Monday, December 3, 2012

Catching Up With Family and Friends

Jeff grew up in New York City, and four of his cousins on his mother's side still live in or near the city.  When all four expressed interest in a family reunion, another cousin in Kansas decided to join us.  It was the biggest family reunion since our mutual grandmother celebrated her 100th birthday in 1980.  Here are the six cousins, Jeff included, and then the whole gang, spouses and kids as well. 

Our grandmother became a widow in the 1920s, shortly after her fifth child was born.  The oldest was only 9 years old.  There was no social security then, nor pension plans, nor insurance money.  We put our heads together to share what each of us had heard about how she managed to keep the family together, and fed, and educated.  Sadly we all failed to ask our own parents these questions when we had the chance.  We could only guess how she did it, and be amazed that she pulled it off.  A reminder to us all, for the older of us to share family stories with our kids, for the younger to ask the questions that generate them.

Jeff's cousin Bill and wife Sheila were the most gracious hosts for our gettogether at their condo in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.  We had a nice walk there past colorful homes and classic brownstones, and afterwards got a further tour of the area from Sheila, including the corner house that Cher "lived in" in the movie Moonstruck.

A few days later Jeff's cousin Greg treated a few of us to lunch at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art.  We'll say more about the art in a future blog, but we can show you the appetizers, which were works of art themselves.

Louise's brother Richard lives in NYC, only 1/2 mile from the apartment we rented.  He brought us to a restaurant called "Robert" that sits on the top floor of the Museum of Art and Design at Columbus Circle, where we had yet another memorable lunch, this time looking out over Central Park to the right and up Broadway to the left.

On another day, Richard led us on a hike up the Croton Aqueduct trail and into the Pocantico Hills, where the Rockefeller estate is.  Part of our hike was through a portion of the estate open to hikers, then through an area the Rockefellers have handed over to the state that is now a state park.  Both provided great walking, particularly given that it took only a 45 minute train ride from Grand Central to get there.

Louise and Richard's cousin Sally also lives in NYC and we had a few gettogethers with her, including a tour of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where she is a docent.

A second adventure took us all by Staten Island Ferry and a bus to Sailor's Snug Harbor, a former retirement community for aged sailors that is now a community center and botanical garden.  Its most remarkable component is the Chinese Scholars Garden.  40 Chinese artists and artisans spent two years creating the non-botanical parts in Suzhou, based on actual scholars' gardens there, then constructed and planted the garden in six busy months in 1999 on Staten Island.  Having just visited Suzhou less than a year ago (, written in March 2012 but describing our November 2011 visit), we can affirm that the New York Chinese Scholars Garden was very authentic!  They even had carp that appeared to be flying through trees reflected in the pond they swam around.

One weekend in the middle of our month stay we had a weekend visit from Louise's daughter Lisa and family.  Ray took our 7-year old granddaughter Elise to her first Yankees baseball game while we had a much more interesting time walking on the High Line with Lisa and grandson Issei.  We'll say more about the High Line a little further below.

The next day we all headed to Governor's Island.  This was closed to the public when Jeff grew up in NYC, but now is open every weekend during the summer, with access on a free ferry, no less!  It sits less than a mile south of Wall Street and east of both Ellis and Liberty Islands, so there's plenty to photograph.  We pedaled around the island on a sort of six-person buggy, with stops for playgrounds and artists' shops along the way.

Friends Louise and Masaharu arranged a two-day visit to see us and also their son, who is pursuing his architectural career in the Big Apple.  We so enjoyed the High Line with Lisa we headed back there with our Washington DC friends.  The High Line was built in the 1930s to lift dangerous rail traffic off the streets of New York and up 30 feet above the city.  You can see it down the street in the photo to the left, then close up from street level where it now ends in Greenwich Village.  It's an interesting subset of "the Village" known as the Meatpacking District, where a yoga class was being given in the middle of one street and where meatpacking plants are now being converted into a mix of office space and upscale restaurants. 

The High Line was abandoned by the railroads in 1980 and stood unused for decades while debates raged over what to do about it.  A dogged band of activists finally convinced the city to not tear it down, turning the argument that it was an eyesore depressing the neighborhood on its head by converting the elevated railroad line into a verdant garden walkway that passes next to and through buildings to which it formerly delivered freight.  It has been an enormous hit with New Yorkers and tourists alike, and new apartment buildings have already been completed alongside it even though it has only been open 3 1/2 years!

One certainly gets interesting views of streets new and old, but we were left baffled as we looked down at one parking lot -- how the heck do they get the cars up and down from those stacks???

