New York Index:
Duration of trip: Nine days.
Number of Broadway shows seen: Four
Number of Broadway shows seen choreographed by Shana Carroll: One
Number of trashy books read: Four
Number of trashy books so bad I left them behind in the airplane seat pocket: One
Number of museums visited: Four
Number of polystyrene penises seen: One
Number of boroughs visited: Two
Number of Bed, Bath & Beyond stores visited: One
Number of weddings viewed in Central Park: One
Number of Metro Card swipes unsuccessfully attempted: Fourteen
The source of my infatuation
My mother went to Vassar in the 1930s, and many weekends she’d take the train down to Manhattan and go out drinking with Princeton boys. She was enraptured by essentially everything, the subways and the hotel bars and the nightclubs where you could get crazy to swing music. She saw Benny Goodman live! She told me that several times, and she played “Stompin’ at the Savoy” on the record player.
We were far away from New York, in a small bungalow on a small street in dumpy Pasadena, California. There were copies of the New Yorker piled up on the table, and books by John Cheever and John O’Hara and all those drunk-in-Connecticut boys. She read me Thurber’s Columbus stories as I was going to sleep — I knew “The Night to Bed Fell” better than I knew “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” When I was 10, I knew who Peter Arno was.
So Manhattan is, for me, is the island of romance. Every inch, every cross-street, every run-down diner and barren lobby. I was nostalgic for things I have never even seen. Even after all these years, even after working there and sweltering there and killing cockroaches there, I still think of New York as the pinnacle of civilization.
There weren’t any cockroaches in California, so I thought that they, too, were sophisticated.
“This would be a good photo, right here.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You know, essence of Brooklyn, food truck-based Cuban restaurant, Greenlight Books, diversity, strollers, those kinda hats that…”
“Yes, but not really a photograph.”
“Well, Jeez. OK. Jeez.”
“So this would be good. Fort Greene, Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Eagle, just a sense of the…”
“It’s a plaque.”
“Yes, but you could do something with it. Get a kind of, maybe, a young writer of literary fiction, with her baby, with two babies, multi-racial babies, and…”
“Not a photograph.”
“So this, this –“
“You could just take photos with your phone, you know. Use them in the blog.”
“But I didn’t take any photos in Brooklyn.”
“Use your skills. Word pictures, killer descriptions, metaphors, similes, evocative whatevers. You’ll figure it out.”
Notes on a meme:
It is a commonplace now that Oakland is the new Brooklyn. I guess that means that the center of creative energy and youthful exuberance has moved from Manhattan (or San Francisco) to its less glamorous neighbor to the east, the formerly poor and clueless sister city now made relevant and hip by changing demographic times. Let us come together in this boutique of hipitude.
Of course, that’s not true. Maybe it was true for 17 seconds in 2004, but now property values are inflated in both places and the inhabitants are the about-t0-be-rich looking for a nice condo in the colorfully changing neighborhood. The new rich are a little more multi-hued than the old kind, but they’re still the same breed, Mad Men of the 21st Century, flocking with others of their own species, secure in their uniform uniqueness.
But in both places, it is possible to squint at the older buildings and see the communities now vanished, ethnic affinity groups clustered in neighborhoods, changing with the waves of immigration that have defined America. Now it’s all the Culture of the Deracinated, a commercial potpourri of ideas from German minimalist poets and Puerto Rican muralists and Japanese cartoonists and Ghanian percussionists.
Brooklyn has much more stringent height limits, so it will keep its lovely tree-lined brownstone-lined streets, as opposed to Oakland’s growing collection of grotesque condos. Which seems great, until the phrase “Potemkin village” occurs to you.
Brooklyn is Oakland on steroids; Oakland is Brooklyn with a human face.
Trashy book report
“The Accident” by Chris Pavone: Someone writes a tell-all book about Rupert Murdoch. Complications ensue. Murdoch appears under a pseudonym, but it’s all very wink wink. Three cheeseburgers.
