Sunday, 24 August 2008

Back to New York City

We had made plans to visit my first cousin Jeremy on the way home from the cottage. He has been living in Scarsdale for about a year with his American wife Tara and their four (and a quarter, as they reliably informed us) -year-old twins, Jacob and Jonathan. After cleaning up from lunch and packing, we headed off, computer-generated instructions in hand. It was an extremely scenic drive most of the way, on the Taconic Parkway which winds gently through very pretty country and is a lot more charming than the wider and straighter State Thruways, Turnpikes and Highways. A deer ran onto the road at one point, and survived as the traffic was light, but it was scary. There was a bit of road kill about, the odd skunk and raccoon and bird of prey. After a couple of hours' driving were supposedly about 30 minutes away from Scarsdale when we encountered what looked like a huge traffic jam ahead on the freeway. By quick thinking before we missed the opportunity, Lissy drove across a grassy median strip onto another road, taking a lead from several other drivers who seemd to be in the know, so we avoided getting stuck in heavy traffic the rest of the way. Ben fired up the GPS, avoided its frequent suggestions that we should get back onto the freeway system, and navigated a new route, which impressed the hell out of me.

It was lovely to catch up with the family again Рthe boys have lost most of their English accents in the year since we saw them last, but are cuter than ever. I had rudely invited ourselves to supper, and Tara obliged with bagels, delicious salads etc, and lots of ice cream (this was the part the boys liked best!). Ben and Lissy spent some play time with the twins and I caught up more with the grownups, particularly Jeremy, who works as a consultant to the Relais and Ch̢teaux group of very special hotels and writes on travel and food for various publications, including the Tatler where he was the food critic.

As it happens, Scarsdale is quite close to the top of Manhattan, where I have been staying in Joan’s Washington Heights apartment. The kids dropped me off at home before heading back to NJ to return the car and get the train back to Grand Central – I was irrationally delighted because with my generally excellent (not!) grasp of geography, I had imagined I would schlep back there with them and be too tired to come all the way back uptown after 11 at night, when subway works on my line mean the trains don’t run all the way and I’d have to walk quite a way or wait for a shuttle bus after a very slow local train ride. What a bonus to get home early and check my emails and make a few calls to get the last couple of days’ activities set up.

On Monday I went down to the Financial District to visit Ben’s work place and meet his boss and colleagues. It was fascinating as a former computer person to see him in his professional context, and wonderful to hear his boss tell me how brilliant he was (I restrained myself from saying “tell me something I don’t know” and settled for the milder statement that I would not disagree). We speculated about the first mainframe computers I worked on in Australia, England and NY in the 1960’s, which took up as much space as their office and probably had less capacity than one of the servers sitting on the floor (or maybe less than the cell phones or iPods in our pockets). Reminiscing about Computer People for Peace is always fun in New York, too! I noted with satisfaction the jar of Vegemite on Ben’s desk and recalled with regret the self-sealing experiment I am still conducting.

Then I went uptown to meet Judy Sloane, an Australian friend unexpectedly visiting Manhattan. She is staying with a recently arrived friend of hers who is consulting here for a couple of years and has taken an apartment on 56th and Broadway, smack bang in midtown, just 3 blocks from Central Park. I've never lived so centrally and was surprised how very light and quiet her corner apartment seemed mid-afternoon. After a cold drink and a catch up, we went off to wander around the Park for a while, but certainly didn't get there by the most direct route. As usual, I got totally disoriented in the Park and came out on the East side instead of the West or South side, so we ended up wandering maybe a bit longer than planned. We stopped at the Boathouse, fantasizing about iced coffee which proved hard to find, so we settled for gin and tonics instead, which pleasantly extended the afternoon. Then I had a dinner date at Jay and Ellen’s, dining on their terrace again with a wonderful salad full of good things perfect for a hot night, followed by ice-cold seriously sweet and juicy watermelon.

When I got back to Joan’s after dinner, took off my shoes and went to the fridge for a drink, I found myself paddling on the kitchen floor. Water was dripping from the ceiling in a most alarming manner. I called building security (no idea who else to call at 10.30PM) and after some investigation they reported there had been a plumbing leak in one of the upstairs apartments. Meanwhile I set up a bucket and a lot of rags to wipe the floor and catch errant drips, waiting for the handyman who was expected but rang at 12.45 AM to say he wasn't coming.

