Monday, February 8, 2010

Retracing Steps, Harkening Back

Once upon a time I lived in New York. Cleaning out a desk drawer I uncovered a bundle of old notes from some years back during and following a return visit to the city. The pages are mostly wrinkled and smeared, and half there, and I can’t make out what year it was, though surely more than ten years ago. Signposts among my hurried scrawls could easily pinpoint the year, but whether the years since are many or few, that time, those hours and days in New York still smolder fresh in my recollections. Impressions that stay with me…

Intoxicated, breathless in the concrete perfume of NYC and wondering why have I stayed away so long. The vibrancy of the city whole hits me like a surge of chemical stimulant to the brain. First to hold my eye is the still familiar architecture, but altered by obvious change and addition since my last visit. I need long days to do nothing but walk about finding the places that used to be that but are now this; the deli which used to be an antique shop, the neighborhood which once embraced junkies now playing host to DINKS, and all the soaring new mammoths of mirrored, tinted glass.

We move up and down once familiar streets of the west Village, charting the change and shift of shops and storefronts. I lived for a number of years in the heart of this area, in a Charles Street apartment still missed. Standing on a corner of Bleecker Street, Norman aims his chin at a man coming out of a nearby doorway. “Remember him?” The man is heavyset, Puerto Rican about 30 years old and I have no idea who he is. “That’s the old building superintendent’s kid, Flavio…Remember?” With a sudden stab of icy clear memory I recall the slight 10 year-old Flavio of years past, playing stickball on the corner of Bleecker and West 10th. Is this almost tangible reminder of human frailty and transience truly the same Flavio? A block south is Christopher Street, a stretch of Greenwich Village that has for many years been a favorite of the gay crowd. My memories of it are a collage of images, of McNultey’s Teas & Coffees, the Theatre de Lys, the big post office once there at the western end, and of course the famous Stonewall (now a Pottery Barn), scene of the 1969 gay riots. Walking down Christopher this time it is a happy troop of gay hip-hoppers, many of them black, who add their stamp to the street’s history. The gay bar called Boots & Saddles is still there, crowded with gay cowboys. I remember that we used to call it Boots & Bras, though without any intent at slur.

A great treat to visit the Whitney Museum once more. My old friend Jim, who makes his living as a Broadway scenic artist takes me to see the Paul Cadmus exhibition. The artist isn’t unknown to me, but I haven’t seen his work in a long time so the paintings strike me differently through the perspective of my more mature senses. Cadmus produced his signature work in the 30s and 40s— openly sexual paintings of drunk sailors with their willing floozies, sprawled on park benches or frozen in jitterbug poses. Almost like a modern Technicolored Hogarth, he painted with tempura in bright cartoon flush, crowded scenes of debauchery and excess. It is an outstanding exhibition. On an interesting note, Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In! was the inspiration for Fancy Free, the 1944 Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein ballet.

Later, the Winslow Homer exhibition at The Metropolitan. First impressions—too crowded and overrated. Homer was obviously a great painter but I just don’t bend to his art the way many or most art critics would have us do. Many of his subjects impress me as labored and static. Interestingly, coming on the heels of Cadmus, the Homer paintings are glaringly sexual. So much of his work portrays youths lounging about in idleness, draped across a skiff or riverbank, while other paintings are of half-clad muscular black men wrestling with nature.

One more plunge into the arts, this time theatrical. I buy a handful of Broadway tickets. I have to steady my equilibrium when asked to hand over a month’s rent for a single orchestra seat to a hit musical. I have promised myself to enjoy the time in New York, so suppress any fretting over the high cost of seeing four Broadway plays from orchestra seats. I comfort myself with the blessing of a borrowed apartment in the Village which is saving me a king’s ransom in hotel costs. The big hit is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravaganza, Sunset Boulevard. I am more interested in The King and I, though tickets for either are not to be had. For a musical I settle upon Showboat which turns out to be the biggest mistake of my stay. I escape after the first act, puzzling over the painted backdrop of a snowy mountain landscape—as though the Mississippi River setting had been transplanted to somewhere in the Canadian Yukon. I imagine the costumes as being designed by a former Ross Dress For Less employee, and the choreography by Clint Eastwood. Why is it playing to almost full houses? I only stayed for half, but the whole thing looked and sounded like a tired old traveling show on the summer circuit far away from discriminating audiences. Maybe it would rouse the Shriners at a rural dinner theatre somewhere.

A day later and a week too soon, a bus carries me from Penn Station to Newark Airport. One last look at passing streets and then finally the New York skyline shimmering in afternoon light across the Hudson River.

Photos: Charles Street scenes and inside my old apartment w/cats; 1934 Paul Cadmus painting, The Fleet’s In!

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America