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Me In Manhattan

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This is the "travelogue" of my trip to New York to see "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Met. (For my review of the opera, see May 2/06 page)

Me In Manhattan

So I made my brave decision to fly to New York on Thursday. This was Wednesday. I lined up my flight and my ticket to the opera. Next challenge – find a hotel. And this is where the whole project nearly imploded.

On the Internet, the only hotels with vacancies were asking $700 – $800/night. Anything remotely reasonable was "Not available on the date chosen" or "Not available for less than two nights." The flight and the Met ticket were not refundable. Either I was going to be spending the night on a bench in the bus depot or I was going to blow an outrageous wad of money which would teach me a lesson along the lines of: who did I think I was rushing off to Manhattan as if the city would welcome me with open arms?

Then I remembered a travel agent who used to work in an office at the corner of our street. We hadn’t had any business with her since her company moved a couple of years ago. I phoned and left her a message. She responded in ten minutes. No problem, she said. In less than two minutes, had me a place near Times Square for $169.

"How can you do that when I can’t get anything for less than $700 on the Internet?" I asked.

"We’re not on the Internet," she said, "we have our own system."

Now wardrobe. You don’t want to look like some geek from Toronto slouching around Manhattan. For the opera itself, I decided on a pair of black slacks with a new pale purple shirt and black t-shirt, along with a greyish sports jacket and my good leather shoes. For traveling, my recently acquired designer jeans with a blue shirt and the grey jacket. My dress shoes wouldn’t be much good for walking, so I’d have to wear my black leather running shoes. They were originally intended to be semi-presentable – for meetings and such – but I never find them very convincing in the role. The trouble is that the rubber that curves over the toes peels back on these kinds of shoes after a while, creating the impression that you’re walking around on miniature skis.

What about my black baseball cap? I came to the baseball cap fashion rather late in life. But is it still a fashion? A New Yorker article about the poet James Merrill said you could always spot him down front at the Met in his baseball cap. Not that I would ever go that far. But, if a rich, distinguished gay poet could get away with a baseball cap at the Met, wouldn't I be ok in one on the street? On the other hand, that article was a few years old. Well, I could always tuck the cap in my pocket if self-consciousness took over.

I found a large knapsack in the basement luggage closet. A smaller knapsack attached to it would take books, water bottle, papers, magazine, etc. On the evening before departure, though, the combined knapsacks began to seem heavier and heavier. Time for wardrobe revisions. Out with the good dress shoes. The black running shoes would have to do. Out with the black slacks too. My jeans would serve for the entire outing. The purple shirt wouldn’t go with them, so it got jettisoned. So did the fold-up umbrella. Other emergency measures: no extra socks or underwear other than the required change. And the trick that all mothers despise: underwear = pyjamas. I also got rid of the small knapsack. My papers and paraphernalia would have to go in my pockets and in the paperback libretto of Figaro that I was carrying.

***

At Pearson airport next morning, the hubbub of activity as soon as I passed through security felt like America. A woman was complaining to a clerk at the busy lunch counter about not being able to reach a Tim Horton’s on the other side of the glass. "No, you can’t go back there," the clerk was saying, "that’s Canada over there."

A man at my side was murmuring something. Gradually I realized he was hustling me for a shoe shine. Having never in my life paid for one, I declined. About twenty yards away, I stopped and thought: why not? It might make my black running shoes a little more presentable. One of the attendants swept me up onto the platform where I sat like King Cole. The team of three, including the hustler, all seemed to be from India. First, a wizened man tucked my shoelaces inside my shoes and rolled up the cuffs of my jeans. Then he started daubing polish on my shoes. He drifted away to do something with another client, then came back to me with a circular power brush that spun all over my shoes, sending a strange, ticklish vibration from my feet through my whole body. At some point, he took a bottle and sprayed some clear liquid on my shoes. Then a husky young man with forearms like piano legs stepped up with a cloth that he snapped so vigorously that it cracked like a rifle. He started briskly rubbing the cloth back and forth on my shoes. When I asked if he got sore arms doing that all day, he said, "At first, but not now." He said the clear liquid spray was vinegar. Apparently, it helps to repel stains, salt and so on. On stepping down from the throne, I couldn’t think when ten minutes and $6.50 had made me feel so good. My black running shoes felt better about themselves too.

