Tuesday, 20 October 2009

East Coast Trip Part 2 - New York, September-October 2009

I am opening this blog with an extremely amateurish video I shot with my camera from the fixed balloon ride I took with Ben and Lissy in August 2008 above Central Park. After all, New York City is the setting for some of this post and Central Park is an iconic site, and it has taken me a while to figure out how to post it - apologies for the quality. The mumbles are me, Ben and a WOW from Lissy. You may have to cut and paste this link into a browser window to view it.


One of the reasons I love visiting New York, beyond the fact that it IS New York City, after all, and Ben and Lissy now live there, is because of the old friendships from my days in NYC from 1968-1972. It is wonderful how I have been able to re-energise so many relationships from those passionate times, forged initially through activism in Computer People for Peace and my women's group. Jay and Ellen, Joan, Emily, Judith, Elaine, Vicki - I love to catch up when I am in NYC. Some other friends from that time are not still living in the City but I do my best to see Carmela, Laura and Judy when I am wherever they live now. And especially when I manage to get more than just an hour or two - it is really nice to be able to hang out with friends in their own space, and share their life at their pace for a little while . It does a lot to regenerate the friendship, as I discovered several years ago when I got to spend about a week at Emily’s in Briarcliff Manor, on the Hudson just north of New York City, when I first had the chance to have a more leisurely visit after I retired, rather than the typical frenetic rush when there is only a week to spend.

During the NYC part of my trip East this year, I stayed with my old friends from Computer People for Peace in the '60s, Jay and Ellen Bitkower. Jay and Ellen still live in the same building where they lived in 1969, though they now have a much larger apartment spread across 3 floors, which has undergone several very significant renovations to accommodate their growing and now departed family. It is a marvelous place to stay, within easy reach of the Broadway subway, better yet the express stop on 72nd Street (which makes it just a single stop to Times Square) , a short walk to Riverside and Central Parks for great walks, a block from the JCC and the great supermarket Fairway, the famous deli Zabar's, no end of excellent restaurants and clothing boutiques, the discount stores Loehmann's and Filene's, etc. etc. There is a Weight Watcher's meeting a block away (a plus for me) , the Museum of Natural History is an easy walk, and you can walk across Central Park or take the crosstown bus to the Met Museum. It isn't so close to where Ben and Lissy currently live (downtown on the East side) but with good connections I can get the 50 blocks downtown (these blocks are 20 to the mile) and 6 or 7 much longer crosstown blocks in under half an hour. The photos were taken last year - one is of Jay and Ellen and the other of Ben and me, both taken in August 2008 on a sunny Sunday afternoon on their deck - yes, this is in Manhattan.

Ben and Lissy had been in Argentina and returned a few hours after my arrival, so as soon as they were available I whizzed down there, bearing leftovers Ellen put together from Jay's birthday party the previous weekend which made a wonderful lunch for the three of us without needing to go out and restock their fridge. We caught up on happenings since April, when they left Melbourne, and mapped out plans for family activities during my stay. Ben and Lissy were both between jobs, so for once we were able to set aside time during the day to do things together. We had dinner at a local Indian vegetarian place before I headed back uptown.

