Tag Archives: New York City

Magical miniatures everywhere you turn

at New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show.

A smart novelist named Christopher Moore said, Children see magic because they look for it. Yes, especially on Christmas Eve. Today. If you want to conjure up A Visit From Saint Nicholas, by another writer named Moore, Clement Clark Moore, go to the New-York Historical Society (so genuine a place they kept the hyphen). They have both his desk and the original manuscript.

Here at NYBG you’ll have to make do with a perfect replica. All the New York icons are here. A Macy’s behemoth.

A diminutive Bethesda Fountain, the original installed in 1873, presented here in a small jewel of a Central Park.

Everything is hand crafted of natural materials: pine bark, black cherry, eucalyptus stems, grapevine, acorn caps, magnolia leaves and many more.

The trains range from the traditional locomotive to the cutesy ladybug.

Childish wonder prevails. Most people are rapt.

Some not so much.

I hear a father counseling a bored pre-teen daughter: Just take it in. Another grinch opines in a loud whisper: Is there an adults-only time slot? True, there are many puffy coats jostling up against each other in front of the more popular displays, and lots of fidgety kiddos. But most visitors are delighted to be out of the deep freeze and crowded in to the steamy Enid A. Haupt Observatory, marveling and posing.

I think I love the most the way some structures glow from within.

And of course finding my old favorites here. The New York Public Library, complete with its lions, Patience and Fortitude.

Because it is New York, where we tend to color outside the lines, locations outside the city limits can also be found here at the train show. Like Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s snuggery in Tarrytown, complete with a perfect little wisteria vine.

The George Washington Bridge, of course, but also, nestled beneath it, the Little Red Lighthouse.

Always something new. I notice a rendition of the Freedom Tower, as if the Freedom Tower was constructed of glass. What natural material was used to create this effect? Dragonfly spittle?

If you can drag your eyes away from the trains you’ll find some equally amazing plant life. Goeppertia insignis hails from Brazil. Ripe green smell of the rain forest.

A wonderful program started in 1992 in New York City. Called Poetry in Motion, it features brief poems by famous and not-so-famous writers posted in metropolitan subway cars. Poet Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate whose work manages to straddle both critical acclaim and popular appeal, has said, I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program. One of his poems, Grand Central, features a building here miniaturized.

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

At the train show, Grand Central is a standout. I kinda wish there was a tree stump large as this one framing the real magilla. That would be cool.

There are no subway cars here. I ask a Botanical Garden staffer to explain. The “MTA cars wouldn’t have the proper gauge to fit on the tracks,” he articulates before wishing me a Merry Christmas.

I don’t know why, if in this universe they can perfectly capture a vanished Coney Island, it’s not possible to produce a subway car with poetry in it.

Charles Simic also has contributed to Poetry in Motion.

Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.

Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.

The art of the train show manages to be both mundane and sublime. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. So do these small, intricate, perfect displays. What would New York be without its water towers? Look closely, they are here throughout.

By the way, if the holiday season finds you in need of poetic sustenance, you can make a toll-free call courtesy of the Poetry Society of America and hear the work of Pablo Neruda read aloud by Billy Collins. The number is (212) 202-5606. You can do it while standing in the cold at the New York Botanical Garden or in the steamy enclave where the Garden has perfectly reproduced itself.

Or just gaze in backlit windows of these sublimely silent tableaux.

You might relate to the following, The Moment, by Marie Howe, also from a subway car posting:

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
when,     nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe    half a moment
the rush of traffic stops. 
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Bye the bye, my New Year’s resolution for this as every year is to eliminate the word should from my vocabulary. Life becomes more magical. It’s tough to do, but I think worthwhile. You should do it too.


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Let’s go to NYC!

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.

Let’s go.

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?


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If you are a perpetual learner

(I am) this is the job for you.

Haitian Inspector’s name is Jean, too. Jean-Robert, he tells me. Explains that where he comes from, the Catholic church would put the name Jean first in front of all the boys’ names because men should be in front of women. Doesn’t happen these days, he says. Phew, good to hear. Jean-Robert is one of the careful New Yorkers who still wears his mask shield religiously.

Start location today, corner of Orloff Avenue and Cannon Place in the Bronx. Little crinkum-crankum streets in this neighborhood that someone outside New York would probably not expect. Two juvenile Eastern redbuds flank the entrance to Van Cortlandt Library. One might stand in the way of a pedestrian ramp to be constructed here. Hence the presence of a tree consultant.

Nearby, honey locust dangles its acid-green seed pods. One worker on a previous site was intent upon the question of whether these seed pods are edible. He brought one home to investigate. People are curious, no matter how jaded we might think everyone is.

In fact, when the legume of Gleditsia triacanthos ripens, its gooey green contents may be devoured by cattle. Digesting the pulp, cows and horses then part with the hard, tannin-rich seeds contained within the pod, and so junior honey locusts are born. Not, of course, in the Bronx. Native Americans had a use for the pod–they had a use for everything, of course– it was utilized for food and medicine and also for tea. Europeans had the bright idea of using the tree’s thorns as treenails for shipbuilding.

Success always demands a greater effort. Thus spake Winston Churchill, a man whose greater effort customarily required great quantities of alcohol. We have a doctor’s note to be used on the statesman’s trip to the U.S. during Prohibition.

