Postcards from New York City

Times Square, Friday, November 9, 2001

We snuck out of work a couple of hours early on this beautiful autumn afternoon, dashed home to feed the cats, and then headed off to New York by train. The taxi queue at Penn Station was so long that we decided just to walk to our hotel (which is built above the theatre where Aida is playing, right in Times Square). Thus, we felt we deserved the warm chocolate-chip cookies we were given when we checked in.

We enjoyed a Room Service dinner (pork medallions with mango/pineapple chutney) while we sat in front of the window watching the neon lights all around the square light up as the sky darkened. Soon we were surrounded by waving American flags, a coke bottle doffing its cap, and the logos for the big musicals, including a red neon petal dropping from the rose held by Beauty and the Beast's beast.

Though our room is on the 19th floor, the almost constant wail of sirens kept us from taking a brief nap after dinner. Later, when we walked out, we found that a nearby side street was blocked off with many emergency vehicles.

We had only a couple of blocks to walk to get to the Ambassador Theatre for a stunning performance of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. The lead was taken by Kate Burton (daughter of Richard Burton). One of the reviews praised her as "a Hedda for our times", and we could only agree with that. She was breathtaking. And I think we were both surprised that the company managed to bring out so much humor in this dark play.

When we had made our way back to our hotel through the crowds on the sidewalks, I laughed out loud to see a child of about 10 run up and push the elevator button with her nose. As we got onto the elevator, her father assured us, tongue in cheek, that neither he nor his wife had any idea who this child was.

Back in our room, we turned on the television news and were not terribly surprised to see pictures of Princeton's Palmer Square post office--anthrax has just been found there, presumably cross-contamination from the main Princeton post office, where it was discovered a few days ago. That news called for comfort food, so we finished off the chocolate-chip cookies. (I'd eaten half of mine before Lee figured out the microwave, so we ate them cold; this proves that we are not total hedonists.)

Times Square, Saturday, November 10, 2001

After a leisurely breakfast in our room, we headed out to the subway to go to the American Museum of Natural History. I had a copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court tucked into my purse for reading along the way. I was charmed by the Yankee's description of the pleasure he took in watching the people of Camelot read the first issue of the newspaper he started there:
These grouped bent heads, these charmed faces, these speaking eyes--how beautiful to me! For was not this my darling, and was not all this mute wonder and interest and homage a most eloquent tribute and unforced compliment to it? I knew, then, how a mother feels when women, whether strangers or friends, take her new baby, and close themselves about it with one eager impulse, and bend their heads over it in a tranced adoration that makes all the rest of the universe vanish out of their consciousness and be as if it were not, for that time. I knew how she feels, and that there is no other satisfied ambition, whether of king, conqueror, or poet, that ever reaches half way to that serene far summit or yields half so divine a contentment.
Victor had told us to take note of the walls in the subway station at the museum, and he was right--they are delightful. The white tile walls are strewn with colorful mosaics of all sorts of animals, from hummingbirds to whales. The largest animals overflow from the wall to the floor. The whale's flipper is done in colored stones on the wall, but the rest of it is a silhouette of slightly lighter brown stone in the dark brown stone floor. And because Victor had got us looking, we also noticed and enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland mosaics at the 50th Street station.

We arrived a few minutes before the museum was to open and stood among the excited children waiting at the entrance to the handsome new Rose Planetarium. Well, actually, we sat on incredibly cold marble benches while they danced about us in their anticipation. William, a small boy of about 4, was among the most eager for the museum to open. His father explained to us that their mission for the day was to see dinosaurs.

The "Will Call" line took forever, but when we got through it we had 45 minutes to indulge ourselves in the bookstore, most of which we spent poring over the ornithology section. While I paid for our books, Lee dashed downstairs to buy one of the "insect"-studded "amber" candies we had spotted on our way in--just the thing for our rock-hound grand-nephew. (You've got to feel sorry for a kid who loves rocks and is growing up in Florida surrounded by sand.)

