Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ballet Arts at City Center: A Haven in Midtown

Ballet Arts occupies the sixth floor of an art deco building on W56th St. To enter, you walk through a nondescript door across the street from the backside of Carnegie Hall. Beside the door, a plackard reads "City Center stage entrance only", and you feel like one of the privileged few allowed entrance to the theatre’s inner sanctum. Then you wait for the elevator, watching the 1930's needle tick down the floors as it traces a slow semi-circle to ground floor. You step into the wood elevator, musty with the scent of decades of dancers.  You slowly rise past the floors of administrative offices, until you finally arrive at the safe haven of Ballet Arts.

At Ballet Arts there is no computer system, no minute plastic cards that are easily lost in your handbag and that reduce your identity to a bar code. Here, though the lounge where dancers stretch before class is small, the studio is one of the largest in NYC, a vast art-deco space where one can really move. Here, a German woman, quiet and gentle, sits at a small wooden table. She collects class fees (cash only), places them in a metal box, and writes your name with a pencil in a college-ruled, spiral bound notebook. She quickly gets to know you. Here, the man who runs the place greets you in a Russian accent. He re-stocks the coffee table with oreos, apples, grapes, and potato chips, free to dancers for snacking before class (who says dancers don't eat?) Here on the cozy couches lining the walls, you are not pushed aside by the crowds in the glitzier NYC dance studios. From the roughly sketched paintings of dancers (you suspect they were crafted by a friend), to the teddy bears comfortably slouching on the sofas, to the red roses sitting beside the drinking fountain, to the goldfish tucked away on a shelf, to the Nutcracker that has recently appeared, there is a friendliness that has welcomed me back into the fold.

The teachers at Ballet Arts have trained at famed institutions like St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy and the School of American Ballet. They have danced, some as principals, with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Joffrey, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. They have worked with Rudolph Nureyev, Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey. Though they have reason to act otherwise, they are patient. It's that kind of place, one that inspires and nurtures art.

I discovered Ballet Arts two years ago, while trying to summon the courage to dance again. In my mid-thirties, I had berated myself (what are you thinking, ballet is for little girls, not for grown women). But I had danced in childhood, the dance had never left me, and the pull was too strong. It was not that I wanted to wear a tiara and prance around in a tutu (I wear a simple black leotard and lime green tights that have snagged and run beyond repair, and that are cut off above the ankle because my legs are too long for normal tights). But one day two winters ago, without second guessing myself, I secretly bought a pair of pink ballet flats. Without telling anyone, I stepped back into the studio. I was sore for three days. But my body remembered those old moves, though my brain strained to remember their names, and my childhood addiction for dance returned in full force.

When I saw a pair of pointe shoes on sale at Sansha for $20, I nabbed them (though my legs were not yet strong enough). Then I began looking for a studio that felt like home. That's when I found Ballet Arts. It reminded me of the old, cavernous studio in which I danced as a child, and which to me was a cathedral. Ballet Arts has that grungy feel that all dance studios should have, and the waiting room that invites communing with other dancers. Many of the teachers at Ballet Arts teach classical Russian technique, which is the style I learned as a child and which my body remembers best.

Most dancers are quiet people. It's the expression through movement that allows us to come alive. When I enter the dance studio, I leave the outer layers of myself behind: life's petty jealousies, the insignificant (in retrospect) slights, the confusions and worries, the occasional belly aches. All that falls away, and I am simply myself. I love the concentration of ballet, the body consciousness, the attention to every muscle (even those tiny foot muscles, usually ignored and abused), the obsessive attention to body position, the emphasis on height and lengthening, the opening of oneself to the audience (apparent in the dancer's forward stance-- one cannot balance without an open heart). Ballet has been called the "science of behavior toward others" and "the body divined". Perhaps that's why some think ballet is an inner club: most cannot understand divinity and steer clear rather than risk failing.

Ballet is freedom through movement. I have expressed myself through movement since childhood, when I put on the Mary Poppins record, rolled up the rugs in the sitting room (the better to spin and slide on the wooden floor), and danced until I fell down with joy. I'm not alone among women in this feeling. In her recent history of ballet, Jennifer Homans (dance critique for the New Republic, and former dancer for the San Francisco Ballet), speaks of Marie Taglioni's fame. Born into a family of Italian dancers in 1804, Taglioni is widely recognized as the first truly successful ballerina. Homans refers to Taglioni as a "woman's dancer", and links this to the mores of the time, when "'Decent' women had to settle for a subdued and controlled life, but underneath they were desperate to abandon their ‘soft and calm existence' for 'storms of passion' and 'dangerous emotions'. Taglioni lived what they could only dream: a fully expressed life." In ballet, women are the stars of the show, one in which the overarching aim is emotional expression within the constructs of the story.  Is this why some are still uncomfortable with this art form?

Ballet demands patience and sacrifice. Last summer I went back en pointe. I did one impatient releve and now have a black toenail that is still healing four months later. Since then, I’ve worked on proper form and developing my leg strength. In the last month my hamstrings have grown progressively tighter. Yesterday, while stretching before class, I said to my teacher, the more classes I take, the stiffer I become. He smiled and said, that's good, that means you're getting stronger and you're training correctly. Have you ever seen how NYC Ballet dancers walk? They're stiff. That means they're strong. But, I said, what about my flexibility? Splits and backbends? Well, you have to stretch, he said.

Ballet is constant challenge and self competition. What keeps me hooked is when my body works as it should: when I do a pirouette with correct form (and sometimes a double, and soon a triple); when, while doing pique turns, I am able to keep my eye on the spot and traverse the entire dance floor without becoming dizzy; and when I can get my leg just that much higher in an arabesque. That’s when I feel most connected to myself, to the music, to the imaginative audience for whom I am dancing, to the mystery of expressing myself through dance. In a world whose sharp edges stifle creativity, and whose brash assertions of self subvert beauty, in ballet I am finally allowed to express myself through a form that glorifies the feminine. I have great admiration for the masculine, but today’s world is over-balanced with it. Ballet turns that order on its head. In explaining its popularity with women, it seems to me that Balanchine correctly said: “Ballet is woman...Woman is the world and man lives in it."

That might explain the facial expression of the quiet Korean woman who I met a year ago. Now in her mid-twenties, she is learning ballet for the first time. Late on a Tuesday evening, after class at Ballet Arts, she sat on the floor of the lounge and, bending over to sew the ribbons on her pointe shoes, looked at me with pure and radiant joy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bakery Tango

On Tuesday, Tango appeared unexpectedly. The sky had drizzled all day, I needed to be in a better mood, and so I headed for Gideon's, the neighborhood bakery where pastries are half price after 4:30.  From the 1950's sign, to the round formica tables, and the types of pastries (cherry danishes, chocolate rugelach, rainbow sprinkle sugar cookies), Gideon's is old-fashioned. Which suits the elderly neighborhood socialites. That day, there were two long-time girlfriends flirting with a tall white-haired man smartly dressed in a wool jacket and navy trousers. You keep getting better looking all the time, one of the women said. The man looked embarrassed, but pleased.  He smiled, absorbing the compliment. In a corner opposite them sat Tango, looking nonchalant and dipping a French cruller in his afternoon pick-me-up coffee. I stopped dead and blurted, Tango, what are you doing here?! Nice to see you, too, Tango replied. It's been awhile, I said dumbly, trying to disguise the truth: Tango was a sight for sore eyes. From the low tech sound system (the boom box behind the counter) played a fancied-up Julio Iglesias version of an old Carlos Gardel tango: El Dia Que Me Quieras (The Day When You Will Love Me). Tango and I looked at each other with unspoken understanding, that song weaving our thoughts together. Are we back on? Tango asked.  I nodded.

