Let’s go! seems to be my pet phrase of the moment. I must use it a dozen times during every tour at Ellis Island. So when friends said they had had the archetypal NYC day recently, visiting the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street followed by the famed Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, I had just one thought.
Crispy, crumbly elephant ears on the train to Grand Central are a must. And the view along the Hudson. Even after the millionth time. John Cheever said, Better views than the Mediteranean about the Hudson Valley.
Manhattan in December features the usual fashionista tourists, and also the always welcome juxtaposition of hats for sale and tall buildings to gawk at. The lions that greet you at the front of the Library, Patience and Fortitude, have received their holiday adornment.
The exhibit currently on view at the Library, Treasures, features an assortment of the most extraordinary things from the 56 million the institution is lucky enough to own. For example, the custom-made dress shoes of Arthur Toscanini, the dramatic conductor whose shenanigans while performing resulted in many broken batons and chronic pain in his right shoulder and arm.
A 1908 poster advertising one of Houdini’s most death-defying feats.
A powerful 1971 sculpture by American feminist Elizabeth Catlett called “Political Prisoner.” Maybe Houdini could offer some get-out-of-shackles pointers.
Just down the way, the original Winnie the Pooh, given to the real Christopher Robin Milne on his first birthday, and, even more interesting because I had never glimpsed it before, the original Tigger. And because I always really liked Tigger the best.
A sumptuous altar gospel from 1791. Silver and enamel. Nothing else in the world compares. Sort of like you or me.
A comic book about Harriet Tubman. What?
From the sublime to the ridiculous and back to the sublime, with a picture of three greats, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, captured by jazz bassist Milt Hinton, who also happened to be a great photographer.
Of course it makes sense that the most important library in the world (to me) would have some amazing literary artifacts. Some I’d seen at an earlier exhibit but never tire of include Dickens’ lecture copy of David Copperfield from 1861. The writer loved giving over-the-top performances of passages from the book, and wrote to a friend, I read “Copperfield” and positively enthralled the people. It was a most overpowering effect, and poor Andrew [a lieutenant in the Royal Navy] came behind the screen, after the storm, and cried in the best and manliest manner. Also on display, Dickens’ paper knife, embellished with the mummified paw of his beloved cat Bob.
And the desk chair where the great man plopped his bottom down to produce his amazing work.
Also a favorite, the walking stick Virginia Woolf took on her final walk in 1941 to her drowning death in the River Ouse. They recovered the cane later.
At this point it would do well to note that some of the most impressive things at the Library are not in the exhibit proper but the exhibit’s surroundings. Look up at the intricately carved ceiling.
Or down at the floor, at the buffed brass electrical plate. Another gem, and it didn’t cost them anything.
A couple of other favorites. The Castello Plan, the first street map of New York City, dating to 1660.
And the Greensward Plan, the original map of Central Park.
I happen to know because I wrote a book about a man named I.N. Phelps Stokes that he was responsible for salvaging both of these precious items from obscurity — the Central Park map mouldering in the City Arsenal basement, the Castello Plan disintegrating on the wall of a remote Italian palazzo. But I see no mention of Stokes in the extensive write-ups of these treasures.
So let’s go elsewhere in the Library for more Stokesiana. I spent much time here when I was researching the mighty collector of New York history – he was one of the founders of the library back in the day and had an office here on the second floor. In these uncertain times, security is tight all around the place. I couldn’t wander back to see his old office as once was possible. Two stern volunteers prohibited my passage before posing for the camera. “Do you have a gun?” asked one, smiling politely.
One flight up, more rules. It is no longer possible to simply walk into the Rose Reading Room, or along the echoing marble corridors, which have new barricades and guards all around. A nice person named Sam who was there in some official capacity escorted me around to see the changes the digital age has wrought – you no longer submit card catalog requests via a pneumatic tube, for example, one of the wonders of doing research here in the past. To return the favor, I introduced him to the wonderful bit in the lower right hand corner of one of Edward Laning’s monumental murals, dedicated to Stokes, who had them installed here in 1940. Except for his unfailing helpfulness and encouragement these paintings would not have been. Indeed.
Enough with the nostalgia and out through the new, expanded gift shop. A chachka in every pot.
We pass one more nostalgic favorite on our way, surely the last remaining phone booth in New York City, where I dropped many a quarter back in the day.
Hungry? Let’s go. It’s time for the Oyster Bar, founded in 1913 at the behest of Cornelius Vanderbilt himself and pretty much exactly the same now. A good way to enter is the back-door staircase to the Saloon, strictly for cognoscenti.
The cognoscenti also sit at the counter and know to ask for the oyster stew, made to order. You can get a lot of other fancy stuff at the Oyster Bar, but why would you? Carlos has been at the restaurant 31 years.
He filled me in on some closely held Oyster Bar secrets. Have you ever noticed that people will tell you secrets, if you only ask?
There are six oysters in each plate of stew, he confided – more if the chef decides he likes you. The oysters in the stew are all bluepoints, because that particular variety is neither too salty nor too sweet. Customers also order bluepoints on the half shell – sometimes two, three, four dozen at a pop. Yum. The place shut down for 18 months during the Pandemic. What did you do during your time off, go fishing? I asked. No! he said. Porno and pot.
At Doughnut Plant, the Marzipan Star special “just dropped yesterday,” the haughty counterperson told me. Worth every calorie.
Just outside the Oyster Bar is the famous whispering gallery, low ceramic arches designed famously by Guastavino. If you stand in one corner and speak in a low tone, through acoustical wizardry your buddy standing all the way across the hall at the other side of the arch can hear you perfectly. Everybody standing around like in Blair Witch.
Am I hearing I love you or Let’s go! Does it matter?