The Fancy Dreamy Castle: A Scottish Holiday, Day 4

Today we were off to Edinburgh Castle, which is one of those places that first time visitors to Edinburgh simply must see. Not seeing it would be like not seeing the Tower of London or the Empire State Building.

Approaching the castle, we were first struck by how tall the Castle Rock (the volcanic plug that the castle rests on) was. And then the castle towers above that even ever higher over the entire Edinburgh cityscape. It’s truly a remarkably impressive site.

Climbing up the Castle Rock proved relatively easy, the incline round the side of the rock along Johnston Terrace quite manageable. Eventually you’ll reach a staircase on Castle Wynd West (maybe about 40 steps… I didn’t count) that’ll take you the rest of the way.

As with lots of things over here, the castle itself has a long history. The architecture dates from as old as the 12th century to as new as the present day. The oldest building is Saint Margaret’s Chapel, located on a quite high point of the entire site. It’s a very small, unassuming chapel that leaves little room for even 15 people to fit inside. But, it’s still worth a step inside.

Right outside Saint Margaret’s Chapel is Mons Meg, a giant canon built in 1449 and capable of firing 400 pound canons a distance of two miles. It was used several times during the castle’s many sieges until the 16th century when it was then used for only ceremonial occasions.

At first I thought the Mons Meg was actually some kind of replica because we were allowed to touch it and idiot parents were letting their children climb on it until a staff of the castle told them to stop. But, it really is the real thing! I’d suggest they fence the damn thing off rather than rely on idiots to read signs and expect them to “treat Mons Meg with respect.”

There is so much else to see at the castle, though, that it’s difficult to succinctly cover it all! Definitely check out the Great Hall, which dates from 1511. It’s compete with a wooden roof of huge beams carved with intricate designs, walls decorated with swords, guns, and armor, and the far end is adorned with a giant, stately fireplace. Make sure to view the Honours of Scotland (i.e. the Scottish Crown Jewels), which are the oldest surviving jewels of Britain consisting of a crown, scepter, and sword of state, and used to crown Mary Queen of Scots in 1543. Do step into the Scottish War Memorial, a space of somber commemoration for Scottish lives lost in the two world wars and military campaigns since 1945. (It could be more somber if people would just shut the fuck up while they’re inside such a place.)

Make sure you don’t miss the Royal Palace, which is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots’ son, James, who would be crowned James VI of Scotland and then later James I of Scotland and England, succeeding Elizabeth I. And you mustn’t miss some amazing panoramic views of Edinburgh while atop the castle. There’s prime viewing right outside Saint Margaret’s Chapel as well as along the Argyle Battery and an overlook near the War Museum.

Following the castle we made our way down the Royal Mile, which is a, er, mile-long set of streets (actually a Scots mile long… there’s a difference) that connects Edinburgh Castle on the west end to the Scottish Parliament and Holyroos Palace on the east end. The mile is a main thoroughfare in Edinburgh’s Old Town area. We did take a slight detour off the mile for a late lunch at MUMS Great Comfort Food (mmm! yum-yum! pumpkin and sage pie! mushy peas! lager! do go!), but then walked the whole length of the mile to see Canongate Kirk (a quite modest church) where Adam Smith is interred, and, naturally, the Scottish Parliament (a quirky, angular building of some kind of faux steel… or maybe it is real steel bent into a cartoon of a building) and Holyroos Palace itself.

Stray Observations:

1. We did step into the Scottish War Museum in Edinburgh Castle, but my attention span just couldn’t handle much more. (Sorry.) It’s a fine exhibit, carefully curated, masterly researched. There’s just so much to see in the castle that something will no doubt be neglected on your visit, unless you have the attention span of some kind of time-shifting alien. (Plus I kinda get bored in museums. Sorry.)

2. Driving in this city is quite a challenge, especially when your Tom-Tom is malfunctioning. I had to rely on a pre-loaded Google map on my phone (without Siri’s voice directions… no internet, you see) to find my way to the castle and back again. Still, driving here has been an adventure that I’ve rather enjoyed. (Parking, however, sucks terribly and is expensive.) All things considered, you don’t need to take a car into this city, unless you have a 73-year-old mother with you who appreciates the lift.

3. I made one final side quest along the Royal Mile to Saint Giles’s Cathedral. It’s a gorgeous Gothic cathedral, and I happened upon it while an organist was performing some florid toccata using the reed stops. If you’re pressed for time, don’t feel bad if you miss this cathedral, but if you can fit it in, then do stop by.

4. Edinburgh really does feel like and, indeed, is an old city in ways the Glasgow didn’t and wasn’t. (Sorry. I’ll stop obsessing over this point after this final observation.) But, as I’ve said, Glasgow just felt (and, indeed, is) so much newer than Edinburgh, and we Americans (or, at least this American) like to visit this side of the Atlantic for its long, long history and old, old architecture, and Edinburgh definitely delivers on that! It really is a magical, dreamy city!

The Fancy Old Palace: A Scottish Holiday, Day 3

Today we said, “Bye for noo!” to Glasgow, picked up a car from the airport, and made our way to Edinburgh, but not before stopping at Linlithgow Palace on the way there.

Now, the last time I drove in the U.K., we spent most of our time in the southwest corner of the island, where motorways were few and narrow country lanes were many. Perhaps naively, I expected the same today as we made our way from Glasgow to Edinburgh via Linlithgow, but I was terribly mistaken.

The M8 is a major artery for automobile traffic that connects Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s about an hourlong drive, and the whole way is at least four to six lanes. We all found ourselves remarking that it didn’t quite feel like we were in Scotland while on this drive. We all had this image of narrow country lanes, castles, sheep, stone walls, and green bens (i.e. mountains or peaks). But this stretch of roadway wouldn’t’ve been out of place in Minnesota, apart from the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road and the road signs and license plates were a bit different.

However, as we started to get nearer to Linlithgow as we exited the M8, we did, indeed, start to encounter narrow country lanes, sheep, stone walls, and bens. And, indeed, we eventually arrived at Linlithgow Palace.

Apart from the roofs that were destroyed in a fire in the 1700s, much of Linlithgow Palace survives. It dates back to the 1300s when a fort known as the Peel was built on the site of a manor from the 1100s. However, much of the town of Linlithgow was partly destroyed in a fire in 1424, so James I decided to rebuild the fort as a palace. It was also during this time that the adjacent Church of Saint Michael was built. Over the years, many kings (all named James, incidentally) continued adding additions to the structure. In 1542, Mary Queen of Scots was born in the palace. After the union of the crowns, the palace fell into disuse, went through one more rebuilding, then two occupations, the second of which (by the Duke of Cumberland’s army) destroyed much of the buildings by fire in 1746.

Today, a striking amount of the palace actually survives that not much imagination is required to imagine what it was like in its heyday. You can view royal bedchambers, the chapel, the great hall, the royal kitchen, many nooks and crannies, long hallways, spiral staircases, and tall, tall towers. Since all the roofs are gone, it’s possible to view, for example, the great hall from a staggering height, uninterrupted by a roof or intervening floors. There is also one tower that you can climb all the way to the top, which provides not only spectacular views of the palace but also the town of Linlithgow and Linlithgow Loch. It’s so high up, in fact, and open to sheer drops, that it tests anyone with a fear of heights (er, like myself). Even still, Linlithgow is worth a visit, and it’s enjoyably easy to get turned around in it’s somewhat labyrinthine halls, staircases, and chambers. The only criticism I have is that there should be more placards placed about to explain certain areas beyond the main ones that were available at the great hall and the chapel and so forth.

Our day continued on with a drive to Edinburgh, and it was somewhat of a challenge and kind of stressful driving in this city. Unlike Glasgow, Edinburgh checks off some of those traits that we expect from old, old cities: narrow lanes, a spaghetti grid, and old architecture that isn’t pushed aside by the new.

As we sat down to dinner at a fantastic British gastropub called the Blackbird (located on Leven Street), we all agreed that because we’re in Edinburgh, we now really fully feel like we are actually in Scotland. Glasgow had a striking newness about it that we found distracting. Edinburgh, however, really does feel like an old Scottish city in the way London feels like and old, English city. We’re quite looking forward to exploring it!

Stray Observations:

1. Now, I do have to say, Glasgow is marvelous in its own right and is worth a visit. The people are kind, warm, and welcoming, the history is engrossing, and the food and beer are delightful. However, there’re just a little bit too many chain stores, the streets are too uniform and therefore distract from expectations of what old cities should be like, and everything is just a little bit too new.

2. It is so, so nice that they post prices with taxes included. If you pick out an item that costs £10, you can go to the counter and give the cashier a £10 note. There won’t be some percentage of money added to the posted price.