I carried that song with me for more than a day.  I found the lyrics on the Argentine Ministry of Education website. Written in the future tense, the lyrics are tinged with sadness and longing, but ultimately full of hope: the day when you will love me, the roses will dress up in celebration (will that day ever arrive?), the day when you will love me, there will only be harmony (yes, I'm sure that day will come), the day when you will love me there will be no more pain (I have hope, that day will arrive sometime soon...) However others might complicate matters by saying that tango is life, love, relationship, art, Argentine national identity, whatever, I read those lyrics and thought it was something easier. Some say that tango is also (and simply) a language, a dialogue, a conversation of connection between two people.  Though I am still a tango novice, I tend to agree with this view, and venture to add that tango is also poetry (dear to my heart). Below is a link to the song and the lyrics in Spanish (without accents, as I can't figure out how to insert them in this dag-blasted blogger program), with my own English translation (hopefully not too terribly flawed):

El Dia Que Me Quieras-- Tango by Carlos Gardel

El Dia Que Me Quieras (1935)             The Day When You Will Love Me

Musica Carlos Gardel                           Music Carlos Gardel

Letra Alfredo Le Pera                           Lyrics Alfredo Le Pera

Acaricia me ensueno                             The soft murmur of your breath

el suave murmullo                                  Caresses my dreams.

de tu suspirar.                                        How life is full of laughter

Como rie la vida                                    When your black eyes
                                                                       desire to look on me.
si tus ojos negros                                   When it is mine
                                                                       the shelter of your laughter
me quieren mirar.                                   lifts me up like a song.

Y si es mio el amparo                            It heals my wounds,
    de tu risa leve
que es como un cantar,                            Everything, everything
                                                                    is forgotten.
ella aquieta mi herida,

todo, todo se olvida.

El dia que me quieras                                The day when you
                                                                        will love me
la rosa que engalana                                  The rose that beautifies all

se vestira de fiesta                                     will dress in its finest
                                                                        for the celebration.
con su mejor color.                                   And the church bells will ring

Y al viento las campanas                           Saying that you
                                                                     are already mine
diran que ya eres mia                                And the fountains will
                                                                     sing madly about our love.
y locas las fontanas                             

se contaran su amor.

La noche que me quieras                      The night when you
                                                                   will love me
desde el azul del cielo,                          The jealous stars

las estrellas celosas                                From the blue sky above

nos miraran pasar.                                  Will watch us pass by.

Y un rayo mysterioso                              And a mysterious moonbeam

hara nido en tu pelo,                               Will nest in your hair,

luciernaga curiosa que veras                    Like a curious glow-worm
                                                                      who will see
que eres mi consuelo                              That you console me.

El dia que me quieras                              The day when you
                                                                     will love me
no habra mas                                          There will be
    que armonia                                             nothing but harmony               
sera clara la aurora                                   The dawn will be clear

y alegre el manantial.                                And the spring will
                                                                       bubble happily.
Traera quieta la brisa                               The quiet breeze will

rumor de melodia.                                     murmur with melody.

Y nos daran las fuentes                             And the fountains
                                                                      will sing for us
su canto de crystal                                    in their crystalline voices.

El dia que me quieras                                The day when you
                                                                        will love me
endulzaran sus cuerdas                              The singing birds

el pajaro cantor.                                        Will sweeten their chords.

Florecera la vida,                                      Life will bloom,

no existira el dolor.                                    Pain will not exist.

La noche que me quieras                          The night when you
                                                                          will love me
desde el azul del cielo,                               The jealous stars

las estrellas celosas                                    From the blue sky above

nos miraran pasar.                                     Will watch us pass by.

Y un rayo mysterioso                                And a mysterious moonbeam

hara nido en tu pelo.                                  will nest in your hair.

Luciernaga curiosa que veras                     Like a curious glow-worm
                                                                          who will see
que eres mi consuelo.                                That you console me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Consulting the Oracle

I approached cautiously but with reverence.  There on a throne of marble sat Dance, flanked by Song and Story.  Dance rested her graceful hand on a knee draped in gossamer as green as the forest through which her acolytes frolick.  She leaned to her right, concentrating on what Song, in a gown of aquamarine that undulated like ocean waves, whispered into her ear.  Story sat aloof, silently observing and adorned in pure white.  I knelt, unable to summon words.  I watched them, wondering how to break through the morass of absorption and distance.  Finally, I gathered courage and said:


No response.  It had taken me a long time to find these three and I wasn't expecting this kind of reception.  I fidgeted and rubbed my right calf, which had grown numb from kneeling.  Dance and Song continued in consultation, Story looked omniscient and wise.  I did another wind up and said:


No response.  I looked around the glade in which the throne sat.  It was a vision of pastoral bliss.  Birds flitted.  Clover bloomed.  Bees hummed. Brooks bubbled.  If I'd been more effusive, I might have imagined Pan jumping about with magical pipes and mischievous schemes.  But I wasn't feeling expansive.  I'd loved these three for so long, and now they refused me.  I waved my arms, danced about, and shouted:

Hey!  You! I'm down here!  Look at me!  I have a question for you!

Dance looked down and said curtly, Can't see you.  The sun's in my eyes.

I moved into the shadows.  Can you see me now?  I said, hopeful.

I see your left foot,  Dance replied, imperious.

I need your help.  I need some answers.

I don't give a flying fuck about you and your questions!  I'm old and tired.  Leave me alone,  Dance screamed, then turned her back on me.

This was unexpected.  I didn't have a ready reply.

Song, less asinine but equally imperious, broke the silence and apologized for Dance, Her arthritic hip is acting up, explained Song,  But you should know better than to address us directly.

I had no choice.  You were hiding from me.

You should know by now.  You can't see a shooting star by looking at it directly, Song instructed, and turned her back on me.

I looked at Story with desperation.  They've both abandoned me, I moaned.

Story, wise in the ways of human emotion, explained in her gentle but knowing way, We're all angry with you.  You've been impatient with that Tango business.

I have.

That makes you nervous.

It does.

Then go.  Live.  And forget about us.  We've been around for a long time, and we'll be around for much longer still.  Live your way through it with patience.

But I need to know... is Tango art?

That is not for you to decide, and Story turned her back on me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tango Confessional

Oh mea culpa, I have sinned!  Three Hail Mary's and four Our Fathers and still my conscience plagues me. I didn't mean to do it.  Things got out of hand, my curiosity got the better of me, and before I knew it I had strayed away from Tango.  Cha-Cha was tempting.  But it wasn't just Cha-Cha.  It was also Hustle, Fox Trot, Salsa, and Viennese Waltz.  All in one night!  I know what you're thinking, can hear the sharp intake of breath, the eyes wide open with judgment (you ought to be ashamed of yourself!)  But the weather has turned cold, the days are shortening (which means the nights are lengthening), and a girl needs variety from time to time.  Tango and I weren't getting along. Tango had bristled under The Rules, felt put upon, hemmed in, confined.  We were on a break (not a break-up mind you, just a break).  We each needed some space.  

It all started with a Groupon (those mouth watering deals sent over the internet with discounts to spas, restaurants, wine tasting events, scuba diving lessons, and, yes, even dance classes held all over NYC-- I'm not a spokesperson for Groupon, I just like a deal).  Tango is an expensive habit, and supporting it can turn a person into a junkie (how do I get my next fix?!) So, a few weeks ago, I received a message about a Groupon discount to "Dance With Me Studios" in Tribeca.  I carefully checked the website before purchasing (I am an informed shopper).  The schedule listed "Intermediate Tango".  That's for me, I said, After two full months of Tango training, I can confidently say that I am Intermediate Level (no one can ever accuse me of not being ambitious). 

Last Thursday I walked through dark streets and drizzling rain, past the art galleries and designer chic stores of Tribeca, took the stairs down to the basement studio at 466 Broome St., and stepped into a plaster wedding cake.  The place looked like it had been plucked from a Beauty and the Beast sound stage.  There was fake gold gilding on the walls, and dozens of petite crystal chandeliers sparkled from the ceiling, while sconces crawled up the walls.  I felt a pang of longing for dear old Sandra Cameron Studios, where I had taken my first Tango class, and which was tastefully decorated in elegant white on white.  Oh, the receptionist moaned, we don't have that class anymore (referring to Intermediate Tango), but you can take Beginning.  No. I. Can't!  I absolutely cannot take one more Beginning Tango class, I thought.  But instead, I politely inquired, what other classes are offered tonight?  Well, there's a Mixed Class.  That's a good one, she beamed.