In a letter to his wife, Churchill mentions drinking “champagne at all meals & buckets of claret & soda in between.” There was also the beverage his children called a “Papa Cocktail”: a tipple of Johnnie Walker Red to cover the bottom of a glass, to be filled with water and sipped throughout the day. However, as is well known, the man loved champagne the best. And Cuban cigars. Perhaps he would like this shirt on display in a Bronx shop window.

Thinking recently about when I first transitioned into the field of arboriculture and had a lot of learning to do, a major effort. In the tree industry as in other fields you need a credential to define you, and so I devoted many late nights to preparing for my certification exam, offered by the International Society of Arboriculture. I remember that I couldn’t quite believe I was studying for a multiple-choice test, at my stage in life—and that the material was so grueling. The memorization is challenging, even for people who have had years in the field. There were late nights spent at my desk studying diagrams of xylem and phloem, fortified by repeat listenings of a pop song by the band TV on the Radio that had as its chorus Everything’s gonna be okay! Everything’s gonna be okay!

That wee bit of hypomania I had been diagnosed with decades before now worked its charms. My love of language trailed me into the profession like the long shadow of a tall old pin oak, Quercus palustris. Would I really have to learn Latin? AP English had been more my speed back in the day. When I was growing up, what I knew of trees confined itself to the apple tree I climbed as a child and the oak tree by the driveway in whose crevice I created domestic worlds out of acorn caps and twigs. I was to find later on, teaching writing to arborists, that many had a Malus in their childhood which was their formative experience with dendrology, that the wizened backyard apple they encountered as an adult was their madeleine.

Now, even if I had wanted to I could not shake my obsession with the names of the exotica I was learning, terms like lion tailing, thimble, water sprouts, whoopie sling, gymnosperm, cow hitch, come-along grip, antigibberellins.  Yes, Winston, greater effort.

I newly fathomed the phrase, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Mr. Samuel Beckett, of course.)

Clevis, inflorescence, bucking!

By day I mused over the petiole, the slender stalk that connects a leaf with its stem; my night dreams overflowed with phosphorus, oxygen, h2o. I filled my Five Star composition notebook (once the incubator for my book ideas) with the qualities of biotic diseases such as fire blight, nematode, black vine weevil, frass borer and  adelgids, leafhoppers. I still wasn’t sure if I’d be able to identify gummosis in the field, but now I knew at least that it was the exudation of sap or gum from a wound or other opening in the bark. Asterisk! Important! Field-grown no longer brought to mind farm-fresh green beans or juicy tomatoes but ball-and-burlap saplings that would survive transplant shock, no fertilization necessary. And of course, to the repeated rock-and-roll exhortation Everything’s gonna be okay!, the vital necessity of organic mulch. Yikes! How would I remember it all? Later I was to learn that even the most grizzled arborists customarily looked up the more arcane facts, there was no shame in it.

I recall sitting in front of a computer terminal at a bland Manhattan testing site near Grand Central Terminal and sweating over the questions, not sure I could make the grade. All around me people were proving their worth as correctional officers and real estate brokers, probably going on to great things, not grubbing in the arboricultural dirt (yes, tree people do call it that, not the more p.c. soil.) Yet I was excited. This project of mine was blowing up – it was heady, it was real. And, somehow, I passed.

On to the Bronx, years later, where ginkgo leaves flutter.

As do the latest fashions.

Haven’t had to use a cow hitch yet.

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The most pathetic park in the Bronx

might be Corona Parkway Malls, at Southern Boulevard and Elsmere Place. Pathetic as in pathos, evoking pity or sadness.

Never visited? Trash is everywhere.

Despite avid, well-peopled efforts by the Parks Department to keep it clean.

I snapped her photo right before she told me No photos allowed. Really?

Lots of people make this park their home. People that don’t have a roof over their heads are up early, combing their hair, performing ablutions. Washing up at a fire hydrant. Fresh NYC water, among the best in the country (ranked 13th if you must know). Delivered from pristine reservoirs in the Catskills, and furthermore treated with fluoride, chlorine and ultraviolet light so it’s safe to drink.

Nodding out, first fix of the day. Good morning. On to another New York City day collecting bottles. This is what they refer to as an underserved community. Underserved? An understatement, that.

There might be a better city in which to be homeless. But how would you get there? Without anything in your wallet?

One person smoking, scowling, scratching, weeping, dancing by her bench in the style of Indian mudra, delineating shapes in the air with her hands and fingers. Wasted. Grime-tan. I watch her for a while, can’t help myself. She takes her time opening a sleeve of crackers, then polishes them off. Hard to know where crackers go in that skinny little body.

Waiting for my man. (Lou Reed, of course.) This Man comes through in a spiffy pork pie hat and anime tee shirt, collecting fistfuls of cash and deposit ing product in palms. Someone had an open fire one recent night. At 7am, only cinders remain. And a half-full beverage

Amid the wreckage, beauty. Life. Even nature. Red in tooth and claw. (Tennyson.) Pigeons walking the tightrope of a branch. A young London plane.

Common buttonbush – Cephalanthus occidentalis.

Buttonbush in the wild can attract more than two dozen species of bird, including kingbirds, towhees and hummingbirds.

Everlasting roses.

