Why I live in New York. New York City, that is. Manhattan, to be exact. Dirty. Dangerous. Expensive (so much so today that people who once thought of themselves as middle class now fear they’re only a few ladder-rungs above the have-nots. And the number of have-nots is heart-rending. But still . . .
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood and time suited only to people with a deep tolerance–or even need–for boredom. (Boredom precludes risk and can be very soothing.) I was not one of them. Even before I had two numbers to my age, I would often sit at our kitchen table and gaze through the window that looked out on the corner of the street and think, in a sort of melancholy stupor, There must be somewhere else.
There was, and not that far away. It was called Manhattan. From my house, an hour on the bus and subway would get you there. As a young teen, I began to explore it. Eventually, in my early twenties, I came to live there, through a combination of stubborn perseverance and destiny.
For me, one of Manhattan’s chief lures–the one people live elsewhere to avoid–is its rich mix of people. The first time I picked up the elder of my local grandchildren at the public school she had entered that week as a kindergartner, my eyes welled with tears when her class marched out into the schoolyard. Not only were the African-American, Caucasian, and Asian races just about equally represented, the blending of these groups that has occurred was evident in their looks, which often suggested that the human race was being gloriously renewed, even reinvented.
Several grades later, I asked this granddaughter who, in her class of 28 or so, spoke a language other than English at home. She named seven, citing the language they used with their parents and siblings–Russian, Spanish, Chinese, French, modern Hebrew, and Korean among them–and reminding me that she didn’t know about everyone in the class, only her friends.
Despite the poverty of the school–the middle-income parents willingly provided the most basic school supplies for the less fortunate children as well as their own–it was rich in its pupils, in some very savvy, dynamic, and empathic teachers, and in the steady acting out of its motto: “One family under the sun.”
Upon hearing the official announcement that our country had gone to war with Iraq, I figured that a third-floor window–the highest I had immediate access to at the moment I heard the news–was too low for a successful death leap, and anyway suicide was a romantic, self-indulgent notion for someone in my relatively safe circumstances. On the other hand, I couldn’t pretend that nothing world-shaking had happened and get on with my usual writing, housekeeping, grandmothering, and exercising at the gym. (George Bush’s suggestion of going shopping–a favorite of his since the 9/11 catastrophe–was patently obscene.)
So the next morning I went to the Metropolitan Museum. I walked to the Met through Central Park, which was as verdant as ever, a comfort in itself–trees are rarely affected by remote human disaster–and looked at some of my favorite pictures. On the walk home, I felt amazingly ready to face reality with the equanimity necessary to attempt constructive action. The question of whether or not my subsequent attempts at “constructive action” have done anything to better the state of the world remains moot.
Central Park is my backyard, half a block away from where I live. It is replete with diversions, as any tourist guide will tell you. A native New Yorker (admittedly bridge-and-tunnel in my first youth), I long ago absorbed (and today regularly revisit) the highlights the guidebooks emphasize–among them the Shakespeare Garden, free theater at the Delacorte, rowing on the lake, the zoo, and the carousel–and appreciate many smaller charms. Do you know the Whispering Bench?
Most subtle and important: the park is a solace. Over the years, running, jogging, or just walking on the sooty pedestrian track that circles the reservoir, you come to see that seasons go on but their route is cyclical, while your life is linear. Why noticing that it’s “autumn again” or “another spring” is a comfort, I can’t say exactly, but it seems to put things in perspective. Perhaps the promise of eternal renewal allows you to imagine that your present difficulties will be resolved or, if not, be absorbed tolerably into your life’s journey, even enrich it.
Bordering the park, on both Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, are a seemingly infinite number of museums you can drop into for a short impromptu visit when you’ve had enough of outdoor delight and consolation. The forbidding admission prices posted at the biggies–the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, for instance–are easily avoided if you can’t afford them or think the tariff is a bit steep unless you plan an absurdly long visit. Read the deliberately fine print on the signs at the ticket desk. Turns out those high charges are only “suggested” (because of the government support these institutions receive). You have to pay something, but a penny will do. I usually give a dollar for each person in my party. If you already know this, tell someone else on the ticket line, preferably someone who does not look wealthy. Museums in general have free hours or even days, so arrange your schedule accordingly. I am particularly fond of the fact that the Jewish Museum has reconciled itself to staying open on Saturday by charging no fee on the Sabbath, when an observant Jew should not be handling money, let alone seeking secular bustle and artistic intoxication instead of the quiet spiritual contemplation prescribed for the day on which Yahweh rested.