That's when Cha-Cha walked in, with his fast-paced knee-bending, hey-dance-with-me, it's-all-about-fun adolescent attitude.  And I did, and it was fun.  But a little empty.  So Hustle barged in, looked me up and down, and grabbed me away from Cha-Cha.  Hustle swung me and swirled me so fast that my head spun. It was then that Fox Trot saw what was happening and decided to intervene.  He pranced right in, took my hand, and with that upright stance of his, marched me up and down the dance floor until my dizziness cleared.  But then Salsa swaggered in, with his swively hips and  that I-know-you-want-me look in his eyes.  I'll admit, I was distracted.  But Salsa made me feel uncomfortable.  I had started to pull away when in glided beautiful, elegant, Viennese Waltz with his pouffy hair and silk cravat.  He swept me around the dance floor to the tune of Edelweiss.  We were still gliding when Tango re-entered the scene.  I felt nervous.  It had been awhile since we'd seen each other.

What.  Do you think you're doing?  Tango asked, valiantly trying to disguise wounded pride.
I stopped dead.  Waltz slunk into the corner.'  I stammered, Just dancing.
I'll bet just dancing, Tango replied.
But we were on a break, I defended myself, and there were all these other dances, and I got curious.
Oh, Tango said.
And also, I didn't know you felt this way.  You can be a little hard to read sometimes. 
And sometimes you can be so serious.
And also, you're awfully complicated.
And here I paused to consider whether or not I should continue, and (though in hind sight I realize this was indelicate), I barrelled ahead,'s just that sometimes...well, you can be a little cheesey.
Come on now, gimme a break, Tango fired back, And Cha-Cha's not cheesey? I thought we were having fun.
We were.
What about the milongas?  Those were fast-paced and up beat.  And what about Nuevo Tango: Otros Aires and Gotan Project?  I thought you liked them.
I did.  I do.  But... sometimes, I wonder.  All this fish net and glitter and skirts slit up to here (I indicated my hip) and stillettos.  Sometimes it doesn't feel like me.  Sometimes I just want to wear jeans and a tank top.
Tango looked delighted.  That's fine by me, then paused and added, But... can you sometimes still maybe wear the stillettos?
Maybe.  I'll have to think about it.  I just don't know.  I'm not sure...
When do you think you might know?

And that's when I reached out my hand, and Tango grabbed it, and there was that same undeniable connection that Cha Cha and Waltz can't hold a candle to (and Salsa isn't even in the same league), and Tango sighed and said, Dios mio, what shall we do...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Tango

Since August I have kept a minor secret, known to close friends, family, those able to read between the lines on my facebook profile, people on the subway platform, and the occasional passerby (OK, so maybe it's not that much of a secret, but I haven't yet mentioned it on this blog).  I have been trying to learn how to tango.  It all started in July during NYC Tango week.  After years of being a closeted tango fan, of wishing (like Dorothy's lion), if only I had the courage, and of embarking on a failed trip to the Buenos Aires tango festival, where nerves and cracked ribs failed me, I strapped on stilletos, tried to ignore my tallness (nearly six feet), and ventured into a tango studio.  The month of August passed on a wave of exhiliration.  There is a connection in tango which, when present, is almost immediate and narcotic.  The first time I experienced this connection, the room faded away-- all that existed was the music, the dance, the other person.  Not realizing how little I knew helped create an illusion.  As long as I dance with a man who knows what he's doing, I can tango, I thought.  But as in any partnership, each member must hold up the respective ends of the bargain.  In September, I changed studios and danced with new partners.  These men knew what they were doing.  But there was no connection.  I stumbled.  I stepped on toes.  I grew frustrated.  The men grew frustrated.  I could not recreate that first connection, and I felt myself retreating into a shy world which, if I'm not careful, comes easy to me.  October, spent on vacation in Egypt (more on this later), was tango-less. 

Last night, I ventured into tango again at Triangulo's 12th anniversary Halloween tango party.  I opened the door to the third floor studio on W20th and 7th to a roomful of costumed tangueros (a Russian sailor, a Thai dancer with pointey shoulder epaulets, a Mr. Money Bags, and many, many flappers) and a three piece live tango band.  A mural of a Buenos Aires milonga covered one wall, and old fashioned chandeliers decorated with spider webs hung from the ceiling.  There were empanadas, bowls of Halloween candy, and a fortune teller.  I had an instant affection for the place, and yet I held back.  I replaced my clunky sneakers with my new strappy gold glitter tango shoes.  My legs, after three hours of ballet earlier that day, were in rare form in black fishnets.  I had even broken out my "authentic" black lace tango dress, a souvenir from Buenos Aires.  But my heart was not in it.  I felt a sadnesss, an absence, and so I sat on the edges and observed.  One can sometimes learn as much through observation as through action.  I needed to ease back into tango, to feel comfortable in my skin again.  On the theory that the more I danced, the more I would learn, I had spent those earlier classes, those hurried milongas, dancing with whoever asked.  This had resulted in uncomfortable experiences, and left me with a feeling of lack of control.  Last night, sitting on the sidelines, I realized that, even though in tango as in many things in life men seemingly call the shots (e.g. the man leads, the woman follows, the man asks for the dance, the woman passively waits to be asked), the reality is more subtle.  Last night I devised a set of rules, which at the risk of giving away the game, I have decided to share:

1.  Eye Contact:  Don't make it unless you want to dance.  You can usually sense a man who's casing you out.  A casual look in the other direction can avoid an awkward three minutes of unpleasant hand crushing or being pushed around the dance floor by a man boosting his ego at the expense of his partner (such men usually choose inexperienced partners, to whom they try to impart their worldly knowledge, not always sound).  This requires familiarity with the usual tango suspects.  Once you've established which ones to avoid, an absent glance in the other direction can do wonders for your state of mind.  Which leads me to...
2.  Selectivity:  Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary to dance with every man who asks.  At the beginning of my tango education, I had been told that I should go to milongas, to practice, it's the only way to learn (looking back, it was men telling me this.  Was this self serving in order to insure a steady of supply of partners?)  I have since learned that dancing with the wrong partners can, in some circumstances, interfere with one's learning.  As in many things in life, a girl needs to be selective.  Knowing what kind of partners work for you, and avoiding the one's with whom three minutes can seem like an eternity, will serve you well. 
3.  The Power of No:  No means no.  If you don't want to dance with someone, you don't have to, and you don't need to furnish an explanation (though some men will ask).  Likewise, in tango culture thank you means, "I've had enough, I'm done dancing with you,"  which, reading between the lines, also means, "I don't like dancing with you, let me go."  Tango culture can seem polite, but one needs to know the rules.
4.  Smile: Tango, as in much of  dance and in life, is about enjoyment.  Once you've found those partners with whom you can skim across the dance floor, and with whom those three minutes seem like a heart beat, you're on your way to learning. Amidst the hurly burly of life in New York, there exist moments that linger in the mind and bring a smile to one's face.  The connection of tango is one of these joyful moments, and the first is especially memorable.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ft. Tryon Medieval Festival

Every year about this time black velvet, leather, and chain mail invade my neighborhood.  That’s when thousands (30,000 by last count) descend on Ft. Tryon Park for the Medieval Festival.  That’s also when local residents bemoan the invasion of our serene slice of Manhattan (the rest of the year we delude ourselves, saying nobody knows or surely they’d live here, when in fact it’s just too far away) and flee for the day.  The crowd mills past booths hawking bustiers, swords, crystal balls, incense, and other paraphernalia verging on S&M and necessary to the gothic lifestyle. Food stands sell giant turkey drumsticks (no one told the organizers that the turkey is native to North America and would have been unknown to the Middle Ages), mead, barbeque pork, and, in a geographical twist of fate, gyros, baklava and thick creamy yoghurt with walnuts and honey (the same culprit responsible for the turkey also failed to mention to the Greeks that this is mostly a Celtic affair).  Grandstands spring up on the Cloisters lawn across which unicorns and great sturdy steeds canter in jousts, churning up the grass and leaving a muddy mess the next day.  This year, there was a quidditch match (how they got the brooms aloft remains a mystery to me, I had escaped to lower Manhattan and arrived only for the joust at the end of the day).  Wizards, masked wielders of medieval torture, and busty women with loosely laced bodices roam the crowd.  Troubadours play flutes, ouds, mandolins, and tambourines while women in middle eastern dress spin sinuously, their hips encircled with jingling belts.  There is a certain cringe factor to the Medieval Festival, but I enjoy myself.  It is one of the last outdoor events before colder weather arrives and, though I would swim in the bustiers on offer, I am a fan of nonconformity.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Naked Cowpeople, Inc.