This is Jade. She sticks close, doesn’t need a leash. Nuff said.

Coneflowers that would present the same glowing amethyst countenance in a luckier person’s country garden.

A well-endowed shrine on the site of a historical obelisk.

Memorializing two loved ones short-term visitors to the neighborhood will never know.

Lest you wonder what I’m doing here, I have a job — inspecting the site of a working sidewalk construction crew to make sure no trees in their path some to harm.

So far, no harm, no foul. I’m watching over a 90″ American elm, doing my best to shield it from the ravages.

What is compassion? Is a trait we reserve for humans (sometimes!) or does it extend to trees? Trees care for us, of course – they cannot help it, it’s the way they roll.

Flaggers, lifeblood of the construction industry. Keeping us all safe. Thank you, men. (These flaggers happen to be male, but the women flaggers I’ve met are some of the most fierce mama bears in existence.)

You’d have to work pretty hard and pretty carelessly to break a honey locust. Here they are bringing forth their young seed pods. Cattle in another place like to feed on the green goo that grows inside once they ripen and fall.

Great as these trees might be for urban areas, the powers that be where I live have seen fit to demolish mature honey locust trees in our downtown in order to install new sidewalks. Including half a dozen mature, shade-throwing specimens.

Here in Corona, honey locusts thrive. To the credit of a powerful Parks Department, we do not damage trees in New York City, let alone cut them down.

The shade they cast has been proven crucial to keeping people alive in the sizzling temperatures we have had recently, as the earth fries.

We all need canopy. It’s not an extra, an add-on. It is a life preserver.

Bystanders like to check out what’s going on. Take the morning air, catching what faint breeze there is.

A lucky tree – hurting, perhaps, damaged, yet soldiering on. As if the tree pit wasn’t small enough already, you can see three types of unwanted material dumped at its base. Yet it grows.

Is there still a chance to do better by these folks who call Corona Parkway Malls home? Tree canopy is a start. That goes for everyone, not just the most obviously broken. Which is why it’s a privilege to do a little something to protect this tiny piece of the land, this patch of urban forest, even if only to ensure the backhoe keeps away from the roots.

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I do like pin oaks

and especially those in groves, urban oases, such as in Flushing, the massive ones ringing Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Whoever laid the concrete sidewalks here most recently politely made room for the spreading roots of venerable Quercus palustris.

Excuse me, said the tree, we were here first. And the City complied, which is more than happens in other municipalities. New York’s rigor regarding tree protection is legendary.

A breezy day in Queens. Anthony the flagger on a well-deserved break: It ain’t a hard hat, but it keeps off the sun. Not a day over 40, indeed. 

Deeply carved sinuses, the scallops that distinguish the pin oak leaf.

The tree has a unique habit – its branches hold up the sky at the top, stick out straight as a t square in the middle and droop a bit at the bottom of its shape. There is a monster of a pin oak square in the middle of this sprawling burial ground.

Mount Hebron opened its gates in 1909, and its permanent residents include Holocaust survivors and people who lived through the pogroms leading up to World War II. For example, a monument to the immigrants and immigrants’ descendants from the city of Grodno in today’s Belarus is dedicated to those who were “brutally persecuted and slain by the Nazis.” A stroll reveals many people in their mid-30’s and 40’s who died in the 1930s. Beyond tragic.

I couldn’t find acorn litter today. Someone here stays on top of autumnal sweeping. The nut would poison us but make a fit snack for a squirrel. Critters are more present that most people think here in the greater metropolitan area. I watched a woodchuck dive under a scrim of shrubbery recently in Liberty State Park. I’ve seen raccoons in a Flushing alleyway. This morning at six a.m. as I drove onto the Parkway, headed to the work site, an eight-point white-tail stared and stood stock still at the edge of the woods. Haven’t seen deer in New York City proper but surely it’s a matter of time. Do they like hydrangeas? Then they might like Flushing.

The chain link surrounding Mount Hebron had been conveniently pulled aside as an unofficial entrance for me to slip inside. No one I approached in the neighborhood seemed to know the name of the 250-acre burial ground in their midst, not the Mobil station attendants on the next block (5.59/gallon, with the cleanest restroom in Queens), not even the grave digger, who rose above the dirt he was shoveling to Google the query on his phone. The Yiddish theater industry produced  quite a few of the souls buried at Mount Hebron. 

The lady with the daisies hadn’t a clue as to where they might be.

Plenty of observant Jews have payed tribute to the dead here, leaving stones atop the graves.

Also abundant, the gnarly limestone faux tree trunks known as treestones. As a sculpted quote from the Biblical tree of life, they represent both eternity and humanity.

By serendipity, I came across a friend’s great grandparents’ plot – they fled Kyev when the pogroms came through and wound up in the Bronx, where Abraham was an expert jeweler and watchmaker.

But I knew the Yiddish actors were someplace – though my favorite, the ever entertaining one-time vaudevillian Sophie Tucker, “the last of the red-hot mamas” – had been buried elsewhere.

As a child, Tucker regaled diners in her parents’ restaurant between waitressing duties. She recalled later that she would stand up in the narrow space by the door and sing with all the drama I could put into it. At the end of the last chorus, between me and the onions, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. The chanteuse’s hit Some of These Days made her super famous, kind of like the Taylor Swift of her day, if Taylor Swift were a middle-aged red hot mama and had a ribald sense of humor. Tucker’s version of The Lady Is a Tramp is the best out there. Banned in Nazi Germany: My Yiddishe Momme.