3. I neglected to mention yesterday that our walk back to Glasgow’s city centre after viewing the Necropolis also took us by the City Chambers, a striking building designed in an interpretation of Renaissance Classicism. However, on Sundays it’s closed, so if you want to go inside, then visit any other day of the week.

4. While I quite enjoy driving around this country and it’s cities, parking in Edinburgh is a nightmare and made coming into the city all that more stressful as we navigated the charmingly narrow and twisting streets.

The Quite Old Places: A Scottish Holiday, Day 2

Glasgow’s relative newness continued to fascinate us, and today we figured out a little more about why that is since the haze of jet lag has now left us. Today we were somewhat bothered by Buchanan Street, which is just basically a boring old shopping district or outdoor mall that you might find in any boring town in America. (By all means, avoid this street unless you want to go, er, shopping for some reason.) Glasgow also has a quite organized grid of streets, and I don’t really associate old cities with a grid of streets but rather a spaghetti-like maze of tiny streets. I also later found out that much of Glasgow’s medieval architecture was torn down in the 18th to 20th centuries, so much of the city really is new. Even still, we saw some sites today that affirmed Glasgow’s long, long history.

After a quick coffee and tea and sandwich at a Caffe Nero (we later discovered this is just a boring old chain), we made our way to the Lighthouse. I mainly wanted to go because of these images of a spiral staircase I saw online as well as promises of amazing views of the city. And, by all means, do make a stop at the Lighthouse (the entrance looks like you’re just going into a boring mall, which might deter you), but once you ride the escalators to the third floor, and once you climb up over a hundred stairs on a modern, spiral staircase built into a 110 year old tower of red-brown stone, the views of the city atop the Lighthouse are breathtaking.

Following our visit to the top of the Lighthouse, we visited the third floor’s Mackintosh Centre, which is an exhibit highlighting the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose work features prominently throughout Glasgow. The Lighthouse itself is Mackintosh’s first public commission, and it is a quite good example of the architect’s style: geometric forms of right angles; minimal ornamentation but just enough ornamentation  to hint at subtle, rounded edges; red-brown stone; a delicate balance between functionalism and an aesthetically-pleasing turn-of-the-century style; by no means anywhere near sterile modernism nor anywhere near baroque excess. The exhibit itself was quite good and worth a visit.

Following the exhibit, we made our way back towards Glasgow Cathedral to visit Provand’s Lordship, Glasgow’s oldest house, built in 1471 as part of St. Nicholas Hospital but also used for temporary housing for clergy and other staff since it is so close to the cathedral. Eventually, the Lord of the Prebend of Barlanark (later known as the Lord of Provan and then Proband’s Lordship) lived in the house along with the priest of St. Nicholas Hospital.

The house is definitely worth a visit. It’s a prime example of medieval design and is decorated with furniture from the 15th to 17th centuries. The placards are informative, and it really is just simply quite incredible to step foot in such an old house.

Following the house, we made our way to the nearby Necropolis, which is essentially an astounding cemetery on a hill. It’s not the oldest cemetery I’ve been in (the tombs were dated only as old as the 18th century and remarkably as late as the 1970s), but it was still a quite fascinating walk through rows and rows of tombstones, statues, and mausoleums. Atop the Neceopolis we were able to admire some more splendid views of the city, views that rivaled those from atop the Lighthouse.

Our walk back to the city centre took us by the University of Strathclyde and the City of Glasgow College before we enjoyed some good old fashioned pub fare at Hootenanny.

Stray Observations:

1. One cab driver we had didn’t accept one of our five pound notes because it was of the old paper style and not of the new plastic style. We asked the cashier at the Tesco what the issue was, and he just said that the driver was just being stupid and paranoid.

2. The people of Glasgow continue to be so, so friendly. The server we had at the Hootenanny was so, so nice, as she suggested I try a Tennant’s lager, a good old Scottish favorite brewed right in Glasgow, she informed me.

3. I think yesterday I was so tired from jet lag that I disparagingly called the Glasgow Cathedral “quaint.” While, indeed, it isn’t as large as Westminster Abbey, Glasgow Cathedral’s size does not diminish its massive achievement in stunnning gothic architecture.

4. The weather here is GORGEOUS! The skies range from grey to cloudy, highs in the range of 15-17, small bouts of drizzle and rain interspersed throughout the day. Right now I’m sitting in a square right outside the St. Enoch subway station, and my ears and fingers are a bit cold as if it’s late October in Minnesota! Sheer bliss! And NO! I’m not being sarcastic at ALL! (No, really. I’m not. I ADORE this weather!)

The Dear Green Place: A Scottish Holiday, Day 1

Yes, it’s been just under three years now since I’ve been in the U.K., and when I finished writing about my excursions then, I concluded that, “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”

Well, here we are. Three years later. And I’ve come back. Sadly, however, the U.K. has since gone a little backwards in their beliefs what with Brexit, but at least Scotland had the sense to vote against it unlike its southern neighbor (London excluded).

Last time I was in the U.K. I was with my mother. This time, however, my sister has joined us on these adventures. It’s her first time visiting a foreign country, and it has been a delight sharing this experience with her.

Our first day in Scotland involved acquainting ourselves with Glasgow. Glasgow is a curious little city, but in a good way. There’s a newness to Glasgow that I wasn’t expecting. While the city does have old buildings and while the history of the city goes back 2000 years to Roman times, large portions of the town have newer architecture that has a slight tendency to overwhelm the older parts.

Our first stop was to get some much needed lunch, so we discovered a curry restaurant called Chaakoo Bombay Cafe. Glasgow is somewhat known for its curries, and Chaakoo did not disappoint! We got everything to share: lamb saagwalla (with spinach); dhansak (chicken, lentils, vegetables); saag paneer (spinach and cubes of cheese); daal makhani (black lentils, red kidney beans, tomato purée); sabji roti (stuffed with green peas, crushed potatoes, coriander, chilli); all with a side of jeera rice and lemon rice. It really was some of the best curry I had ever had. The service was also super friendly, our waiter commenting that Glaswegians are the friendliest Scots around. So, we’ll see how the rest of Scotland’s inhabitants stack up as we make our way around this country!

Following lunch, we made our way to Glasgow Cathedral, and this certainly is a stop every visitor to Glasgow needs to make. Now, if you’ve been to places like Westminster Abbey or Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Glasgow Cathedral will seem decidedly quaint. It is much smaller compared to lots of other cathedrals in the U.K., but it is still breathtaking in its own right. The structure dates from before the Reformation from the late 12th century and so is built in classic gothic style. It also has that charred, blackened look old structures like this have (like the Kölner Dom), but you can view the preservation they’re doing to a section of the cathedral called Blackadder Aisle in order to envision the classic white color the whole structure originally had.

Following the cathedral, we started to succumb to our jet lag, so we viewed the adjacent Necropolis from across the street with plans of returning there tomorrow.

This city is very walkable, so we made our way back to the city centre via High Street and then Trongate and Argyle Street.

Stray Observations:

1. We came across two police boxes while we explored the city without even looking for them. One was near the cathedral at the corner of Cathedral Street and Castle Street. The other one is on Buchanan Street north of Argyle Street.
2. So far, Glaswegians really are super friendly, especially the waiter at Chaakoo Bombay who took time to explain tipping expectations in Scotland (basically, 10% unless a service fee is already included in the bill).
3. We also took a moment to admire the River Clyde, which borders the southern end of Glasgow’s city centre. It was there where we discovered a quite large and striking mural of a tiger.
4. Lastly, it didn’t take us long to discover not just one, but two street performers playing bagpipes! (Yes, bagpipes!) And they were wearing kilts! Both were performing on Buchanan Street.

The Most Giant Star Outshining Worlds of Terror

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, and this is something I’ve wanted to remark upon for a good couple months now.

Over two years ago, I wrote a quite optimistic post about Twin Cities Pride, declaring, “I absolutely and resolutely adore pride in the Twin Cities, but a part of me can’t help but think that pride month will have to rapidly transform itself very soon, mainly because so many other things are changing very quickly, from marriage rights, workplace discrimination, to bullying in schools.” I was essentially suggesting that unless Pride changed, it would quickly become obsolete and unnecessary. Keep in mind, I wrote this shortly after Minnesota legalized marriage for all, and the excitement in the air was palpable. Nothing could stop this progress. Everything we ever wanted would come true.