On Friday, after a swim at the JCC (utilising the reciprocal membership rights they extended for my Berkeley JCC membership) and a bit of pottering about, I headed down to their place again to bake honey cakes for them and for Lissy's parents before a Shabbat dinner to which we also invited Rachel Boehr (who house sat for us in 2007 while she was living in Melbourne and working for Oxfam, and returned to the US to campaign for Obama in 2008. She considers Barry and me to be her "Aussie parents") . The JCC has a great gift shop and I couldn't resist taking this and several other photos of the very non-traditional menorot they had for sale, including the shoe menora which could be titled "Sex and the City meets the JCC". I spent Saturday afternoon with Ellen and her daughter Jennifer - we went downtown to catch a concert but had got the date wrong, so we enjoyed the street life around Union Square (including the farmers' market and another street fair a bit further downtown) and checked out Trader Joe's. Barry recently discovered that Aldi, the German supermarket chain that we know about since it has opened stores in the last few years in Melbourne, owns Trader Joe's, and there are some family similarities, though Trader Joe's stores seem to be a bit better organised than Aldi's seemingly randomly arranged Melbourne stores. There are 2 branches I use close to Berkeley, one near my hairdresser so I am usually there without a car, and the other at a nearby mall where we drive to stock up. It is the one place I know of locally which stocks kosher chicken, whose flavour I prefer - much US chicken seems to be tasteless, even the organic and free range versions. Due to NY state licensing laws, the liquor is sold in a separate outlet in NYC, not like here where "2 Buck Chuck" , a range of quaffable wines under the Charles Shaw label is sold for $2 a bottle alongside all their other liquor and ordinary groceries. All the stores stock Australian and NZ wines, sometimes even exactly the labels and vintages we're familiar with, though more often under more generic Australian labelling. Though I enjoy trying new wines, I must admit I buy a lot more NZ Sauvignon Blanc and Aussie Shiraz than I should - it seems patriotic and my taste has been formed by these wines (though as a Foster's shareholder I guess I should buy anything under the Beringer label to improve my dividends) .

I realize I was so overwhelmed by Ben and Lissy's January wedding that I have never blogged about it, and though it was a very significant event, and a truly wonderful and joyous occasion, I probably never will. But here is one photo of Ben and Lissy and both sets of parents taken in the Park Avenue Synagogue by a family member on my camera just before the ceremony on January 3, 2009. This can remind you of what Lissy's parents Barbara and Bernard look like, though usually we are none of us quite so glamorous!

Sunday I headed off to NJ with Ben, where Lissy collected us at the station and we had our pre-Kol Nidrei meal at Barbara and Bernard's and headed off to shule. I spent the night there, and Yom Kippur again was spent in shule, though as their Temple is undergoing renovations, the local High School was used to house the various services. NJ, or at least this part of it, has a school holiday for Yom Kippur, but getting the place all ready in time must have required formidable organisation and logistics. I haven't visited a high school at home for years, but was blown away by the size of the campus here, and the gymnasium, the assembly halls etc: I guess high schools are very big! Between the regular service in the Hall designated as the Sanctuary, the lay-led service we attended, and the various children's and youth services, there were a lot of spaces to prepare and occupy. I still can't quite get used to synagogues having large car parks attached, a legacy of growing up attending Orthodox Synagogues where people either didn't drive or if they did, parked a respectful distance away!

We broke our fast as usual at Isaac and Melanie's (Isaac is Barbara's brother), and I really am feeling part of the family now after many Yomtovs spent together. They are so generous, warm and welcoming. And Melanie told Lissy when they first met Ben years ago that he was "a keeper" so how could I not love her? They were about to go to Israel to visit their daughter and son-in law Andrea and Brad, plus 2 small kids, who have recently made Aliyah (emigrated to Israel) , so there was a smaller group at table than usual - but it seemed just as much food (and just as delicious) . We decided to return to NYC that night, as Lissy had a job interview on Tuesday, so Lissy's brother Drew dropped us at the train station in Jersey City on his way home, and we got the PATH train which links with the subway home. I had never travelled on this line before and wasn't sure of the best connection, and had no subway map with me, so I had a bit of a long trek underground, but had very little luggage so it was no hassle . I have since discovered a much better connection, so if I need to do the trip again I am equipped. After 9/11, quite a lot of businesses and residents moved across to Jersey City, and in fact Goldman Sachs's training centre, where Ben would be due to start his new job in a week, is right there and we noticed it on our way to the station.

We had arranged to go to Lakewood NJ on Wednesday to spend some time with my nephew Moshe, his wife Leiba, and their 3 kids. The senior's fare on the bus was very reasonable but the full fare was more than twice as much. I got to the Port Authority Bus Station first and picked up all the tickets, but when Ben and Lissy saw what it all cost they realised it would have been cheaper and a lot faster to hire a zip car for the day. But anyway, we took the bus as arranged and Mose picked us up at the bus station in Lakewood. There are a lot of Yeshivas there, and I still have trouble accommodating to seeing large ultra-orthodox institutions and store with signs in Yiddish and Hebrew cheek-by-jowl with a heavy Latino presence and Spanish signs. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera ready to take shots from the bus as some of the weirder juxtapositions tickled my funny bone.

