“What’s your name, man?”
“Alexander Hamilton, My name is Alexander Hamilton.”
The musical story of the driven “10 dollar founding father” was the impetus for this New York City trip. Hamilton-mania had dominated the theatre scene for the preceding year, and a desire to “be in the room where it happens” led us to be in New York on this particular Memorial Day week.
Back around New Year’s, I had despaired to our Tony voter friends, Gail and Ralph, that despite starting 6 months in advance, securing tickets for Hamilton at a reasonable price was rough going. They had seen it in the fall, and Ralph opined that this might be one instance where paying a premium for tickets might be worth it.
“Think of it as seeing Shakespeare in his time.” At first, this struck me as hyperbole, but over time, I came to think he just might be right.
We had listened to the Ron Chernow biography Alexander Hamilton several years before, and like Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, found it a compelling and captivating immigrant story. In the telling of Hamilton’s event-filled life at a crucial moment in history, the fragility of our nation’s founding and its periodic near-foundering, is clear.
Before I worked myself up to pay a premium for tickets, Gail and Ralph offered a flash of hope. It was widely expected that Hamilton would be nominated for multiple Tony awards (it was, a record 16, winning 11). One of the probable nominees didn’t play the fall night they saw the show, so they expected to be invited back to see it again before voting. If we arranged to be in New York at the same time…I needed to hear no more, we worked out mutually convenient dates, left off plotting how to score tickets and began fervently to hope.
In the meantime, my friend Vivian arranged for a pair of tickets for Hamilton for April, paying nearly $1000 for the rear mezzanine! She relayed how moments after purchasing them through the Internet, a window popped up asking if she would like to resell them. Crazy!
Through the spring, I virtually memorized the Hamilton cast album, which won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Eventually, the long hoped for message came from Gail: they were invited back and we were their lucky +1s!
This is how we came to be in New York just before Hamilton swept the Tony Awards-it was all driven by Hamilton-mania!
We had an unusually nice place to stay this trip, a light and art-filled penthouse loft in Tribeca, with large terraces, thanks to an exchange with a fabulous artist and her husband, who we met on our trip to NY a year before.
Our midtown/theater district firefighting brother-in-law, Aaron, husband of Steve’s youngest sister Sarah, picked us up on an unusually warm late Saturday afternoon at JFK. After picking up Sarah at their house in Staten Island, we headed to Manhattan, with Fleet week aviators spiraling overhead as we crossed the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
After dropping our luggage off at the apartment, we headed to dinner at La Pecora Bianca (in Italian, white sheep) at Broadway and 26th St, near Madison Park. Occupying the former home of the Havana Tobacco Company, it is attractively redesigned as a light and bright, casual, market-driven eatery, with a relaxed but elegant, farmhouse feel .
Sharing several scrumptious salads and pasta dishes left just enough room for me to squeeze in a tiny serving of a sensational amarena sour cherry gelato, as we strolled and shopped afterwards at next-door Eataly. Steve and I walked home from there, thankful to log a few steps after spending the day confined to airplane seats.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Sheep surfaced again quickly, featured prominently in the decor down the street at Kaffe 1668, a long, narrow, unusually dim, but delightfully cool and shady cafe with an excellent latte. This nearby cafe became our regular go for morning coffee spot. Steve’s older sister, Susan, had made the long drive from Buffalo the prior day, and we were soon joined there by Susan, Sarah and Aaron.
After a quick lunch at Maison Kaiser, a branch of the famous Parisian bakery, we headed east to Columbus Square, dubbed by the NY Times as “Chinatown’s communal backyard”. On this exceptionally warm and sunny Sunday, this leafy shaded park in Chinatown was filled with Chinese, playing cards and mahjong, with clusters of listeners gathered around Chinese opera singers accompanied by traditional instrument playing musicians. Aaron knew from a regular that many of the performers were veritable Chinese opera rock stars in pre-Cultural Revolution China. It was striking how all of the performers and musicians were all of a certain age. It was a cool and delightful spot in which to sit and listen, a step into another culture, one which may be receding into the mists of memory. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, presides in bronze form over the festivities from on high. Although he did not live to see his dream of a post-imperialist, united China, he probably would have enjoyed seeing this thriving pocket of Chinese culture.