And, indeed, the Supreme Court would come to legalize marriage for all across all 50 states. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, idiot governors sign nonsensical bills into law declaring transgendered men and women must use specific toilets. Trigger happy police officers execute black men under circumstances that no reasonable person would find justifiable. A white male swimmer who rapes an unconscious woman merely gets his wrists slapped. An American civilian with a scary sounding name who happens to admire ISIS kills 49 people at an Orlando nightclub while a dysfunctional Senate fails to pass commonsense gun control measures. And, just to top the end of 2016 off with an event to end all events, the electoral college is going to vote for an idiot man to run the most powerful office in the world because Colin Powell advised a woman it’s fine to be a bit sloppy with emails. This is an idiot man who openly mocks people with disabilities, an idiot man who calls for a registry of Muslims as if we’re in Nazi Germany, an idiot man who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to grab women by their pussy and pass remarks like these off as everyday locker room talk, an idiot man who has filled his cabinet with the least qualified people (i.e. idiot rich men) who seem poised to actually dismantle the very programs they were hired to support. His idiot administration so far is shaping up to be the most out-of-touch administration since perhaps Warren Harding’s, but even Mr. Harding’s administration seems more adept at running a country than compared to this idiot’s administration we’re about to have for our executive branch.

And if that wasn’t enough, we now also have an idiot vice-president who is a man who has advocated for public spending on conversion therapy for LGBT people. He wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. He has sponsored multiple bills to defund Planned Parenthood. His policies inadvertently caused an HIV outbreak in Indiana. He opposes marriage equality. He voted against fair pay for women and minorities. He opposes raising the minimum wage. He has tried to block aid to Syrian refugees. He believes condoms are not effective in preventing STDs and pregnancy. He believes the LGBTQ community should not be protected from discrimination. He opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He opposes Obama’s transgender bathroom directive. He defied a bill combating rape in prison. He refused to call a former leader of the KKK deplorable. He sponsored a bill that would have prevented children of illegal immigrants from becoming citizens. And lastly,he believes smoking doesn’t kill. (No really. Look it up. Don’t take my word for it, but all these are true and do not come from some Onion article.)

These, among other stuff, are the idiot things happening right now. It is so very difficult to call up the hope and optimism we all felt when suddenly, in an instant, the highest court in the land said that states have no right forbidding certain people to marry (again).

It is so difficult to call up this hope because what’s most distressing about this election is that millions of people voted for a man who believes in some very deplorable things. These are things that affect me personally as well as millions of others of our fellow brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors and friends and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters all across the nation. But, I’ve heard people comment to the effect of, “Just because I voted for that man doesn’t mean I’m a racist,” to which I must respond:

You may not think you’re a racist or a misogynist, but you do seem to think that this idiot man didn’t cross a single line to get you to change your mind to make you say, “You know what? That’s pretty upsetting, what he just did there just then. I don’t want a repulsive man like that running this country and representing us abroad.”

Let me refresh your memory what lines he did cross but that you have now validated are lines that are either acceptable to cross or are not a line crossed at all. You heard him say he wants to register Muslims, but apparently that’s not too far. You heard him say he wants to build a wall between the U.S and Mexico, yet again that’s apparently not too far. You heard him talk about how it’s fine to do to women whatever you want, including “grab ’em by the pussy,” but even that wasn’t a line too far. You saw him mock a man with a disability on national television, but, again, that seems not to have been a line crossed.

And what’s worse is that he’s given voice to some very despicable ideas and amplified them. Indeed, he’s even validated that this kind of hatred can now exist within our national dialogue. This hatred has always been lurking in the dark undersides of this country for awhile, but now this idiot man has given them reason to come out to spout their hatred as if it’s totally acceptable behavior. “Have they no decency?” Apparently not, unless what their version of decency is is some transfigured misrepresentation.

So, what happens now?

Well, you know what Twin Cities Pride and Pridefests everywhere? You stay exactly as you are! You stay resolute in your beliefs! You keep working towards your vision of the future! Because now more than ever, we need you to stay just the way you are. And I’m sorry that over two years ago I had the arrogance to suggest that we didn’t need you anymore because the world was just fine and dandy now that some ridiculous court said gays and lesbians could get married. How short-sighted I was. I apologize.

The wonderful thing about pride, though, is that it is marvelously protective. I like to think of my own pride as if it were the most giant star ever. More giant than our own solar system’s star. More giant than the most giant of red giants. More giant that the most giant galaxy. More giant that the entire universe in all its magnificence. My pride is a vast, sprawling gigantic beacon of light and hope that outshines the darkest of hatred and the ugliest of behavior. It’s a fantastic and brilliant and powerful light that is larger than anything imaginable, and no amount of hatred or bullying or any other despicable thing could even come close to stamping it out, because this light is untouchable, bold, and courageous. And it is infinitesimally greater than any dictator, any evil, any repulsive invention that tries to undermine the small, fragile, and delicate beauties that do exist in this horrible little world.

We have difficult and dark days, weeks, and months ahead of us. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be awful. It’s going to be terrible.

But those of us who believe in the right and good in the world will not falter. We will not go away. We will not move to Canada. We will not let those in power forget that they are supposed to be public servants that represent us all. And when they forget their place, we will still be here to remind them that we will hold them accountable to all the horrible things they are going to unleash upon us all.

So don’t you go anywhere. We need all the giant stars to be strong enough for all of us, including those who may not know how to be strong enough or those who may not know that they can be strong enough.

Worlds of terror are only tiny pale blue dots in the grand scheme of things. Our pride will always protect us from whatever horrors they breed.

But it’s going to be hard. And we have a lot of work to do and a lot of work to protect. But when everything is said and done, we may actually feel fine after all.

This Is the End of It All: A New York Holiday, Day 7

At long last, part 7 of 7 of a fantastic adventure in New York!

Our last day felt a bit truncated and abridged. We had an evening flight, and (if you can avoid it), I think it’s actually better to always leave on a morning flight so that you don’t have to worry about where to put your luggage during the day after you check out of wherever you’re staying. It was kinda icky, lugging it around as we went to see some final sights.

For our morning, we made our way to Russ and Daughters, but this time to their shop, not their cafe (which we went to for brunch on our third day). Their shop has on display in elegant and smart display cases their caviar, salmon, herring, cream cheeses, and an assortment of other items like fruits and nuts and other sweets. I ordered a bagel sandwich called the Super Heebster and it had whitefish and baked salmon salad with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe. It was just so, so good! After this, we made a quick side trip to Caffe Vita, where I picked up some coffee beans for my friends who were looking after my cats back in Minneapolis.

Our last two stops in the East Village before we made our way towards Harlem brought us to Avenue C, very nearly on the easternmost edge of the island, where we first had a look at C-Squat, mainly because I was interested in the building’s history with punk rock. I linked you to an article about what C-Squat is, but in short (and I’m essentially paraphrasing Annie Correal’s words), it’s a building that squatters moved into in the late 1980s. At the time it was an abandoned building, but they slowly fixed things up, turning a disused space into something useable again, and by the 1990s, the building was host to various basement punk shows.

The East Village has a colorful history of squatters, but sadly most of of them have been evicted. In the mid 2000s, however, the city and the squatters reached an agreement, and the squatters were allowed to stay and take ownership of the buildings, provided that they returned the buildings to code. Today, many artists and musicians live in C-Squat.

C-Squat itself is an unassuming red brick building that would pass unnoticed if it weren’t for a small sign that reads, “This Land Is Ours / See Co-op Squat / Not for Sale” in red and black stenciled typeface (and even then, the building still might go unnoticed, as the sign is quite small and unapologetically simple, and unless you’re specifically on a mission to see C-Squat, you would pass by it all together regardless).

Nearby C-Squat is the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space, and as I indicated on our fifth day here, it was the second of only two museums we visited while in the city, the other being the wonderful Mmuseumm. But what museums they both were! Both are definitely worth a trip out of your way!

The MoRUS is a perfectly glorious museum that has exhibits about the city’s community gardens, squats, and people, all focused especially on the history of the Lower East Side. As I’ve said in other posts, I felt an especial affinity for this area of town, as it was a colorful celebration of people from all over, unpolished as to reveal the true nature of things and not prettied up in a kind of plastic facade.

And so as it was as we learned about Adam Purple at the MoRUS, a man who spearheaded community gardens in the Lower East Side with his Garden of Eden and who had just died in September of this year at 84 years old. From 1975 to 1980, he created a beautiful garden designed in concentric circles that provided a place for children to experience ground beneath their feet rather than concrete rubble, for people to grow food like corn, berries, and cucumbers, and for the community to generally have a safe space away from all the riffraff. At its height, it was 15,000 square feet large. (Again, the article I linked to above provides a nice overview of the garden, and I’m essentially paraphrasing Christopher Jobson’s words as I write about this.)

Sadly and unlike other parks, the city never recognized the Garden of Eden, the space always marked as vacant on maps. And on 8 January 1986, the whole garden was bulldozed in 75 minutes to make room for new buildings.