We had come to see the special exhibit Pearls, which was very well done but so crowded that we couldn't really experience the marvelous artifacts on display (from cultures all over the world and throughout history). I was enchanted with the Chinese items that used pearls over an inlay of kingfisher feathers (which were still gorgeously blue despite their age). The Native American items were very striking. (Some Hopewell Culture graves contained pounds of freshwater pearls; and Columbus encountered native people wearing necklaces of pearls from the waters off Venezuela--which the Spaniards later so over-exploited as to drive the pearl oysters extinct there.) There was a marvelous Tibetan crown with pearls and emeralds and feathers, and Elizabeth Taylor had lent the fabulous La Peregrina, a large pear-shaped pearl that once belonged to Mary Queen of Scots (and was originally part of Spain's New World loot). There were even fossilized pearls in oysters that had died a hundred million years ago.

There was a shop at the exit from the exhibit, of course, and I spent some time pondering before deciding that the only thing I really liked was the necklace of large champagne-colored South Sea pearls. I didn't even ask the price, which was surely enormous.

From looking at the museum's Web page, we had decided that the perfect place for lunch would be their Big Dipper Ice Cream Cafe. That turned out to be closed for renovation, so we toured the food court, where I selected a somewhat eclectic meal, a foot-long chili-dog (in Brett's honor--he laments that there is no place to get good chili-dogs in Florida) followed by a creme brulee.

While we ate, Lee showed me that he had selected a particularly revolting piece of candy amber for Sivanaga, which got us to thinking we should go back and get one for Victor too (and Irwin and Adam), so we made a quick pass of the non-book portion of the museum shop and ended up buying some real rock-hound Christmas presents for Sivanaga as well (having already bought our presents for his sisters on Bermuda a few weeks ago).

On our way out of the museum, we noted a pigeon with the markings of a Snowy Owl.

We had to change trains once on our way back to the theater district. The wait was made pleasant by a smiling gray-haired man playing steel drums very joyously. A few feet away a much sadder gray-haired man sat on the station floor protecting his rolling suitcase while he sipped from a bottle in a paper bag and tried to light his cigarettes with palsied hands.

As we walked from the subway to the theater, I noted a tall slender Toronto fireman taking photographs. When I turned to see what he was photographing, I realized that we were passing by one of the fire station memorials. Twelve photographs of smiling men were posted on the firehouse wall. There were mounds of fresh flowers beneath the photos, two months after those men died. Having seen so many photographs of such scenes, I had expected that I'd become inured to them, but still it hit me very forcefully and I found tears flowing down my face as I stumbled along the sidewalk.

We were headed for the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a matinee performance of Noises Off. This proved to be a real delight. Noises Off is an hilarious play-within-a-play (or more accurately "farce-within-a-farce"). The cast had the intricate timings down to perfection and kept the audience bellowing with laughter. We loved it. It is hard to imagine how this play could have been written by the same man who wrote the fascinating (but deeply serious) Copenhagen.

Leaving the theater, we crossed over to listen to a group of Bolivian street musicians called Umbral. They were playing Bolivian and Peruvian folk music on bamboo panpipes, a wooden flute, and an electric guitar. We were happy to see that they had CDs for sale.

We could still hear the flute in the distance as we lay down for a brief nap in our room.

After another Room Service dinner, we were off to the nearby Broadhurst Theatre for a performance of Strindberg's Dance of Death starring Sir Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren.

We got to the theater a bit early, which allowed me to indulge in people watching. I'm particularly fascinated by the trophy wives and by the indomitable little old hunchbacked ladies with their canes and walkers.

We've been Ian McKellen fans for a long time, starting when he did his wonderful Acting Shakespeare in Princeton--what a pity that there seems to be no video of that! It was great to be able to see him live again, especially as we had seats very near the front.

Dance of Death is set in an army base on an island off the coast of Sweden in 1900. An army captain and his wife of almost 25 years are locked in a dance of irrational hatred for one another and they try to embroil a newly-returned cousin in their war. It was very moving and beautifully acted (and more than a little humorous, surprisingly).