There was another security check before we actually boarded the plane. It had been a couple of years since I’d flown anywhere and these extra precautions were new to me. The final check took place at the end of a long, empty hallway leading into a quiet waiting area. There was a quiet, solemn feel to the procedure as, one by one, we twenty passengers, submitted to the three checkers. We each raised our arms for the complete body frisk, removed our belts, took off our shoes and sat to have our stocking feet scanned. The checkers kept up a friendly chatter to cover the embarrassing feeling of intimacy – as in a clinic where you go for very private things. It struck me, as they were giving me the once over, that maybe I could skip that physical that my family doctor was planning.

*****

The ride into Manhattan on the shuttle bus from La Guardia took an hour and a half. It turned out there was a car stalled on the bridge. But before we got there, the driver took us careering down back alleys and through non-descript neighbourhoods on a circuitous route that seemed like a game of snakes and ladders. How did he know that this torturous journey was going to get us anywhere? I was glad of the set fee which meant that I wasn’t worrying about his ratcheting up the bill by prolonging the journey.

But I was not so glad about the company. Most of the shuttle passengers were American women who felt that we strangers arriving together in the big city should bond with each other and get to know each others’ life stories. Most of them had extremely broad southern accents, especially the one right behind me who treated us to long cell phone conversations with friends, when not telling us how terrified "Mamma" was to think of her daughter alone in New York city. As the inane chat went on, I began to feel more and more like the chilly, aloof Canadian. When we arrived at my hotel, several of the women were debarking too, so I grabbed my knapsack and sprinted into the lobby ahead of them.

The room was something of a joke. It was big enough. The bed was very good. The bathroom was clean. And a housekeeping supervisor was checking on the room when I arrived, so I asked for some of my kind of pillows (not bouncy). But it was the darkest hotel room I’ve ever seen. The so-called window, which could not be opened, gave onto an air shaft so dim and crowded with pipes and crap that it looked bereft of air. Oh well, I wasn’t going to be spending much time in the room and, compared to spending the night in the bus station, it looked pretty good.

******

I decided to walk to Lincoln Center right away to pick up my ticket, being the kind of guy who likes to have his ticket in hand well before curtain time. Also, I wanted to know how long the walk would take, in order to schedule the evening meal. The walk took about 20 minutes, with just a few wrong turns, and directions from some very posh and courteous salesladies in a gorgeous flower shop.

There was rather a long line-up at the box office in the Met lobby. When I took a place at the end of the line, a woman who was approaching at the same time let me go ahead of her because I had let her go ahead of me at the door into the lobby. It struck me that the famed surliness of New Yorkers wasn’t living up to expectations.

I stood there studying the posters and the seating scheme, my black baseball cap tucked under my arm. Strangely, the line didn’t move for about ten minutes. There must have been an unexpected influx of buyers because they eventually opened more wickets and the line quickly dwindled to nothing.

On leaving, I intended to walk back to the hotel by a different route, in the hopes of reconnoitering some other restaurants. A couple of blocks away from the Met, I discovered that my baseball cap was no longer in my possession. Time to stop and have a good think: how much did it matter? Well, I’d paid about $20 for it in Montreal last May. It was getting a little dingy looking. Maybe I could leave this souvenir of myself behind. But it did shield my eyes from the sun. It would be a nuisance trying to find another one. Maybe it would be a good idea to see if it could be retrieved.

I started re-tracing my steps, watching the ground carefully. No results. I climbed the steps of the plaza of Lincoln Center, casting glances in all directions, and entered the famous lobby again. Nobody waiting at the box office now but two commissionaire-type gents were standing off to one side. I went to them and started blurting out the tale of my loss. Before I could finish, one of the men turned and pointed to a black lump on one of the marble benches in a corner of the lobby. I thanked them, reclaimed my hat and left with it on my head.

My cap had looked forlorn sitting there all alone in the vast lobby, folded over on itself like that, and it was surely glad to be back on my head. But what if it had been left behind to fend for itself? Would it somehow have found a home in the Met? Would it have made the big time? Would it have ended up in the props department, eventually by some miracle, finding its way onto the stage?