All of the MoRUS, however, paid a wonderful tribute to Adam Purple himself and the work he did. In addition to photos of the garden with placards offering information on the garden, we could even view one of his purple tie-dye outfits. The whole museum is quite colorfully designed (as befits such a vibrant history), with bright, bold paintings on the walls and staircases that detailed the timelines of community gardens.

As I said, try to make your way to the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space and send them some money, if you can.

We continued onwards, making our way ever farther north, stopping by the northern part of Central Park along Museum Mile (a stretch along 5th Avenue between 82nd and 104th Streets) where we saw the outside of the Guggenheim (it looks much smaller in person, its famous circular design of ever larger circumferences of four levels from bottom to top, like an upside-down pyramid except shaped into a cylinder) and enjoyed a walk along the east side of the running track that circles the Reservoir (a 40 foot deep body of water that houses a billion gallons of water and built in the 1860s as a temporary water supply for the city).

This part of town is very “cleaned up,” shall we say, and looks very expensive. That kind of aesthetic never really appeals to me, though, as I rather prefer the realness of the East Village or Chinatown or Harlem, where people from all over the world make there way about redbrick buildings that show their age.

Speaking of Harlem, our last stop in the city was in Harlem itself where we first enjoyed a pizza made in a wood burning oven at Babbalucci along with a Manhattan to drink, and then we had a short walk to the nearby Harlem Corner Social, where we enjoyed a drink called the Lychee Lii (Belvedere, Sake, Elderflower, Lychees).

It was at this point when we began to keenly feel the end of our time here, and it was very sad. I’m glad we got to experience Harlem, even if just for a very little bit, as I want to make sure to spend more time here when we return. It is bustling and vibrant and busy and full of lots of things to do. We happened to walk by the historic Apollo Theater as we navigated our way to the bus stop that would bring us back to the airport, and I would love to attend something there when we come back.

And one day, we shall come back!

Here are some final thoughts about our time:

  1. Just for fun, here’s how I’d rank all the plays we attended, keeping in mind that the play at sixth place is only at sixth place because we only saw six things, and so therefore, if we saw 100 things, it still wouldn’t be deserving of 100th place.
    1. Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes: The Daisy Theatre
    2. Daphne Rubin-Vega and the Labyrinth Theatre Company: Empanada Loca
    3. Third Rail Projects at Kingsland Ward in Brooklyn: Then She Fell
    4. Elevator Repair Service and the New York Theatre Workshop: Fondly, Collette Richland
    5. Daryl Roth Theatre: Fuerza Bruta
    6. Punchdrunk: Sleep No More
  2. I did rather enjoy New York City, but it hasn’t displaced London as my favorite city in the world. While London isn’t perfect (New York far surpasses London in terms of diversity of excellent cuisine, for example), London is easier to navigate (I mean, we used old fashioned paper maps while we were there instead of iPhones and didn’t get lost!), much more walkable, and denser in terms of how close so many fantastic things are in relation to each other.
  3. I missed talking about some additional things that got lost in my notes on our time here:
    1. Somewhere along our journeys, we enjoyed Big Gay Ice Cream where you can order such colorfully named creations like the Salty Pimp or the Bea Arthur.
    2. We also happened across J. Kathleen White’s peephole dioramas, installed along the fence along the Ninth Street Community Garden, where you can view whimsical scenes of rabbits and other animals in small dioramas that you view through, obviously, a small peephole.
    3. We did happen to stumble across the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street by accident. I’m glad we did, because now I can say I saw it, but I never have to see it ever again (much like how I can say I’ve been to New Jersey by nature of how the Staten Island Ferry crosses into New Jersey waters for a bit, and now I never have to go out of my way to go to New Jersey just to say I’ve been there).

Put Me to Sleep Already: A New York Holiday, Day 6

Our last full day here required a bit of a slow morning to stave off some residual effects of our debauchery from the night before. By the time we got started, we decided to seek out some more Italian for lunch.

And, as I indicated in my last post, you really can’t get Italian in Minneapolis like you can in New York. I mean, the food is actually made by Italians from Italy, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The little sampling we got at yesterday’s visit to Via della pace, was quite the most wonderful prelude to the risotto we enjoyed at Risotteria Melotti right at 309 East 5th Street in the East Village. Their website indicates that they are the home of the best Italian risotto, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. If memory serves, I believe I ordered the Limone e gamberi (that’s risotto with lemon and shrimp), and it was a delicately creamy affair but not by any means heavy like some kind of alfredo dish you might get at, ehrm, Olive Garden.

(Sorry, just needed a moment to calm my gag reflex after thinking about alfredo sauce at Olive Garden. And I think I just committed a mortal sin by mentioning Olive Garden while talking about Risotteria Melotti.)

The restaurant itself is rustically Old World with dense wooden tables, exposed brick walls, yet all brightly lit with tall windows. Our server was delightfully pleasant as she struggled ever so slightly to find the right words to describe the foods, and I found myself having to pay extra attention to everything she said, as her accent was just heavy enough that the words weren’t readily accessible.

You can read more about the Melotti family history on their website, but in short, the Melotti family are, apparently, famous in Italy, and having a risotteria in New York is their dream come true.

(Annoyingly, however, they are one of those places that boasts an entirely gluten-free menu, and I just hate that craze, because so many people think they are sensitive to gluten when I think in reality they just want to be sensitive to gluten so they can say, “Oh, I’m on a gluten-free diet, and it’s done me wonders.” It’s so stupid!)

Anyway, following a glorious lunch (despite the fact that it was gluten-free), we made our way to Hotel Chelsea in, er, Chelsea, mainly because I wanted to see the hotel where Sid Vicious died. In addition to Vicious himself, the hotel was also home to many other famous writers, musicians, actors, and artists like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Iggy Pop, Arthur C. Clarke, Allen Ginsburg, among others. The building is quite gorgeous: a red brick exterior with elaborate wrought iron balconies. Currently, it’s closed for renovations, and the hotel will re-open in 2016.

The hotel was a stop on our way to the High Line, a public park built on an old freight railway. As it’s on an old railway, the park is generally quite narrow, but wide enough and long enough (it runs from 14th Street to 34th Street on the west side of the island) to accommodate the hundreds of visitors that were sharing the park with us. The High Line itself is really quite neat. I just love these reclaimed urban spaces, prettying up something that was once disused. Visitors make their way past trees, shrubs, flowers, and other greenery while walking on pathways of wood planks or stone. There are also areas with wooden sun chairs where you can recline and watch people, a wider section that is covered where you can purchase food and drink while encountering Tibetan monks asking for money to support some temple somewhere (I couldn’t really understand him), and on occasion there was some art, an installation of yellow heads placed in a geometric structure of iron (Rashid Johnson’s Blocks) or a quite colorful mural recreating that famous photograph of a sailor kissing a woman (Eduardo Kobra’s mural of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo, VJ Dyay, The Kiss).

In general, the High Line was quite nice, but for some reason I felt it was hyped a little bit for me, so I left feeling just slightly disappointed by the experience. Even still, I adore the project and I love the idea, and do go visit, but just remember that you’re basically gonna just go to an elevated green space that occasionally has art.

Following the High Line, we needed to waste a bit of time before we headed to our last night of theatre, so we got some cocktails and snacks at a place called Porchlight, a bar that boasts Southern cuisine and drinks, located just a block west of the High Line in between 27th and 28th Streets on 11th Avenue, where we enjoyed a plate called the Southern Spread (smoked catfish dip, tasso, smoked cheddar, pickled grapes, preserves, benne seed crackers), some Tom’s Balls (deep fried balls of rice, chicken liver, pork, and trinity), some freshly baked cookies, and some fancy cocktails that I can’t remember the names of and their menu online isn’t helping to jog my memory, so I can’t share with you all the glorious details. I do remember the cocktails being quite good, but having enjoyed some real Southern cuisine in New Orleans meant that no matter how how this place tried, there wasn’t a hope they could even come close to a pseudo representation of real Southern cuisine of even the most dimly semi-good approximation of an attempt.

Unfortunately, a dimly semi-good approximation of an attempt somewhat prepared us for another dimly semi-good approximation of an attempt, except that when I say dimly semi-good approximation of an attempt, I mean the worst night of theatre you will ever experience EVER.

Mark my words, Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More was just so, so disappointing on so many levels I just don’t no where to begin, but I shall try.