A few weeks ago, the early fall day sunny and bright, I winced past tourists thronging around the Naked Cowboy in Times Square.  I hadn't seen him for eons (I avoid Times Square).  He hadn't changed:  same white cowboy hat and pointey boots, same thin blond hair hanging to his shoulders, same overly tanned skin, same low hanging white guitar leaving not much to the imagination, same tighty whities, same bulbous body parts.  A new thought occurred to me:  does the Naked Cowboy have a significant other?  There's not enough love in this world and I advocate there being someone for everyone, including the Naked Cowboy.  Last week, I thought I found the answer.  Walking a similarly crowded route through Times Square, I almost mowed down the Naked Cowgirl (she's short, I'm not).  She wore a white cowgirl hat on top of stringy blond hair, white pointed boots, and an itsy bitsy star spangled string bikini stretched over muscles that bulged in a feminine way.  Like her male counterpart, she was remotely past thirty.  Her buttocks, though firm from weight lifting, had sunken into vague ripples of cellulite.  I was pondering the mysteries of being a Naked Cowcouple (do they roll in the hay?), when I saw it:  on the face of her guitar a bumper sticker read "Naked" in professional looking letters.  I wondered: is there more than one Naked Cowboy, more than one Naked Cowgirl?  Maybe there's an entire fleet of out of work Broadway types (the economy has taken a nosedive) who fit the description and rotate through Times Square, taking the money of unsuspecting tourists.  Maybe there's a Naked Cowpeople Inc., with tiny warehouses somewhere in Yonkers that stock all the tighty whities and microscopic star spangled string bikinis? Let's face it, nobody really looks at the Naked Cowpeople's faces (we're too busy gazing southward.) So I have resolved, next time I elbow my way through Times Square, to take a good, hard look at the Naked Cowpeople.  Somebody has to search for truth in this world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Tonight at Lincoln Center I listened to the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana, led by Joao Carlos Martins.  It was an early concert (6PM), set at Brazilian prices ($25 orchestra seats), which was one reason why I went (I had $10 seats).  Sr. Martins came on stage, and the audience rose to its feet.  He had a thick mop of gray nearly white hair, wore an oversized black jacket with tails and sleeves that hung almost to his fingers, and baggy trousers that formed ripples as they met the tops of his shoes.  This man had debuted at Carnegie Hall as a pianist at age 21.  Before age 30, he had played with major orchestras worldwide.  Then, while playing soccer in Central Park (he's Brazilian after all), he had ruptured his ulnar nerve (which ennervates much of the hand).  It would have been a career-ending injury for most people.  But he came back to play at Carnegie Hall eight years later.  During that time, he also recorded the first half of Bach's complete keyboard works.  Seven years later he was diagnosed with repetitive movement syndrome, also a career-ending diagnosis for most people.  Again, he made a comeback, recording the second half of the Bach series.  Ten years later, he was mugged in Bulgaria, leaving him with a skull fracture, brain damage, and the inability to move his right arm.  He underwent rehab, and staged yet another comeback, performing at Carnegie Hall one year later.  Yet his right hand continued to atrophy, and a botched operation four years later made it virtually useless.  In 2002, a tumor was discovered in his left hand.  After that, he channeled his passion for music into conducting, founding the Orchestra Filarmonica Bachiana six years ago.  The group started from bare bones, practicing in a hotel room in Sao Paolo.  This troubled history may, in part, explain Sr. Martins' warm welcome as he walked awkwardly and slowly onstage tonight. 

The concert began with Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Dreaming (which transports me to another realm, no matter how often I hear it), followed by Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with pianist Arthur Moreira Lima, a piece new to me, full of the jangled angst of modern life, and the syncopated rhythmns of Argentine dance).  The nasal sshshing and zzzhing of whispered Portuguese accompanied much of the piece, revealing a more social audience than your usual Lincoln Center crowd.  The second half began with another Bach:  Awake, the Voice Commands (soothing after the dissonance of Ginastera).  That was followed by Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras no. 7, and the orchestra played the piece with such heart and emotion that I don't remember breathing.  At its conclusion I leapt to my feet with everyone else, calling for more.  Sr. Martins gently hushed the audience.  In heavily accented English he spoke haltingly in a manner that, though projected from stage, revealed a soft spoken nature.  He said, when I was feeling dark and low, lying in my hospital bed, I turned on the TV.  And playing on it was a movie called "Cinema Paradiso".  And that movie kept me going.  And now I play for you some music by Ennio Morricone. 

That man with floppy gray hair flipped up his tails, sat at the piano, and played excerpts from "The Mission" and "Cinema Paradiso".  I hadn't listened to this music for a very long time, but it had never failed to carry me to a place of love, gentleness, and rapture.  That is where I went tonight when I listened to those songs and remembered what it was like to feel full of passion.  Sr. Martins finished, and we all lept to our feet again, calling for still more.  He played a second encore, playful Brazilian music, then exited the stage drawing first the crook of his right arm, then his left, over his eyes, wiping away tears.  I wanted to rise out of my nosebleed seats, float above the audience, land on stage, throw my arms around this man, and say, thank you.  Thank you!  For being so devoted.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Last Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11.   I lived in NYC on that day.  I have never written, and barely talk, about it.  After all, no one I personally knew passed away.  More, it is enough to have lived through an event like that, one needn't dwell on it.  But last Saturday I thought, there are children these days for whom 9/11 will only exist in books, and that is how history fades away. So here's my 9/11 story.

It was my first year of medical school at Columbia.  I had gone to morning lecture:  canceled.  I returned to my apartment at W170th and Haven, a high rise for student housing.  I rode the elevator to my apartment on the 20th floor.  I was alone except for a middle aged man who said, a plane just crashed into the world trade center.  Matter of factly, just like that.  He didn't believe himself, nor I him.  I returned to my bedrooom, a 10 x 15 foot converted space separated from the living room by a flimsy wall.  A bay window that looked onto the Hudson and south to downtown dominated my bedroom.  I had placed my bed in the space created by the bay window and each morning woke up to the twin towers.  Even from so far away, they dominated the skyline.  I loved to look at them twinkling at night before I went to sleep.  On 9/11, I stood at that window looking south.  One tower was still visible, the other obscured by thick, black smoke.  My room-mate and I turned on CNN, needing to confirm what we were seeing.  Within minutes, the second tower disappeared. 

I forget what we did after that.  The hours somehow passed.  In the afternoon, I went to the Red Cross on the UWS to give blood, but was turned away.  Too many people had already shown up.  Nobody was at work, except some shop keepers who brought TVs out to the sidewalk, where people gathered round and watched together.  The streets were full of people, wandering and not knowing what to do with themselves.  Cell phone lines weren't working.  The bridges were closed, trains were not running, and nobody could go in or out of the city.  I was trapped but it didn't sink in until the next day.  That night, I woke to a loud sound and thought we were being bombed.  Then I thought it was thunder.  No one else to whom I've talked has confirmed a thunder storm that night.  I put it down to a nightmare and blame my father's influence, who was always preparing for another war when the rest of us naively said, it can't happen here. 