When you live right near this host of museums, visiting one needn’t be a major excursion. It can be a casual affair, like a short call on a familiar and particularly fascinating neighbor. When my children were very young, I would tell them that we could stay half an hour, tops, at the Met on these brief visits, look at a few pictures or sculptures or other objects, and buy one postcard. (The limit to the single card increases its value to the child, and choosing one from many refines the youngster’s awareness of his or her individual taste. Then we had to go, I’d say, but we would come back soon. As we did. This tactic kept their appetite sharp until they were ready for longer sojourns. One of my grandchildren, though, preferred a long look around even at a tender age. To this day, she enjoys wandering through gallery after gallery–”getting hopelessly lost,” as she gleefully puts it–in the process discovering dozens of things that attract her–sometimes for unfathomable reasons (until she explains them). These explanations have really opened my eyes.
This is getting to be less and less true, alas, as mall-dom descends upon us–Starbucks, the Gap, Duane-Reade, and that ubiquitous golden-arched burger chain I prefer not to name–but New York has traditionally been rife with small, weirdly irresistible places. Chief among them have been dark, disorganized little shops containing almost nothing you’d want except for that one fabulous item–like the charming French dessert plates illustrating the fables of La Fontaine that I once found half-hidden in the dusty clutter.
Just what I needed! My toddler son, you see, invariably announced his finishing the contents of a small dish by slinging the plate joyously into the air, from which position it crashed to the floor and was instantly reduced to smithereens. No amount of reasoning with him could eradicate the habit. He had destroyed just about all of our smaller dishes in this way–and I snobbishly refused to have my children dining from plastic tableware–when, in an obscure shop in our neighborhood, I found over a dozen of those fable plates, every one depicting a different tale, which I happily acquired for 75 cents each. When, years later, I saw what they cost in a Paris flea market, I realized I was in possession of a valuable treasure. Today, I sometimes see them in museums.
To my credit, I continued to use the plates daily, though I admit I stopped putting them in the dishwasher because they are faience, which chips easily under mechanical duress. My son, for no reason I could discern, treated them with the utmost gentleness from the get-go. Perhaps he was fascinated by the sight of animals in clothes, at least half of them up to no good.
These days New York’s public libraries have deteriorated significantly from the era of my youth, when they seemed to me outposts of Heaven. It’s not just that the continuing automation of the system, albeit useful and necessary, has eroded some of their charm. The real problem can for the most part be laid at the feet of our government, which supports culture and children’s needs so poorly.
The libraries are grievously understaffed and some of the existing low-level aides seem subliterate, while the children’s rooms are, faute de mieux, used by the working poor as free, reasonably safe after-school havens for their offspring, with the librarian–if one is on hand–reduced to keeping order amongst the rowdier kids. This task is not necessarily well matched to a librarian’s skill set. Besides, how could a second-grader be expected to keep still–physically and vocally–for two to three hours after a day exercising similar restraint at school?
Despite its decline, I love the public library. I love the democratic idea behind it of making books available to everyone, flush and broke alike. I like being in the presence of thousands of volumes, each harboring a unique message to enhance or alter my mind, my world. I admire these bastions of culture bravely holding out in what may well be a losing battle.
I have (had, as we shall see) three favorite Manhattan libraries. When it comes to the system’s main site at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street–the old building with its wide outside staircase on which readers and office workers picnic in warm weather, guarded by the life-size marble lions, Patience and Fortitude–it’s the Rose Main Reading Room that’s synonymous with library to me. I’ve used it since I was in high school. Its atmosphere seems conducive to research: the prevailing hush, broken only by whispers; the lavish days-of-yore use of wood; the long oak tables where, at evenly spaced intervals, the heads of scholars, students, and the simply curious bend over the books they hope will reveal the secrets they want to penetrate, both faces and texts illuminated by lamps with glowing green glass shades.
Then there’s the Jefferson Market branch in Greenwich Village, housed in a venerable, striking, and peculiar edifice converted into a library in 1967. This was the one I took my children to when they were little, and not just because it was near our home at the time.
