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wrap up, NYC

Dear Beth: I can’t tell you what a strong impression you made on our students. We have had an enormous number of very impressive speakers and artists of other kinds. Rarely have I heard so much excitement or enthusiasm.

Well! That email from Tom made me happy. I also just received an email from a member of the other Yiddish theatre in NYC, which I didn’t even know existed – the New Yiddish Rep Theater. He praises the book and is interested in some kind of event. Another possibility in New York. It’s all good, as the kids say.
I am home. So good to be home in tiny little Toronto. I have never left New York with anything but relief, I have to say – just to flee that intensity, the relentless crush and pace, the energy, the non-stop hurtling. It’s mind-boggling, the number of fabulous things to see and do. But there’s something dehumanising about the city too, something debilitating. The most discontented, sour faces in the world live in New York.
Yesterday, Wednesday, I went to the Morgan Library to see a wonderful exhibit on the work of Jane Austen, with some of her manuscripts and letters on display. Did you know that all Jane’s novels were published anonymously? That she never made enough money from them, despite their success, to support herself independently? That means a lot, coming after the recent arguments in this blog about writing for money versus writing for truth. In a film commentary at the exhibit, one of the speakers says, “The timeless writers, the ones who do not date, stay with us because they have told the truth.” Whether they made money during their lifetimes, or not.
I learned that Jane wrote some 3000 letters (of which only 160 survive), and that she also wrote poetry, her final poem three days before she died at the age of 41. It’s fascinating to see her letters, mostly to her sister Cassandra, from which she has carefully edited an occasional sentence by snipping it out with scissors.
The library also had on display the original manuscript of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, written in six weeks in 1843. Lots of editing there, lines scribbled out – a story written fast, expressly to make money. Which he did, and good for him. And I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles, with no editing whatsoever.
It poured with rain in the late afternoon. I hauled my stuff from Ted’s, six blocks down 3rd Avenue to Lola’s at 70th. As I’ve said, Lola is my father’s cousin and exactly the age, 87, that he would have been. She has defeated cancer and various ailments and still works as a jewellry artist, producing rings and bracelets, besides seeing everything worth seeing in New York at a vastly reduced senior’s rate. She lives on very little money in a rent-controlled studio apartment – one big room, packed with books, family photographs and art, including oil paintings and ceramics by her mother Belle, my grandfather’s sister and an accomplished artist. She told me that the other two apartments on her floor have been knocked into one big place that rents for $18,000 a month. Yes, that’s the correct figure. $18,000 a month.
The local deli had poached some salmon for her for our dinner, and then we set out for our adventure – getting down to the theatre on W. 45th in the rain with the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting, a major NYC event, going on at the same time. Earlier, I’d seen hundreds of NYC policemen on 5th Avenue, and asked a couple of cops if they were there just for the tree lighting. Yes, they were. One asked where I was from and when I said Toronto, he said, “I’m nearly Canadian. I’m from Buffalo.” Nearly Canadian, indeed!
Of course, Lola had a plan – the Lexington Avenue bus down to 42nd Street and across on 42nd and then walk up to 45th so we’d avoid the tree, at 50th, altogether. We were at the theatre in plenty of time, to see Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts who made such a splash with August: Osage County, that Lola and I saw last time I was in NYC. These tickets were a gift from my ex-husband, who picked the play for us and provided house seats. Donuts was produced by the Steppenwolf Company from Chicago, and it was superb. A classically well-made play, a wonderful company – great writing, direction, acting, just a perfect evening at the theatre, except that I wish the theatre had been full to support this fine work. It wasn’t. Perhaps because there are no big stars in it. Jude Law is on Broadway in Hamlet, Cate Blanchett about to open in Streetcar, and Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in something or other that’s had bad reviews but is packed anyway. (Mind you, if I’d had more time, I wouldn’t have minded seeing those talented hunks…)
Lola and I got the bus home just before a major rainstorm, chatting with the bus driver and the one other passenger as if it was a limo just for us. In fact, we chatted to people all evening – on the busses there and at the theatre too. New York can be so friendly and warm, with an openness that would be unusual in London and Paris, another NYC paradox. A woman and I had such a good talk in Lola’s elevator about her labradoodle, a lab/poodle cross, we were practically best friends by the time I got out.
This morning, a gorgeous day – 65 degrees, so mild and sunny, a young woman was walking around in a short-sleeved dress, bare-legged. I walked back to the Met to see the Robert Frank photography exhibit. He was a Swiss photographer who documented the America of the 50’s and 60’s – black, white, rich, poor, he captured them all with empathy and so much candour that when the book of his shots first appeared, he was accused of being anti-American. Jack Kerouac wrote the foreword to Frank’s book and said, “Robert Frank … with that little camera that he raises and snaps in one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world. To Robert Frank, I now give this message: you got eyes.”
But that was all I could stand. A vast museum, one of the best in the world, but I’m overloaded this year, after London and Paris. I know how spoiled and absurd that sounds – too much art! Can’t take it any more! But it’s true.
Lunch was a big bowl of chicken vegetable soup, delicious, for $2.99. Yes, that’s the correct figure – $2.99. It’s incredible that everyone here isn’t fat, because there’s cheap, delicious take-out food on every corner. New York is the most absurd juxtaposition of incomprehensible expense and cheapness. Exhausting. Every possible thing that you might want is out there, somewhere, and the only way to survive is not to want anything. Nothing at all. Once you start, it’s endless. David Suzuki, we’re doomed. No one in New York is reducing consumption. Rapacious consuming is the main activity, perhaps the only activity, besides an occasional walk in Central Park. Amassing stuff and throwing out other stuff.
A few other observations: Tantrums. I kept hearing children screaming with tantrums. These are the kids who are going to be paying for our pensions. Not good.
Saw a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts. And tons, now, of comfy shoe stores. If there’s a need – and we’re all aging and our feet hurt – New York will instantly provide.
Every young person seems to have a journal. On trains, busses, subways, they’re scribbling.
On the streets, black doo-wop singers doing dance routines in four-part harmony. Extremely good.
The anonymous big-footed woman let me down this trip. She gives her large shoes to the Housing Works Thrift Store, and I buy them. But she hasn’t been clearing out her closets recently. A great disappointment.
Lola showed me her favourite New York holiday decoration – a giant sparkly thing strung above Fifth Avenue. It could be a snowflake, or it could be a star, depending on your orientation.
Glad to be home. But it was a very good trip.


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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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