My room mate tried to be a hero.  She went down to the WTC, snuck beneath the barriers, finagled her way into a hard hat, and tried to save people.  She did that for four days, leaving her dusty hard hat and clothes at the door of our apartment.  She was strange after that.  I closed the curtain in my south facing window.  I couldn't sleep with the promise of the wreckage smoldering in front of me when I woke.  It did so for more than a month.  I wandered downtown, to the candlelit vigil in Union Square, past the black clad groups assembling outside of funeral homes.  In mid-October, I wandered alone to the WTC site.  It was barricaded and the place was desolate.  The smoke still feebly escaped from the graveyard the site had become.  I felt entirely alone.  At that time, the world of medicine, that uncaring clinical world, confined me.  That world felt cold, insensitive, sterile.

There are many events that have changed the world.  9/11 is not the biggest of them, but it changed the US, and it changed me.  While the rest of the world played drama queen, and while some Americans used 9/11 as an excuse for biggotry, New Yorkers tried to get on with life.  This year on 9/11, I looked southward through a very different window.  I was at an event for young arists at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and was surrounded by young poets, singers, musicians, and dancers.  The lights dimmed, and two beams of blue light lit up the sky from where the twin towers once stood.  The room grew silent.  The danger now past, and in the company of artists, I no longer felt alone.  And that silence, filled with art's understanding, underlined the difference between my world nine years ago and my world of today.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Little Buddha

It is the tail end of summer.  The City is throwing off summer's languor for a workaday world made bearable by the promise of autumn skies.  A few days ago, I left a perfect cerulean sky and descended into the subway's half light.  The train arrived and I walked into a car, quiet and serene.  It was as if everyone were resting after summer's temper tantrum (here in NYC we have just concluded the hottest summer on record).  I closed my eyes and rested.  After a few stops I opened them to an infant staring straight at me with calm, steady eyes.  He was chubby and sat quietly in his stroller like a little buddha under the tree of knowledge.  He surveyed the car with eyes that held no surprise.  His gaze said, good grief, not another go 'round.  It seemed to me that the soul shepherded in that little body was older than many others riding on that train.  Then he returned his line of vision to me and would not allow me to disconnect.   Some eyes reveal instant connection, a kindred spirit.  Others shield themselves behind a veil of misunderstanding that no amount of explaining can bridge.  This little buddha's showed continuity between past and future, a story already written and one waiting to be composed. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Man in the Mirror

I love NYC subway performers.  Yesterday in the Sunday hustle in the tunnels beneath Union Square I came across a man dancing to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror".  I stopped, sat down on a bench, and forgot about the subway trains rushing past.  The man was dressed all in black with silver sequined ankle bands, white sequined gloves (on both hands, he had improvised on Michael's signature style), and a white straw hat.  Over a black hood which covered his entire head he wore a full length white carnival mask whose expressionless gaze imparted anonymity.  Amidst the hurried crowds he moonwalked as if pulled by a string.  His joints swiveled like a robot.  His arms floated as if weightless.  And for the grande finale, he somehow ended up inverted, his body propped against a wall (I can't explain how he did it, it was as if he was controlled by magic) and melted to the floor like wax.  As he did so, his carnival mask slowly flipped to the crown of his head like a disembodied face.  He took a minute to recover, switched the music to "Billy Jean", and took off his mask to reveal a showman's face.  Out of the crowd he grabbed a little boy, at the most six years old.  The boy's getup was the polar opposite of the man's: a white tuxedo with tails, a black straw hat from which curly hair verging on dreds sprouted and hung to his shoulders.  The boy went into action, moondancing, spinning, grabbing his crotch, and for all the world looking like a miniature Michael.  He and the man danced together, all the while protecting the money pot when the passing foot traffic grew too thick.  As I stayed, others gathered, forgetting to be in a hurry while the crowd grew to more than fifty.  And I wished to have a meter that could measure the amount of talent in New York City's subway system.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where the Bees Are

When I need to escape, I go to The Cloisters.  I've been there so many times that these days I make a cursory pass by the unicorn tapestries, skip the rest of the collection, and head to the medieval herb garden in the Bonnefont Cloister.  I forget about wrinkles, skin cancer, or sunspots, and sit in direct sunlight on the worn wooden bench that stands along the wall facing the Hudson.  The bench is so long that its middle has been boughed downward by the elements and thousands of visitors before me.  Potted plants line up in front of the bench.  I know they are Mediterranean plants, meant to evoke Southern France, Spain, and Italy.  But to me they are also Californian plants.  The rosemary, oregano, olive, fig, orange, oleander, jasmine, lemon, and pomegranate are the same ones that grow in abundance in my mother's garden.  Each fall, I look forward to a big box of pomegranates picked from the tree that has produced these fruits since my childhood.  My mother carefully boxes them up, sends them cross country to me, and I spend chilly evenings extracting the seeds, each a ruby.  Every winter, another box full of lemons, miniature suns tenfold juicier than store bought fruit, arrives.  I have my own jasmine which I try unsuccessfully to coax into blossom in the darkness of my New York apartment.  So, in the quiet of The Cloisters (even school children lower their voices here) I sit near these plants that remind me of home.  Last weekend, having spent several hours in the herb garden and feeling like myself again, I exited through the Cuxa cloister.  Near the fountain in its center bloomed lavender flowers alive with bees.  I had thought all summer that the bees were fewer in number this year, that they had chosen somewhere else to make honey.  I leaned closer to the flowers:  at long last I had found the bees.  Perhaps the recent cool weather had helped them wake up.  Heading home through the Heather Garden, I walked past the passion flowers, which during the heat wave had wilted and hung forlorn on their vines.  Now they had unfurled their petals.  On each sat one or two bees staggering in the pollen and drunkenly rejoicing in their luck.        

Monday, August 16, 2010


Sometimes the extremes in this city make me do a double take.  The other evening in the Heather Garden the Pooch and I were lolligagging on the central path and enjoying the first cool evening since God knows when.  I gazed at the roses.  Pooch was doing what he always does:  looking for a spot that he hasn't yet peed on.  Along came a woman in noise canceling head phones.  She ploughed passed me at warp speed, so close that the current of her misdirected anger made my head spin. I was still recovering when, at the end of the path, she yelled over her shoulder, welcome to the public garden loser, you just ruined my evening!  I bent to scratch Pooch's head, which makes me feel better when faced with irrational behavior that's best forgotten.  A few nights later, I exited the subway at 190th St.  It was past 10PM.  Ahead of me an old man struggled to pull a rolling cart full of groceries up the stairs.  A woman rushed passed me.  She bent low over the cart and pulled up a bouquet of crimson flowers.  Having slipped to the bottom, the flowers had been sticking outside the cart and were unknowingly dragged halfway up the stairs by the man.  The woman had rescued them while still in good enough shape to brighten his life.   The woman took one end of the cart and helped the man to the top of the stairs.  My faith in the city renewed, I walked home through a pleasant summer evening, all the while keeping an eye out for skunks (see previous post, "Critters").      

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Missing Third

This morning on the street I passed a woman I met several months ago.  Back then, I had been doing sit-ups on Ft. Tryon lawn, The Cloisters looming to one side.  Poochini impatiently wanted to chase pigeons and dig up worms.  The woman walked toward us.  She lead on leashes three dogs the size of German shepherds.  All, including the woman, shared the grizzled coats of old age.  Poochini is a social guy, and eagerly pulled at his leash to get to them.  I gave up on exercise and said admiringly, old ones, huh?  Yes, she boasted, this one's eighteen years old.  She pointed to a brown one that looked at me through clouded eyes.  You must take good care of them, I replied.  I walk them three hours a day, an hour and a half in the morning, and an hour and a half in the evening, she said.  That's what keeps them healthy.  That, and good food, she added.  Must be good for you, too, I commented, impressed that someone her age could keep up with three big dogs.  Her dogs greeted Poochini in the normal dog manner, then walked off distractedly.  A few minutes later, halfway across the lawn, the brown one stumbled and collapsed.  It struggled to stand, but laid down, defeated.  At that moment the old woman had been watching the other two, and did not see the brown dog fall.  Concerned, I approached them.  She said, what happened?  He fell, he tried to get up but couldn't, I replied.  Her eyes registered sad acceptance, yes, the other day he collapsed in the elevator, she said.  She coaxed him to his feet.  He took a few halting steps and threw up yellow bile.  That was the last I had seen of them until this morning when we crossed paths again, she walking two dogs now instead of three.  I wondered how soon after we'd met had the third passed away, and my heart sank.  The love of a dog is perhaps one of the simplest I've known.


