Get Real with Carla Stockton
Spring is finally in the air. So now, before the summer heat sets in, get out and explore the city. But do yourself a favor. Don’t go alone. Find a tourist, and show them around. If you don’t have anyone coming into town, you can certainly make a stop in Times Square and choose from a wide array. Take advantage of the opportunity, find yourself a follower, and go re-introduce yourself to NYC.
Living in the city, we are afflicted with sensory fatigue. Concentrating on where we need to go, we forget to look up, which means we don’t see things like airborne hawks, rooftop forests, flying buttresses. Shielding our olfactory lobes from the assault of urine and vomit, we miss the symphony of food and perfume smells that tickle our pleasure centers. We stick our fingers in our ears to block out marauding sirens and squealing tires, and so we don’t hear the melodic notes of leisure laughter, wafting music, sonorous speaking voices.
The condition is not terminal. It can be cured, or, at very least, cast into remission. And there is no better antidote than seeing the city through the eyes of a neophyte. Think of it this way – “And a child shall lead. . . “
The very best kind of tourist is the first-timer, the tabula rasa that can best facilitate the expansion of your senses and your sense of your city. Whether you’ve been here for a few months or for freaking ever, it’s the neophyte who will best rejuvenate your enthusiasm for the crazy, intolerable, untenable absurdities of the city and turn you on anew.
Last month, I had that very opportunity with a friend from the Southwest, a man who had never set foot in any of the five boroughs in all his 69 years, despite the fact that he is well traveled, well educated, well seasoned. He suddenly decided that now was the time to make my city’s acquaintance by way of my introduction. Ushering him about, sharing my carefully honed, intimate relationship with NY – I am, after all, a licensed sightseeing guide! – was pure delight. I think perhaps that sharing a person’s first time in NY is like being privy to a grand revelation, kind of like being privy to. . . no, so much better than that.
He was only here for two days, so we wasted no time. I met him at LaGuardia, and we took the M-60 bus back to 125th Street. As we rolled across the RFK Bridge, he marveled, “Wow. New Yorkers are not obese.” It seemed like a strange comment, perhaps I’d mis-heard. But when I asked him, he said he had had the impression that the majority of New Yorkers would be grossly overweight and was shocked to learn that he was wrong. Trying to refrain from taking his expectation personally, I explained that we are a city of walkers. But he was long since disinterested in my reply. We had hit Harlem, and he shot out a series of rapid fire questions, to which he sought no answer at all.
“Can anyone sell on the street like that?”
“Who gives that guy permission to tap into electricity to amp his mic?”
“Does anybody listen to the lunatics?”
“Where do the homeless people sleep?”
We got off the bus and walked past the Apollo marquee, where he took a moment to ogle and imagine a James Brown moment. He was like a child in Nintendo World, overwhelmed by the multiple choices of stimuli, the enormity of the housing projects, the moxy of the street vendors, the eclectic nature of the architecture, the pleasant and dischordant disonance of musics; from there, we walked south and west, through Columbia campus, past Seminary Row and Riverside Church, to the the grand extravagance of Grant’s Tomb, where he gasped, “Why would anyone want to be buried like this?”
“The old man wanted to be buried like Napoleon.”
“He got his wish then.”
“Who,” he asked indignantly before we left the Tomb behind, “spoiled the building by putting those cheesy tiled benches around it?” I thought to launch into my explanation about how the city hired Chilean artist Pedro Silva to coordinate kids’ art and create something local and meaningful to replace the layers of graffiti they removed in the 1970s. But all I really had time to say was that Silva had martialed the childrens, and he said, “No wonder they look so childish.” Before I could reply, he was caught breathless by the Hudson River.
“Is that really where Sully Sullenberg landed his plane?” He marveled.
“Yes, it is,” I replied. “And on the other side of the river is New Jersey.”
“New Jersey looks beautiful. Those cliffs – “
“They’re called palidades.”
“Right. Those palisades are beautiful.”
“They are,” I agreed. “Too bad they’re in New Jersey.”
Oh, I do amuse myself sometimes. But he paid no attention to the lame aspersion. He was already nearly getting killed walking across the streets.
After the tomb, we threaded our way back to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Avenue, into a gentrified enclave at the edges of Little Senegal, and had dinner at a wonderful Northern Italian Restaurant called Lido, where they served polenta fries, a dish his Italian grandmother never even suggested.