Leiba had prepared the most lavish and delicious lunch for us, with sushi in addition to more tradition fare of Bagels and "shmears" - egg , tuna and whitefish salads , cream cheese and lox, salad, fruit - and home made soup to start, and cake to finish.... Lissy had not met them before except briefly at the wedding, so there was a lot of catching up to do. Their 2 girls were at school and Yisroel their son at pre-school, so Moshe gave us a little tour of the 'hood before it was time to pick them up. I remember staying at a kosher hotel with wonderful food by the lake in late 1969 just after my brother's wedding, so asked to see the lake for which the town is presumably named. We took a scenic tour and I got a photo of Moshe with Ben and Lissy by the lake, and also some Canada Geese (one of which is pictured below), which Moshe asserted were not kosher, so they are presumably safe from Orthodox shooters at least.

Leiba, who is a hairdresser and works a lot with sheitls (the wigs worn by Orthodox women) has opened a Shadchan (matchmaking) business in Lakewood over the last couple of years. She is a very empathetic and resourceful person, very warm and welcoming, and when I first heard about the business I was sure she'd be great at it. With all the Yeshivas there, there is a very large pool of young men looking to get married, and in the Orthodox community young people depend on introductions to meet the opposite sex as they are hardly likely to meet them in bars or the gym or at work, for example. She told us a bit about the business and we visited her offices and looked at the applications from the girls' families and the databases of boys from the Yeshivas that she works with. There is a Rabbi from Baltimore who works with her as that is another very large Orthodox community in need of matches - in fact the community there financially rewards Shadchans who match girls over the ripe old age of 24 in addition to whatever fees are paid by the parents! It was a fascinating view of a very different culture - Lissy asked Ben if he'd seen anyone amongst the applicants who looked a likely match - well, of course, he is taken already, but he then asked her what she (or her parents) would have put on her application. Cause of much hilarity all around, of course way over the heads of the kids who loved racing around writing on the whiteboards and punching holes in scrap paper while we got our business briefing.

We returned to the house for a bit of a play with the kids - Lissy and Ben are so good with little kids, they get right into their games- and then Moshe and Yisroel took us back to the bus station for the much longer ride back into Manhattan, as it was evening rush hour and getting to and through the tunnel took ages. So I was rather late for the scheduled dinner with Joan, Jay and Ellen at our local Indian restaurant, and they at least were starving, not having experienced Leiba's lunchtime hospitality.

Another evening I met Ben and Lissy in Greenwich Village to see a new production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I knew nothing about it except that it is a classic American play, studied at high school or college, and was very surprised by it: I thought it must be a very modern, stripped down production but it seemed to be produced pretty much exactly as written. I guess the Australians who know as little as I did about the play can do what I did when I got home, and check it out on wikipedia at


We had a great meal beforehand at a restaurant called Westville, which specialised in vegetable side dishes - we had 8 small ones (I remember as I write, 2 months later, the garlic mashed potatoes, mushrooms with leeks, snow peas stir-fried with sesame and soy, baby bok choi, crispy string beans maybe with almonds, zuchinni with cherry tomatoes, beetroot with goat cheese, but must have forgotten one dish - plus a big mixed salad with some steak in it). I hadn't been down to the Village in years and determined I must explore it some more on my next trip, as I'd forgotten how interesting it is where the numbered streets' grid gets distorted, W4th and W10th intersect around the corner from the Sheridan Square subway stop, and named streets rule. As on my last full day in NYC, when Iagain went downtown and hung out with Lissy for a while at their apartment before heading to Chinatown for a Vietnamese meal with Ben after his first day at his new job, in an area of NYC I also don't know well, I was very glad to have them guide me to the right subway to get home without too many line changes.