I had hoped for an early night because I was meeting Lissy and Ben before 7 Tuesday morning for a helium balloon ride (or rather, rise - it is a tethered balloon, which climbs 200 feet into the air above Central Park near 72nd St). Her firm does work for the AeroBalloon company so we were able to book a time slot for a free ride - even at 7 there was a queue. In the afternoon the queue can stretch for up to 4 hours, as only 4 people can go up in the basket at a time. It was a lovely morning and very clear, and the view of the park is fabulous. I tried to take a 360 ⁰ video but it is pretty wobbly. I’ll try and post it on a photo web site and give you a link. To upload a video more than a few seconds takes forever using this blogging software, and after trying to load one yesterday I gave up after about 25 minutes. See a photo taken from aloft instead, and a shot one of the balloon guys took of the three of us.

After we came back to earth, we went out for a very ordinary breakfast, I farewelled Ben and Lissy and went over to Elaine’s for a quick catch up and walk. We took her cockapoo (no I am not making this breed up - it's a cocker spaniel/ poodle cross), Sweetie, to the dog grooming place to be brushed. Unlike Jesse, who hates the vet and tries to bolt whenever we visit (though he has never been to a beauty parlour as I bath and groom him myself), Sweetie couldn't wait to get down the stairs and be pampered. While she was being groomed, we walked around the neighbourhood looking in shop windows (lots of places don’t open till 10, 11 or even 12, and this was around 9 AM) . The Upper West Side has certainly gentrified a lot from when I lived at no 20, less than a block from her groomer on W 83rd St, in the late 60’s – then I was mugged a couple of times , now the main danger is that you could get knocked down by crowds of people queuing for ice cream! Here are Elaine and Sweetie on the corner of 72nd St and West End Avenue.

I went back uptown to Joan’s, thinking I might catch a nap before my next set of activities, but there was by now a large bucket of foul liquid in the kitchen area and I decided to call the maintenance folk to see what was happening. The upstairs leak had been repaired but they figured they needed to make a hole in the ceiling to enable the trapped black water to escape, pledging to return in several days after it has all dried out to repair the ceiling. I opened lots of windows and doors to try and air the place, but hadn't made much progress by the time I had to head off way down to the Lower East Side to meet Vicki in Tompkins Square Park, and roam around the East Village a bit. We found an “Australian” ice cream store, where the ice cream was nice but I still haven’t figured out what is Australian about it, certainly it wasn't the prices! I caught up with her news, including the free store she runs in the neighbourhood, and took in the many changes in the neighbourhood since I last spent any time there.
On the Lower East Side, I was well on the way to my next commitment in Brooklyn , so with some time to spare I managed to fit in a tour of the Tenement museum on Orchard Street, just South of Delancey, which I would highly recommend. There is an activity centre and bookshop across the street, but the "museum" itself is an old tenement building, and the tour consisted of visiting 3 apartments in it and hearing the tales of the families who lived there. One apartment is in its 1904 configuration, one in its 1936 state, which was when the last families were evicted. Highly recommended! The records they have recovered and some testimonies are really fascinating, and though I don’t know if my family (my paternal grandparents’ siblings) who were briefly in New York before settling in the Cleveland area ever lived somewhere like that, it's not much of a stretch to imagine it.

And thence to Borough Park in Brooklyn, to see my nephew Moshe, his wife Leiba, and their 3 lovely kids, Chayale, Shifra and Yisroel. They had driven in from their home in Lakewood, NJ, for an hour and a half to meet me for dinner at Dougies, a Glatt Kosher institution, with barbecued meats, kebabs, steaks, Chinese food, kids meals, a buffet with grilled vegetables and a couple of salads. I ate too much but considerably less than I could have. Family resemblances are so strong – almost 3 year old Yisroel looks exactly like Moshe at his age; Moshe looks just like my brother (his father); Moshe remarked how much Ben (from photos in my camera) resembles his Zaide (my father)... we can’t help but comment on the similarities whenever we meet. The first time I met Leiba, it was the female side of the family we talked about, with resemblance between me and my niece Esther, and a then much younger Chayale, but tonight it was the boys. One interesting piece of news that I hadn't heard: Leiba has started a match making office, and is doing a great job by the sound of it – I think she’d be really good at it. From what I know of her, she is a very people-oriented person, generous and very warm, also persistent and resourceful. It sounds like a very nice way to do well by doing good, and I wish her every success!

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