It's been awhile since I posted an update about the Heather Garden, so here goes.  Summer's growth has reached its zenith in the garden.  The roses are in their second bloom, boasting sprays of pink champagne.  The butterfly bushes are also blooming, but the butterflies are fewer than last summer.  Maybe it's the heat wave that has pounded the city all summer and has made the passion flowers droop in exhaustion.  Too hot for passion, say the butterflies as they languidly beat wings of butter yellow and orange flame.  The little garden snakes, too, have been missing this summer.  Last year, they squiggled across the path, forming commas and corkscrews in front of Poochini and me.  This year, I saw only one, and that was in early spring.  The urban wildlife has burgeoned this summer, and maybe they have eaten the smaller creatures.  Skunks, in particular, have taken over the garden.  The other night, around dusk, Poochini and I turned a corner to face Mr. Skunk five feet in front of us.  He raised his tail, ready to take aim.  I pulled back hard on Poochini's leash.  We froze, as if Mr. Skunk had been a cobra loaded with lethal poison.  The woodchuck population has also exploded.  They scurry under bushes, their fat bellies round with grass, and remind me of overgrown New York City subway rats (which is saying something).  Then there are the feral cats, fed by neighborhood do-gooders.  One cat, in particular, sits every evening on the hill just outside the dog park fence.  From there, he regally surveys the antics of the dogs.  I wonder, does he wish to join their play, or is he satisfied with his solitary vantage point?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Positive Energy

Thursday I was on the A train (again), heading to a very important appointment.  I was sitting in my seat trying to control my nervous energy, when the doors connecting the two trains burst open.  In walked two men with African drums.  They set up shop in the aisle right next to me.  One of them broadcasted, if you feel happy to be alive raise one finger.  I shyly raised mine.  The same man said, we're gonna play some songs for you.  Give you some positive energy.  Dontcha pretend not to see us.  Dontcha hide behind your papers.  'Cause what we got here is positive en-er-gy.  And who wouldn't want somma that?  They played a song full of syncopated African rhythmns, and I couldn't help it, I started smiling.  Then they played Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You", and the ten year old boy across from me broke out singing.  It's true, they were bursting with positive energy.  It was damn contagious and carried me through my appointment.  Sometimes I love this town.


The other day while riding on the A train (I do a lot of this), the doors opened at W125th St. to a gaggle of preschoolers on some sort of field trip.  Ah.... summer camp.  The uproar poured into the train, heretofore peaceful.  I looked up from my book and was surrounded by a forest of pygmies.  A teacher stood beside me, supporting herself with one hand on the pole, the other holding the hand of a little girl.  A little boy sat smiling beside me.  The girl said angrily to the boy, "Stop saying that.  Liaw, liaw," softening the r's in her little girl speak.  The teacher gently intervened, "That's not nice. Don't call him that."  The girl defended herself, "But I know he's not magic.  He's just lying.  He's not really magic."  The teacher continued, "Stop it.  Now you're being a bully, and that's not nice."  The girl pouted.  The teacher advised, "If you don't like what he says, just ignore him."  I thought, those are words to live by.  I wondered if the girl would take it to heart, or if she would learn the hard way.  The boy switched to another seat and smiled at the two of them, seemingly unfazed by the drama.  Perhaps he knew in his heart that he really was magic.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bloody Footprints

Walking to work Wednesday morning I followed a pair of bloody footprints for three blocks.  They started in the street, made a wide u-turn where it looked like the person had gotten out of a car and skirted another before running onto the sidewalk.  A small pool of blood had dried where the person had stood before continuing toward Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.  The footprints were small and far apart, as if the person had been running, and surrounded by splatters of blood.  There was so much blood that it looked like the person's feet had been dipped in a bucket of paint.  The footprints continued clear and distinct for three blocks, disappeared in front of the Chinese restaurant (where they had already been wiped clean), and started again where the person had crossed the street.  The footprints continued in front of The Armory, where they ran back into the street and along the sidewalk.  They ended in another bloody pool across the street from one of Presby's research buildings.  Then they disappeared.  What had happened to the person?  Had he or she been picked up by a car and brought one block farther to the ER?  I doubted that the person had collapsed at that spot-- the pool of blood didn't look large enough.  I traced the footprints back and forth, not understanding my morbid fascination.  Others did the same.  A woman wearing mint green scrubs turned and said to me, must have been a bad night.  I agreed, something terrible must have happened for the person to have been dropped off alone and so far from the hospital.  I hoped the person had made it and received the proper care.  The footprints registered urgency and panic, emotions I imagined to be similar to living in a war zone.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Metropolitan Rooftop Garden

I have been visiting the Metropolitan Rooftop Garden often this summer.  Not only does it have one of the best views of the midtown skyline, but it allows me to pretend to be a tourist.  I like to imagine that I am seeing these wonders for the first time.  It helps me look at them from a fresh angle.  The excitement of the real tourists helps, and the Met museum was full of them last night. People had converged on the museum for the same reason as I:  to take advantage of its super mega powerhouse air conditioning. In the American court, two Chinese girls chased their brother past the Tiffany stained glass.  In the balcony bar, a middle aged woman sat carefully hiding her boredom from her date, both of them groping for conversation.  In the medieval armor section, a young English woman giggled at King Henry the VIII's ample cod piece.  And in the rooftop garden (I couldn't resist a visit, despite the heat and humidity), a French couple argued while Central Park and midtown bloomed behind them.  All the world's a stage, and the Met provided plenty of actors last night.   

The Evil Twin Subway Conductor

Several days ago, I jumped on the "A" line bound for Columbus Circle.  The heat and humidity had been unbearable for days.  In the street, people were unsmiling, drained of energy and walking slowly.  The heat wave had taken a toll on everyone, including (apparently) the subway conductor.  At each stop, she snarled the name of the station across the intercom.  Her voice, nasal and full of pressure from the force of her anger, blasted into the car.  People rolled their eyes and covered their ears.  At W145th St., someone held the door for a companion.  The conductor's voice entered the car and slapped the face of everyone inside.  The door-holder sat down sheepishly.  I got off at the next stop, happy to wait for the next train in the amplified heat of the subway tunnel.  I had not heard Ms. Smiley for a long time (see previous blog posts), but was pretty sure that I had just encountered her evil twin.  I wonder if they are one and the same, but if not I much prefer Ms. Smiley's artificial sunshine to the caustic Evil Twin.     

Shakespeare in the Park

This summer's fare at Shakespeare in the Park includes the Merchant of Venice, with Al Pacino in the role of Shylock.  I usually obtain standby tickets for Shakespeare, which allows me to avoid the early line (which can start to form as early as 10:00PM the night before).  People in the standby line usually arrive around 5:00PM and tickets are distributed until 8:00 PM.  But given Al's popularity, standby was a bust this year.  So I set my alarm for 5:30 AM, rose with a nervous flutter in my stomach (even at this hour, tickets are not guaranteed), and arrived in Central Park at 6:19 ( I checked my watch. I wanted to remember this moment.  I vowed it would never happen again).  Hundreds of people had arrived before me.  Poochini and I took our place in line near The Rock of Hope (those in front of The Rock have a 50-50 chance of getting a ticket, those behind have a 50-50 chance of *not* getting a ticket). We waited all morning, through intermittent rain showers and blistering heat.  We chatted with our neighbors.  The silent (competitive?) girl next to me softened with time, done in by the elements.  By 11:00, she was bringing Poochini water.  Tickets were handed out at 1:00, and we had mixed luck.  We received vouchers and were told that we had a 99.9% chance of getting tickets if we returned at 6:00.  Freshly showered and sans Pooch, I duly returned at that time.  I waited until 8:00, when I received one little ticket, far off to stage right and four rows from the back.  I triumphantly grabbed the ticket, found my seat, and plopped down, exhausted.  The woman next to me beamed and said in an Irish broag, "Can you believe I got my ticket through the internet lottery?  It's the second time I've tried, and I got an email this afternoon that I could just drop by and pick up two tickets.  I didn't need two, so I turned one in.  Glad you could use it."  Though happy to have a ticket, I had difficulty summoning a thank you.  I blame it on heat stroke, but the honest reason is because she had gotten her ticket the easy way, while sitting in air conditioning.  Nonetheless, waiting in the god-awful Shakespeare line is a New York institution.  Al stole the show, and like many things in New York, was well worth the inconvenience.    