Late in the play, the captain (a man who has spent a lifetime hating everybody he knows) learns of his impending death and mellows very slightly. The first hint one gets of the change is his picking up a cat outside his front door and carrying it into the house. All I could think when I saw this, however, was, "There were no blue-point Siamese on islands off the coast of Sweden in 1900!" (Mark it off to too many years spent studying cat genetics.)

At the end of this play and the others we've been to today and yesterday, the actors stopped the applause to ask for contributions to Equity Cares. But they also took the occasion to applaud the audience for supporting the theater in these difficult times.

After the play, we decided to do something really retro and stop by the Howard Johnson's Restaurant in Times Square for a hot-fudge sundae (with peppermint stick ice cream, of course). (Are there any other HoJo's left?) We were given a booth right in the front window, which was great for people-watching and for looking at the illuminated signs. I noticed several passing women gazing lasciviously at my hot fudge. One of the signs (an ad for asked, "Why haven't I ever seen a baby pigeon?"

Being there brought back memories for Lee of having eaten there during an all-night peace vigil at the army recruiting station in Times Square during the Fifties. They had marched from Plainfield (taking the old Central Jersey ferry across the river) and on through the city to here.

We decided that buying some genuine Howard Johnson's salt-water taffy on our way out would be too retro.

Back in our room watching the late news, we were told that there are now an average of nine "hazmat" closings of the NYC subways each day, which is causing huge delays, of course. That is probably the reason we were unable to take the #1 train back from the museum this afternoon. Of course, there are worse closings: I noticed at one station today that there was a grill down across the gateway below the sign "E train to World Trade Center".

Princeton, Sunday, November 11, 2001

As soon as we woke this morning in our hotel in Times Square, we threw on our clothes and dashed down to the subway to head for "Ground Zero" (on the two-month anniversary of the attack). We got off the "N" train at the City Hall station and wended our way south along Broadway toward the World Trade Center.

We stopped first at a memorial along the iron fence of St. Paul's Chapel: signs covered with thousands of signatures sent from all parts of the country/world, missing-person posters, flowers, balloons, teddy bears. A photo of a smiling young man with the caption, "Happy 24th Birthday". By then, my tears were flowing again, in the very cold wind.

Further on, we began to notice plywood-covered windows high up in the sky and whole buildings draped with heavy mesh to prevent injuries from falling debris. Although there was some grit underfoot, the great falls of ash and paper one saw in the photographs have all been cleared away.

Another cross street gave us a view of one of the remaining WTC buildings that is still standing but is nothing but charred steel now. We could see cranes on the work site and smell the smoke still rising from the rubble.

And then we could see the broken panes of glass in the roof of the World Financial Center's Winter Garden. I've been to a number of meetings at the WFC over the years, and the grove of full-size palm trees in the Winter Garden irritated me every time I saw it; it seemed such an ostentatious gesture, such seriously conspicuous consumption. But ever since the attack, I find myself worrying about those palm trees. I've seen photographs of them laden with ash but still standing. Now it is clear that nobody has put the roof back over them and I'm sure they can't survive long in weather as cold as today, assuming the ash hasn't already killed them.

Walking along the east side of Broadway (which we would have expected to have been protected from the collapse), we were surprised to see how extensive the damage actually was. A little shop selling very scanty lingerie had broken plate glass behind its steel grill and we could see ash well back into the store. As we stood there, a young man with a backpack stopped to see what we were looking at and simply said, "Oh, shit!", before continuing on.

Rector Street, a narrow little street beside Trinity Church, was dug up entirely except for half a sidewalk along one edge. Telephone workers were placing pipes full of new telephone lines in trenches they had dug there. Signs commanded that no photographs be taken along there--to protect details of the infrastructure, we wondered, or maybe just to keep the pedestrian traffic moving along the narrow footpath.

Although there were workmen everywhere, they didn't seem to be bothered by the small number of sightseers making their way along what remained of the sidewalks.

Ultimately, we managed to get through the torn-up streets and sidewalks to a point on Washington Street only about a block away from Ground Zero. We stood there watching the cranes and other heavy equipment removing debris. There were a few other people standing near us--most, like us, with tears streaming down their faces. We had a clear view of the lacy fragment of one tower wall that still rises many stories into the air. Behind it, a lower building is still standing, but one corner has been smashed off.