Plenty of mobsters here. Perhaps the most famous was Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, electrocuted in 1944 for the 1936 murder of Brooklyn shopkeeper Joseph Rosen after six judicial reprieves. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commented after the funeral, Well, they certainly tried everything. Pressed as to whether there would be another Lepke in New York, he was certain: Yes, there will, if we turn government over to the politicians. Take the rackets, the slot machines, gambling – that’s where the Lepkes find their pickings and their perquisites. LaGuardia put himself through law school at night by translating for immigrants at Ellis Island during the daytime. During his tenure as mayor he outlawed organ grinders with their capuchin monkeys, eliminating a source of much color on the streets and a certain career for many first-generation Italians.

LaGuardia believed that organ grinders perpetuated a stereotype of his countrymen. He spoke half a dozen languages: Italian, Croatian, Yiddish, German, French and Hungarian.

Mount Hebron sits on the former 2,000-acre Spring Hill estate of Colonial governor Cadwallader Colden, who died in 1776, four days after the British claimed New York. Colden acted as the first colonial representative to the Iroquois Confederacy and wrote the first history of the Five Nations. A doctor and botanist, the polymath was a patrician pioneer of public health, an expert on the subject of yellow fever. Looked okay in his crimson regalia.

Colden was reportedly not a nice guy. A slaveowner, he reputedly sold one female member of his chattel, a “good House Negro,” for a cargo of “white muscovado” sugar. He got a lot of flak from American patriots, who to protest the Stamp Act of 1765 burned him in effigy along with his coach after smashing it to smithereens in a celebratory bonfire on Manhattan’s Bowling Green (note: then a small green park where you could still go to bowl).

Cadwallader Colden had a number of distinguished children, but the standout was his daughter Jane, who followed in her father’s Linnaeus-inspired footsteps and became the first botanist of her sex in America. Most famous for her untitled manuscript describing the flora of the Hudson Valley that featured her own ink drawings – she was the first scientist to describe the gardenia! – Jane died  tragically from complications of childbirth in 1766, at the age of 41.

A visitor to her home noted that she actually made “the best cheese I ever ate in America,” a skill she detailed in her Memorandum of Cheese in 1756.

Cadwallader is buried here somewhere, in present-day Queens, in a plot on his old property, where he now rubs shoulders with mobsters, Yiddish stage stars and survivors of evil. Jane lies interred at the family’s upstate estate near her beloved flowers. I think she might have liked the pin oaks that line Main Street as much as I do.

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Perfectly performed

on a perfect early spring evening in Tompkins Square Park, the music of a person (pronouns fluid, if you are up to date) who calls his band Pinc Louds. He began in 2015 playing in the New York City subways for spare change, and now he goes all over the world, but also does his thing in New York at places like Joe’s Pub and Lincoln Center and Poisson Rouge. Still plays gigs for free in the Park though, as a fixture of the East Village.

He’s from Puerto Rico, and in his few hours not occupied with music he’s known as Claudi. 

Dogs walked their people all over the place.

Pinc Louds worked out on his guitar, though sometimes he prefers electrified mbira.

The friend I strolled with has played with him before – she’s a fantastic mbira player too. She describes his voice as Billie Holiday in Puerto Rico. Sometimes he has giant puppets with him.  Wish I’d seen that.

I especially liked the lyrics of one of his songs:

A little girl she tells me I got soul

She sees it when I sing

Yes, a little girl she tells me I got soul

She sees it when I sing

I tell a girl your eyes are getting old

You couldn’t tell a mountain from a hole

‘cause I can’t feel a thing

No, I can’t feel a thing

No, not even when I sing


I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

Cause there’s no soul in our bodies

Just soul in our brains

[Verse 1]

Ooh, Singin’

My heart ain’t singin’

And still

You’re wishin’ on it like you’re wishin’ on a wishing well

The drops sink to the murky depths of hell

I saw you once and you

Your little stars were true

Please take me up with you

[Verse 2]

So press me to your dress

And press me to your thighs

And press me to your chest

Caress me ‘til I’m blessed into the tide

Rushing to your blushing blood inside

And though the die is cast

And I am sinking fast

I feel alive at last


I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

I’ve got no soul in my body

I’ve just got soul in my brain

Cause there’s no soul in our bodies

Just soul in our brains

Under the shade of a big old tree in the park, just leafing out, dusk fell. Yes, Virginia, there are big old trees on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Critics have deemed Pinc Louds “the band that saved summer” because it appeared in the park during the pandemic and lifted everybody’s spirits. People of all ages danced and went wild, with socially distanced mosh pits.

Someone’s observation underfoot. Not necessarily true, at least on this good-luck night.

Claudi and his wife have a baby at home. He told me that the child has watched him “transition” into his performance getup, but hasn’t yet had any kind of reaction. You can check out Pinc Louds on YouTube.

Pinc Louds, you can wear whatever you want, whatever look you want to rock. Just keep singing.

Your music is splendid.

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Perfection old and new

is what you get when you combine a funkily sublime old vaudeville theater and a performance by a Japanese avant-garde jazz pianist and composer at the height of her career.