The site of the park has a storied history and was once a notorious slum, variously known as Five Points and Mulberry Bend and immortalized in the film “Gangs of New York”. Just down the street is The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory at 65 Bayard St, which had a line stretching out to the street on this hot afternoon.
They feature many exotic and Asian flavors, including durian, which I sampled (again) and still don’t like enough to not order my favorites, ginger or coconut.
Wandering north through Chinatown, we managed to wind our way back to the apartment by way of shoe favorite Ottiva on Spring St in Soho, yet another NY related discovery for which I have Gail to thank! This store sells Italian brands by designers that are not household names, but the shoes are NY street tough and feet friendly. Both Steve and I found city chic footwear shoe-venirs.
Steve and I headed uptown by subway to Columbus Circle, then east on Central Park South to the theater at 59 E. 59th, to meet my sister Clarissa and her husband Jason for an Alan Ayckborne Brits on Broadway production of Confusions, a series of five hilarious short plays enacted by a terrific ensemble of actors. Clarissa and Jason’s friends, Jeanne and Trent, joined us for the evening. The opening piece presented a frazzled Mother Figure (played to great effect by Elizabeth Boag), so out of practice in the adult world that she can only interact with her neighbors as if they were children as well, leading to wildly comic interactions. Disaster erupts at a community fair in Gosforth’s Fete, as rain threatens, and intimate revelations are inadvertently revealed to the entire community when a PA system on the fritz suddenly springs to untimely life. The comedic pieces did have some serious subtext, as in the final skit, A Talk in the Park, in which musical chairs is played out on park benches, as strangers reveal too much to unreceptive fellow bench-warmers. Dinner afterwards at nearby The East Pole enabled us to interact with our waiter in a manner reminescent of another of Ayckbourn’s sketches, Between Mouthfuls, in which two couples whose lives are enmeshed dine in close proximity in a restaurant, as the hapless waiter (adroitly portrayed by Stephen Billington) dodges revelations, searing looks and emotional calamity. Jeanne and I vied for the title of softest touch, as we traded stories of how easily we cry in response to theater, books, even television commercials. We had met Jeanne before, but I was surprised to learn that her career as a writer began almost accidentally, after she, Jason, and other friends were let go from their jobs at a publisher in the 1980s, when the industry was undergoing considerable downsizing and consolidation. She is known as “Miss Mingle,” thanks to the success of her first book, The Art of Mingling (more than 150,000 copies in 10 countries!). Dinner was delicious. I loved my fennel and lobster pie. A lonely plate of bok choy sat forlorn in front of Jeanne, sitting next to me; it was left to the end of the meal, me thinking it was Jeanne’s fish accompaniment, while she eyed it as well, thinking it was mine.
It was raining softly as we all walked west along Central Park South to the subway station at Columbus Circle, Jean to head north on the line 1 and us setting off south with Clarissa and Jason on the same line. Trent peddled off on a Citi Bike in his elegant blue blazer.
Once safely ensconced back in the apartment in Tribeca, the skies really opened up, pounding on the metal roof. Thankfully, most of the rain seemed to be reserved for overnight, as by the time we mobilized the next morning, there was little left but overcast and whipped up gray clouds.
Monday, May 30, 2016 (Memorial Day)
The next morning, our friend Chris Newbert’s post about his godfather’s role in the first wave of infantry soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day had me in tears while waiting for an avocado toast at Kaffe 1668. I should know better than to combine Facebook article posts with commercial tasks.