A landmark building, it had been designed in the Victorian era by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux. Vaguely inspired by Gothic architecture, it boasted an extravagance of turrets, and an asymmetrically placed, extra-tall clock-and-bell tower perfect for sequestering princesses who need some punishment or at least a time-out. Since the Victorian aesthetic prevails–for instance, in the imposing palette of russet, ivory, and black of the exterior’s construction materials and the general air of Too Much–it makes subscribers to the Bauhaus style wince. Still, it has a presence that was greatly admired in its own day and encourages fantasy in ours.
Originally, the place was used as a courthouse, When it eventually fell into terminal disuse and decay, neighborhood denizens saved it from being razed, and its interior was converted to use as a library by Giorgio Cavaglieri, who left many of its original features intact.
My children adored its outward, medieval-castle look and, especially, its interior, complete with high stained-glass windows, winding staircases, exposed-brick walls with concave niches, and stone portraits and flowers like the ornaments that beguiled them at The Cloisters. The collection and librarians in the children’s room were very good, but it was the place itself that mattered most.
My third favorite was the Donnell Library Center (everyone called it, simply, The Donnell), which closed as the first part of an overall transformation of the NYPL system–on September 1, 2008. The transformers’ declared purpose is to “expand and reshape [the Library's] services as it moves forward in an era of changing use and information needs.” Statements like this, which include expressions like “new state-of-the-art facilities,” make me very nervous. The Donnell, we’re informed, will emerge as “a new library that opens in 2011 as part of a development project with Orient Express Hotels.” Very nervous indeed.
In memoriam: The Donnell, as I knew it, had the most agreeable children’s section imaginable. From its entrance, you turned left to the room for books that circulated, right to the room holding the books that stayed put for research–or simply for reading in situ on a rainy afternoon. The premises were neither too large nor too formal to intimidate young readers; they exuded an air of comfort. Small exhibitions, some changing, some seemingly permanent, provided a charming addendum to the low book-crammed shelves. Years ago, a Laura Ingalls Wilder display made me weep when I looked at the manuscript of one of the Little House books–handwritten on a humble yellow legal pad. And then there was the vitrine of Mary Poppins artifacts (like the green umbrella with its parrot-head handle) and, most celebrated of all, the glass case harboring the original plush animals, battered by play and love, that once belonged to a boy called Christopher Robin and inspired his father, A.A. Milne, to write Winnie-the-Pooh.
On my last, child-accompanied visits to the Donnell, I encountered a young librarian named Rebecca. As she got to know my grade-school companions, she gently elicited from them the kind of stories they liked to read, then volunteered (but carefully did not impose) her suggestions of books that might appeal to them. It seemed as if she had read–and relished–every volume in the place. And she obviously recognized each of the children she helped as a unique personality, worthy of the utmost respect. I hope the Library doesn’t misplace her in its reshufflings. She is what I’d call state-of-the-art.
The park I know best besides Central Park is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, adjacent to the wonderful Brooklyn Museum, in the borough–must we call it outer?–in which I grew up. Wandering aimlessly through the Garden is one of the best ways to experience it, but the highlights are marvels in and of themselves.
The most magical for me has always been the cherry blossoms, the fragility of their petals auguring the brevity of their life–a week or two at most, even without an unlucky day of high wind or pelting rain. Many of the trees are planted in two allées, each consisting of a pair of parallel rows, and this arrangement is the most breathtaking. But all of the groupings, others more relaxed and sinuous–some in the vicinity of the allés, others scattered through the park–contain different breeds of cherry, so that the various sections bud, flower, and spill their petals to the ground at different times. The overall effect of the Garden’s cherry trees is an example of nature simultaneously tamed and relaxed, blossoming and withering, providing lessons in both beauty and life itself.
If you lie on your back, looking up at the blossoms against the blue sky, the picture is unearthly. You can lose all sense of the pedestrian world we walk in as your mind succumbs to the illusion that the heavens are flowering. When the sun is in the right position, the dull reddish-brown of the cherry-tree bark flames into a glowing reddish copper that seems to shout, “Glory, glory, glory!”