Sony Hall had opened in Times Square in 1938 as the Diamond Horseshoe, and became one of the iconic venues of the vaudeville circuit. Later it hosted a long-running avant-garde show called Queen of the Night. When Sony acquired it, the theater had somehow retained its original furnishings, like the decorative disk that graces the ceiling over the audience, and the buyers were smart enough to retain the fixtures, and décor and the painting.

The food was good; the potatoes purple.

By the time Hiromi came on stage, the audience was primed. Japanese families filled the front rows.

The rest were serious fans already, including our neighbor Andrew, a Polish IT guy who it seems follows her from show to show. She inspires super-fandom.

Hiromi appeared.

She gracefully introduced the quartet accompanying her. They were “new,” she said, and from all over.

How would you describe Hiromi’s composing, and her playing? A tickle and a romp, with stride jazz flourishes and soulful  trills reminiscent of the old country. She stamped her gold sneakers, stood up, sat down, grimaced and grinned at the audience as though we were all in on her marvelous joke. She was funny. She had fun! She was explosive, with her lightning fast fingers.

Hiromi has said, “I don’t want to put a name on my music. Other people can put a name on what I do. It’s just the union of what I’ve been listening to and what I’ve been learning. It was some elements of classical music, it has some rock, it has some jazz, but I don’t need to give it a name.” Born in Japan ini 1979, she started lessons at six, and her teacher had her use color to develop her chops, saying Play red if it was something passionate or Play blue if it should be a mellow sound. She is well known for the album she recorded with Chick Corea, whom she met when she was seventeen.

The accompanists were tight, totally matched to her at times wild and galloping melodies. The Live-Shrieber-resembling first violinist should probably have his own show, he was that good.

The piece she performed, titled Silver Lining Suite, told a personal story of the pandemic in musical harmonies. There will be a lot of compositions on this theme, in all the arts, I am sure. But her interpretation was spectacular. She brought the past and present together with soul and charm.

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It was a fine day to go out on the water.

Fortunately, a tugboat made itself available for landlubber sightseeing.

We would view New York Harbor as we had never viewed it before. And believe me, we had viewed it before plenty of times. Once, even, on a tugboat, in fog so dense you could have been sailing in any harbor.

Walking to the South Street Seaport, along Peck Slip, you could almost inhale the atmosphere of past days when the first ferry in the city opened and you had to pay three wampum beads to get on. You got the attention of the ferryman by blowing a shell horn. The cobblestones may not be the originals, but they’re close to it. People steal them so the powers that be are always having to replace them.

The last surviving New York-built wooden tugboat, W. O. Decker, may have charm and historic panache, but something it lacks is an array of handholds to grip when you hit the swells. Before we climbed aboard, we got a briefing from Fern Hoffman, the captain. She got her accreditation from the Coast Guard, which she told me is like the DMV for sailing.

The Deckers have a long history of tugboat building. The W.O. Decker was built in 1930 in Queens. Apparently the family is still in the business. The tug was built for shifting barges and for local towing.

Things got tricky almost immediately. You had to descend a gangway to one ship, then cross one ship’s deck, climb a step and clamber down into the tug. You could see the harbor water down between the two vessels. It would be a good way to crush a leg or two. I balked, but the deckhands gave me a boost and we were good to go.

One of the deckhands, noting that I was a bit rocky, advised that it would be good to stay at the bow of the ship, so as not to feel the waves with as much violence. You can sit on the “bits,” I think she said, pointing to some metal knobs jutting up from the deck.

Yes, but. I would prefer not to, in the words of Bartleby. I’d rather stay glued to the bulkhead.

The Statue obliged as we cruised by. White sails, a tall ship, dozens of jet skis driven by the clinically insane.

So did Lower Manhattan.

This view pretty much defines chockablock.

It was good to take a breather in the saloon, and I wanted to abscond with one of the cups hanging from a beam but refrained.

The innards.

I would have liked to unroll the nautical charts stashed in the bridge.

A woman at the wheel.

She really pulled that thing, backing into the harbor as we got home.

Nicely done, said Gil.

There’s still time to mess up, she said with a grin.

I knew what she was talking about. But I needn’t have worried. My egress from the boat was 100 times more graceful than the onboard had been. Back on Peck Slip, I ruminated on a lesson I’d learned somewhere along the way: Walking on cobblestones improves your balance.

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We fly

like eagles, like vampires, like velociraptors.

Motorized scooters and e-bikes have taken over the streets here, as well as plain old scooters, the type on which you stand to move forward. Good balance required  for that. And of course the old-fashioned kind of bicycle.

Scooters tear up the Grand Concourse, on the service roads, but most especially on the sidewalks, swerving around pedestrians, going every which way.

Bike lanes? Nah. They’re for squares.

Storefronts are clogged with locked bikes (with serious chains) awaiting their owners to emerge.

The bike-less nod, zoned out on who knows what.

Scooters course around them.

Junk collectors collect bike wheels.

It’s absolutely bonkers.

Pretty soon it will be like Bangkok around here.

The fabulous Leon Bridges came out with his song Motorbike this year:

On the back of my motorbike? Switch lanes twenty-nine, ooh
It’s whatever you like, ooh
On the back of my motorbike, write your name in the sky, ooh
It’s whatever you like, we can ride, ride, ride

Romantic song and video that makes a person crave riding behind her beau in the open country. That “29” baffles me; his age maybe.