Let’s first put things into perspective. Our first night in NYC saw us venture out to Brooklyn to enjoy Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects, a wonderfully enjoyable evening of immersive theatre. What Third Rail did was take what little works about Sleep No More, and then improve on it immensely. The She Fell involved a small audience of 15 people, and everyone moved about from room-to-room at the direction of the actors. We were invited to unlock chests and hutches, flip through books, take dictation, respond to questions, partake in small eats and drinks, and imitate the choreography. Since we all moved about the hospital in small groups, everyone got to see every single scene of the play. Everything was wonderfully coordinated, carefully organized, and splendidly acted. The only criticisms I had was that the music was repetitiously boring and distracting, and the choreography wasn’t always executed with the care and precision I would have expected.

Sleep No More, however, is an awful mess of a production. I went in expecting the same level of careful detail that Third Rail provided, and I was anticipating that our interactions with the actors might in some may influence the evening. How wrong I was.

The whole play takes placed in the fictional McKittrick Hotel, which was built in 1939, which happened to be bad timing because World War II started, so reservations dried up, and the McKittrick had to close its doors along with many other hotels in New York. In reality, the space is an old warehouse dressed to resemble a hotel, a hospital, a creepy basement with stone statues, among other rooms. As you enter, you are asked to put on masks to hide your identity (this, no doubt, to make it easier to distinguish between audience and actor), and the masks clearly resembled what we saw in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which then recalled the voyeurism that film explored, so we, too, become voyeurs into the action in this hotel.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, it all goes terribly wrong…

As the evening started, I wandered from room-to-room, opening desk drawers, flipping through books and photo albums, and interacting with other various props like a doll house, stone statues, and a coffin. The set design is actually quite marvelous, and it’s the one thing about Sleep No More I actually appreciated. However, as I explored each room (I came across an album containing pictures of dead people from the Victorian era, when they would take pictures of dead people because it was probably the only photo they could afford for a single person’s lifetime, and wanted something to remember them by), I noticed that all the other audience members were in a terrible rush. I would be the only person in a room, for example, that had a bed, a dollhouse, and a giant mirror, for instance, and I would be opening drawers and handling the props (why else would they bother with all this detail if not to let us explore?), but then someone would peak their head in, dart their eyes about, and then leave. I was left wondering, “What’s their rush? Don’t they want to find something fascinating in these drawers?”

Soon, 45 minutes went by, and I didn’t see a single scene of the play, so I started to wander about more quickly to see what could be going wrong. Why was nothing I was doing causing a scene of events to occur like in Then She Fell?

It was then that I realized that our interactions with the props had nothing to do with anything, and I had wasted so much time (and about $31 of my $85 ticket). Eventually, I finally came across a scene that involved a bathtub with dirty water and a nurse who sat down, read a little note, placed it on the tap, and then left. Meanwhile, a group of 40 audience members or so are desperately trying to watch the action. When the nurse leaves, so too left with her this group of 40 people, scrambling to follow her, like a group of lemmings disguised as impatient wildebeests.

Later I came across another scene that involved a bartender and some other people, and I don’t even care about the details anymore. I think there was a pool table as well. And something happened that involved two men fighting. Or something.

But then all these anxious, mask-wearing people were also around me, nervously and quickly walking about, making sure they get to see all the action. The actors leave, and then with them this large group of people also follow them. It was so distracting, and I was unable to appreciate anything because everyone else was just so nervously and anxiously making sure they also got to see everything.

But it is impossible to see everything, because it’s all such a terrible hodgepodge of nothing happening at all. Just people not speaking, moving about, taking things out of drawers, putting them back in, staring at each other, leaving rooms, entering rooms, performing some kind of pseudo-choreography, leaving again, putting stuff back. I think there was music happening, too, but it was so immemorable.

Also, somehow this was all based on MacBeth, incidentally, but I think they’re just saying that so that they appear intelligent.

Before long, we were all forced down to a giant open area with a long table (I never got to see two entire floors of the warehouse because apparently my attention span is too long), and all the actors are seated at the table in the style of The Last Supper. Then one of the actors gets hung by a noose.

The end.

And to think they had the audacity to offer programs of the show as you exit the warehouse, but only if you pay $25. For $85, I would expect those for free, and I would also expect at least a free drink or two.

No. None of that.

The whole evening was such a horrible experience.

Absolutely awful!

DO NOT GO SEE THIS SHOW!

It was the MOST HORRIBLE theatre experience I have ever had the misfortune to attend.

AND I WANT MY MONEY BACK!

Afterwards, we lamented the whole evening at the Olive Tree, the bar right next to the Comedy Cellar, then attended one last night of transcendent comedy.

So, there you have it. A thoroughly disappointing evening that felt like I wandered into a kind of haunted house for kids that happened to have some actors moving about in it. And apparently, among other things, I missed a scene that involved two naked men. That must’ve been why everyone was wandering about so anxiously. “Where are the naked men? I need to see the naked men! I paid $85 to see naked men!”

At long last, my final post on my NYC trip (which, all things considered, was actually divinely fabulous, even though Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More thoroughly ruined the evening of our sixth day here), will appear before too long, hopefully sometime over this long holiday weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving, in the meantime! Please don’t go shopping today or tomorrow. It’s rather pointless.

Stray Observations (a la AVClub):

  1. If you want to go to Sleep No More just so see the nudity, Gawker has this handy article.
  2. If you want to go to Sleep No More to actually enjoy it, good luck.
  3. If you want to go to Sleep No More to be throoughly disappointed, you won’t be disappointed.

Loud Music, but Strength in Choreography: A New York Holiday, Day 5

On the morning of our fifth day, we enjoyed some fantastic brunch at a little place called Estela, located on Mulberry St. and Houston (back in the part of town where the numbered grid ceases, Mulberry and Houston roughly equating to 4th Avenue and, er, Zero-ith Street). I can’t remember how we stumbled upon this place or why we decided to dine here, but it was a delight nonetheless. The place is one of those so-called “New American” restaurants, and it’s difficult not to compare it to nouvelle cuisine except with proper portion sizes: essentially, Estela mixes things up in new ways but without all those ridiculous bits of dribbled sauces surrounding three walnut sized chunks of some kind of edible matter shaped into flat cylinders, all on a giant white plate big enough to hold a turkey.

I enjoyed a dish of endive with walnuts, anchovy, and ubriaco rosso (that’s fancy talk for some lettuce with nuts, fish, and cheese), and it was simplistically delightful. I believe I also enjoyed a drink call the Big Soft Punch: Bourbon, rye, Cynar, and genever (I’ve started to develop a taste for rye, which is surprising me), and we closed brunch with some desserts that are now escaping me, but I seem to remember enjoying them immensely.

Following this, we did some snooping a block south of Estela, venturing along a cute little street market on Prince where artists were selling photographs and jewelry among other things, then continued east on Prince to stop by Little Cupcake Bakeshop on Mott and Prince (it was fun but nothing to, er, write a blog about), walked farther south on Mott to admire Chinatown with all their street vendors selling fish (the crabs were still moving a bit as they sat there, mainly dead, on ice) and vegetables (where I got to try lychee for the first time, a curious fruit with a kind of porcupine exterior that splits in half as if someone designed it to [but that would be, obviously, ridiculous], and within is a creamy white fruit that tastes understatedly sweet), until we made our way to a wonderful little museum called Mmuseumm, directed by Alex Kalman.

We haven’t done many museums thus far on our adventures (indeed, Mmuseumm will be only one museum of two we actually enter during our 6-1/2 days here), but this little museum is definitely worth going to over any of those other museums in town.

Mmuseumm is located at 4 Cortlandt Alley, and the permanent collection resides in the space no larger than an elevator, about 10 feet deep, 6 feet wide, and 7 feet tall, a tiny alcove within a building. Among its collection are a series of God Made books for children, as in God Made the World (he didn’t), God Made Me (she didn’t either), and God Made Weather (they also didn’t). There was a also a series of fishing lures and various hooks that had at one point been surgically removed from human bodies, a series of promotional items for various drugs like an Adderall soap dispenser shaped like a brain, and a series of homemade gas masks made out of plastic bottles and pop cans. One particularly delightful series, however, was a “Cornflake Index”: a collection of variously sized and shaped cornflakes, some long and thin, others small and broken, and more still just awkwardly shaped.

All of Mmuseumm’s permanent collection, if it isn’t obvious to you by now, is a collection of modern day artifacts, “and the artifacts of today’s world, found in between the cracks of our communities, are the physical embodiment of contemporary humanity – intimate illustrations, honest proof,” as the guidebook said.

The museum’s current feature exhibition, located just ten steps away from the permanent collection, housed in a similarly small alcove inset into the building and sectioned off by glass, is Sara Berman’s Closet in collaboration with artist Maira Kalman (the museum director’s sister), and the exhibition was (as the name suggest) a re-creation of the artist’s mother’s closet, and she was a mother who wore all white in shades of eggshell, cream, and parchment, and who always carefully organized her closet with every shoe, every dress, every blouse placed with purpose and intent in a way that suggested an eye for detail of the most minutest kind.

