Thursday, July 12, 2007

What They Witnessed That Day

Friday July 6, 2007: Day Two in New York

When R and I first came to NYC in the 80s we went to the Stage Deli at 834 Seventh Ave. for an old fashioned deli breakfast. We had read about it being an old hangout for theatre actors many decades ago. It has theatre posters and photographs of actors on its walls on the south and north sides and the glassed facade faces Broadway in all its gritty glory. We were served by an older man, a bit tired looking but kindly, with a heavy NY accent. He looked like someone who had done this for many years. He stuck in our minds for some reason.

Jokingly, I said to R that it would be nice to have a memento from the deli; when we left R pulled out a small ashtray with the deli logo on it from his pocket (much to my delight!).

Our second time in NYC we returned and were served by the same waiter. Funnily enough, unsolicited, the waiter initiated a conversation, asked where we were from and gave us a little "loot bag" containing, among other things, another small ashtray! We wanted to take J there although it is not an inexpensive breakfast (about $50 for three) but the food is good and the atmosphere irreplaceable. And our old friend, who had waited on us more than 20 years ago, was now in a photograph on the wall so perhaps that means that he too is gone.

We walked up to Central Park which is only a few blocks north of the Deli. Just south of the park, on the west side at 5th Avenue, is the historic Plaza Hotel which is now being turned into luxury condos starting at a mere $1.5 million. Secretly, I wish for a small fortune to buy one ... It is here that Gatsby, the Buchanans, Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker try to escape the summer heat and where Gatsby's past is exposed to Daisy by Tom setting in motion Daisy's flight and the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress. Through Central Park, Nick and Jordan ride in a victoria carriage as they get to know each other. The Park, possibly because of the heat, held little charm for our offspring who was feeling the effects of our early mornings (we were to return another day).

North of the Park, somewhere on 154th St., the irrepressibly obnoxious Tom Buchanan brings the reluctant Nick Carraway to meet his mistress Myrtle in a rented apartment. A relatively recent NYT article described the facades of the Victorian houses on 154th as being in the Queen Anne style "a mixture of Victorian and colonial decoration in contrast to the uniform brownstone of prior decades".

After lunch we met up with family and made our way to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan facing New York Harbor, where we tried to catch the South Street ferry to the Statue of Liberty. To purchase tickets for the ferry to the Statue you go to a circular fortress called Castle Clinton, built in 1811 to defend against British attacks; it now serves as the ticket and information center for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferry rides.

Defeated by the long lines and the sweltering heat, we abandoned that plan and made our way up West Ave. to the site of Ground Zero (which we studiously avoided on our 2003 trip). It is shocking to see that it appears that very little has been done to the site of such devastation since 911 (now six years ago - hard to believe). People were milling about and taking photographs of cranes and construction workers which I thought was odd. Or they were crowding into a firehall directly across from Ground Zero where a number of firefighters who worked on 911 were commemorated.

Down the street, across from the WTC site, is St. Paul's Chapel (built 1766) at 209 Broadway Ave. with a small cemetery in the middle of this busy Manhattan street. What the dead witnessed that day on September 11th! Some of the gravestones are perfectly intact; others have had the stone engravings completely effaced by the elements. The stones are beautiful, of various colours, some bleached white, some rose coloured, some of dark stone. They are neatly arranged and you are discouraged from crossing the plots to inspect them. It remains as it likely appeared in the 18th c. and there is something very reassuring about that. After September 11th, St. Paul's Chapel served as a place of refuge for recovery workers at the WTC site. A sort of myth now surrounds the chapel as the only thing destroyed was a an old sycamore tree which seemed to have protected the chapel from further damage on 911.

We made out way to Canal and Church Streets which was junky, crowded and overwhelmingly ugly and to be avoided at all costs!

We crossed over to Broadway and found Yellow Rat Bastard, a very cool clothing and accessories store at 478 Broadway Ave. and Broome St. in Soho which we all loved. It has denim, Ts and sneakers ... J got two Paul Frank T shirts and R got a great pair of sunglasses here.

North of there, I was searching for Spring Street Books, at 169 Spring Street, which now appears to be gone, much to my disappointment. Instead we found, quite by accident, Pylones at 69 Spring Street (between Cleveland Place and Crosby St.) which had eye-poppingly bright housewares and cute, kitschy gifts for children. Check out the website, it needs to be seen to be believed ...

Exhausted, and somewhat sated as consumers, we headed back to our hotel to clean up. My sis-in-law had a short list of kid friendly restaurants so that night we made our way to Virgil's Real BBQ at 152 W44th St. Let me just say this: if the words "big" and "meat" warm the cockles of your heart, this is the place to go!

In that restaurant, something started to click that made me uncomfortable. For some reason, perhaps this is not so, but it seemed that the city was more racially stratified than the last time we came. Almost all service workers (in restaurants, tour guides, art gallery attendants, waiters/waitresses) we encountered were black, Latino or Asian. Hostesses, receptionists, managers, were white ... very disconcerting. Hopefully I am mistaken.

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