One of my most vivid memories of myself as a child, is sitting on the grass beneath the trees, playing with my Japanese paper dolls, who had clothes folded so that each costume had a front and a back. You slipped the doll into it sideways. I don’t recall making up elaborate stories for these dolls, though they obviously constituted a family. The human figures and their two-sided outfits provided complete joy on their own.
Though it can fell the allergic, the Cranford Rose Garden demonstrates the skill of breeders who were convinced that the ancient five-petaled rose, almost always pink or white, was a paltry thing compared to what could be engineered. Their results will be considered miracles by some, overkill by others. The Garden cultivates 1200 different types of rose and leaves it to the spectator to decide if the display is a tribute to human ingenuity or to God’s imagination.
The Garden’s formidable website obligingly charts the development of the cherries in the spring and that of the roses as summer approaches and flourishes. This information can be useful at times; at others, more than you need to know. There’s a lot to be said for coming upon delight serendipitously.
The hot house (an enormous glass conservatory now retreaded as the Palm House, a highfalutin site for upscale social events) was filled with exotic plants organized according to their various native climes, each section accorded its appropriate weather–dry, humid, extra hot–which gave the human visitor a frisson as he passed from one room to the next. Each section contained species certain to leave the spectator slack-jawed; some didn’t even look like plants. The desert department was formidable, a venue where the vegetation was often equipped with its own defensive weaponry and cacti masqueraded as stones.
Still, what I relished most about my childhood visits to the hot house with my mother was her gently running her finger along the central ribs of the Sensitive Plant’s delicate foliage so the leaflets would fold up in response (and not open for over an hour–we’d go back and look). This was strictly forbidden–ominous signs were prominently posted to that effect–but she surreptitiously did it anyway and I delighted in her daring. Now that I think of it, her only criminal tendencies were horticultural. On another visit to the Garden she helped herself to a tiny clipping of an unusual plant, deftly stowed it away in her handbag, and cosseted it at home until she had raised it to a sumptuous adulthood, in every way equal to, even surpassing, what the Garden had achieved.
What was once the hot house is still flanked on either side by long rectangular water lily pools in which large koi (ornamental carp) swim, rising from a murky depth to an inch below the surface to flaunt their true colors: vermilion; white with irregular vermilion spots, an occasional slate grey. Floating imperturbably on the surface of the pools were the flat green lily pads, the flowers springing up from them in their incandescent hues: fairytale periwinkle; show-offy fuchsia; pure, calm cream; tender violet; severe white; frivolous pink; insistently cheery yellow. My mother and I, along with any other members of our excursion, would make a game of choosing her or his favorite–only after prolonged examination, deliberation, and some argument since the rules of our game had it that no single color could be claimed by more than one person. Oh, the irony of conflict in Eden!
Usually our visits concluded with the Japanese Garden, a picturesque evocation of Eastern horticulture oddly situated–and thriving–smack in the heart of Brooklyn. People often held their weddings there. The site was sheltered by an undulating wall of fragile wooden palings, allowing the bridal party and its guests a strange kind of semi-privacy. There were openings at intervals, for folks without marriage on their minds to view the stylized landscape, so one could easily peek at the nuptials, and we certainly did. The most ravishing bridal pairs were Japanese-Americans, wearing traditional Japanese dress, for whom the landscape seemed created–almost like a set design–no matter how far they were, geographically, from their ancestors.
Everything bad you hear about New York City’s subway system is true. The trains don’t go where they’re supposed to go, especially on weekends, or indicate if they’re planning to go there expresswise or locally. Info regarding the current weekend, holiday, or “just because” route indicated on the slew of posters slapped up on the tile walls of a given station is, more often than not, beyond comprehension, or just dead wrong. Once, on the subway platform, as a conductor leaned out the window of his stopped train with an air of perpetual resignation, I asked him where his train was going next. He replied mournfully that he had no idea, that he was waiting for instructions.
All this, we’ve been told for several years now, is due to the MTA’s tearing up many a station and miles of track, presumably for repair work, which is proceeding at a pace that would make a snail look speedy. The system’s loudspeaker announcements about matters such as how to get, say, from the Bronx to Brighton Beach on a Saturday–seemingly via an improvised route involving three different trains and an emergency bus shuttle at the end–are indecipherable. In hot weather the stations make terrific substitute saunas, but getting naked is forbidden along with a long list of other infractions, no doubt derived from actual passenger behavior. Have I forgotten to say that the system is filthy and rat-infested?