“Is that authentic fare? Or did the chef devise it for this space in this city?”
He took a taxi to his hotel near Rockefeller Center, and his cabbie got lost, which gave him an opportunity to be cheated by a NYC cabbie. A story to take home. Then, too excited to sleep, he told me the next day, he walked in a direction he could not define but found himself at Central Park.
“I thought it was much bigger,” he mused.
“It’s 843 acres,” I assented. “Perimeter’s over six miles.”
“Looks much smaller. I thought I walked to the end. . . .”
I didn’t have time to take him for a full-fledged explore, but I did promise to show him another section the next day.
But first we walked through Rockefeller Center, where skaters still looked like Christmas ornaments, and the shops were festive with pre-Easter decorations; from there, we crossed over to St. Pat’s, a classic sight for any lapsed Catholic to ponder, before we headed downtown to the Public Library, where he wanted to pitch a tent and stay. He had no interest whatsoever in Patience and Fortitude, the guard Lions in the front; it was the house itself that fascinated him.
“I just love old buildings. The only thing I love more? Books. I’m in heaven.” I stared upward and had to admit that I had forgotten the beautiful Beaux Arts ceiling with its Prometheus mythology mural. I could see why he would want to just stay here.
But I dragged him onward.
A brief respite in Bryant Park afforded an opportunity to listen to varied political arguments around us and to a dogmatic treatise on what people should be wearing this time of year, orated by a man wearing nothing but a frayed blanket. Then we crossed through the park, over to Times Square, where we stood on line for almost no time at all at TKTS.
I so rarely take myself to Times Square, I had forgotten that there is never much of a line waiting for tickets to legit theater. Tourists prefer musicals as a rule. Luckily, my companion wanted to see something serious, something nonmusical – he explained that he could probably see good road company productions of any musical, but to see the play he would have to rely on a Community Theater Company, and he wanted to see professional theater at its best. Good choice. No one was ahead of us, and within minutes, we were in possession of two front orchestra seats at Eclipsed.
“Wow,” he exclaimed. “It’s true. Regional theater doesn’t hold a candle. . . .” I thought to launch into an explanation, a discussion of the elements of theater that flourish here more powerfully than anywhere else, but I thought better of it. It was enough that he was blown away by the power of the ensemble, the exquisite story telling they provided for Danai Gurira’s powerful story; we were sated at its end.
So we caught a #1 Train to South Ferry and took a sunset sail on the Staten Island Ferry. “It’s free? Really?“
The harbor never disappoints. All around you is spectacle: Manhattan skyline, Brooklyn Heights, the East River bridges, New Jersey, the Verrazanno.
“Is that the Statue of Liberty? I’m sailing past the Statue of Liberty? She’s standing right over me?”
The next day, we met to have breakfast at Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, a New York Institution since 1908, with my closest friend, who lives nearby. Professional waiters – two for the entire dining area – no-nonsense seating policy (you wait till you’re told you can sit, no list, no schtupping the maître d’, no sweet-talking the owner) and New York-centric food. My New Mexico friend, who had never had bagels and lox, could have had white fish or sturgeon or the best house-made egg or tuna fish salad he will ever be near again, but he chose a lox omelet, half a plain bagel, and half a bialy.
“A bialy? I never heard of that? It’s fantastic. So’re the eggs.”
After a walk through Strawberry Fields, over to the Bethesda Fountain, he said he believed me that Central Park is bigger than what he saw from 59th Street.
Then NY friend loaded us into her car so we could accompany her to a Queens cemetery, where she needed to take care of some family business. So in addition to the virgin five-borough experience, my out-of-towner now got to take in the ultimate New York sight: an endless NY graveyard, a giant mega-resting place, in this case home to miles and miles of stones and monuments inscribed in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino.
“I’m a history buff,” the out-of-towner effused. “This is the best place I could hope to be.” While we women attended to the reason for the mission, Mr. Out-Of-Town read as many headstones as he could, marveling at how far back the dates go.
“You got bodies in here that go back to the 1700s.”
When we left him at Laguardia to await his flight home, my friend thanked me profusely.
“I have never seen so much in so little time ever before. It’s been just amazing, every minute of it.”
He was beside himself with gratitude.
And he was not alone. I, too, was grateful for the two days of discovery. My eyes have been reopened.