Why does a four-day trip to New York for the holidays always seem so much shorter? I’ll tell you why– it’s because you have to interact with seventeen million people all at the same time, all running around at a hundred miles per hour, never standing still… flying buying rushing driving talking eating waiting and trying to get to Macy’s before it closes: New Yorkers don’t have time to do all these things in a sane, orderly way so they have to do them all at once and that has an effect on the time-space continuum. Really. Time shifts in New York– you look up at a clock tower and it says 4:30 PM, and you cross the street and have a short delay because the hot dog vendor is blocking the sidewalk, and when you look back at the clock tower it’s 6:00 PM.
Somehow, you manage to squeeze everything in that you planned. We arrived on the Tuesday and settled in to the Gregory Hotel, a Best Western in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn– close to home, and the scene of many wild nights in the 70’s when it was down and out like much of the City. After unpacking and then collapsing on to the beds and staring up at the ceilings for a few minutes, bewildered after all that travel, we made our way to the 86th. Street subway stop because I had an idea that I wanted to go see the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, which is way up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It’s incredible, apparently the largest church on the planet. A huge stone pile, it soars up from the cathedral close like a monstrous medieval starship, stretching toward the heavens– and it’s not even finished! Begun in 1892 by the Episcopal diocese (they have GREAT real estate– I’m thinking of converting!), various delays have impeded its progress. Some of you may know it as the church where they bless the animals on St. Francis’ name day. That would be hell on us asthmatics, but I’m sure there’s a chapel dedicated to us, too. And once a month there is an AIDS memorial service. (They do pride themselves on their inclusiveness.)
I had a scintillating conversation with a church lady, who appeared from within the gloom to arrange linens on an altar.:
ME: This is a beautiful place!
HER: Thank you.
ME: I see you all have an altar guild?
I guess she preferred that I read one of the many brochures that are sprinkled like manna throughout the vast space, but no matter! Our spiritual yen tweaked, we were off to Macy’s to buy my mother a scarf.
Another sort of cathedral, Macy’s dominates Herald Square at 34th. Street and Broadway. It’s the world’s largest department store, which seemed fitting after visiting the world’s largest church. And was it ever packed! There was no hint of a recession here, as hundreds of thousands of shoppers pawed and grasped and grabbed and chose. We found the scarf department right away, thanks to a harassed young lady whose directions dripped with the cadences of central New Jersey, but we’re still wondering if we bought a scarf for Mom in the Muslim Women’s Department– it unfolds to wrap the entire body, apparently, and its fringe is decidedly ornate. Still; on Christmas morning there were no complaints, or threats of returns. A brown scarf is what she wanted, and a brown scarf is what she got.
We retired to the restaurant in the Cellar for a restful lunch, and were treated to Mrs. Fifth Avenue Mom with the Straight Golden Hair reasoning with young Bethany-Margaux as to the girl’s dietary requirements: “Why don’t you ask if they have French fries? You like French fries, right? How about a nice hamburger? Salad? Why don’t you ask the lady what they have?” If this had been a Brooklyn Mom with the Black Curly Hair, Bethany-Margaux would NOT have had as many choices: “You’ll eat what they have, for crying out loud!”
We headed back to the Gregory and, after a short rest, met our stunningly beautiful friend Carol in Park Slope for dinner. Fifth Avenue, which used to be the slums, is now home to a dizzying array of little restaurants, cafes, boites, and boutiques, and Carol chose a wonderful little place called Aunt Suzie’s. Packed to the gills, our welcome consisted of shrill tones from the Birkenstocked young lady sitting by the front door: “COULD YOU CLOSE THAT DOOR PLEASE?” Gladly, after we usher you through it and back onto the street! She held court with eleven others like her, all apparently unaware that this sort of tiny restaurant isn’t the best choice for large pow-wows of the Libertarian persuasion. But the food? Great, as were the Manhattans.
We spent the afternoon of the next day in Midwood, catching up with Eugene and his sisters Cassie and Gaby. Their house is only a short bus ride away, but it passes through multicultural neighborhoods the likes of which can only be experienced in Brooklyn. You have your Italian people; your Yiddish people; your Asian people; your Arabic people; your Russian people; and everybody else, all tended to by an Irish bus driver who speaks only one language. It’s amazing that we all managed to get on and off our stops with little trauma, even considering the fact that the payment system is more complicated than ever. Metro Cards? Cash? No dollar bills? What’s going on?! You should have seen us on the subway– two country bumpkins trying to figure out how to assess, buy, and swipe our Metro Cards without delaying half the City. And THIS after I asked the woman for “four tokens.” (Tokens can only be found in museums now, or in the bottoms of old pocketbooks at the back of your mother’s closet.)