“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley: Someone kills Roger Ailes (pseudonym again) and some other folks. Why? How? Who? And why is Bill O’Reilly (pseud.) acting like such a dick? Fortunately, one moral man and so forth. But still, what fun. Four cheeseburgers.
“The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Look, if you want to write a movie, write a movie. Don’t make us read this dysfunctional family drama for 300 pages and then turn it into honeysuckle and balloons for the last 50 pages. Total betrayal. Why do people like this book? Maybe nobody finished it. One-half burger
“The Second Life of Nick Mason (a Nick Mason novel)” by Steve Hamilton: Left on the airplane. Bad Lee Child. I entirely forget who did what to whom, but one moral man and so forth. The New York Times went nuts for this. What? One cold half-eaten fry.
The persistence of hope
I was walking down 72nd street, planning to walk across Central Park to the Met, which is one of the great experiences available on earth. I was just passing the juice bar, what we had come to think of as “our juice bar,” when I realized: Politics is boring.
Sure the Presidential race is exciting, in a Harry Potter kind of way. Will Voldemort be defeated? We’ll have to wait until November. But really, there are a lot of interesting and complex issues to be considered, and none of them are being talked about in any real way. It’s all posturing. It’s all looking for the message that connects emotionally, which is exactly the opposite of intelligent discussion.
And intelligent discussion is kind of fun. Listening to people who know more than you do: Exciting. It’s stimulating to hear an idea you’ve never heard before. And do we not crave stimulation of the brain? We do.
For instance: There are two popular musicals on Broadway that deal with aspects of the black experience. They are more interesting than the rhetoric of Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter. “Shuffle Along” is about reclaiming racist stereotypes, in much the same way the the LBGT community reclaimed the word “queer”. Minstrel shows were, after all, based on art forms created by slaves. Why not own them?
“Shuffle Along” is being criticized for being too didactic, but we need a good history lesson from time to time, particularly a history lesson that includes fabulous tap dance numbers and Audra McDonald singing ballads.
And there’s also “The Color Purple,” which has a mostly white audience cheering the triumph of a black woman. The ideas are commonplace, but Cynthia Erivo (holy God she’s good) and Heather Headly make it visceral. It’s a way into the heart of the matter; it’s a way of provoking conversation about the persistence of misery.
We went down to the Bowery to see the New Museum. All five floors are devoted to women artists. They each had something to say about gender, and it went way beyond “sisters are doing it for themselves.” I thought idly that it would be nice to see an all-male show dealing with gender, but alas, my sex does not seem to be up to dealing with that yet.
And it wasn’t just gender. Nicole Eisenman (and she’s as good as Cynthia Erivo) has a complicated and fabulous vision of modern life, mostly on canvases too large for my little iPhone, but I did manage to capture a little meditation on narcissism called “Selfie”.
Even stranger was a piece by Cally Spooner (called, unfortunately, “On False Tears and Outsourcing”) which features dancers miming acts of violence behind a glass wall — outside of which patrons sip coffee and chat.
We went to the Whitney; same thing. I have one quibble: A lot of the art is political, and many of them have mission statements written in the purest artspeak gobbledygook. I think maybe that’s an artifact of grant writing, which virtually demands large quantities of horseshit. And I suspect that some of the art is pure impulse — hey, this would look cool; how can I get a Guggenheim to do it? For instance:
This is a detail from a huge floor diorama by Rochelle Goldberg called “No Where No Way.” The explanatory card talks about environmentalism in some murky way, but I deeply believe that Goldberg thought “I can make these amazing objects out of stainless steel and ceramic; what the hell can I say about them?”
Anyway: Ideas. Beauty. Musings about empire.
So yeah, our daughter Shana has a show on Broadway. That was a nice sentence to type. It’s the new Cirque du Soleil thing, “Paramour,” and she choreographed the circus tricks and did some general mucking about. The show is a huge smash financially if not critically, and now she can go home and do her own projects, which is good news for truth and beauty.
Yeah, we went backstage and met the stars, and generally hung around the periphery looking exactly like visiting parents. They all called me “Mr. Carroll,” and I told them about listening to Lincoln at Gettysburg — because I am so very old.
So, you know: New York