We were apparently at the Berman exhibition on its last day, but their website currently indicates that it’s been held over. So, if you have a chance, do make sure you make it to Mmuseumm and the current exhibition. It’s fantastic and worth going out of the way for!

We made our way back to the walkup via a Chinese market where I bought some oolong tea (It’s so, so good! I’m enjoying some right now!), walked by Roosevelt Park (that’s Sara Delano Roosevelt, the mother of who you were probably thinking of when I mentioned Roosevelt [FDR if you weren’t thinking of him {Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if I must spell it out <he was president during the Great Depression and WWII, if you didn’t know, but you really should, and if you didn’t, then I don’t want to talk to you>}]), and after enjoying some oolong tea at the walkup, we made our way to the Daryl Roth Theatre to enjoy Fuerza Bruta, a kind of acrobatic dance show created by Diqui James and Gaby Kerpel.

And the show was, well, fine, I guess. Not really my cup of tea, as they say, but a marvelous spectacle, nonetheless. That said, of the six shows we saw while in NYC, I would place this fifth (but the distance between Fuerza Bruta’s fifth place and Sleep No More’s sixth place is immense–more on that when I write about Day 6).

Before the show started, we’re forced to listen to some awful music. (I Shazam’ed it while I was there, and one number that happened to play was this repetitive monstrosity by someone called Joey Daniel and Rub A Dub.) This music sadly was an omen of the music to come, a kind of acoustic version of horrible club music where all you hear is a loud beat with some semblance of a two-note melody with a one-chord harmony. (Not that there’s anything wrong with two-note melodies and one-chord harmonies, but it takes delicate care and careful thought to pull it off successfully.)

The choreography, however, was impressively glorious, and the skill of the dancers was sublimely divine. The lighting, too, was a delicate mix of impatient strobes counterpointed by carefully blending colors, shifting at just the right moment and at the right tempo to keep you interested in everything that happens around you.

All of Fuerza Bruta takes place in a black box affair, maybe 50 feet on each side (but I’m a terrible judge of distances like that), and you remain standing throughout the whole show (I think about 8o minutes or so in length), as at points throughout you need to shift your position with the crowd a bit to accommodate space for the dancers and other apparatuses that enter into the area.

One such apparatus was a conveyor belt raised about 6 feet off the ground and about 10 feet in length. With booming music playing, a single man walked on this conveyor belt as other members of the troupe placed chairs and tables on the belt, simulating someone walking through a busy sidewalk, perhaps, past restaurants with street seating. The tables and chairs would be caught by others on the other end of the conveyor belt, then brought forward to the front, and then placed on the conveyor belt again.

The tables and chairs were then replaced by walls of stacked cardboard boxes that the man would crash through, the conveyor belt speeding up, the man running as fast as he could until a loud crack simulating a gun shot struck him in the chest, but he tried to continue on, running, as best he could despite being wounded.

The man was black, incidentally, and this moment no doubt was a clear representation of goings-on amongst us that the terribly important Black Lives Matter movement is working so hard to remind us all.

The athleticism of this man was so impressive, and it was an athleticism that every other dancer shared, and the choreography saved no expense to showcase the skill of these dancers, and there were many examples. At one point in the show, the entire audience became surrounded in a shimmering tarp that stretched all around us and all the way to the ceiling. Two dancers were suspended from the ceiling with a cable on a circular track, and the two women simulated running along this tarp, bodies perpendicular to the floor. At another point, another similarly shimmering tarp was gently draped over our heads, and then the tarp was inflated Metrodome-style with loud and powerful fans. Up top were three person-sized holes that the dancers would emerge from, suspended by cables, performing various twists and turns in the air as they descended to the audience. The part that everyone probably talks about, however, is when a transparent ceiling appears above us, it filled with water, and four dancers slipped and slid across the surface.

And this was all very well and impressive, but I couldn’t help but think that this was all just spectacle for spectacle’s sake. “Look what we can do!” they might exclaim, and I might respond, “Sure, this is all very cool, but it’s kinda weird that you made a powerful statement about Black Lives Matter early on in the show, but then everything after that just forgets that moment, and I’m left wondering what the whole show’s raison d’etre is. And the music is too loud and boring.”

So, that’s that. If you like spectacular shows that lack any depth beneath the surface layer, and you want to just go to a show where you don’t have to think too much, then you’ll probably like Fuerza Bruta. I’m glad I went, of course, because, as I said, the athleticism of these dancers was quite a sight to behold, but I was left feeling that the show didn’t really have a clear purpose to bind it together. Maybe I’m fixating on the moment that we witnessed a black man being shot, and that moment seemed to have no effect on events to follow, but it just seemed a bit crass to include something like that in a show that was really only spectacular because it was spectacular.

Following this, we made our way to an Italian restaurant called Via della pace (you really can’t get Italian food quite like this in Minneapolis) to hold ourselves over until we had a simply divine dinner at The Eddy, located right next to our walkup in the Village. This was Amy’s birthday dinner, and we enjoyed their fantastically wonderful 5-course tasting menu. I think the tasting menu has since changed, as some of the items on the menu aren’t jogging my memory. In a couple words, though, it was a decadently sublime evening of fine food and drink, and I wish I could remember it better to entice you with all the details. The Eddy is one of those fancy-ish places where you don’t have to wear a jacket and tie, but you should at least make some sort of effort to look nice, and everything is priced generally very reasonably for the quality you receive.

(Incidentally, there was a couple sitting next to us the were on a horrible first date that made us chuckle and feel bad for them.)

Our evening ended with some more drinks at a little place called Amor y amargo followed by more drinks at Dead and Company. Needless to say, we rather stumbled home, but nevertheless made it home safely.

Stray Observations (a la AVClub):

  1. In Minneapolis, three cocktails probably means $30. In NYC, two cocktails means $30.
  2. Where are the cats? We were always on the lookout to find cats sunbathing in windows, but never saw a single one!
  3. And we also never saw a single cockroach.

Idiotic Berks and Glorious Flowers: A New York Holiday, Day 4

For our fourth day in this fantastic city, we checked off a few more touristy things including Grand Central Station (or Grand Central Terminal, officially) and Times Square.

Grand Central is really quite gorgeous, and it is certainly unlike any train station I’ve been to, the ones in Europe included. Even in photographs, my eyes were always drawn to the three giant, arched windows that stand on both ends of the building, and this didn’t change when I saw them in person, their grandiose and majestic appearance commanding attentions of everyone. This grandeur continues throughout the whole structure with polished stone walls, unassuming yellow lights, and above it all, a beautiful ceiling of a kind of blueish/greenish/sea-ish color, and inset within that were golden recreations of constellations including Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and others. Unfortunately, they’ve got a ridiculous American flag hanging on one side of the main concourse that ruins the aesthetic perfection of the building, so try your best to pretend that it’s not there.

All things considered, I do believe Grand Central is the only train station I’ve been to where I highly recommend you go out of your way to see. You usually go to train stations to go somewhere else, but Grand Central was marvelous just to see in its own right.

Time Square, on the other hand, is one of those landmarks that you’ll just see once and then probably never see again, unless you prefer the hustle and bustle of lots of boring people looking at overly photographed and overly hyped, um, things, and I can’t bring myself to write properly about it anymore because each keystroke is becoming increasingly difficult to muster energy to complete, much like how Times Square sapped all my energy from ever wanting to see touristy things ever again. I guess the least I can do is link a picture of the damn place in case you want to see it because I don’t want to go on explaining it anymore.

Following all this, we made our way back to the southern part of the island, stopped at a fine little restaurant called Kottu House (kottus are street style Sri Lankan dishes made with a type of flatbread called Godhamba roti, and I opted for a dish called the Crispy Prawn: spicy curried prawns all complete with all their little legs that I got to tear off and their little eyes that I got to avoid), which was a nice way to have a late lunch, and the food was quite good with the perfect amount of spicy heat, but I wouldn’t by any means go out of your way to seek this place out, but if you happen to happen upon it, then by all means go on inside and enjoy some Sri Lankan cuisine.