We headed across to Soho, stopping at Seven for all Mankind for a cooler linen shirt for Steve, and I found a Jason Wu little black dress for next to nothing at Ina’s, a resale store my friend Ugne had told me about. Ina herself encouraged me, noting that it fit perfectly, except of course for being too long. I almost had to call Steve for assistance to extricate myself from a dressing room near-disaster. A silver Jil Sander dress, with an underslip, was very narrow through the shoulders. It went on a lot easier than it came off, almost requiring shoulder dislocation to extricate myself from it. It was too hot a day to be trying on clothes, so it was relief to escape the constricting silver confines of this unyielding, extremely architectural dress.
In the afternoon, we headed downtown to take the ferry to Staten Island, where Aaron picked us up.
Back at the house, we shared some nibbles on the back patio before heading out with Chopstick in the Chopmobile to nearby Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden.
After a leisurely walk through the lovely green gardens, we headed back to the house where Sarah and Aaron barbecued two types of sausages and three types of fish, all accompanied by an avocado and fennel salad, grilled vegetables and corn, making for a most memorable Memorial Day feast. Aaron continued the pampering, driving us home.
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
I was so excited about seeing Hamilton that evening, that I scarcely slept on Monday night, awaking almost hourly in child-at-Christmas anticipation (“Is it Tuesday yet?”).
We had a wonderful visit with our friend Roz, who drove in from the Hudson River Valley to spend the day with us. I went down the elevator to meet her, but totally muffed it trying to ascend with her, confusing the keys. Two identical keys were required, one labeled E and the other F, one for the front door of the building and the other for the floor of the apartment to operate the elevator. E for entrance or for elevator? F for front or for floor?
We meandered in the neighborhood, first having a coffee at Kaffe 1668, then eventually making our way to Taïm for their famous falafel. Roz had never been to Uniglo or seen the Rem Koolhaus temple of fashion at Prada. I found a pair of blue suede pumps with silver heels and black winter pants at Prada, still expensive, but tolerable at 50% off.
We grabbed an Uber to head north, but were early enough we disembarked early to walk the last 10 blocks. To fortify ourselves for Hamilton, shorter than Les Miz at just under 3 hours with intermission, we met Ralph and Gail for an early Italian food dinner at nearby Becco. Both Gail and I enjoyed the pan-seared salmon.
What to say about Hamilton?-hype, hysteria or really all that? It really was NON STOP, so energetic, smart, and yes, downright revolutionary, in both its subject matter and the lyrical density afforded by the hip-hop infused score. Word counters estimate that if 22, 000 word Hamilton were sung at the usual pace of Broadway musicals, it would be 4-6 hours long.
Yet, it is compelling, absorbing, and fascinating, without a flagging moment. The ultimate immigrant story, especially timely in a political cycle in which border control, suspicion of immigrants as fomenting terrorism, and xenophobia are much in the headlines and seemingly responsible for propelling the least prepared, foaming at the mouth candidate to unprecedented heights. Hamilton could be the subject of an entire, extended post, and indeed, the music has been playing NON STOP in my head for months, before and after seeing it. Suffice to say that it is a game-changer, a marvel of interlaced musical styles, and an inspiration.
We decompressed with drinks and nibbles at nearby Bar Italia, a frequent before or after theatre favorite. A few weeks later, Hamilton would go on to dominate the Tony Awards, with Tonys for Best New Musical, wins for Lin-Manuel Miranda for Best Original Score and Best Book, and acting awards for Leslie Odom, Jr. as the sly and slippery Aaron Burr, Renée Elise Goldsberry as the smart soulmate sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, and unforgettably energetic Daveed Diggs as the “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman” Marquis de Lafayette and fresh from France Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton won nearly every Tony it could have, except for Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton (although she was excellent as Hamilton’s loving and long-suffering wife ), with additional nominees Christopher Jackson as George Washington and Jonathan Groff as King George losing out to Daveed Diggs (the night we saw it, Rory O’Malley played King George and he was hilarious!).