The High Line ends not far from the Circle Line boat tour, so we combined the two.  One sees so many famous landmarks from this boat that circles Manhattan Island that it's hard not to be overwhelmed.  We'll just share three images with you, starting with a shot of the Wall Street area where New York City's ugliest building peeks through on the left.  We called it the Post-It Note® Building, for obvious reasons.  Jeff got a little nostalgic over the otherwise uninspiring buildings of Goldwater Hospital next to the 59th Street Bridge, for it was here on an island in the middle of the East River where his brother lived for a year after suffering a stroke 30 years ago. Then as the boat glided past Williamsburg (now known to the trendy as "Billyburg") Jeff gasped to see new condos where decaying factories lined the East River in his younger days.  A painting we saw a few days later at the Brooklyn Museum, "Job Hunters" by Maurice Kish, is a closer approximation of the "Billyburg" that Jeff remembers.

We did do a lot of sightseeing on our own, particularly long walks.  We wandered several times through Central Park, past a Jewish wedding with a chamber trio accompaniment in one case, past "Bubble Man" a few times.  Funny how our footsteps kept taking us past this fellow -- guess you're never too old for bubbles.

In another in-town adventure we walked across the Manhattan Bridge.  It was a huge mistake to leave our earplugs back in the apartment, as subway trains clatter metalically a few feet from the footpath every couple of minutes, at decibel levels worthy of a rock band.  As we looked across the roofs of  Chinatown we enjoyed the contrast with Wall Street in the distance but once again thought of a painting in the Brooklyn Museum painted a few blocks away in 1905, "Hester Street" by George Luks.

As we reached a point above the Brooklyn shore Jeff pulled out his camera to look at a photo we took a month earlier in Bangor Maine of a print by Richard Estes entitled "D Train." And yes, as D trains rumbled and screeched next to us, we found the spot Mr. Estes surely stood at when designing his work in 1988.  The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center of course are now gone, and it is interesting to contrast other changes, some actual, some made 25 years ago in the name of "artistic license."

To get some fresh air, we also headed twice to the beach.  Our first venture was to Long Beach on Long Island, actually easy to get to on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR).  We watched surfers from the boardwalk and actually got in a bike ride with some clunky public bicycles you rent by the hour.

On a second seaside getaway we visited Coney Island, this time of course by subway.  Another boardwalk, another beach.  Jeff came here maybe once a summer in his youth, when Coney Island was at the tail end of its glory years.  Looking at the beach this September afternoon in 2012 it was hard for the brain to imagine it the way he sometimes saw it in the 1950s, so crowded you could barely find a few square feet of sand to put down your beach blanket.  The historic photo from 1940 might be an even tighter fit than Jeff ever saw, but not by much!  The tall red tower, by the way, is the "Parachute Jump," a ride that was wildly popular during WW II and for quite a while after, as stateside Americans had a chance to experience the adrenaline rush their brothers and sons got if they were paratroopers in Europe or the Pacific, minus the gunfire.  It hasn't had a tethered parachute attached in years, but it's just too iconic to remove, so it stands here still.

We had one more visitor during our stay in New York, for the last three days -- Jeff's daughter Rebecca.  On her one prior visit she saw almost nothing, so we gave her an intense 3-day New York Experience.  Hard to say what was tops, but a Japanese dinner followed by a trip to Lincoln Center for a live performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House was way up there.

What else does one do for a quick fix of NYC?  Well, we tried another jaunt to Governor's Island to see the harbor, a not too random walk down Wall Street, and a visit to the World Trade Center memorial where we paid tribute to someone Louise knew who was on the plane from Boston that went into the North Tower, a school friend of her daughter Lisa.

Another trip took us by subway to the neighborhood where Jeff grew up, so that Rebecca could see the holy sites and coax some family stories out of her dad.  The house Jeff called home for his first twenty-something years was still there, as well as his elementary school.  So too was Sal's Pizza Shop, where we met the current owner.  He is 3 years younger than Jeff and, like Jeff, started going to Sal's the moment it opened in 1962.  He started working there as soon as he was old enough, and bought the place when Sal retired!  As he and Jeff chatted, they learned that they were both good friends with Peter J., who had lived two doors from Jeff.
Our last evening we took the tram high above the East River to Roosevelt Island, where we admired the city lights from the shore.  The next day Rebecca had a flight and we had a train to catch, but both were in the afternoon so we enjoyed one last adventure: a walk through Central Park with Louise's brother Richard, who treated us to lunch at an outdoor restaurant right near the Great Meadow.  What a nice end to our adventure!

We'll write one more blog entry about NYC to say something about the incredible museums we visited, then take you along for our ten-day visit to the Finger Lakes.  Hope you enjoyed your visit to New York City with us.

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