seeing everything around him as something like and unlike Art. He saw many people as he traveled and enjoyed thinking about what their lives were like in this very interesting city. He cannot wait to return to New York City…there is so much more he’d like to do!]

Flat Stanley loved New York City!

For more information on Flat Stanley, check back with Wintersong on Monday.

first, a bit about bombay

If pressed for a one-word impression of Bombay, I would choose cosmopolitan, or to expand a little further, it’s the financial and entertainment capital of India, much like New York City here in the U.S.   First of all, let’s get the name out of the way. With the limits of history taught in my country grammar school added to the disinterest I showed in my high school days, I’d always assumed Bombay was named by the British after they arrived in the 17th century. In the beginning, or at least before written history, much of the west coast of India was pretty much owned and controlled by the Mughal Empire who didn’t call it anything as far as I know. In actuality it was named by the Portuguese–those same adventurers who invaded most of the western coast of India fairly early in the 16th century. It looked to them like a beautiful bay so they called it that. BOM, meaning or “beautiful” and BAHIA meaning bay. In 1995, it was renamed Mumbai from Bombay but many of us, even those who live there, still refer to it as Bombay.

Throughout much of history, marriage arrangements have determined who gets what in the territorial department. That’s how Britain was added to Bombay’s picture in 1661–through the marriage treaty drawn between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal.  As part of Catherine’s dowry to Charles, the islands along the coast that made up Bombay was turned over to the British Empire. Of course we all know how the British, and since then, the rest of us, grew  quite fond of India’s tea and spices. Not too long after that, it was turned over to the East India Company. A self-taught artist by the name of Robert Melville Grindlay served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period produced a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India. A copy of one, done in 1826, shows the early cosmopolitan culture of the city, which endures to this day.

The Gateway of India was built in 1914-18 to commemorate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. The arch is Muslim style and the decorations Hindu style. It’s probably the most visited attraction in Bombay because it’s a good place to hang around. The last of the British troops to leave India–after independence on August 15, 1947–ceremoniously passed through the Gateway for the last time in 1948 on the 28th of February.        

The beautiful Venetian Gothic style building on the far left , the David Sassoon Library, is located on Mahatma Gandhi Drive. Sir Sassoon was a wealthy Jewish Bombay banker.

From my first Bombay visit, in 1980, I have many memories of thousands of virtually homeless people living in slums like those portrayed in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Those shadow city slums are still there, but I didn’t see so many this time. In talking to local family members, it seems some of them could afford to live in better digs, but prefer not to–for reasons I can only imagine. These pictures show how a large majority of the lower classes still live . . .

but they are located within the city adjacent to major highways but well away from the commercial center.

Things look decidedly better the nearer you get to the city.

Then there’s the famous harbor area near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Yachts, fishing boats, commercial cruise lines, sailboats–you can see them all here. Thirty years ago, on a far less crowded day, we were waiting to board a ferry to the Ghandupuri Island there the Elephanta Caves are. A Saudi Arabian man stood on the top deck of a yacht similar to the one below drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. As I looked directly at him, he turned to look at me and offered me one, which I declined.

The haves (as opposed to the have nots) will most probably be found in a highrise like this one along Marine Drive.

The middle class nature of this old-looking condominium is apparent where laundry is hung out to dry every morning, just as you can see along the balconies of many of the high rise condos in the suburbs. People seem to own fewer clothes and wash each day’s soiled clothes every morning. There are views for awhile, but they often disappear when another high-rise rises in front of you. Imagine living in a unit in the middle building. The view from there will be the window of another unit across from you.

Here we enter one of the high end malls, the Palladium. Known as one of THE places for the ultimate experience in high end shopping, its elegant interiors spread across four levels with premium and luxury brands mixed in with small gift shops and boutiques. I checked prices in one of the less expensive stores and found they were no cheaper in India than the U.S. Any westerner would feel comfortable shopping or spending an afternoon here, even if he/she can hardly afford to buy anything . . . unless it’s on sale of course! India’s merchants caught on very quickly to the western mode of inducing people to buy things they probably wouldn’t otherwise with those gigantic 51% OFF signs.

When I return, we’ll have a look at some of the unique sights and attractions of the city, such as the Dhobi Ghats, the Hanging Gardens, the house where Gandhi lived during some of his more tumultous years between 1917-1934, and of course another temple–the one a fascinating look at the Jain religion. Hope you’ll be here too.