Two young policemen stood nearby behind a barricade talking quietly with one another. We overheard the younger of the two describing the collapse of the first tower and how he fled down this street trying to help people and searching for his comrades.

As we turned to go back up the street, we noticed a parking garage still filled with cars with heavy layers of ash on them.

Nearby, a water truck passed along a street spraying water to keep the dust down.

We heard a man yelling, "Go, go, go!", and looked up to see that a small crane lifting a heavy piece of old pipe out of the trench in Rector Street had lost control and nearly smashed the pipe into a group of the workers. We were relieved to see them all get out of the way in time.

We wanted to do our bit for the businesses that are trying to hang on in the area and we'd passed informal signs (spray-painted on bedsheets hung on the Trinity railings) announcing "Moran's is open", but when we found Moran's it turned out not to be open on Sundays. Not much further along, however, we found a small corner cafe that was very definitely open. The front window had photos of what it had looked like right after the attack, deep in ash, but the mess had been cleaned away.

We went in and found ourselves a table among the telephone workers and other hard-hat types and ordered a hearty breakfast of omelettes. One rather earthy waitress was serving the entire room and seemed to manage it all with no apparent stress. She kept calling out "Delivery!" and a small harried-looking immigrant man would rush up to take a big stack of orders down the street to the cold, hungry workers.

The table next to ours was filled with four telephone workers and their huge breakfasts. I noted the easy camaraderie among men of several races and concluded that maybe we are making some progress in becoming more human. One of the other sightseers asked to photograph another workman in his flag-painted hardhat. He agreed, but the waitress called, "No, wait!", and put the hat on her own head and mugged for the camera hugging the hat's owner, to cheers from around the room. Meanwhile, trucks full of debris rolled by outside.

I can't think when I've had such good hash-browns! And the hot chocolate was very welcome after our cold walk.

We were feeling much more mellow when we left the cafe, but then almost immediately I noticed a missing-person poster with a photo of a vibrant young woman, and the tears started again.

We were able to catch the subway at the Rector Street station, which has been reopened only recently. (The tunnels all needed to be checked, and there were worries about the effect of vibration from the trains.)

We were soon back in our hotel room packing to leave. We listened to the news and were heartened to hear of an experimental treatment for macular degeneration that seems to be doing wonders for some elderly people. (Both of our fathers have lost much of their vision because of macular degeneration.)

Back outside in the lovely autumn weather, we decided to walk to Rockefeller Center. I love its beautifully preserved Art Deco. Walking through it, I found myself thinking that in earlier years this would have been the target of choice. Somehow, the realization that the World Trade Center hadn't been this beautiful inside was consoling.

We found a Godiva shop open, so I dragged Lee in to buy me two Key lime truffles. Those were gone by the time we got to La Maison au Chocolat, which turned out to be closed.

When we got to the plaza, we found that this year's Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (which we'd seen lying on its truck on the Friday morning news) had already been erected and surrounded by platforms for the people who will be decorating it. The ice-skating rink was full of red-cheeked skaters.

We had expected to catch a subway there, but the line we needed was down, so we decided to walk to Lexington.

The Palace Hotel had a UN flag hanging out front and an enormous security presence. The whole street was blocked off; there was a bomb squad truck and bomb-sniffing dogs; a car that wanted to go into the street was being inspected inside and out by half a dozen security types.

St. Patrick's Cathedral was draped in purple in mourning for the people from eighty-six countries who died in the World Trade Center. (When we were on Bermuda recently, we learned that even tiny Bermuda lost two of its citizens.)

As we sat in the subway station waiting for our train, we couldn't help overhearing an earnest (and very elegant) young woman seated next to us conversing with her 6-year-old daughter, who seemed to be a relentless truth-speaker. They had just come from church, where there had been a "wishing tree" hung with letters to Santa from children living in homeless shelters. The parishoners had been asked to take a letter and play Santa to the child who had written it. This mother had selected a letter from a little girl with the same birthday as her daughter, and she was trying to explain it all to her daughter. The letter-writer has lived in a shelter for two years now and dared ask for only two things for Christmas, a pair of blue hiking boots (size 2) and a portable CD player. When the mother asked her daughter which of those they should buy, her little daughter replied, "What she wants is a house!"