Not only boys take the reins.

I saw a mom on a scooter, one small child in front of her and two behind, holding on tight as she aced the curve from the side street to the avenue.

Motorbikes cost a lot less than a car. $1,000, $2000 bucks. E-Bikes go for around $5000. They’re hot. You can get a food delivery job riding one.

Don’t you dare bring your bike inside!

There is a cool pop-up bike repair place in the street next to a produce vendor. It’s private, mainly hidden by a tarp like a canopy, and a bunch of gear heads huddle there every afternoon, their tools all over the pavement, fixing scooters. When I stopped there to investigate I was not especially welcome because a. I don’t speak Spanish, b. I am an alien in a hard hat and c. I possess a vagina. No pictures, I was told firmly. In my experience, when someone declines having their photo taken they are hiding something.

But… but… let’s not talk about the buts, shall we? No, let’s. I pitched off an e-bike this summer and was lucky to come away tumbled like a rock in a rock polisher, with a temporary concussion. So I am somewhat biased as to the dangers of these machines. Especially in New York City! Which is filled with white ghost bikes memorializing cyclists’ deaths.

Also, I came across the detritus of a wrecked bike under the light pole it had smashed into. Shards of plastic and metal everywhere. And a very unnerving single glove.

That’s not flying. It is possibly dying.

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Are butterflies intelligent?

Yes. If intelligence is the ability to seek out nectar and pollinate flowers, yes. In terms of long-term travel to their southern climes and back, Monarchs in particular never cease to amaze.

But are they dependable? In terms of showing up when they’re expected, to bask in humans’ adoration? Not so much. 

The events of the day at Wave Hill, the century and a half old estate that is now an arboretum and horticultural center, were supposed to highlight butterflies. There was a “Nature Walk: Butterflies in the Garden” and special arts and crafts activities for families. The last expedition had just gone out when we arrived mid-afternoon, so we thought we’d go it alone.

We saw brilliant flowers.

Of all colors.

Shapes. Sizes.

Surely some that would appeal to a butterfly.

Look, there’s a monarch! said Gil. But it had vanished.

I see a little white one, said Josefa. A cabbage moth, corrected Gil.

There were some bees of different types. Where there were bees wouldn’t you expect butterflies?

We learned that Louis Bauer, the horticultural director at Wave Hill, was going to be honored at a party in a couple of days. I met Louis when I sold him a tree inventory for Wave Hill a few years ago. I remember asking him how he kept everything so beautiful in the greenhouses there. I go in three or four times a day and stick my finger in the soil to see if they have enough water, he said. Simple genius.

The greenhouses, of course, had no butterflies, but some prehistoric looking desert plants.

And a buxom cactus.

More flowers. Nothing fluttered by.

Quiet trails.

Vistas in every direction. Some of them private.

The most fabulous view out over the Hudson was getting ready for its closeup with white wedding party chairs.

We just about gave up. Not only did we not see butterflies, we didn’t see anybody looking for butterflies. Was this some colossal joke?

A sculpture on the lawn made use of succulents, moss, and a tire fetched out of the Bronx River.

Wave Hill has a pair of copper beeches to die for. One of the elephantine pair has pristine bark that you just want to go up to and pet. The other’s branches drape down to the ground and hide a trunk covered with a venerable array of  carvings. I have always liked beech bark carvings. It makes for a good place to meet a friend for a private assignation. I feel like I’ve done that sometime, in another life.

We stretched out in the adirondack chairs that make Wave Hill an even more perfect place. In the mellow shade of a white oak. The burnished glaze of fall made us collapse with thirst.

So the winged creatures missed the cameras and the oohs and ahhs. They took the nectar and ran. They had better places to hang out. They’re that smart.

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Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

to some people, but others take painstaking care to preserve them.

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

His job is exclusively to build and repair tree guards on the Grand Concourse construction site. He is, he told me, officially a carpenter by trade, as far as the union is concerned. That’s an honorable and well-paid profession. But we’re lucky to have him doing what he does. He squares up the enclosures and hammers the boards together, often standing back to scrutinize them before he starts to correctly gauge the tenor of the job.

We’re chatting.

You must get tired of this, I say, referring to the orange snow fencing, a bale of which he carries around with him much of the day. It’s constantly getting ripped from the frames and he is constantly fixing it.

No, he says. I used to be. But now I covered my house with it inside and out, that’s how much I like it.

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

What I see is a skinny, herky jerky guy who dances down the Concourse like a leprechaun, cigarette in mouth, hammer in hand, tool belt clanking, working his magic to protect the trees from harm.

It’s good you do it, I say. Otherwise the crew would knock down the trees.

No, they wouldn’t, he contradicts. They know they’re living things. I tell them that that tree there was Jesus’ original crown of thorns.

He means the honey locust – the site has a forest of them. Tree workers hate them because they get pricked so bad.

No, says Jimmy. The guys appreciate the trees. They are sweethearts. Really.

Well, shut my mouth. Sometimes I think a particular machine operator takes some sadistic joy in breaking branches with his bucket.