Towards the end of this trip I managed to spend a couple of days at Emily and Bob’s. When I arrived Emily’s on Friday morning, her older sister Eleanor was visiting. I think I have met her once before, very many years ago, but certainly hadn’t previously spent time with the two sisters together. After seeing my Berkeley friend Sonya with her two sisters and now Emily and Eleanor, I wish I had a sister of my own! After Emily and Eleanor picked me up at the station, we had lunch at the Stone Barns, part of the Rockefeller Estate I probably mentioned in this blog last year. There was a special event, The Harvest Festival, scheduled for the next day, so the usual Friday Farmers’ Market in the garden was cancelled, and there were three enormous pigs being roasted on huge spits for the festival, each hand-turned by an independent operator) nearby, in preparation for the festivities, so we found it a bit smoky. The utensils, cups and plates the cafe uses are all compostable, though the cutlery looks like dull beige plastic. Later we toured the greenhouses where they grow the veggies they use in the cafe and restaurant there (and also supply several other establishments) and read all about their composting and recycling policies and practices. Very encouraging. But I am always astonished at the huge volumes of garbage in bags on the streets in the City – I guess this is another manifestation of the population as well as the general over-packaging in the US. I don’t see many people bringing their calico or other reusable bags to the supermarkets here, though most of my friends always do so. I think I see a bit more of it in Berkeley than in NYC – like Priuses! (In fact Joan even has a few green bags she collected several years ago in Australia, and Emily has so many calico bags she has been known to give them away to willing takers in the supermarkets!)

The photo shows Eleanor (left) and Emily in front of a store window in the old main street of Tarrytown , which we visited on our way back to Emily's. Emily's hair is growing back after she shaved her head in solidarity with Sondra, her best friend who recently underwent chemotherapy. Eleanor had her 50th High School reunion on Friday Night, and Emily’s Cousins' Party, an annual event for the 30 odd cousins on her mother’s side, had been scheduled nearby in New Rochelle for the same weekend so that Eleanor could attend both with one flight in from Chicago. The same weekend it was Sukkot and the Caramoor Music Festival was on. This is another of the outdoor venues there are so many of in the US (Tanglewood is the biggest I guess, but there are many others in the summer in the Northeast. ) We went to a Friday night all-Beethoven concert by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by their new conductor Alan Gilbert, the Seventh Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58) , with Emmanuel Ax as soloist. The traffic was really awful – we got to the concert late though we thought we had allowed plenty of time. They delayed the start so we were seated just in time, but hundreds were not . The entire row in front of our seats was empty until the interval, when we heard from the latecomers about the late-seating area which was filled to overflowing ,while a queue snaked all around the impressively huge tent with latecomers held up on the one road in, who missed the first half and were only allowed in for the second half. I gather that this was by a large margin the biggest crowd they had ever had, and despite having sent out postcards to ticket holders advising early arrival, you needed more like an hour in hand than the 30-45 minutes most people allowed.

Despite the logistics, however, it was a great programme, very enjoyable to hear such a good orchestra and a great soloist, though I thought they played the last couple of movements of the Seventh a bit too fast, and the acoustics seemed to swallow up a bit of the lower registers of the piano and the brass during the piano concerto. The New York Philharmonic was very impressive.

We picked Eleanor’s husband Mike up at the local airport a bit before the Saturday concert, which featured Jazz great Chick Corea playing solo on the same Steinway. We left time for traffic jams this time but got there very early as there was no problem at all. We had a picnic supper first – it was a bit damp as it had been quite a rainy day, and there was no lighting in the picnic area at night so it was a bit hard to figure out what we were eating, but the pre-ordered picnic boxes provided were very tasty and varied. The first half of the concert was jazz classics and improvisations that I don’t really appreciate, but the second half opened with pieces by Scarlatti and Scriabin, followed by some pieces by a few other jazz composers and a lot of Corea’s own work, whose structures and musicality I was much better able to enjoy. It was quite a contrast from the experience of a full symphony orchestra the night before.