****

Just time for a shower and a final perusal of the libretto before heading out to find some place to eat. And this is when I may have made my major motion picture debut. There had been movie-making going on in Times Square all day. Police were frantically waving traffic through. Now the filming was in high gear. A large crowd had gathered on the sidewalks to watch. The focus was on three men dressed as construction workers and standing beside a van, in front of an open manhole. As I was waiting to cross with the light, somebody yelled through a bullhorn, "Please don’t look at the cameras." A rather difficult direction to follow as I couldn’t locate the them.

Then came the call "Background Action!" and a man standing next to me suddenly started striding briskly across the street. I set out a bit more tentatively, then there was a huge explosion. The three worker-types were reeling and reacting to smoke pouring out of the manhole. I was barely half a block down the street when I heard them setting up for another take so, chances are, I’m ending up on the cutting room floor.

In passing, I noticed the Marquis Theatre where The Drowsy Chaperone was just about to open after very promising previews. I offered a fraternal salute to those Canadians who have hit it so big. Imagine a show that started in the Toronto Fringe ending up ensconced on the Great White Way, all set to become, according to the New York Times’ prediction, "the sleeper hit of the season". I wished those fellow Canucks well and the full enjoyment of their success, even though I’d never seen the show and everything I’d heard about it sounded stupid to me.

The restaurant I chose was a small Italian place on 8th Avenue, at the corner of 50th Street. Earlier it was deadly quiet but now it was packed with glitzy looking people. The maitre d’ asked if I would mind sitting upstairs. First he suggested the outdoor balcony on the second floor, which sounded good to me. On sitting down, though, I felt dwarfed by tall, dingy buildings on all sides, so I took an inside table at a long french window with sheer curtains swooping back on either side, giving a view over a busy street corner. The western sky was glowing, the activity on the street was fascinating and everything about the experience was lovely – almost.

The main waiter was a blonde young man all in black. I resisted the temptation to ask him what theatre school he attended. He and his cohorts were very attentive but my chicken pasta in a cream sauce – although beautifully presented with some leafy green stuff – was not very creamy or tasty. I kept wanting to add salt, something I never do and something that you’d never expect to do with Italian food. But the dessert was delicious – a piece chocolate cake, lying flat on the plate, sort of like a thin brownie, and served warm with raspberry sauce (which I ignored) and ice cream (which I more or less ignored). The decaf coffee was tepid and the Latino server whom I consulted said that he could bring me "very hot" coffee but then he came back to make sure that I understood that the milk for the coffee was cold. When the "very hot" coffee came, it was almost warm enough. Is this an American thing?

*****

[for my review of the opera see "Figaro Live at the Met" on the page "May 2/06"]

*****

I wanted to walk back to the hotel after the opera to see what Manhattan was like at midnight on a Thursday in spring. Lots of opera-goers kept me company for several blocks but eventually they thinned out and I was mostly on my own. Some stretches were bleak and empty enough to make me hurry along, but for the most part there were lots of people in the streets and the brightly-lit all-night restaurants.

My room was on the second floor, just up the stairs from the lobby and I’d been  disconcerted by the amount of lobby noise that reached the room during my afternoon rest. There seems to be a certain genre of female traveler who says: we’re in New York now, so we talk loudly and make as much noise as possible. (I’m not complaining about the teenage school groups whose amiable noisiness was inevitable.) The desk clerk had assured me that all would be quiet on my return from the opera. There was one outburst of hilarity as I was bedding down but otherwise, the silence of the tomb prevailed – as far as I was aware, which was not at all.

Across the hall, a family was spread among several rooms and there had been lots of running back and forth and calling at doors in the afternoon. In the morning, though, they didn’t start until after eight o’clock. Then there was a considerable kafuffle. At one point, the solemn voice of a hotel manager could be heard above the fray. What had happened, as I later learned on hearing a somewhat hysterical mother explaining it to a maid, was that the door handle to her room had fallen off and she couldn’t get out, nor could her kids get in.