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
We walked the Highline north, leaving just enough time to shop at photographic behemoth B & H, before meeting up with Ralph and Gail for the Wednesday matinee, Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird. All I knew beforehand was that it was a relationship drama. I had no idea the nature of the relationship. It was riveting, unforgettable, searing, scorching drama. I didn’t initially understand the title reference, but the Internet suggested a few theories afterwards. One source I consulted says it refers to a slang British term for “jailbird,” while in another, the author, David Harrower, says he was listening to the jazz standard Bye Bye Blackbird while writing the play, which he characterized as an “improvisation” with 2 people in a room. That seems somehow fitting, in that improvisation implies not knowing the outcome- this encounter is that volatile and unpredictable. The author’s name strikes me as unusual and fitting for the author of one of the more harrowing theatrical works I’ve ever seen. The lyrics of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney song Blackbird do seem appropo: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”
With Blackbird, Harrower won the Olivier in 2005 for Best New Play, and Jeff Daniels reprised the male lead role which he had previously played Off Broadway in 2007. The play was nominated for a Tony this year for Best Revival of a Play, and both the actors were nominated for leading actor Tonys, although did not win.
Afterwards, we decompressed by walking up to Columbus Circle, to MAD, the Museum of Art and Design, drawn by exhibitions of Harry Bertoia jewelry and soundscapes. The upper two floors exhibited the work of an interesting design couple from Amsterdam, collaborating as Studio Job.
We had a wonderful dinner at Danji, a Korean Tapas joint in the theater district. We loved this tiny rustic chic place, with a well priced menu of “Favorites” (6 mini-courses, plus a trio of kimchi and white rice for $48) and a very unusual beverage pairing ($28). From the starter of spicy yellowtail sashimi with crispy potato flakes, to the follow up tofu with scallion ginger dressing, we loved the series of little dishes. The drink pairing was imaginative as well. Our favorite was the makgeolli, a slushy unfiltered rice beer, which tasted like a crispy coke float. This was paired with their version of “kfc”, that is, korean spicy chicken wings. We walked it off via the Highline, our first nighttime promenade on the elevated park, my favorite way to navigate north or south in Manhattan on foot, above the fray of the street.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
After a coffee at Kaffé 1668, our next stop was the Matt Bernson store to pick up shoes I had ordered earlier in the week. From there, it was just a few blocks further south to Duane St for a fabulous, 5 course meal at Bouley, quite a great value at $55. The surroundings are beautiful and the service pleasantly attentive. Vivian had told me about this gastronomic temple, but we had never made it, even canceling a reservation the year before. It proved to be not a minute too soon, as shortly after our return, there it was in the New York Times under the headline “David Bouley Plans to Retool his Restaurants, and Himself”, indicating the restaurant would close later in the year.
Fortified by our oh-so-satisfying lunch, we met up at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, with brother-in-law Aaron and sister Susan. Aaron was already in town, having gone to the dentist in the morning, and Susan came over later on the ferry. This was a first visit for all of us. A year before was our first visit to the Memorial Pools, two huge underground waterfalls in the enormous footprints of the Twin Towers. They are overwhelming in their scale. The water rushing down seems a metaphorical descent into that hellish day. Last year, it was enough just to take in the pools. On that occasion, within minutes, I found the name of an older, glamorous cheerleader I knew in high school, Karol Keasler. She was a year ahead of me, and I admired from a distance her athleticism and cheekbones. She worked as an event planner at an investment bank in one of the towers. This visit, with the aid of a name locator, I sought out for remembrance the name of the only other person (that I know of) that I knew who was killed on that tragic and senseless day, Waleed Iskander. Strangely, although I remember well reading, week after week and stretching into months, the NY Times obituaries of the victims, I learned of these two more personal deaths only years later.
Waleed, along with his then girlfriend (later fiancée) Nicolette, was a guest whose company we enjoyed enormously on a Ciclismo Classico bike trip to Tuscany years ago. I remember regretting, as we became acquainted on that wonderful trip, that he didn’t live closer. He was wonderfully fun, but great distances are barriers. Of course, this was in the pre-social media era. I don’t even remember how I learned, years after 9-11, that he had been on the ill-fated flight from Boston. He was living in London, and had been in Boston visiting his brother, and on American Flight 11, was en route to visit his parents in Los Angeles, which tells you something essential about him. He was 34, accomplished, well educated and charming. I do know how I learned about Karol-in 2012, more than 10 years later, she was in the news, as a positive DNA identification was made of her remains, from a foot bone fragment found at the site.