Helicopter Feet

On Central Park's Great Lawn a father and his two year old boy were playing.  The father grabbed the boy by both ankles and swung him in circles, fast like a helicopter blade.  Then he slowed down and let the boy come to rest gently on the grass.  The boy got to his feet, took two drunken steps, and collapsed in a riot of giggles.  He stood again, collapsed again, and kept trying until the dizziness had passed.  By this point, the father was lying on the grass, arms behind his head, enjoying the show.  The boy grabbed his father's two big feet in his pudgy hands and tried to spin him in circles.  The boy managed to lift the father's legs, but the man's heavy body remained safely rooted to the ground.  The father wiggled his arms and head as if being spun in a circle and the boy collapsed again in giggles.  Then the father scooped the boy in his arms, smothered him in kisses, and swung him onto his shoulders.  The two walked off, happy on this hot and humid Sunday afternoon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ballet Fans x6

At a recent matinee performance of the NYC Ballet I sat next to four little girls with bows in their hair and dressed in ruffled dresses.  We sat high up in the fourth ring, two rows from the very back.  The girls sat on the edges of their seats and dangled their paten leather shoes above the floor.  It was Darcy Kistler's final performance.  Darcy had been a soloist for the NYC Ballet for almost thirty years.  She was the last "Balanchine" ballerina, having studied with the great master during his days there.  She had grown up in Riverside, California, thirty minutes away from Rialto where I grew up.  She and I had both began dancing in the same studio:  Vera Lynn's dance studio in San Bernardino.  We had both climbed the steep stair case leading to the studio, which for me was always a magical space.  We had both stood at the barre in the cavernous studio, still the prototype for all subsequent studios for me.  Vera Lynn could be a stern task master, and emphasized technique.  Darcy rocketed to stardom and my muscles have retained the technique Vera Lynn imposed on them.  These days, though it takes effort, I still have a natural ballet turn-out.  After returning to ballet training two years ago, my front leg is inching towards my nose when I do a forward grande battement.  I can still almost do a standing split.  So, given our connection, I had to see Darcy's last performance.  The four little girls next to me seemed equally excited.  The performance started with a Balanchine piece.  The girls sat with folded arms, tolerating the Balanchine.  But next came an exerpt from Midsummer Night's Dream and they went into rapture.  They squealed with delight when Bottom wiggled his, well, bottom at the audience.  They giggled with glee when Titania fell lasciviously into Bottom's arms, who looked at the audience, mystified by his luck that such a heavenly creature would fall for him.  They leaned forward, entranced by the entire piece.  When it was over they leapt to their feet in a standing ovation.  "Bravo! Brava!" they squealed over and over, clapping with all their might.  Impressed that they knew to use the feminine form brava at such a tender age, I turned to the Russian woman on my other side and said, "They like that one, don't they?"  She smiled good-naturedly.  Truth be told, all the women in that row, young and old, had been entranced by the romance between Bottom and Titania.  And Darcy had given a brava farewell performance, worthy of Vera Lynn's approval.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ballet Fan x1

Last Thursday I bought standing room tickets to American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake.  The tickets were far at the back of Dress Circle, where the overhead balcony obscures the stage and only the bottom quarter of it can be seen.  I didn't care.  The crystal chandeliers, the gilding and the red velvet, of Lincoln Center stir up the excitement of childhood, when going to to the theatre felt like entering a world of glamour and beauty.  When the lights dimmed and it seemed like no one could see, I kicked off my shoes.  I leaned low against the velvet covered bar that serves as an arm rest for those in standing room.  My only company was a tall elderly man.  As I contorted myself to see the stage, the man slowly sank to his knees.  He was so tall that his elbows easily reached the arm rest.  He supported his chin with his hands, absorbed in the performance.  He was alone, had come out of love for the ballet.  No wife had dragged him to sit begrudgingly by her side, where he would nod off by scene two.  I wondered, where are the other men still able to be entranced by art?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Look

In the last week the weather has turned hot and muggy.  The flowers in the Heather Garden rejoice in it.  They have scrambled over each other, each vying for attention amidst the profusion of beauty.  Last evening, while walking along the central path, I passed a father photographing his small daughter in front of a burst of roses.  The girl posed with hip thrust to one side, right hand behind her head, confident of being the center of attention. Such drama in a six year old made me smile, and my attention was drawn solely to her.  After I had passed, I turned on impulse for a second look.  Beside the younger daughter an older girl stood with arms crossed.  Hers was a thin and gangly beauty.  The hurt in her eyes remained unveiled even by the prescription glasses that she wore.  I felt as if I had committed the same crime that I had experienced so many times myself.  In this world-- even in the Heather Garden-- the spotlight is occupied not by the most worthy but by those who feel entitled to it.  To avoid a lifetime of hurt, one must have the courage now and then to steal the spotlight away from those for whom narcissism comes more naturally.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mother Cabrini

A saint lives half a block away from me in a Catholic church that holds a shrine to St. Francis Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants.  She is America's first saint, and she hersel f immigrated from Italy at the turn of the century.  She earned her sainthood by establishing hospitals and performing miracles all around the world.  In the Italian tradition of preserving important dead people, who lie embalmed in glass cases in churches scattered throughout the Motherland, St. Francis lies surrounded by artificial flowers in a glass case behind the church's altar.  Apparently the head in the case is a replica.  Her real head was sent long ago to Rome as a relic.  The church is surrounded by a high, gray stone wall.  On the wall, beside the entrance to the walkway leading up to the church, is a plaque announcing the shrine.  Floating on the plaque, St. Francis' disembodied head smiles at you.  The smile is gentle, the eyes weary.  The picture is black and white, ghostly.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Admiral

The Admiral has recently appeared in my neighborhood.  He wears navy blue spats and black boots laced to just below his knees.  Two rows of shiny brass buttons gallop up and down his short, tightly fitted military jacket.  A navy blue visored cap, made comical by three inches extra height, sits angled above his brow.  He walks slowly and deliberately, swinging a walking stick by his side.  With his head pointed regally ahead, he walks as if he were the chief of police keeping the neighborhood safe from ruffians.  Or people who might spoil his freedom to remain The Admiral.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Overheard Dinner Conversation

The other night I went to dinner at Bleu Evolution.  The evening was warm, the sky clear blue.  The restaurant's back garden had just opened for the season.  The grape vines had just begun to unfurl new leaves on the overhead trellis.  Halfway through my meal, three men sat down at the table next to me.  They were a German, a Mexican, and an American.  Within minutes, the American began a right-wing political tirade. He said that American culture is superior to Mexican culture, that illegal immigrants are disrespecting US laws and taking our jobs, that all Mexican immigrants should have a green card before being allowed in the country.  I wondered, did the American know nothing about immigration quotas, how hard it is to get a visa let alone a green card, how most people need enough money for lawyers in order to get the paper work together, that many Mexicans who enter the country illegaly work exploitative jobs for less than minimum wage, jobs that most Americans wouldn't deign to work.  Did the man not know that just a few blocks away in this neighborhood live Dominican families ten to fifteen to a room because that's all they can afford.  The man knew nothing of immigrant life, yet he was saying Americans are superior.  The German remained mute.  The Mexican tried  to talk some sense into the man, who hurtled personal insults at the Mexican.  Then American had the gall to wink at me.  He was fat and ugly, with two double chins.  I shook my head and tried to ignore him.  But my dinner had been ruined.  I broke into their conversation and told the man that he needed to stop blaming others and take a good hard look at himself.  Like most abusive narcissists faced with the truth about themselves, he next attacked me, calling me emotional.  I asked for the check and left.  On the way out, I asked one of the waiters, a small, shy man from Ecuador who is always friendly to me, how he could stand such talk. He said with a knowing smile which proved him to be the bigger man, we don't listen to it.  Good advice, with racist biggots as well as with other unsavory people.   