Still, I know that one day these tree guards will come off and the honey locusts and American elms and London planes and amur maples will once again introduce themselves to the world, and the neighborhood will be the better for it. It takes work to preserve them, but it’s well worth it.

Jimmy is a lot of things, a philosopher, a comedian, even an arborist. I told him I appreciated what he does and he told me he appreciated me appreciating what he does.

And he may possibly an actor. A producer discovered him on the job and told him he wanted him for a bit part on screen.  Then he came back. He told Jimmy they decided they wanted him for a bigger role. He was just too good to be a cameo.

That would be great, he’d get his SAG card and hobnob with hot shots. But it would be a loss for the Grand Concourse to have him no longer nurturing the tree guards, butt in mouth, a hammer in his hand.


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Pretty in pink

is not just a creaky old John Hughes movie. Pink has become the ethos, the philosophy, the dream and the religion for girls of the elementary school age and under. Until they betray pink for purple…

This conclusion will not surprise anyone with eyes in their head over the past quarter century.

I’ve been told that in Japan, boys wear pink and girls blue. Not true, according to reputable sources (the interwebs). Males and females in that country do, though, apparently mix and match colors in their apparel, ignoring sex-related social constructs.

The stores on the Grand Concourse  have girl-pink stacked high.

Pink bikes beckon.

Stuffed animals present themselves as irresistable.


Pink’s popularity for grown women grew over the 20th century, from the choices of Mamie Eisenhower to Jayne Mansfield to, jumping ahead, the Plastics in Mean Girls who dressed in pink on Wednesdays. Can we forget Hillary Clinton’s bright pink blazer?

The situation differs for small fry. They have all become princesses. Princesses are sweet, not solid. In fact, being a princess is nothing a child can aspire to. Yes, thy possess magic, but not with powers to make anything actually happen.

Why should anyone care? That toddler in her stroller, buried in fluffy pink, is so comfy, so cute!  And girls in pink grow up to be perfectly capable pink-attired woman, like this one awaiting her Covid shot.

Rainbows are everywhere now. Why not give girls the gift of choosing any color they truly desire? It would take  some counter-brainwashing, true, with all the material goods available, the clothing and toys and tutus drenched in pink. But it would be good if anyone could be pretty in any color.

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Hair is big

on the Grand Concourse. I pass at least one hair salon on every block, interspersed with supermarkets, household goods, bodegas, hookah shops and the goat restaurant.

The signs are not all for hair braiding. Straight hair gets its due.

Including this goofy martian coif.

But mainly the ads showcase braids.

Extravagant hair styling makes me think about novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, described accurately by the New York Times as “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic,”  and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013. It’s a moving story about two people from Nigeria, one of whom comes to America and one to London. I won’t tell the rest in case you read it (and you ought to). But one thing that stands out for me in the fabric of the novel is the amount of time the main character spends in African hair braiding salons. This was foreign to me. If you read Adichie, the granular detail with which she describes having her hair done could only have come from her own experience.

Scholars of African history see the practice as many thousands of years old, with braids even etched into the back of the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza. African tribes, groups and regions adorned their heads in specific ways, not restricted to cornrows. Styles date back to at least 3000 B.C., including Ghana braids, Fulani braids, Goddess braids, Box braids and dreadlocks.

On the Concourse, there are many more images of fancy hair braiding than there are actual stylings on the street. It seems to be more aspirational, or maybe done for a special occasion.

Of course there are other origin tales besides the African. Some go back to the Venus of Willendorf, thought to be 25,000 years old and discovered in Austria in 1908. 

Just 11.1-centimeters tall, this limestone beauty  seems undeniably to have a head of cornrows. If I could steal one object from a museum, this would be it. I’d have to go to Vienna, where the Venus is exhibited in their Natural History Museum

Now for an alternative narrative, possibly apocryphal. It is said that cornrows were used to help the enslaved escape their misery. Cornrows were used to transfer information; they were maps of a sort. Benkos Bioho, a radical who lived in Columbia, South America, is said to have devised the practice in the 1500s. Bioho and ten others escaped the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque, known as the “village of maroons.” Later this became the first free village in the Americas. His reward: he was captured by the government, hanged and quartered. Before that, though, he taught braiding.

iCurved braids represented roads to be traveled to escape. Also, the enslaved hid seeds in their hair to plant crops once they reached freedom. No slaveholder would ever suspect.

It’s also said that braided hair was called “cane rows” to denote the sugar cane fields in which captive workers toiled so horrifically.

This strategy recalls the red blanket hung on the line to guide those on the underground railroad to freedom.

How much of this legacy is embedded  in the hair styles of Grand Concourse? The signs advertising braiding always looked gaudy to me. It’s good to look deeper.


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It started out a good day

and wound up even better. At 7:30 am I stood on the Grand Concourse sidewalk petting Spartacus, a dog belonging to a neighborhood guy.

This massive animal, an Italian Mastiff (or Cane Corso) was a puppy at 150 pounds and destined to grow bigger. He was gentle as a kitten.

The afternoon progressed as usual, inspecting trees and their roots in trenches, munching plantain chips, drinking too much iced coffee.

Then we head to a concert at a place called Brooklyn Steel: Black Pumas, the psychedelic-rhythm and blues band whose smash Colors has had everyone entranced in the past year.

