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Sugar Hill

February 9, 2012

The thing that is supposed to be so great about New York is all the culture. People keep asking me what I do here and I tell them I work. I generally live a pretty monastic life here. I walk to work. I work long hours. I walk home, stopping once a week at the grocery for supplies. I write. I go to bed. It may sound like drudgery, but having this kind of time to myself is mostly pure pleasure.

But this week, I got out a little.

Last night, after work, I walked uptown with my assistant. We stopped for pizza and headed to a teeny tiny but acoustically lovely recital hall to hear an old friend and former coworker sing Schoenberg (early, pre-12 tone music plus some of his (dirty!) cabaret songs). I enjoyed watching the elderly women in front of my get all flustered by the lyrics of a couple of the more lascivious ones. The concert, which also included and pianist, was exquisite. I hadn’t seen this particular friend, who was also AJ’s first babysitter, in at least 8 years. We had a lovely reunion. And another coworker of ours was there also. I hadn’t seen him in nearly as long. We all went out for drinks afterwards at a swank bar and we talked about opera and Chicago, and crazy performers. It was lovely and her friends were a lot of fun. They walked me to the subway afterward, past two closed stops and then onto a third. I got home around midnight, and the world was still bustling.

My subway life in New York is fairly narrowly defined. Last night, because of closures, I ended up on the A, which I never take. It’s like a different planet from the lines I’m usually on. The train cars were old, the ones I remember from a long time ago with the orange seats. And it is a much more thorough mix of ages, racial groups and socio-economic classes. The A train at 11 on a Wednesday night is the New York of my imagination.

I am unaccustomed to drinking wine late into the evening and I found I was glad my 8:30 a.m. meeting was cancelled. I had a productive but somewhat stressful day of work, one of those days where being a boss requires some concentration, where I have to be kind about putting my own work aside to help others. In the early afternoon, when a block, in my schedule opened up unexpectedly, I slipped out to visit the Morgan Library. I haven’t been there in a while and I’d read that the Dickens exhibit, put up before Christmas, was closing. Dickens had teeny-tiny handwriting that fascinated me. Was he just trying to save paper? Like so many of the Morgan’s exhibits, it was made more interesting by the thoughtful curation. Each wall represented a different aspect of Dickens. I started with a bank of letters illustrating Dickens’ penchant for philanthropy, in particular his involvement with the founding of a sort of reform school for prostitutes. I didn’t know this about him, and it sheds new light on his fictional chronicles of London’s downtrodden classes. There were also letters to friends, one to his publisher asking for an advance so he could pay his rent, illustration plates from his books, copies of the books themselves, and caricatures of him that ran in the newspaper. His drafts were stunning. For instance, they had his manuscript of the first page of A Christmas Carol. It looked to be largely through-written as it exists today, with only very few crossings out. The most remarkable object, though, was his manuscript for Martin Chuzzlewit. Apparently (so the exhibit placard said), while on a train with his mistress (despite his good works, he was clearly no saint), the train crashed and his car was hanging half off the edge of a cliff. Dickens got his mistress out of the car and tended to the dead and dying. Then he remembered his manuscript and ran back into the train to retrieve it. “This is that manuscript,” the card said.

I also stopped in the room across the hall for a lovely exhibit of Dutch drawings from the time of Rembrandt, including some of Rembrandts. they were classified by subject matter rather than artist, so it was possible to compare styles. Really interesting.

I’ve seen a lot of landmarks and friends this week. On the way to work yesterday I walked by the Hotel Chelsea and the Empire State Building. Last night I walked past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the New York Palace (former home of Leona Helmsley). And this afternoon I got to say hello to The New York Public Library lions and see Times Square.

After work today, a bunch of my coworkers convened at a nearby bar — something that happens every couple of weeks because we enjoy each other’s company; once in a while the office picks up the tab — to share some King Cake. Two of my coworkers come from New Orleans and they shared their Mardi Gras traditions with us. One of them had ordered the cake from a bakery back home. I’ve never had King Cake before, but it was delicious — intensely cinnamony with a side of Bavarian Creme. I had to cut out before someone found the baby Jesus, who is hidden in the cake. But I hear my assistant is now Mardi Gras queen for the next year.

I left early to head to the library to meet an old friend of mine who I haven’t seen in some time. We knew each other in Chicago. She sang in a choir I conducted and we co-taught a couple of classes. She lives and teaches here now. We met on the front steps of the library and went to sit at a bar by the ice rink on the back side for a couple of hours to get caught up, which was lovely. And then I hopped the F train back home.

Tonight I pack, tomorrow, I cram and then head for home and then I am officially on vacation. Tuesday I head to the Left Coast for reasons I’m not allowed to discuss here until after it happens. But I’m counting on some diverting blog fodder.

Tonight I am avoiding packing and listening to Nada Surf, who I’ve been hearing a lot on the radio this week. I’m not sure how I feel about them musically — mostly meh (or, in the words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Mostly harmless”–but I am in love with the name of their new album: The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy. Unfortunately, the title is my favorite part. I loved the Douglas Adams when I was a kid, but haven’t read them in years. I find I’m constantly being struck by little bits of brilliance, like the description of a spaceship as “hanging in the air exactly as a brick does not.” This book has worn much better than expected. Now if only it would magically pack my suitcase for me, life would be just about perfect.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2012 7:38 am

    If I asked you why you were headed to the west coast, would you answer in the form of a question?

  2. February 10, 2012 8:10 am

    I’m glad you’re admiring the brilliance of Adams anew, and enjoying King Cake (which I heard about from another source) and I would like to hear more about Dickens…you cut off there, maybe? My theory about why the handwriting was so small is that yes, it saved paper, but also people were smaller. I’ve been thinking about this after seeing Wordsworth’s spectacles at Dove Cottage. They were tiny; like doll eyeglasses. They would not have gone across my face.

    Also, my kids mom, what is a dead giveaway?

  3. February 10, 2012 8:40 am

    MKM: Do you think an answer might be incriminating? J, I’m mystified by where my Dickens paragraph disappeared to. I’ll have to rewrite it later, but probably not until I’m sitting in the airport tonight.

  4. February 10, 2012 8:46 pm

    Thanks for the rewriting. That’s a good story, about the mistress and the MS.

  5. February 10, 2012 9:04 pm

    I love your New York life. That King cake sounds delicious.

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