Friday, April 20, 2012

Next Stop Greenwich Village

Spuds is a good traveling companion. He is an adventurous eater, can read a map and was easily able to schlep our luggage up to the 4th floor walk-up apartment we rented in Greenwich Village. Our accommodations belong to a young family with two children. Based on the décor, book and magazine collection they are obviously kindred spirits. There is even a framed photo of Paul Westerberg prominently displayed so I was more than at home. The apartment can't be more than 600 square feet and the use of every square inch is cunning. One of the kid's beds is hoisted on a pulley to fit flush against a wall so you can get to a stack washer and dryer. The building was originally home to some sort of nautical supplier and there are ancient metal portholes in the apartment. The neighborhood is sophisticated and hopping with tons of bars, cafes and swanky markets. The theater district is ten minutes away by subway. We have gorgeous spring weather and ironically Himself reports thunderstorms on the homefront in L.A. Bleeker and Christopher streets. Washington Square. It is one of the coolest places on the planet but I can imagine what it's like to be reliant on public transportation in bad weather or to constantly have to haul provisions for a family up four flights of stairs.

I understand why so many native New Yorkers migrate to Los Angeles but also why most of them constantly sit shiva for Manhattan. We are blessed with amazing weather for our trip but the coldest I've ever been in my life was a long ago winter night in Chinatown when we were unable to snag a cab. Moving briskly through streets jammed with pedestrians and pretending to be a New Yorker is a fun novelty but I am reminded that when rats are crammed together too tightly they start to eat each other. I love the energy, in small doses. My friend Steve from college evolved into the quintessential sophisticated Manhattanite with a purposeful step and a rent controlled apartment but now he's flown the coop to Asbury Park New Jersey. He drives into the city and we stroll the Village, center of the grubby fifties beatnik universe, in search of a restaurant with entrees that don't run into three figures. Exorbitant prices weren't a big shock but I learn that restaurants don't offer complimentary refills of soda and ice tea the hard way. Furthermore, self service lightening and sweetening of coffee is rare and I feel like a ninny requesting “not too light with ¾ of a pack of Splenda.”

Nevertheless, I love running around for a few days and feel smug and satisfied as my skills at navigating the streets and subway improve. Spuds and I compete to get our subway passes to release the turnstile on a single swipe. I also entertain fantasies about having oodles of money and living in Manhattan for extended stretches. Spuds and I see the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA. Her Civil War and also broken doll series aren't shown but otherwise the show chronicles some early college experiments through her most recent eighteen foot murals. For all the hundreds of portraits I never get a clear idea what Cindy Sherman actually looks like but all of her photos challenge our perception of womanhood.

Edith Wharton also had a fascinating take on the female species and this year is the 150th anniversary of her death. Wharton was a pal of Henry James and some of her writing is sort of a quick paced version of his and Wharton demonstrates a keener insight into the female psyche than James. I learn about an exhibit of some of Wharton's papers at the New York Society Library. My friend Rosemary is one of the best footage researchers I know and astoundingly knowledgeable about NYC offerings and how to partake of them. It is through Rosemary we've found the Greenwich Village digs and she has, with that librarian thoroughness and comprehensiveness navigated us expertly now through two visits to the Big Apple. I am delighted that Rosemary has never even heard of the Society Library and I drag her to the exhibit which turns out to be an underwhelming three display cases. We are alone. The private lending library that was established in 1754 is exquisite with dark paneled reading lounges with big upholstered chairs and an enormous old fashioned card catalog. The children's room has a huge display of vintage picture books and sweet tiny furniture. Plus, after visiting MOMA and the Whitney, where the crush of the crowd make it challenging to actually see the art, it is comforting to have the wee display in the hushed library all to ourselves.

When we reach Greenwich Village, the last stop of six in a miserable Super Shuttle from the airport, Spuds immediately spots Andrew Garfield, of The Social Network, who is appearing here in Death of a Salesman. Minutes later we spot Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Spud's favorite actors, who stars in the show which is sold out for months. I talk reluctant Spuds into some theater. We see The Best Man, Gore Vidal's political satire about a presidential convention. It is in previews and not yet reviewed but I choose it for Vidal's pedigree and a stellar cast including Angela Landsbury (who first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the year I was born), Candice Bergen, James Earl Jones and John Larroquette. The play was written in 1961 but is creepily prescient. Convention hopefuls deal with the threat that revelations about extramarital and gay hanky panky will be leaked. There is disagreement as to the efficacy of contraception. Copies of medical records of a candidate who was treated for mental illness are being distributed, this presaging the Thomas Eagleton debacle by over a decade.