Further discussion resulted in the mother making the mistake of saying, "You have so many nice things at home", to which the child replied (clearly voicing a long-held grievance), "I don't have a puppy!" The mother explained that their landlord doesn't allow pets and then made the mistake of suggesting that when the child grows up and has her own apartment, then maybe she can get a dog. This was the first time the daughter had heard that she would be expected to move out someday, and she was deeply distressed by the thought. As our train rolled up, the mother was still trying to reassure her that she can live at home for as long as she wants to.

We weren't having a good day in the underground. That train took us a few stops to where we needed to transfer to another train. But then that train was "held in the station by the dispatcher". After we'd waited twenty minutes for the dispatcher to relent, we decided to return to the surface. Luckily, we had no trouble getting a taxi, and it was pleasant to ride along Park Avenue on such a beautiful day.

Our goal was the Metropolitan Museum, where we headed straight for the Art of Oceania section to study the art of Papua-New Guinea in preparation for our trip next summer. The large hall was full of glorious wood carvings--shields, canoes, houseposts. A common theme of many of the wood carvings was a human being in the clutches of "an avian figure". We particularly liked a Torres Strait tortoise-shell mask with a bird-airplane figure clutching the top of the head.

After we'd been through the exhibit, we picked out a light lunch in one of the museum's cafes and had just found a table when a man called my name. We turned as he approached and each had a moment of panic trying to place the familiar face out of context and then realized that it was "Howard the Younger", who'd been a delightful birding companion on Trinidad & Tobago earlier this year. We were terribly pleased to see him and to catch up on news of him and Kathleen. They're going to Belize in January for a workshop on the ecology of tropical birds that sounds just splendid. He had been on the West Coast the day of the attack, but Kathleen had described it to him by phone from their balcony in Brooklyn Heights as it was happening.

After Howard left us, we sat eating in front of a window looking out into the park. Cleopatra's Needle rose just beyond the museum grounds and a roadway filled with skaters and bikers and joggers.

As soon as we'd finished eating, we headed for the bookstore to look for books on New Guinea art and history. We had a bit of time left after that, so we spent it at a special exhibit of the drawings and prints of Pieter Bruegal the Elder. The exhibit was cunningly arranged with shelves one could lean against to get a really satisfying close-up look at the intricate (and faded) drawings and prints. We couldn't stay long, but I hated to leave. (I noticed, by the way, that some of Bruegal's drawings also had human beings in the clutches of avian figures. Perhaps those giant man-eating eagles the Maori wiped out weren't the only ones in our racial memory.)

We grabbed another taxi and headed off along Central Park West and made it to the Helen Hayes Theatre in time for the matinee performance of By Jeeves, a musical based on P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie and Jeeves books. Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber have been working on this project for years and have come out with several different versions, none of which have become hits. I'm a big Wodehouse fan and already knew the show's songs by heart from a CD of an earlier London production, so we went despite the lukewarm reviews. And we both enjoyed the show, another play-within-a-play.

Then, alas, it was time to retrieve our bags from the hotel, grab one more taxi, and head for the train station. I felt sorry for the young Army Reservist wandering through the station in his fatigues and boots with a rifle slung over his back, ripped away from his normal life just to provide symbolic protection.

When we got back to Princeton, we stopped by Hoagie Haven to pick up a cheesesteak hoagie and then went home to apologize to the cats. Mudgie was sitting in the front window waiting to scold us, of course, but I had to go up to our bedroom to talk to Lightning to persuade her that it was now safe to come down to eat her dinner. She hadn't been sure it was really us calling "Kitty, kitty, kitty".

Love to you all,

Melinda Varian / Office of Information Technology / Princeton University / Melinda@Princeton.EDU
11 Nov 2001