Monday, January 25, 2010

Hell of a Town

That's a view of the bus. To get from the DC area to New York, you have a number of options, but in terms of cost and convenience, you really can't beat the bus. Especially if you work in Bethesda and can leave your car in your office garage for free and then walk either across the street or a couple of blocks to where one of the bus lines leaves from. And if you go in the middle of the day, the trip takes about 3.5 hours. The Tripper bus gives you a bottle of water and free WiFi, too.

I was headed to New York to sing as part of the chorus in a production of Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. About twenty-five of the members of my church choir were going, and many of them were traveling together on a different bus, but that bus left from Rockville, nearer the church, so it wasn't as convenient for me. Besides, bus travel, like hiking is best done as a solitary endeavor. The slow accumulation of miles and the mild rocking of the bus are nearly trance inducing, and it's best to let the fatigue and grit of the current trip merge with that of trips past, yours and everyone elses. As it happens, grit is in very short supply on the Tripper bus, but bus travel in generally is a significantly gritty undertaking, so it requires only leaning your head against a window for a bit to imagine yourself a blues guitarist riding to Memphis, or a prodigal son returning home with only a few dollars and the hope of a kind greeting.

I tend to recall the forty-five hour (each way!) bus trip I took to visit my brother and his then-wife in Colorado Springs back when I was seventeen. I think my parents didn't want me to go, so they told me that I could only go via bus, and I thought, "Why not?" and went. I was an especially naive seventeen-year-old, so when an older man (I have no idea now how old he was, maybe forty-five) started to feel me up, I freaked out a little, albeit quietly. He stopped. Also, I had to ask some guy who was mumbling at me to repeat himself a third time before he finally said, with considerable volume, "I SAID, 'DO YOU WANT SOME HASH?'" I, barely, had enough sense to understand that he was not offering me foodstuffs, and I declined, very politely. Anyway, there was plenty of grit, and plenty of fatigue, on that trip. On this trip, there was mainly plenty of Interstate, and the occasional very large retail establishment.

We didn't stop at Ikea, though, which is just as well since there wasn't a lot of spare room in my luggage, what with my having to pack a tuxedo and everything.

I had had very mixed feelings about the trip. I figured that singing at Lincoln Center could be kind of cool, but it just didn't seem likely to be the experience of a lifetime that most of my fellow choir members expected it to be. For one thing, the concert was being run by a group that was charging us to sing with them. They seemed a reputable outfit, and they had the blessing of the composer, and they didn't invite just anybody to fork over a few hundred bucks to sing with them, but still, paying to sing is always at least a little bit Florence Foster Jenkins. On the other hand, I figured that spending time with a very large group of good singers (and they were very good singers) under a different director would be good for my choral development, and mid-January is a slow time at work for me, and, well, five days in New York. Also, I wanted to be a team player, even though I figured that I probably wouldn't spend a lot of time with the team, outside of rehearsals, once I got to the city. So I decided to look at it as a vacation with fifteen hours of rehearsals and performance thrown in, and off I went.

There's no real point in my writing much about New York itself. I tend to go there about once a year, and I always enjoy myself, but I don't have the sort of pilgrimage-to-Mecca reverence for the city that so many gay men do. And I don't, frankly, work all that hard at getting beyond the surface of the city. I have a relatively short, modest list of things that I want to accomplish when I visit:
1. See a show.
2. Walk by the Bethesda fountain.
3. Buy a cheap watch from a street vendor.
4. Pick up some sort of souvenir for the girls.
5. Stop by Kalustyan's for spices.

I should say right off the bat that I failed to procure a cheap watch. I was down on Canal Street and someone approached me muttering "Rolex," and I stopped briefly, but then I thought better of it. I already have a fake Rolex from Florence. Besides, I figure the fake Rolexes in New York are likely to be a) too expensive, and b) not sufficiently obviously fake. Wearing a real Rolex is ridiculously pretentious, and wearing a fake one is only better if the watch says "Rollex" or something equally ridiculous. So what I usually do is get something from one of the tables in midtown, but I didn't spend a lot of time in the thirties or forties this trip: I was staying up on 67th, which was very convenient to Lincoln Center, and I spent a good deal less time out and about this trip than I have in the past, when I usually visited with b&c. So this time, instead of a watch, I spent some time making the acquaintance of the local population. I probably could have done both, but if I had to choose, I'd probably go with making the acquaintance of the local population.