Spuds nearly blows a gasket when I say I've landed tickets for How to Succeed in Business but that Daniel Radcliffe has been replaced by teeny bopper idol Nick Jonas. The choreography, costume design, art and set direction are extraordinarily clever and sumptuous. And, the adorable Jonas absolutely holds his own and ten million preteens in his case are not wrong. Beau Bridges is hilariously funny and even lumbers through a few dance numbers more surefootedly than you'd expect. The drollness of the material is not obscured by the lavish high roller production value.

While there is art and theater and of course, food, the raison d'etre for the trip is college tour, so lest we be accused of vacationing, we make two visits. Eugene Lang College at the New School has an edgy, sophisticated feel. The students, who hale from all over the planet, move and dress like New Yorkers. The dorms are several blocks from the campus building and for the price of nine months of housing you can buy a whole house if you don't mind living in Detroit. Our tour guide jets around so quickly that some of the moms and dads are huffing and puffing and after having visited a number of colleges, I am surprised that the admissions folks haven't figured out that if you're old enough to have a college bound kid, you're gonna need a bathroom break at the midpoint of the tour.

We research public transportation to Middleton Connecticut, the home of Wesleyan but it turns out that the least expensive option is renting a car. My automobile anxiety, having been subjected to two potential drivers, is ratcheted way up and terror about driving in Manhattan makes for a fitful night.
I am offered a Prius as a complimentary upgrade but even with the agent's remarkably patient instructions, after ten minutes I am unable to get the thing move. I sheepishly request a downgrade and manage to get us out of Manhattan and on the road. Wesleyan is a graceful, classic New England campus that has no physical borders with the town of Middleton and I don't think anyone will argue that this is the middle of nowhere. The students seem much more relaxed and less sophisticated than their counterparts at Eugene Lang but when they open their mouths it is obvious that they're scary smart. Our tour guide is from Barbados and he's greeted warmly by just about every student we pass on campus. Having lost a bet, he unzips his sweatshirt to reveal that his t-shirt, specially created for the parent tour says, “I Dig Cougars.” I ask Spuds to take a picture of me with the guide and he reacts like I'd loudly farted.

I'm at that age, where I spend more time with my dentist than with my husband. I notice the day before we depart that I have two loose crowns. One is a molar that I've already been told is a goner but of more concern is a front incisor. In the Wesleyan dining room I am grudgingly given a Passover lunch by an Asian server in the cafeteria, even though I don't have the special ticket. Later I grab a chocolate cranberry bar which I hope will help get rid of the taste and mouth feel of stale matzoh. My mom would say, “God's punishing you,” often when some misfortune befell me and these words come back to me when I bite into the chewy morsel I have no business eating and my front incisor attaches itself to the sticky baked item. With five minutes until the orientation session is to begin I try to jiggle the crown back on and Spuds spits, “For God sakes, go do that in the bathroom!” Fortunately the crown slips back into place. It is wobbly but at least I don't resemble Mammy Yokum.

The information session has started and we make an awkward entrance. The room is filled with parents but Spuds sits next to me. The admission counselor pauses and notes for late arrivals that the student session is next door. Having driven nearly three hours from Manhattan and faced with the prospect of having a front tooth missing for the rest of our trip, I am even more dull witted than usual and begin to rise along with Spuds. The boy barks, “You stay here!” with such great authority that the room errupts into laughter.

I get confused between the JFK and FDR toll bridges returning to Manhattan and end up in an EZ Pass lane without an EZ Pass. Fortunately, the car has Georgia plates and despite my ineptitude no one has flipped me off or honked all day. There are cars behind me and they wait with astonishing patience until a guard appears, notices the out-of -state plates, shakes his head, takes my cash and admonishes me gently to read the signs. Then he smiles and waves as the gate lifts. Henceforward I will always request a rental car with out-of-state plates.