Christmas Eve arrived, and we went with Mom and my brother Tony to the New Corner Italian Restaurant for our annual meal. After weeks of negotiations which would have rivalled the Third Partitioning of Poland between Austria and Hungary, we secured a spot for the 8:00 PM seating. My sister Gina, who was spending the Eve with her husband’s family, had made the convoluted arrangements for us; part of the plans involved inadvertently having New Corner mistakenly change the seating time of a family headed by a man named Gino– Gino and Gina look the same on a scrawled seating plan. It’s a good thing it was straightened out: “Or else Gino’s family woulda been waiting for us outside the restaurant with sticks!” Mom said. Though we sat down to eat at almost nine o’clock, the experience was heightened by spending the waiting time in the lobby, surrounded by nine thousand people from one family, all of who were named either Maria, Antoinette, Joey, or Rico. And Grandpa, who kept asking querulously, “where did she park?” To which they answered in unison, “why do you care? You’re not driving!”
We were out of there by eleven o’clock– sated, stuffed, swearing that we would never eat again– but what about breakfast?
Gina and my nephews came over for Christmas Day, which was the usual celebration of presents, Manhattans, and lasagna. There was a ham, too, and stuffed escarole which I liked last year, but didn’t this year. (I probably hadn’t had enough Manhattans.) Earlier that morning, I walked to Visitation Academy from the hotel– not too many blocks in the cold, really– because I wanted to see the chapel. Mass was breaking, and I wandered from the street inside, directly into a clutch of lovely, delightful nuns. Once it was determined and understood that I was a visitor from Florida, they couldn’t do enough– in the midst of tidying up, they pointed out stained glass windows, statues, inscriptions, and other nuns. The marvelous tapestry behind the main altar was illuminated by a sister who insisted that I needed more light for my photograph, and the burst of light reminded me of when they turn on the klieg lights at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre whenever they have the premiere of a new Norma Shearer movie.
Visitation is named for the event in which Mary visited her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. And speaking of cousins– while waiting to be seated at New Corner, we ran into my father’s first cousin Mary’s husband Frankie, a widower; my father’s first cousin Lois’s husband Joe, also a widower; and Joe’s middle son Stephen. Stephen and I are second cousins, and he has two brothers who are married, each with three children, who are my second cousins once removed. Only I am able to keep these Byzantine convolutions straightened out because, frankly, I’m the only one who cares enough! Though we play at being a big Italian family, I think our attitude regarding staying in touch is really “oh GOD, here they come!”
We spent much of the next day with Eugene and family, centered around a leisurely lunch at the Mirage Diner in Midwood. It’s the sort of place which attracts people from all walks of life, who visit each and every day: the World War II machine gunner; the aged Russian stripper; the clutch of Ziegfeld girls whose feet haven’t trod the boards since 1914; the ex-pat reporter reading from an Albanian newspaper; the rabbi and his family; and us. Great food, fabulous coffee, and a full bar. What more could you ask? The bowls of pickles and baskets of bread, the coleslaw, the yellow mustard… it’s all so perfect, a preamble to the evening’s leftover lasagna, ham, and stuffed escarole. (Did I mention that I gained back the five pounds I had so conscientiously lost in the two preceding weeks?) I had an incident with the upstairs pipes that evening, which elicited a lot of angst and calls to the plumber, but it could have been a lot worse: I put my finger under Mom’s nose and said “don’t even go upstairs” after I reported the incident. A lot of mopping, a lot of drying of linoleum on my hands and knees, and then a trip to the basement with a plastic bag full of wet rags. The tenant down there came out into the hall to see what the commotion was all about, and she saw me with the black trash bag containing what was probablysomebody’s head, and there was a bit of a fright; Mom came down and introduced us, and so I will not be making an appearance on America’s Most Wanted any time soon.
The time-space continuum warped again the next morning, and I blinked awake, only to find myself back on the plane to Florida. It’s amazing– from cold, wet whiteness to lush greenness… you can actually smell the color green when you step off the plane. Were we really in New York? Did all these things happen in the space of what seemed like fifteen minutes? Probably. And we’ll do it all again next year.