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New York in the rain

I’m in an Italian cafe on Second Avenue, listening to a French chanteuse on the soundtrack and watching the cars zoom endlessly by in the rain. New York takes an enormous amount of energy, and I just don’t have it today.

I did yesterday, which was a glorious sunny day. Here’s what I wrote this morning, Monday, about Sunday:
The little Porter airplane coming into Newark allowed us a fantastic view of the distant island – still, after all these years, like something out of a dream. Like a child playing with blocks, trying to squeeze as many upright rectangles as possible into a small space. The famous spires – the Empire State, the Chrysler – pierced the morning mist. Impossible not to notice the absence of the two biggest rectangles of all. And at the bottom, barely visible and all alone, the lady and her torch.

Each time I come in, there’s a frisson – like all my great-grandparents on my father’s side, I am an immigrant to this island. And yet I’m not, because I was born here. This metropolis is my birthplace. We moved from New York to Halifax when I was two months old. I carry the passport both of this country and of the country that is mine, that is my true home.

I am proud to say that I’d packed so little, I was able to skip immediately from the plane to the shuttle to the train and thence into Manhattan. 6.30 a.m., wake up in Toronto; noon, eat soup at Cousin Ted’s at 77th and 3rd. Cousin Ted has a place in the “country” – Northport – to which he goes every weekend, leaving his two-bedroom apartment for a steam of visiting friends and family. Without Ted, I would not have been able to write my book; I would not feel as at home as I do in this city.

Here is how to do Manhattan on the cheap: First, have a Cousin Ted in a perfect location. Second, a week-long subway pass costs a mere $27 and is good for both subways and busses. Even though I’m only going to be here for 4 days, by Day 2 the pass will have paid for itself; I haven’t taken a cab for years. I browse at the Housing Works Thrift Shop right across the street – this is not Goodwill, this is a New York thrift store with high end goods and extraordinary prices. My meals are takeout from the nearby Chinese restaurants or Citarella’s, the fish store and gourmet supermarket, and eaten at home. And, unless there’s something I absolutely must see, I get my theatre tickets half-price from the TKTS booth on Times Square.

Since during this amazing year I have visited both Paris and London, I must of course compare. This city is on a grid! You always know where you are! It’s not a rabbit warren, an ant’s nest of meandering streets, ancient medieval pathways, alleys and dead ends worn for a thousand years – well, it’s a bit like that downtown, in Chelsea and Soho, but the rest of the city is snappily efficient and organised. People are bigger here in every way – not just fatter, which of course they are, amazingly so, but taller and far, far louder. They take up a lot of space; there’s a confidence and swagger, a sense of entitlement. And yet they’re friendly, chatting openly with strangers in a way unheard of in European capitals.

At Ted’s I unpacked, called Ted and Henry in Northport and tried with Henry’s help and to no avail to get my computer hooked up to their internet, and called second cousin Lola who’s 87 and knows everything that’s worth seeing in the city. “Don’t miss the Tim Burton exhibit at MOMA,” she said. “Go early. It’ll be crazy.” It’s still Thankgiving here. I changed into my walking shoes and set off for the Met, where Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” was spending its last day. Thanks again to family, I know where the side entrance is to the Met, avoiding the crowds, and headed straight for my favourite painter. Though crowded, it was a fabulous exhibit – the “Milkmaid” had been sent from Amsterdam in memory of the discovery of Manhattan by Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for the Dutch, and was shown with the other Met Vermeers and other paintings of the genre and era. Sublime. This has been a banner year for me – eight Vermeers! “The Lacemaker” was not in the Louvre but in Japan or it would have been nine. If I go to Frick Museum while here, I can see their three. But maybe I should stop; how many Vermeers can a person absorb in one year? There was a wall showing all 34; I decided that my favourite is “The Astronomer” which is at the Louvre. Which is yours?

Rather than more Met, it was such a heavenly day I took the bus straight down 5th Avenue to get tickets for the night’s viewing. Time’s Square is completely changed – they’ve turned some of it into a pedestrian mall and parkette, with little tables and chairs and a big staircase to nowhere to sit on – amazing, in the middle of the craziest intersection on earth, to have this little oasis. I lined up at TKTS and was happy that the show I wanted to see, Fela!, about a Nigerian activist, was on offer. I asked for the best single seat and the guy said, “Center orchestra.” Great. It turned out to be center, all right – dead center of the very first row. I was so close that when the star bent over to bow, his sweat droplets landed on me. I’d like to see the show again from a bit further back, but no matter, it was fabulous – Fela was the founder of Afrobeat, there was an incredible band onstage and tons of beautiful black men and women dancing, singing, and acting. Full of energy. I could not have felt further from Paris or London.

But I carry those cities with me – walking around in my silk Paris scarf, my TopShop shirt. It is fun to be in New York wearing Paris and London. Though of course I could not compete with the stylistas here, nor ever want to, in their Prada and whatever. I meandered through Sak’s on my way to the theatre. More expensive than is decent. But lovely to look at.”

This morning, in the rain, I went to MOMA at Lola’s command and did see Tim Burton. It’s an exhaustive exhibit of his life’s work – sketches, notebooks, sculpture, amateur films, stories, an amazingly creative guy exploring the grotesque and horrific since childhood. Much is made of his suburban childhood in Burbank, California – he was obviously an outcast, outsider, a geeky kid with vicious fantasies who has found a way to make a fortune playing those out for the world. If he’d had a best friend, or grown up in Manhattan, the world might not have those nightmare images – Edward Scissorhands, the Nightmare before Christmas, Beetlejuice. He needs some good buddies, I thought. This is what he wrote as a character study for Edward Scissorhands: “His hobbies are making ice sculptures and playing the steeldrums. Someday he hopes to vacation on the Caribbean Islands.” He wrote about Little Dead Riding Hood and is fixated by dead dogs, eyeballs, skeletons, Martians, death, blood, gore. Here’s an early poem:

My girlfriend is a statue/I don’t know when I noticed it/but I think it was last year/I think it’s when I noticed/That crack above her ear.

I had an ambitious plan for the afternoon but the rain and my own fatigue defeated me. I came back to Ted’s and to this cafe. Tonight I have more plans, and tomorrow I do my talk at the Stella Adler Studio. At the moment, I am just grateful that I do not live here in this madhouse. A marvellous, thrilling madhouse, but mad nonetheless.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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