My dentist, aware of the volatile state of my teeth and my lack of compunction about calling him at home, informs me that drugs stores sell a special cement for do-it-yourself dentistry. I am pleased that even in New York I am able to use my Rite Aid Rewards Card. I decide that while I am cementing the front crown, I might as well attend to the molar as well. I follow the instructions on the kit carefully but when it comes time to put the front crown back into place it absolutely will not fit. I struggle with it, perspiring and in tears, for nearly an hour,. In my frenzy, I knock the molar crown down the drain. Finally, I am able to get the front crown to stay put although it will not fit flush with the gum and extends about a quarter inch longer than my other teeth. My speech is slightly impeded and the fang sort of reminds me of those long pinky fingernails people use to snort cocaine.

I am dead asleep but Spuds hears some shouting in the street and, because we seldom hear anything at home much more thrilling than coyotes, except for fireworks on the 4th, he rushes to the window hoping to soak up some urban color. “Mom!” he cries, “I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman get mugged!” The initial scuffle involves a man and two women arguing with a cab driver. The cab speeds off and Hoffman is on the sidewalk, oblivious and texting. One of the women grabs his phone.. Hoffman assumes she's playing around and yells, “Hey, give that back. It's important” but the woman runs off with the phone. Before Hoffman can give chase, he is tackled, thrown down and his head is smashed against the sidewalk before he is relieved of his wallet.

Spuds calls the police and gives a report. He shouts down to Hoffman that he's called the cops and asks if he's ok. Hoffman thanks Spuds and enters his apartment, directly across the street from ours. Four police cars arrive but the muggers are long gone. Just as the police leave we notice Hoffman coming out of his building and staring out into the street. “He looks real out of it, “ says Spuds and he gets dressed and goes downstairs. He stands for a bit with Hoffman who says that the two girl muggers are actually transsexuals. Spuds notes the less than optimum timing but that he can not bear missing the opportunity to tell Hoffman how much he admires his work. Hoffman is gracious about the compliment and again expresses his appreciation to Spuds for being such a good citizen. The first thing I say to Spuds when he comes back upstairs is that he can forget about applying to the New School and living in the heart of Manhattan. “It's not up to you,” he responds and perhaps it takes this little sojourn away, just the two of us, for me to notice how the mother/son dynamic has morphed and changed.

On our last day we visit the 9/11 Memorial. I circle the two pools and read to myself the names, etched on the perimeter, of the 2983 victims. There are a lot of Murphys and many Jews. Nearly 3000 names from all over the world, a Brotherhood of Man stock footage montage of peoples and places. This will typically fade into a few hopeful final frames of the Statue of Liberty except the end in this case is monstrous rubble and a name on a fountain. Sometimes “and unborn child” has been added and I ponder how profoundly the consequences of 9/11 will resonate into the future.

I wonder too about how our little college visits will impact my own life and my family and perhaps ultimately the destinies of generations to come. This time next year we'll know where Spuds will be attending college and if it's up to him, it will be on the East Coast and the nest will then be very vacant. Joe College returns home now less frequently but shows up this week. It's the end of the semester and he has some essays to complete for which perhaps his English PhD dad might prove helpful. Plus he's exhausted his campus food plan, supply of clean underwear and money. Immediately after his interaction with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Spuds calls his brother. Ditto when the older boy has an experience he deems earth shattering, little brother will be the first to hear. It's been a while since big boy's been at home. I fall asleep, as usual, with my glasses on but am wakened later in the evening. The boys are watching something, undoubtedly puerile, on TV downstairs and they are laughing their heads off. They've been laughing at things together ever since Spuds could crack a smile but I realize it's been a while since I've actually heard the sound, perhaps sweeter now as it is so fleeting.


Rosemary said...

My groovy building has been an artists cooperative since 1970. Unique in NYC now which is losing more and more of such communities sad to say. So glad you enjoyed it here! Miss you guys.

FionnchĂș said...

I want to know what was in the Passover lunch! And, what accolades Niall earned if sotto voce offstage from Famous Broadway Actor. I am proud of you both for navigating the megapolis and hinterlands, and glad to have you both back home. So are the dogs and cats. xxx me

My own Damn Blog said...

What an adventure! We have decided that NYC is our Christmas/New Years home. I'd be willing to go halvsies on a flat with you!

You made me laugh, a rare thing these days. Thank you.

Bill Mc said...

I LOVE travel writing, and this was great fun to read. It made me feel like I just had an adventurous weekend myself - nice job, Layne.