After lunch we made our way to a place that reminds us all of something that still seems difficult to understand actually happened. It was a surreal experience heading there, heading to ground zero, the site of something terrifically awful, where nearly 3000 people needlessly died at the hands of ridiculous religious extremists who believed in a mythical god, just like all those delusional Christians during the Crusades. 11 September is a day burned on the memories and minds of so many, and it was very strange remembering the television images of the attacks that I saw that day while gazing at the National September 11 Memorial. How something so horrible happened right on the very ground I walked…

The memorial itself is strikingly beautiful and poetically simple. Where the two towers once stood are now giant gaping holes in the ground, tremendous square voids reminding us of what once was and is now lost. Water continuously flows and falls on all four sides of the sunken cube into a pool of shimmering water, and in the center of all that, an even deeper but smaller cube-shaped void within the pool of water where everything continues to fall, the falling water a touching metaphor for the day when so many people fell to their deaths or succumbed to death in flaming, smoking, and collapsing.

As you walk around the giant square space, you can read and touch the names of those who died on this day, their names cut out of a dark metal and set at a gracious incline, lectern-like, above a stone barrier.

Sadly, the whole experience is severely distracting because of so much inappropriate behavior from those around. I was absolutely horrified and shocked and annoyed and embarrassed that in this solemn space there were entire families posing and smiling for the camera, individuals taking selfies, children running around as if in a play park.

Is this really the time and place? Is this what you do at the grave site of someone you love? Is this how we choose to forget? Apparently so.

There are days when I am so ashamed to be a human, when I see the idiocy of other people and their lack of regard for their actions and the effects it has on other people, when I see a 9/11 Memorial Museum Store profiting as the result of a horrific day, when I see a gorgeous memorial become not only a reminder of the idiots who caused detrimental harm to their brothers and sisters, but also a reminder of the idiots who have no sense of simple decency, taking their selfies, taking their family portraits, letting their children misbehave, buying their 9/11 knickknacks.

Don’t be those people. Just don’t. The whole affair was so distressing that we forewent going into the museum, because even that would be much more of the same: people forgetting what happened when there are artifacts shouting at them, right in their face, reminding them of the idiocy of it all. I will not spend money at these places. It is disgraceful.

But, I suppose that’s why some people are idiots, because you have to be at least somewhat intelligent to realize how idiotic you actually are.

After taking a breather, lamenting the whole experience for the wrong reasons and venting our frustrations to each other, we made our way to the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the Garment District where we were in store for a real treat, a show that ended up being my favorite one of the six we saw while in New York: The Daisy Theatre by the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes. The show, like Empanada Loca, was a one-person show, except the sole performer, Ronnie Burkett himself, was joined by many, many marionettes.

All the action took place on a stage about 10 feet across, and Burkett was clearly visible to the audience as he manipulated the marionettes. Before everything started, however, he gave us a brief introduction about the show, telling us that normally his work touched on more serious topics like AIDS and suicide, but that The Daisy Theatre was a much more lighthearted affair.

And a much more lighthearted affair indeed! The whole evening was an eclectic celebration of vaudeville and cabaret, highly improvised, the length of the whole show dependent on how much the audience participated and cheered the marionettes and Burkett on. And Burkett was sure to make sure we all did want more, making fun of us if our responses were weak or timid.

The first scene introduced us to fairy child Schnitzel and muscle man Franz. Schnitzel was the most adorable character of the evening, a small baby- and freckle-faced child, bald, with a single flower growing out of the crown of his head, voiced in a squeaky, innocent pipping cheep. Franz was, as you would expect, a typical muscle man making fun of Schnitzel’s timidness and lack of bravery. The whole conversation came to a head when Franz talked about how the right side of the stage was so much better than the left side, this all becoming a metaphor for polarized politics, with Schnitzel moving from the left side to the right, only for a moment, before returning to the left side where he felt more comfortable.

We also met such other colorful characters like Edna Rural, a small town Canadian woman who regaled us of life in the sparsely populated countryside; Major General Leslie Fuqwar, a retired solider who now dresses in women’s clothes and sings cabaret; and Jolie Jolie, a old Parisian singer who probably once graced Moulin Rouge with nightly appearances. By audience applause, she won out over Esme Massengill as the one to close the show.

Jolie Jolie had to teach us all how to react to someone as famous as her, telling us all to “nudge nudge” the person next to us when we heard the announcer mention Jolie Jolie’s name, then exclaim loudly and colorfully, “Could it be? Could it be?” only to cheer, “It is! It is!” when Jolie Jolie appears. It was all quite marvelous fun, even for people like me who get a little embarrassed when the audience is asked to participate in such things like this.

Burkett’s delicate skill in moving the marionettes was absolutely marvelous, and his various voices were expertly performed, each marionette coming to life in believably funny and serious ways. The marionettes themselves were perfectly crafted as well, each one created in a way that recalled expressionistic theatre where each character was an overly-charged representation of some human condition, except presented comically rather than dustily serious. (But don’t get me wrong, I love dustily serious when it comes to such gorgeous expressionistic works like Lulu or Pierrot lunaire.)

Three of the audience were picked to participate in the theatre at separate points during the play, one a handsome young man (who Burkett insisted take of his shirt and who obliged) who helped manipulate one of the marionettes; another young man who was supposed to be a eunuch, who Brukett asked to lie down on the stage, but as Esme Massengill felt around his crotch could tell that he was in tact; and then me of all people!

I got to open up a small 2 foot by 4 foot wooden box at the front of the stage, turn a crank to raise a miniature orchestra of puppets, and turn another crank to make the puppets move as they played music. This was all happening while Jolie Jolie told us of days long past, asking me to look away from her, then look at her, then look away from her in quick succession as she said, “Oh, Tom. Tommy Tom Tom Tom,” in a French accent before beginning on with another story.

The whole evening ended up being about 2-1/2  hours of absolutely transcendent comedy, but unlike Fondly, Collette Richland which felt about an hour too long, The Daisy Theatre was a perfect length of time. And unlike the comedians from the previous night’s show at the Comedy Cellar, I went away from this play knowing that I saw absolutely and positively comedy and cabaret and vaudeville at its very best.

So bravo, Ronnie Burkett! It was a real pleasure attending the closing night of your show, and I do hope that perhaps you might be able to maybe come to Minneapolis’s own Open Eye Figure Theatre to grace audiences here with your wit and charm and charisma with all of your wonderful little marionettes.

Following Ronnie Burkett, we made our way to the Comedy Cellar for a second night of comedy. We were very sure to arrive in plenty of time so that we were the first ones to enter so that we might get to sit in the front row. Amy and I frequently look like we’re on dates, even though it’s very clear that I’m gay, but I always wonder about how we might confuse people. “Doesn’t she know?” people might whisper, or “That poor guy’s still trying to stay in the closet!”

And we surely did confuse one of the comedians, Kevin Brennan. The exchange went something like this:

“So, what’s your story? You guys on a date?”

“No, we’re just friends.”

“Well, what’s the matter with him?” he asked Amy, and Amy said, “He doesn’t play on that team.”

The comedian misheard her, I believe, and asked, “He doesn’t play games?”

And then she had to spell it out, “He’s gay!”

I was giggling away way too much to help respond to anything, but Kevin Brennan was really quite wonderful when he said something like, “By the way, I know some people get weird when you bring up the gay thing, but I’m all for the recent supreme court ruling.”

So, good on ‘ya (as they say), Kevin Brennan.

In addition to more of Brennan who we saw the night before, we were also treated to standup by Mike Yard, Jermaine Fowler, Jeff Leach, Liza Treyger, and Paul Mecurio, but I’ve been so slow to post these that it’s been so long ago now that I can’t quite remember their schticks. We had a good time nonetheless and laughed a lot, I just don’t remember very much of what they said that made us laugh. Jeff Leach is British with long hair, so he did this schtick about Game of Thrones (or something) and how Americans always cast British in evil roles (which is kinda an old joke), but I can’t remember much else.

At this point in our journeys, we pretty much confirmed what we feared before we headed out to NYC: that a week in this city is not enough time. Even when cramming as much in as we have (but not cramming too much in that the moments are cheated of their worth), there was still so much to do and so much to see. We were keenly feeling the brevity of time by this point, even with 2-1/2 days still to go while here.

But, until I write about our final day in town, it’s far from being all over… yet…

Stray Observations (a la AVClub):

  1. I was surprised to see the Times Square globe on display. For some reason I thought they only took that out for New Year’s Eve.
  2. I was also surprised by the ceiling of the Grand Central Station. I always fixated on those giant windows and never cared to seek out photographs of that gorgeous ceiling. Make sure you look up!
  3. I also am still so surprised at how everyone behaved at Ground Zero. Clean up your act, people. It’s disgraceful.

Mad Eats: A New York Holiday, Day 3

Many of our adventures in food thus far were rather lackluster, with the exception of Katz’s sublime pastrami on rye on our first day in town. Our third day in, however, helped to rectify some mistakes in our culinary adventures.