Anyway, a list of five things is ridiculously long for traveling. I've always felt that the way to travel is to have one goal that can be relatively easily achieved, so that one can ensure the trip is a success. I'd had a brief discussion with b&c about what to see while in New York. I had nixed Rosenkavalier at the Met, and I was decidedly cool to either Finnian's Rainbow (why does he even suggest such things to me: dude, the project of teaching me to care about the history of musical theater is a big fail) or South Pacific, when he mentioned, as if it were a matter of no importance, "Well, there's a revival of Hair that's gotten good reviews." So there was my goal for the trip. I'd never seen Hair on stage.

I arrived in New York around 3pm, somewhere on 34th Street, so I took a cab to the hotel, where I checked in. I was shocked to find that my room was huge, especially by New York standards. Arguably, 57th street between 9th and 10th is not the most convenient location in the world, but if one is hoping to make the acquaintance of the local population, a large room is a plus, and it was still only a couple of blocks (albeit long blocks) to an entrance for the Columbus Circle station. Besides, the entire four-night stay cost me under $500, including all the taxes, fees, whatever. Such a deal!

I spent a little while unpacking, corresponding, and making the acquaintance of one member of the local population, and then I headed down to Times Square, which, no matter how many times I go, is always brighter than I remember.

I stood in line at the TKTS booth for at least two minutes.

And I ended up with 40% off tickets -- orchestra, row L, center -- for Hair.

And OMG, y'all. That was likely the best production of a musical I've ever seen. So much energy. So much youth, displayed in a way to make me joyful, rather than wistful. So much talent. So many hot naked bodies arrayed on the stage at the end of the first act, though the moment passes rather too quickly. And such a devastating ending, followed by an equally joyous curtain call. I regularly resist standing ovations, but I stood eagerly at the end of Hair. I did not dance on the stage, as much of the audience did, but I did sing along. Let the sunshine in, indeed.

Anyway, I'd only been in New York five or six hours, so my trip was already a rousing success. I also figured that, artistically, there was no way to go but down, but I decided not to dwell on that. When I'm granted the great good fortune to see something like Hair, any response other than joy seems ungrateful, and I have come, lately, to feel that ingratitude is rather a large transgression.

The next morning, I was due at the rehearsal venue at 8:30, so I walked up Tenth Avenue, which is also called something else altogether.

The rehearsals (a four-hour rehearsal Saturday morning, another Sunday afternoon, and a dress rehearsal Monday afternoon, all for a Monday evening performance) were a lot like choral boot camp. They were a bit grueling, but, as I expected, I learned a great deal, and I'm hopeful that what I and others learned will be very valuable to the choir on a going-forward basis.

When I wasn't in rehearsal or in the hotel room, I wandered around the city.

I was, on Saturday perhaps, having a post-horizontal conversation with an extremely affable Frenchman, who lives in New York, but who is originally from Paris. We were conversing in French, and when he told me that he came from Paris, I said it was the best city in the world, and he said yes, after New York. I was a bit shocked that a Frenchman would prefer New York. He said that he preferred Paris for ambience but that he preferred "le vibe" of New York. Chacun à son goût, I reckon. New York is, of course, a beautiful city, especially if you visit it at the right time of year and have nice weather. My usual luck with vacation weather held: there was rain on Sunday, but mostly while I was in rehearsal, and the rest of the time it was fine, and not nearly so cold as it had been days earlier.

As of mid-day Monday, I had still not gone for a walk in the park, and I was concerned that I would not get the chance, but when I arrived at Avery Fisher for a group photo with my church choir, to be followed immediately by a dress rehearsal, I realized that I was an hour early. And only a block or so from the park. Serendipity!