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Curbside Book Store

At W181st street the road curves down a steep hill toward the Hudson.  Midway down the hill and across from Cabrini Wines, a Dominican man sells books every day except Sundays and when it rains.  His books always flank the sidewalk in orderly columns, tantalizing me with stories of far off places.  Curbside books stores dot Manhattan, but this one's my favorite.  It's different from the others.  For one, the books are $1 each.  Hard to find a better bargain.  For another, the man sells quality:  Shakespeare, Ibsen, Charlotte Bronte, Gore Vidal, Joseph Conrad.  Most of the other sidewalk booksellers have sold out to mass market NY Times best sellers, the same weepy story packaged under eye catching covers.  But the man peddling Shakespeare on W181st St is my hero of the day.  I can't say what accounts for the difference in inventory-- maybe the population up here feels less pressure to keep up with the Joneses?  Today, the Pooch and I had finished our run (we are geting back into shape-- he laid down and refused to go any farther.  He had put in a good effort so I gave in).  We trudged up 181st.  I had a few dollars in my pocket destined for the bookseller.  While Pooch panted for dear life, I bought two books by Graham Greene, "Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin, and "The Year of Living Dangerously" by Christopher Koch.  Now we will go into the Heather Garden, find a shady tree, and read until sunset.  I can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pink Snow

Yesterday, while on his evening walk, The Poocherooni reminded me why we get along so well:  we're just alike.  He dawdles.  I dawdle.  We remind each other to look, really look, at the world.  The dogwoods have been losing their blossoms this week.  The petals have been falling like pink snow.  They blanket the sidewalk at one end of the Heather Garden.  Last night, The Pooch stuck his nose to the ground as if in a trance, his path sinuous as he traced S's in the petals with his nose.  I had no choice but to admire the last of this spring's dogwood blossoms.  This morning, The Poocherooni had to sniff recently upturned earth underneath a tree.  As he did so, a bird trilled like a flute above us.  In the tree perched a cardinal, calling with all his strength to a potential mate, his red plummage made more dramatic by the contrasting emerald leaves.  In this world there are sad, tactless people full of venom.  They will tell you that you're not competitive, that you're not good enough, that they don't want you (even though they don't bother to take the time to know anything about you).  This happened to me yesterday.  After a bout of self pitying, I went into the Heather Garden.  The sight of water droplets on grass made brilliant green by rain shot the funk to hell.  I have conclused that the battle between the dark forces in the universe is not one of good vs. evil, but one of  venomed people (Pessimists:  The Venomed Ones) who try to squash the zest for life in the rest of us (Optimists:  The Zesty Ones).  As long as I have a place to walk like the Heather Garden, and for as long as I have the company of a soul like The Pooch, the Venomed Ones will lose.  Here's proof.  This morning in the subway, I looked down.  Someone had littered. A subway card lay abandoned on the ground.  The back of the card faced up and the word beaming toward me read:  Optimism.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Evening Walk

Tonight I went for an early evening walk with The Pooch in the Heather Garden.  It was nearing the end of dusk.  The sun still cut a slice of gold at the horizon.  The sky was cloudless.  Its upper reaches had darkened to ceramic blue.  We sat on the Linden Terrace, Pooch on my lap cuddling his head against my chest.  He has been sick for months.  Most recently his lungs had filled up with fluid from an overdose of steroids.  Then all he wanted to do was to be next to me, even though I wanted nothing more than to see him running around on his own, forgetting about me.  But tonight, on a lower dose of medication, he was feeling better.  We were alone on the Linden Terrace except for the Old Russian Couple, sitting closely together on a bench behind us.  We watched the horizon nuzzle into darkness and then headed home through the garden.  Though the flowers had lost the brilliance of day, their scents had magnified.  I stood on a stone and buried my nose in the lilacs, breathing deeply until my senses were overwhelmed.  This is bliss.  

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Homeless Man on the Stairs

Returning at 2AM last night from celebrating a friend's birthday in the West Village and walking bleary-eyed down the stairs with my dog to give him a late night pee, I was surprised by a homeless man camped out on the stairs inside my buildling.  He was thin and old.  He wore a soiled and tattered jacket and clutched a  single plastic bag filled with his belongings.  An uncombed, white beard and mustache obscured the bottom half of his face.  What are you doing here, I asked.  He replied in garbled English, his eyes clouded with dementia, not alcohol or drugs.  I tried Spanish, but that got us no further.  He said, I know someone who lives here.  I am waiting for her, she will let me in.  I said, do you need help?  He did not understand and refused my offer.  A glimmer of anger emerged at the suggestion of needing help.  He said, I know someone here.  See, I have keys.  And he showed me two shiny keys attached to his waste band.  I repeated, do you need help?  More anger.  Pride.  And finally, shame.  He said, I'll be back.  I'll come back shaved.  You'll see.  I'll come back shaved.  And he descended the stairway, off into the night.  In my apartment I closed the windows and double bolted the door.  This was senseless on my part.  So old and frail, this man was perhaps more afraid of my dog and I, than I of him.  Where did that man go last night?  I often wonder about solitary elderly people:  why are they alone?  Why does no one care for them?  The condition is especially dire for men.  More than women, whose physical strength may inspire less fear of violence, few help men in trouble.  Adrift alone in this world, they often refuse help, responding with anger and pride.  Still, I wonder... did this man survive the night?  What could I have done differently?     

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spring Inventory

Spring has been spreading its magic over New York City for the past three weeks.  Today, on the way to the dog park, I breathed in the heady scent of lilacs, stronger than the hyacinths (which bloomed last week).  The arrival of the lilacs always brings a mixture of pleasure and sadness.  Lilacs have the loveliest of scents, but as late bloomers they herald the end of spring.  So, here at long last, is my spring inventory.  The daffodils that appeared first have for the most part withered away, except for a few hangers-on in shady spots.  Next came the hyacinths, turning the night-time air to honey.  Then one of the trees in the heather garden turned into white lace.  This was followed by other trees bursting into cotton candy.  The ground cover of the garden has turned into a jungle of green, aflame here and there with lavender and yellow flowers.  The trees overhead have begun to spread a canopy of electric green.  It is a young lime-green, the leaves still small and uncertain about their ability to provide shade.  And, oh, the tulips!  Standing stock straight in a rainbow of beauty:  red, orange, pink, yellow, peach, deepest, darkest purple.  And, of course, the lilacs, whose scent I wish I could capture in a bottle, to release at home during the dark nights of winter.    

Body Bag

Sunday I drove down the Westside Highway to the UWS.  It was about 1PM, too early for the traffic jams created by people returning to the City from weekends away, but traffic was backed up, overflowing down the on-ramp.  I thought it would clear up after the freeway merger near the George Washington Bridge.  But that didn't happen.  I switched into the slow lane, where I could easily exit if the traffic became still worse. From my vantage point in the right lane I had a good view of the river.  At the speed I was going, I decided not to fret and to enjoy the view over the river and the spring flowers spreading along its banks.  The traffic continued stop and go until just past 96th St., when I noticed five or six cars parked along the runner's path, where cars normally are restriced  Two were cop cars, the others brown sedans.  A little further down the path a group of men stood in a group.  At their feet lay a mint green bag, about six feet long and obviously not empty:  the telltale swelling at one end tapering down to a smaller bump at the other end betrayed what lay inside.  Someone had died, or been found dead, along the river, and very recently.  The men stood almostly leisurely above the body bag.  No sirens blared.  No lights flashed.  There was no hurry now.  The men could take their time.  Some images will stay in my mind for a very long time.  This is one of them.