We spent the afternoon trying to absorb the enormity of the event which so marks all of us. The ramifications of September 11 echo through our daily lives in a myriad of ways. Of course, we are all affected by the gyrations now required for airport screening. We have very personal familial connection to the events as well. Aaron is a firefighter today at the theater district firehouse which sustained terribly heavy losses, with all 14 working that day lost, as well as another off-duty responder. Their motto, “Never Missed a Performance”, takes on a darker meaning, reflecting on that day. Every day at work, he is surrounded by mementos of these dedicated predecessors. Every family of a firefighter or policeman lives daily with fear as a small, but constant, companion. We know Aaron loves his work and try to keep fear for him and his co-workers at a remove, knowing these daily heroes would not have it otherwise. Going through the museum with Aaron lent a unique perspective, as he described to us the functions of the components of a fire truck, still visible on the twisted and burnt remnant of Ladder 3’s truck, an eloquent testiment to the immensity of the destruction. As personal as September 11 is to Aaron and his co-workers at his house, it happened before Aaron lived in NY and was a fireman. The mass casualties of that day led to the need to train and hire replacement firefighters, one of whom would be Aaron, who willingly shoulders this legacy as well as the heavy responsibility intrinsic to the job.
My sister Clarissa and brother-in-law Jason did live in NY on September 11. Although doubtful initially their skills as graphic artists would be of any use, they joined the lines of volunteers and were put to work building databases of volunteers and their skill sets, aiding in the effort to organize the response of New Yorkers and others wanting to contribute to the rescue and recovery efforts. They both felt it was therapeutic to contribute to the enormous work of recovery.
I found the museum quite moving, as did Steve. It is a difficult line to toe to memorialize such an event, paying homage to the innocent victims and tribute to the responders. Inevitably, not all will be pleased. I think the museum and memorial succeed overall in a near impossible task. The Calatrava subway station rising nearby seems a symbolic phoenix of a people rising again.
After a somber afternoon, Susan, Steve, and I headed north on the subway toward comic diversion, disembarking at Columbus Circle. A quick dinner at Bouchon bakery in the Time Warner Center (sharing deviled eggs and eggplant purée, while Steve and Susan had chicken soup and tomato soup, respectively, while I enjoyed my salmon with asparagus and farro), was conveniently immediately next door to the Rose Theater, our destination for the evening. The Importance of Being Earnest, in comic opera form, was a US stage premiere, a highly entertaining, though not very hummable, Royal Opera version by Gerald Barry. It was well sung, but I was glad we hadn’t sprung for $200 seats, the only other option available earlier in the week, besides the $40 rafter seats we elected. The opera glasses I had picked up the day before at B & H were put to a good test. Steve and I accompanied Susan to the ferry terminal at the foot of Manhattan, leaving us to enjoy the walk back past the dramatic, birdlike Calatrava subway station.
Friday, June 3, 2016
The new Whitney, anchoring the south end of the Highline, opened a week after our last trip, so this was our first opportunity to become acquainted with it.
It rained overnight, and the day was cloudy, with remnants of the rain on the sidewalk. Steve wanted to walk north by way of the Westside Highway, while I preferred the quieter route along Greenwich. The museum is an imposing structure, constructed of glass, steel, and concrete. It is light and bright, with its best and most universally admired feature being the multiple open-air terraces which allow stupendous views of the Highline, the waterfront, New Jersey, and downtown.
On Gail’s recommendation, we had reserved for lunch at the ground level Untitled restaurant, where we shared imaginative preparations of sunchokes, and flat bread topped with lamb, potato, and asparagus. Neither one of us was particularly impressed by the top level exhibition of upcoming artists entitled Mirror Cell, but we both found more to like on the next two floors, a show on portraiture. We were both very impressed by the giant wax candle figure of the artist and New York resident Julian Schnabel, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer.