Shortly after entering, I went through a tunnel that had a wonderful acoustic. I sang for a bit to enjoy it, but then I stopped. I am, occasionally, sensitive to not wanting to appear bizarre, though, surely, if there's a venue where bizarre is appropriate, that would have been it.

I do not navigate well inside Central Park. I have been known to enter on the east side, intending to cross the park, and come out back on the east side. So I might well have consulted one of the maps (which, amusingly [not so much], often do not include a "You are here" designation) posted around the park, but I figured that in an hour I could not get so badly lost that I could not find my way back. Besides, I always find the Bethesda fountain by wandering, and on faith.

Not that it's all that easy to miss, mind you.

As with many angels, and fountains, there's a story behind this one. I didn't bother to look it up, but if memory serves, it is believed that the statue will one day come to life and kill all the pigeons who have ever perched upon it. And their descendants. Apparently, however, the pigeons themselves are unaware of the prophecy. Or perhaps they figure that they're already damned because of the sins of their fathers, so they may as well perch and enjoy the view. Who can say?

I took a picture of three young women and their dogs with a camera that they handed me, and then I stood for a while and stared at the serene countenance. For a moment, I could have sworn that her face moved, but I am pretty sure it was just my imagination. I blame Tony Kushner. In any case, the pigeons never moved.

I had approached the fountain from above, but I decided to walk back under the road. It's very pretty down there, and it really was a gorgeous day.

There was, sitting near the arches, an Asian man playing a long, one-stringed instrument, which he would occasionally set aside to play a short wooden flute. He seemed as serene as Bethesda. Just up the stairs was a Black man, who appeared to be in his fifties, skating up and down the stairs, stopping occasionally on the landing to do an extended spin. I listened and watched from below, and then from above. It was a very calming, expansive moment, the sort of thing that makes people want to move to cities generally, and New York in particular. Quelle vibe!

It's unlikely that I'll ever live in New York, the vibe, and the local population, notwithstanding, but it's a great place to visit. And who knows? Maybe when I retire, I could spend a couple of years living in, say, Queens. I'm pretty content where I am, though. Grateful, even.

I found my way out of the park and back to Lincoln Center without incident. I met up with my fellow choir members. The director remarked that she hadn't seen much of me on this trip and wondered whether I'd been enjoying myself. "It's a hell of a town," I replied. Then I mentioned the instrumentalist from the park, so as to avoid having to give a more detailed account of my actions. I'd already raved to her about Hair, and it seemed likely that my getting to know the local population was something she really didn't want to hear about.

The rest of the day passed somewhat unremarkably, at least to the extent that putting on a new tuxedo and standing with two hundred people on the stage of Avery Fisher hall can be unremarkable. We sang very well, I thought. The house was only about 2/3 full, but that was because we were only half the program. The other half was a Requiem by the same composer, and the chorus for that piece was composed of groups that included a girls' high school choir from New Jersey. All of their parents had bought tickets and then didn't bother staying for the second half. For some reason, I found that almost impossibly amusing.

I did manage, after dress rehearsal, to miss a step while heading towards the stage door and come crashing down hard on my knees on concrete steps. It was somewhat painful, but it didn't really affect my ability to stand and sing during the performance itself. The swelling set in fairly quickly, but the big bruises took a few days to show up. They're still around, making my left leg look much worse than it feels.

It'll be fine in another few days, I reckon; in the meanwhile, I figure it's a souvenir.


  1. My parents used to like to stay at that hotel, because it was near my apartment and my job and had rooms so big they could pretend they were still in the Midwest. Then they decided that they couldn't afford it anymore, and so now they stay with me.

    I should see Hair.

    Thanks for all of the reminders.

  2. I love NYC too but wouldn't ever live there. Funny too, that when you wrote the chacun a son gout bit, I instantly translated, your mileage may vary.

  3. I grew up just six blocks north, near the corner of 72nd and Broadway. I adore the city and am there frequently for operas at Lincoln Center an you know. I thing once you're a New Yorker, no matter where you go a big piece of the city stays with you. Nice to hear you had a good time.