Nevertheless, it’s a genuine city thrill to be on board the D train as it crawls over the Manhattan Bridge at twilight, the city’s nightlights beginning to twinkle, or hurtles without a stop (stand with your kids in the first car for the full experience) from 59th to 125th streets. Another small but potent subway delight: If you’re changing from the 1 train to the A to get to The Cloisters, the 168th Street station, where you make the switch, has you traverse a little underground bridge where the aforementioned kids, their grown-ups nervously making sure they don’t pitch over the railing, can look down at the tops of the trains as they rush along the gleaming tracks.
Lovers of minor beauties of bygone days relish the old mosaics set into the walls of the stations. (The new ones are a nice idea but they don’t hold a candle to the old examples in subtlety of color or design.)
And as for practicality, the subway is still the fastest, cheapest way to get you anywhere in town. Even the mayor claims to use it.
New York is a water city. Have you walked over the Brooklyn Bridge? A grandchild and I do it every summer. I read aloud to her as we travel by subway from uptown Manhattan to Brooklyn; then we walk over the bridge back to Manhattan in order to face its skyline as we stroll. As everyone knows, the architecture of this bridge is magnificent–at once heroic and harmonious–but it is most so when you absorb it as you progress through it. My companion and I stop at a bench at the (clearly marked) midpoint to rest, consume our homemade picnic lunch, and call her mother and a couple of other parties who might care–to tell them we are sitting exactly-in-the-middle-of-the-Brooklyn-Bridge.
Last summer, as usual, all the familiar icons hove into view as we walked, looking far and wide about us, but we could hardly make them out; shrouded as they were in a dense fog.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my young companion. “We can come again on a brighter day.”
“Oh, no, don’t mind,” she replied, her eyes riveted on the faintest ghost, intermittently invisible, of the Statue of Liberty. “It’s better this way.”
Two summers ago I took the same child’s younger sister to the New York branch of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ensconced at Battery Park in the old U.S. Custom House, a formidable Beaux-Arts building. There terrific Native American exhibitions are complemented by the building’s luxurious interior, which includes venerable marble; voluptuous brass banisters snaking over twin spiral staircases, and, at its heart, an enormous oval rotunda topped, high above, by a concave oval skylight of clear glass.
The museum makes a marvelous excursion. Our own outing also got a splendid coda when I realized we were right near the Staten Island Ferry.
“Want to take a quick ferry ride before we go home?” I asked the child.
It had been raining, but she had her hooded slicker on and I had an umbrella. By the time we boarded the ferry, though, we were in the middle of a lashing storm.
“Want to go out on the deck?” I asked recklessly, certain she’d be too timid.
And so we did. We were the only passengers who dared confront the storm. I closed my umbrella, which was completely useless against the stinging sheets of rain and fierce winds blowing every which way, kept a very firm grip on the child, who was as slender and light as a fairy, and looked at her drenched cheeks, pink from the slap of the water, and those gray-blue eyes, bright with the glee of serendipitous adventure.
Another ferry takes you to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, where, among the compelling displays that pull no punches about the émigré’s lives, you can find my father’s name listed amongst the thousands who entered America there: “William S. Bernstein, Russian (Hebrew)”–Jews were not fully recognized as Russian citizens. He was twelve years old when he arrived. At home he spoke Yiddish. In New York he got a job driving a laundry truck. A decade later he entered Cornell University and went on to become a physician. The American dream, you might say. In his late forties, he started learning Russian, planning to use it one day when he visited his birthplace. He died before he achieved that, but he was inordinately proud of his last linguistic accomplishment: reading all of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Russian–very, very slowly.
I haven’t said a word about my town’s theaters, music, food, sports facilities (for doing, learning, and viewing the pros), people-watching, the “ethnic” neighborhoods, and day trips (which open a world of additional venues). Space simply does not permit. Anyway, the reader may have an entirely different New York, so I leave the rest to her or his imagination, choices, and, I hope, pen–and conclude with my husband’s claim that he, too, loved living in New York. I asked him why. He named the kinds of things I’ve already mentioned.
“But you rarely do any of them,” I said, baffled.
“I know,” he replied, “but I love knowing they’re there.”
© 2009 Tobi Tobias