For breakfast, I couldn’t find one of those steamy, bustling deli’s that you think of as typical New York but a caf just up the street from the hotel looked like a good enough substitute. It seemed to be run by people from every part of the world other than America. On one side was the counter where you ordered take out food; on the other side was the kitchen where hot meals were prepared. Utterly lacking in imagination I opted for the good old #1: bacon and eggs. ("When in Rome....etc") You took your tray to an adjoining room where the tables were nearly all full, so I found a spot at a counter by the window where I could watch the street life. I’d forgotten cutlery, so, after a dithery moment of trying to figure out whether bacon and eggs could be handled without knife and fork, I asked the guy next to me to watch my stuff while I went to get utensils. A guy in his 30s, with closely shaved hair, hunkered over a newspaper, he made some sort of affirmative grumble.

Afterwards, I was wishing I had asked him: do you really live in Manhattan? What’s it like? What does it cost? See, I was beginning to become infatuated – with the city, not the guy. While walking the streets, it struck me that it was exciting to be in a city that people were proud of, where their expressions, their pace, their posture said they were glad to be there. Was this something I was imagining? Would somebody from the burbs have the same feeling about downtown Torontonians? Maybe.

But, for me, there was a unique vitality in the New York scene. I recalled those pictures from September 11 – people covered with dust and debris, dazed and crying, stumbling through the streets – and I could feel how devastating that whole thing must have been for everybody in the city. You could sense a community here – a work usually applied to situations that are anything but a community – and how the tragedy would have affected every single person living there.

The night before, I’d passed a fire station on 8th Avenue several times. It was closer to the sidewalk than the fire stations are in Toronto and it was wide open to the spring night, the firefighters standing and chatting with passersby. It almost felt like a community centre. And there was, in fact, a plaque on the wall commemorating 9/11. Was it pure sentimentality to look on these firefighters as somehow special? No, I don’t think so. That disaster had shown us how dangerous their jobs could be, if we had been inclined to forget it. Many of their mates had sacrificed themselves to save others. Granted, they had not expected to die so suddenly and horribly, but they knew it could happen and they didn’t stint. So there was something heroic about them.

After breakfast, I had about 15 minutes between packing and positioning myself in front of the hotel at the appointed time for the shuttle. How best to spend that quarter of an hour? I decided to walk on 5th Avenue since it was nearby and since there is a certain cachet to saying "5th Avenue". This felt like one of those perfunctory tourist things that royalty are asked to sample. You know the kind of thing: "His Highness strolled for 15 minutes on the famous 5th Avenue to get the feel of one of the most elegant shopping streets in America." Blame it on the fact that the time was so limited that I couldn’t get personally involved in the experience in my own way. My stroll consisted of a few blocks one way and then back the other way. No photographers. No curtseys.

The driver on the shuttle back to La Guardia was a young black guy. His idea of driving was not so much to steer as to aim: if you see an opening, go for it as fast as you can to scare off anybody else who’s trying for it. I was sitting in the front passenger seat beside him and, before long, my neck and shoulders were in a state of permanent seizure from constant clenching.

And yet, my impression was that our driver was essentially a nice guy. A lady on the sidewalk in front of the hotel had detained him for quite a while discussing the shuttle arrangements. When she asked about tipping, he said, "Ma’am, that is entirely up to the discretion of the passenger." For much of the ride, he was talking on the cell phone to his mother. When he had to interrupt her to take another call, he apologized to her profusely – meanwhile scattering timid drivers on all sides. The conversation with his mother had something to do with repairs to a truck and whether or not the garage could obtain the needed parts. He was having some difficultly in the communication: "What are you saying to me here?....I’m not saying anything to you about that.....I don’t get what you are trying to say to me about what I’m trying to say to you."

The bus seemed very hot at one point and I put my hands over the vents to see if the air conditioning was working. (Probably I hadn’t spoken about the temperature because fear took away whatever breath might have been used to form words.) Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed my gesture and he turned to me with a  big smile, then turned on the air conditioning. When he deposited me at the terminal and I handed him a tip, he acted like a boy getting a silver dollar from his grandmother.

The trip to La Guardia had taken half an hour. I had aged ten years but I was leaving New York without any scars apart from the cramped shoulders.

And not a single New Yorker had made a snarky remark about by running shoes.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com