First, to eat. A Taste of Heaven pops up as right around the corner from the concert, in east Williamsburg.

You here for the venue? says Tony, who owns the place and is chief cook. Well, yes.

Jerk ribs, cabbage, collard greens from an aluminum dish with a plastic fork. From a steam table. A quart container of mango KoolAid to slake the thirst, because everything is popping with spice.

We dine outside, no indoor seating, at a tiny table. About the best grub I’ve had recently, and that includes a fancy restaurant high in the air where you had an extraordinary vision of verdant central park stretched out in front of you. The food, not so extraordinary. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dined out someplace supposedly fantastic and said I could do better at home.

Not here. I can’t fathom how he turned out this food in his tiny kitchen, but it is magical.

We’re number one on Yelp, says Tony, leaving his station and setting another tin of jerk ribs down in front of us gratis so we can both try them. And, in fact, checking out Tony’s boast, A Taste of Heaven stands out on Yelp as number one out of 184 soul food restaurants in New York. Unfortunately they have no dessert, but an elderly lady sitting on the one chair inside pulls a yellow supermarket cake out of her plastic shopping bag and offers to give me a slice. She urges me to take it. It’s lemon! she says.

In case you want to find a Taste of Heaven, it stands at a crossroads.

Marked by the eternally ubiquitous sneakers that hang from a wire above the street.

A short drive takes us to find something sweet, through Brooklyn’s gentrified blocks with their clean sidewalks and glossy windows. Mature willows tower over young ginkgos..

A super-spare and clean gym open to the street.

Some great band names.

Entertaining murals. Note: you can’t see JFK’s face with the naked eye, only with the camera. A mystery how it’s done.

A chocolate cone is good on this end-of-summer evening, yet brings us up close to a ghost bike, one of the shrines you find all around town to bicyclists killed in traffic. Descansos, as they’re called in the Southwest, where the victims of highway accidents are sometimes memorialized by side-of-the-highway assemblages of car parts, in addition to photos and other sentimental items.

It gave me a frisson of PTSD since I recently had a bike wreck which left me banged up and bruised and slightly concussed. All better now.

The venue was jammed, the last of a four-night stint.

And the Black Pumas?

They rock. Almost as much as Tony’s jerk ribs.

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Not to be too grandiose,

but it’s as if the universe knows it’s the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and presents us with a day that eerily resembles that day, the bluebell sky, the lovely cool of late summer, the feeling of peace and anticipation of all the good things fall will bring.

You know what comes next. And everyone has their 9/11 story, trotted out among friends and family for the occasion as if rubbing the old wound will heal it.

It’s the day before the anniversary, late afternoon, and we are on our way to an art opening on Manhattan’s southern tip, on South Street. The uneasy anticipation of the big day has begun to well up, along with excitement about the art show, which bills itself as the Independent Art Fair, and is to take place at Casa Cipriani, the swellegant restaurant we can’t ordinarily afford, situated on the upper floor of the Governor’s Island Ferry Terminal.

lThis show is where the up and comers hang their work. It’s a white hot market apparently for these comparatively juvenile artists, ones who haven’t made it yet to Upper East Side walls.

Driving down the West Side Highway toward 10 South Street, at South Ferry, we share tales of that day. How Gil and I went down to library park in Hastings, with its magnificent view of Manhattan Island, and watched the smoke plume from the towers before they fell. How I was on the phone with my father only a little later, both of us glued to the tv screen, when the first tower pancaked. Josefa’s husband was ill and she was rushing him to the hospital when she first heard about the tragedy on the car radio. A friend of ours who lived downtown abandoned her car on the FDR and ran toward the fire to pick up her kid at a preschool steps away from the flames. You have a 9/11 story too, don’t you?

So memories loom over the day before the anniversary, but can’t quell the sense that the city is coming back from its newest tragedy, the pandemic. Art as palliative.

We sit on the balcony of the Battery Maritime Building.

The Beaux-Arts building was built from 1906 to 1909 and designed by the firm Walker and Morris as the easternmost section of the partially completed Whitehall Street Ferry Terminal. It has backstage views of the Staten Island Ferry sign.

And various rushing roadways.

But you always feel the presence of another time, through design details it’s easy to overlook.

The reception is thronged with artists and patrons. If you must sit and eat dinner — and I am famished — it is delicious.

The art is relatively low-end in terms of an investment, ranging from 10 to 10,000 dollars, according to the knowledgable art dealer, Rick, who invited us. It’s quite a range.

I like some more than others.

As would anyone.

But it’s nothing to worry over, on this day before the anniversary of 9/11, a year and a half since Covid hit our city.



Computer art. The toebone is connected to the ankle to the kneebone.

An homage to the early 20th century revolutionary revelatory Russian artist Malevich.

Textiles. I like that.

There is a shop at which you can buy an artist’s facsimile of her own notebooks for $25 apiece. Lee Lozano, look her up. Wow.

What a concept.

We wander among the rooms that used to be the ferry’s waiting area. You can still get transportation to Governor’s Island and Jersey City down below. People are boarding to go to Governor’s Island even now, at 7 pm on a Friday night.

Where we are, dealers are hustling, selling art.

I won’t buy any.

But it’s a kind of wonderful event, a way of marking the distance between then and now. Art flourishes, even in the wake of darkness.

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