We had a little time to pass through another branch of Ina en route to Union Square in Brooklyn for the evening’s destination, Green-Wood Cemetery. We timed it perfectly, and were crossing the street to the cemetery, just as Sarah and Aaron were parking the car nearby. Green-Wood Cemetery itself is a destination, a National Historic Landmark, 478 acres of marble statuary and mausoleums in an expansive Edenic setting, which set a precedent for later establishment of urban green spaces (think: Central Park). Green-Wood was established as a cemetery in 1838 and was once a popular tourist destination, second only to Niagara Falls. The Great American Casket Company presentation was a lighthearted and amusing riff on the afterlife, performed by an energetic young troop, the Bread Arts Collective, who led us on a journey through the cemetery, under the guise of promotion of their “after-life technology”. Props came into play during the evening, including a length of ribbon (our lifeline), a marble (surrogate for cash), and we were asked to draw that which we feared most. Steve drew a bar of Ivory soap. He later explained that at age 6, his mother washed his mouth out with a floating, decomposing bar of Ivory soap after he uttered the word “damn!”. Aaron drew a spiderweb. I drew a rat, largely because one startled us the night before, shooting out of the shadows at our feet, just as we were about to mount the stairs to the apartment.
The performance was accompanied by a four-person live band, playing interesting traditional standards.
Our guided promenade through the cemetery, with lavishly decorated tombs and monuments in a lush, verdant setting, was not scary at all. A member of the audience was chosen by the President to supplement the efforts of the staff, as number eight, although it eventually became clear that he actually was a member of the troop. His initial protests and reluctance to participate were initially quite convincing. I love interactive, site-specific theatre, for the non-traditional settings, not being confined to a seat for the performance and the ability to photograph the proceedings!
We dined afterwards in Park Slope, at the Carmen Prime Steakhouse. Even though we were at a steakhouse, three of the four of us ordered fish. I had the halibut cooked in a wrapper, carta fata, while Sarah enjoyed her whole branzino. Susan intended to join us for dinner. However, as we were settling in at the restaurant, Aaron received a text, saying she was lost in Coney Island. She had boarded the wrong train or maybe boarded the right train, but didn’t get off at the right stop? I looked it up later. She was on the correct train, but didn’t get off at the right stop and thinking the train might go in a loop, she stayed on, to the bitter end of the line, Coney Island. She blamed Sarah for giving her poor directions, but Sarah had actually cut and pasted the restaurant’s instructions from their website. Long story short, Susan was bum-rushed to New Jersey where she would spend the next week recovering from this familial trauma in her childhood home, owned and occupied by her non grata sister, Karen Rebecca. For background on this matter, I refer you to Steve’s hilarious 10 part tragicomedy: i-ran-over-my-ipad-my-mother-died-then-the-shit-got-real-an-illustrated-autobiographical-tragicomic-novella
Hamilton-mania continued even after our return home from New York from a great week. Back at work, an email came from American Express, announcing a pre-sale offer for the next block of Hamilton tickets to be released, for January-May, 2017. Clarissa and Jason quickly jumped on the offer with us (we were limited to 4 tickets). It opened at 10 am on a Tuesday on the East coast, 7 am our time, right in the middle of our bike commute to work. I had breast conference to present from 8-9 am, so Steve was charged with jumping on the computer as soon as he was at his desk. He dispatched this duty admirably, reporting later there were very few seats left, even toward the end of the block, only 1 hour into the sale! We did manage to secure 4 rear mezzanine seats, for $175 each, which my partner Vivian pronounced a bargain, since she had so recently paid close to $500 for similar seats.
Me: “Yes, but this is for a year from now!”
So, to paraphrase King George, we’ll be back, to New York (yes, “the greatest city in the world”) to see Hamilton, in May 2017! We can’t wait to be in the room where it happens again! In the meantime, I’m happily reading the Hamiltome!
-Marie (with a bit of interjection from Steve)
To learn more about mingling from Miss Mingle: www.jeannemartinet.com