We started our day with brunch at Russ and Daughters Cafe, a fine restaurant indeed located at Orchard and Delancey. (This area of town ceases with a numbered grid of streets and avenues, but we’re roughly three blocks south of 1st Street, and Orchard lines up roughly with 1st avenue. All of this places us just south of the East Village.)

Their menu consists of a marvelously diverse selection of salmon, sturgeon, herring, and other whitefish, another equally diverse selection of caviar and roe, as well as other options like eggs and matzo balls.

In a word, simply divine stuff! I opted for a plate called the Lower Sunny Side which was sunny side up eggs, smoked salmon, and potato latkes. Everything was all perfectly seasoned, the salmon was delectably scrumptious, and the potato latkes (the Jewish equivalent of potato pancakes), were satisfyingly crispy. Do make sure you can visit Russ and Daughters, if you can, as brunch here was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Following this, we made our way a little farther south to catch the Staten Island Ferry in order to catch glimpses of the New York cityscape from the Upper Bay (the mouth of the Hudson River) as well as views of the Statue of Liberty. You could say that taking the Staten Island Ferry is the poor person’s way to experience these views, as the Staten Island Ferry is free to ride. The ferry provides stunning views of the city in its entirety, something that’s quite difficult to do when actually in the city (unlike smaller cities like Minneapolis, where all you need to do is go to Uptown to view the entirety of Downtown), and you get somewhat close (but not close enough) to enjoy views of the statue (or “the lady,” as we called her while we were there).

It was quite disappointing not going into the statue itself. We hadn’t realized until it was too late that tickets into the crown sell out quite far in advance, and we didn’t want to go to the lady if we couldn’t get into the crown. So, we settled for some less-than-spectacular views of the icon from the ferry, with the idea that one day we shall come back later better prepared. So, do make sure to plan far enough in advance to get into the crown, as I feel that (while it was exciting seeing the statue), the views from the ferry just didn’t have the same exhilarating satisfaction of seeing it up close and inside.

(Also, on a side note: the ferry crosses briefly into New Jersey waters [the statue itself is actually in New Jersey, interestingly enough], and so if you’re like me and want to some day visit all 50 states but don’t really have a desire to go to such substandard states as New Jersey, just ride the ferry to check off that state from your list.)

(Another quick side note: Staten Island is dull and boring and I don’t have much to say about it so we left back to Manhattan very quickly.)

Following our adventures on the ferry, it was already time for dinner, so we made our way to Momofuku on 1st Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. Along with pastrami on rye and bagels, ramen is another classic New York dish to enjoy. (Our adventures in pizza and hot dogs will come a bit later on our trip…)

Minneapolis doesn’t really have good ramen, the stuff at Moto-I here in Minneapolis is just a saline bowl of salt. (Although I’m quite looking forward to see how Matthew Kazama’s new ramen shop will stack up when it opens.) The ramen in New York, in general, is in another league entirely, as it currently stands. At Momofuku, I opted for a bowl of ramen with pork belly, pork shoulder, and poached egg, and it was delectable! The pork was mystifyingly tender, the broth was delicately seasoned filled with layers of aromas, and the noodles were just perfectly wavy and lengthy. Momofuku has an open kitchen, and we got to sit at the bar to watch all of the action happen. The manager in charge was very passionate about her job as she reminded her cooks, “Are you tasting the broth before you send it out??” and “Why are all these bowls sitting out?? Put them away!!” and “Clean up right away as soon as you’re done with what you’re making!!” Everyone diligently followed her suggestions, and the whole operation ran with precision and care.

Following our dinner, we made our way to the Bank Street Theatre in the Greenwich Village and Meatpacking District area to enjoy the Labyrinth Theatre Company’s Empanada Loca by Aaron Mark and featuring Daphne Rubin-Vega as the sole performer on stage. Rubin-Vega is an accomplished actress, a recipient and nominee for several prestigious awards, and she originated major roles in RENT and Anna in the Tropics.

Rubin-Vega’s performance as Dolores in Empanada Loca was absolutely stunning. It takes place deep below New York in the city’s dark and dingy sewers where all she has is an old massage table and a bottle that collects water from a leaky pipe. She sips from the bottle a couple times through the show, as for 90 minutes or so, it’s all her regaling to an unseen listener a story about how she ended up where she did.

After we learn about how Dolores started drinking at age 9 when her police office mother was killed by gunshot, how she studied for two years at Hunter College to be a city planner, how she dropped out after meeting a man called Dominic who was a drug dealer, and then how she started a new career as a massage therapist, we learn that she created a partnership with a man called Luis who owned a restaurant, and in an obviously Sweeney Todd-ish way, Dolores’s guests to her massage table end up as meat in Luis’s empanadas. (This isn’t really a spoiler, as the subtitle to the play makes it clear that the show is a riff on the legend.)

(Loca, by the way, means “mad” in Spanish, and empanadas are, of course, stuffed pastries.)

Everything in the show comes together marvelously, from the eerie lighting, the sound of subway trains overhead, the realistic set design, to Rubin-Vega’s performance. I want to call her performance a tour de force, but I hate it when people say that, just like I hate it when people call anyone a genius. But, it really was an attractively sublime performance as Rubin-Vega nonchalantly describes the gritty details of all the deaths she witnessed in her life, all the hardships she endured, but also all the successes she’s had (such as it is, dispatching unwilling massage victims to Luis’s empanadas).

Following the show, we made our way on foot to the Stonewall Inn, the bar that marks a major watershed moment in the gay rights movement, but it’s really nothing spectacular. It’s your standard gay bar with overpriced drinks, unwelcoming and judging gay men, and I think there were pool tables as well, but I can’t remember.

We quickly made our way from there to admire Washington Square Park which bore a strikingly uncanny resemblance to the northeast corner of Hyde Park in London by the Marble Arch and Speakers’ Corner, then to cocktails at a bar called the Up and Up before getting in line to attend our first night of standup comedy at the Comedy Cellar, as made famous in Louis C.K.’s television series, Louis.

The venue is just as cramped and tiny and dark and questionable as it appears on Louis’s show, but all in a wonderful endearing way, and the show featured on the microphone Jon Fisch, Mike Vecchione, Kevin Brennan, Sherrod Small, Michelle Wolf, Kurt Metzger, and Paul Mecurio.

I have a weird relationship with standup. I’ve only until this show seen it on video, and I adore comedians like Eddie Izzard and Kristen Schaal, but there are lots of other comedians that I just don’t think are very funny, and I find myself watching them tell jokes that don’t make me laugh while the whole audience on the video cracks up.

However, being in the presence of these comedians actually did make me laugh, but I have to wonder if I would laugh if I actually saw them on video, which then made me wonder if I actually did like these comedians.

That said (and since I’ve been slow to post these and it’s now nearly almost an entire month since I saw the show), I do remember Michelle Wolf’s performance quite vividly. Perhaps it was her giant hair, but I do remember her bit was the one that made me laugh the most. She did a hilarious impression of her Jewish mother that I remember quite clearly, and she had a delivery that was matter-of-fact but not deadpan. I do prefer comics when they’re more understated and less “silly walks” and all that, and Wolf was right up my alley.

To round the evening off, we made our way down the street to Ben’s Pizzeria, the exact same pizzeria that we see Louis eat at in all the opening credits to his show. And what pizza it was! You really can’t get pizza like that anywhere else! (Maybe Chicago? I don’t know.) But it really was the best slice of pizza I ever had, and we undoubtedly knew in that moment that we would have to have more while we were here.

So there you have it! We definitely made up for lost time dining at substandard places during our first two days with all the sinful gluttony we allowed ourselves for our third day in. And how appropriate that our uptick in better cuisine lined up with a play about sinful empanadas, if you take the meaning.

I am going to try to post these a little more quickly, as I’m worried how much longer my memory can hold in all the details. I’ve got four more NYC posts to go, and at this rate I’ll finish by Christmas, and I want to avoid that.

Stray Observations (a la AVClub):

  1. Greenwich Village was the most European of all the areas of the city we explored. Apart from the streets being all perpendicular and parallel to each other, they were nevertheless all tiny and narrow and surrounded by old (or new, if you’re comparing to even older cities) buildings. It was kinda rather like a posher and quieter version of the East Village.
  2. Go to the Stonewall Inn if you want, but it was really boring. The historical importance of this place cannot be overstated, but don’t go in expecting to see a great mecca of a gay paradise. It’s just a bar where something terribly important happened to have happened.
  3. Now that I’ve discussed three of the plays we saw so far, I can’t help but be reminded that Minneapolis really does have a quite good theatre scene in its own right. We may not have the stars, but we certainly have the talent. Shows like Empanada Loca and Fondly, Collette Richland would be fine and welcome additions to our vibrant theatre community.