On Sunday morning Emily took us for a walk by the beautiful Hudson (see the photos above m- lanscape, autumn foliage and some fall crocuses) , in a part of the Rockefeller estate I hadn’t seen before, and then we proceeded to White Plains, where Emily and Eleanor grew up. I saw their childhood house and then Emily took me to the new home of my first cousin Jeremy, who with his wife Tara and twins Jonathan and Jacob (pictured here) have relocated from London. We swung by the train station to collect Ben and Lissy, as we were all invited to lunch in their sukkah. And as a bonus, Jeremy’s sister Angela (her picture is just below) was visiting from London, so it was another family reunion. Angela and Ben hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years, we guessed, and she had of course not met Lissy. We 3 last saw Jeremy and Tara at Ben and Lissy’s wedding, and last time we visited they were in Scarsdale and had not yet moved to White Plains, so there was a lot of catching up to do. Ben and Lissy love interacting with the 5 year-old twins, with a lot of pretend and chasey and shrieking and throwing balls and scary soft toys. This was the day before Ben was due to start his new job, so after taking the express train back to Grand Central in the evening, they went home and I returned to Jay and Ellen’s, with a plan to meet for dinner the next night, my last night in NYC.

I took the Supershuttle to JFK airport from Jay and Ellen’s, on the Upper West Side. Though it picked me up 3 hours before my flight was due to depart, and I was second on the minibus, we took an hour and a half tracing a circuitous route through Upper Manhattan , back down to the Upper East Side and then down Lexington Ave to the 59th Street Bridge. This was pretty interesting between 7.40 and 9 on a workday morning, seeing such a variety of streetscapes and street life. Not a white face to be seen north of 145th Street, and still many boarded-up buildings and store fronts up there in Harlem, giving way to largely Hispanic faces and stores in Spanish Harlem (is it still called that? I remember looking for an apartment to rent in early 1968. Innocent abroad that I was, I put down a deposit on a place around 98th St on the East Side, only to be told that I wouldn’t be safe in that neighbourhood, Spanish Harlem , in those years (long before I learned to speak Spanish). I took the advice, lost the deposit, and ended up on the Upper West Side, where I still encountered several muggers in my 4 years in NYC). Of course the greatest risk one faces in this neighbourhood now is to be mowed down by people queuing for ice cream, and the blocks of misery to be avoided then have been gentrified and are now very desirable and totally unaffordable.

As we got closer to mid-town all the pedestrian traffic was heading towards office blocks, bearing briefcases and very smartly turned out, except for the sneakers rather than smart women’s shoes, which are kept in the office. Manhattan is so densely populated! And the traffic! I thought nostalgically of the Clearways in Melbourne as the Shuttle Van wove in amongst the double- and triple-parked cars, taxis, delivery vans, buses and streams of pedestrians jay-walking. Then it took nearly half an hour just to get across the bridge and onto the bits of freeway heading for JFK, but there were no further hold ups and I got to the airport just short of 2 hours after leaving 75th St, with a bit over an hour in hand to check in and deal with the queues through security.

I remember when flying used to be fun, but the performance at airports especially in the US is very far from that now... I always forget about taking off my shoes when I get dressed – today I was in sandals so had to walk about barefoot for a while, at other times I have worn boots with a tricky zip or awkward-to-lace and -unlace sneakers. I don’t actually have any easily-slipped on and off shoes, certainly none I could comfortably travel in – I should have saved some of those paper slippers they give you in Japan. I wonder what the next crazy bomber will do to alter the search protocols once again – the shoe bomber and the liquid plotters have a lot to answer for in adding to the misery of millions of airline passengers!

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Hi Barbara, great to read of your travels.
To clarify, above 155th is Washington Heights or "The Heights" as it's affectionately referred to. Spanish Harlem is indeed still on the east side, where you almost lived many year ago. Spanish Harlem is much less Spanish these days, but there are still many Latinos and many gentrifiers as well!
I myself live in Harlem, around 145th. The area is changing, but I can tell you it's still got its fair share of culture, and is relatively inexpensive. These areas are not so dangerous - after all, people have been living there safely for decades upon decades.