With Jean flying off to care for her 99-year-old mother in Chicago, and COVID levels at a dip in June when I booked the flights (Hah, weren’t we in for an unpleasant unvaccinated Delta variant surprise?!), I grabbed what I saw as a window of opportunity to see people I haven’t seen in a long time and visit places I’ve longed to see on the East Coast. And do it my way.
Minor problem though. I no longer knew what my way was.
Now, I did have a decent hunch as to what my way used to be. I had always been extremely energized by travel and confident in my capacity to negotiate geographies and interact with a wide range of people. But this time around, I found myself unexpectedly dwelling in serious Trepidation City. Could I still do it “my way” at my advanced age?
I needed Jean to calm me down and smooth out the jitters. I was nervous about solo driving in New York City. I was worried about whether I would be an annoyance to friends and family or a genuinely welcomed guest. Trip preparations included knowing in advance where I would sleep each night, and key people I wanted to see and places I wanted to go. No longer could I count on the easy hostel openings of my youth as a backup. So, I prepped to soften the risks, built in some flexibility, and this time, secured the necessities in advance for all my travels.
Flying into JFK Airport, I was fully aware that, while born in New York when dozens of relatives swarmed our neighborhood, exactly no one remained from those childhood connections whom I could locate. They had either passed from this earth, moved away from the city, or otherwise were lost due to familial neglect or alienation. Yet, with the emergence four years ago of the Antolept (mother’s side) reunion, I once again had people to visit in the city of my birth.
In the trip’s first 3 days, I met with my first cousin Michael’s family in Pelham, stayed two nights with my second cousin Elana’s family in New Rochelle, and received a Borough of Queens (“The World’s Borough!”) tour and shabbat dinner from my third cousin Andrea and her family. That was a delightful prelude to a fabulous dinner the next evening with my incoming machatonim https://www.thejc.com/judaism/jewish-words/machatonim-1.8109, Yon and Olivia, parents of my son Zac’s fiancé Vicky. In the following two days after that, I hung with Olympia friends Howard and Angela who had just recently relocated to Manhattan and met for a long and productive conversation with the Executive Director of SAJ (https://saj.nyc/connect/history-of-saj/), as I explored the notion of leading a strategic planning process back home at my Olympia shul Temple Beth Hatfiloh.
It was a whirlwind drop-in tour onto people’s lives. It reminded me, not for the first time, of the tag line from the old police procedural television show, “The Naked City,” about New York: “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” As you drive by residential high rise after residential high rise, you wonder what each household’s life is like. Certainly, each of the relatives and near relatives I visited had such wildly different realities established within their four walls.
After grabbing my car from cousin Michael, who kindly stored it in his Pelham garage, I headed north to Manchester. There, I stayed with Uncle Ted and cousins Chris and Callee. Ted had set me up with a touring agenda, replete with his friends as companions. So, in the next two days, I toured museums and shared meals with Joann and enjoyed a lovely dinner with Rona and George.
Off I drove south and west to Massachusetts to stay in Easthampton a couple of nights with my old college friend and roommate Martine, her husband Steve and their son Ethan. Our agenda there was filled with people and events. Friends, relatives and colleagues came to a birthday celebration honoring Martine. And I got to participate in a housing search with Ethan as he prepped for a job interview and the potential for a quick departure from his parent’s Western Massachusetts home to Boston.
On the last leg of my journey, after a long drive to Park Slope, Brooklyn, my first stop was a meet up with Peter, the professional urban planner brother of a close friend in Olympia. He gave me a tour of his neighborhood and an insight into the politics of historic preservation in our nation’s largest city. From there, it was off to Brooklyn Heights ( Where Patty could only see the sites from… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr8nJfD7sKE), which brought me to the home of my cousin Rhona. She introduced me to her new beau (who, small world stories never end, is close friends with an engineer I know of in Olympia) and informed me that they would soon be moving in together for the first time to her house in Pennsylvania. Her simple lovely apartment happened to be in a highly desirable neighborhood. From there we took a short walk to the Brooklyn Promenade to get a direct view of Manhattan, another short walk to a local bagelry, and I fell in love with the neighborhood. Rhona suggested that Jean and I should consider spending some time in her flat in the future. Now that she’ll spend most of her time in Pennsylvania, she advised we would have only two responsibilities: to water the plants and to have fun.
The Poetry and the Prose of Places
Traveling “my way” apparently includes stopping at any interpretive sign along my path, and spending hours each day visiting museums, interpretive centers, historic sites, nature preserves, and botanical gardens. In my 13 days on the East Coast, I visited 26 places meeting one of those descriptions.
A previous “Daniel’s Derekh” blog entry was titled “Phooey on Your Gorgeous Garden.” Immediately after posting it a couple of months ago I felt remorse. I know many wonderful people who love and spend many meaningful hours tending their garden and enjoying the fruits (and flowers) of their labors. I love visiting their homes and adjacent cultivated landscapes and did not intend to be so dismissive. So as penance (penance never met with such fun!) for that sarcastic entry, I spent a spectacular day at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx. The biodiversity and beauty of the place stunned. And I had an odd thought. I wonder what the crime rate is in the NYBG? Could the criminal mind carry out a dastardly act in such a place of beauty?
The wealth, variety and intensity of the trip’s intellectual and spiritual explorations put me on a permanent high. Here’s a quick chrono run down:
July 14: Willson’s Woods Park in Pelham: Interpretive signs and a conversation outside a gorgeous public pool, talking with town staff about its history and operational challenges during COVID.
July 15: The aforementioned New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, which also featured exhibits by the artist KUSAMA.
July 16: With cousin Andrea, touring the transformed urban neighborhood of Long Island City and the East River boardwalk. Andrea used to teach at an elementary school on the first floor of what would become one of the earliest high-rise structures in what has emerged as a kind of downtown Queens. We then proceeded to the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, where an enormous replica of the City of New York was exhibited, near its original location at the 1964 Worlds Fair. The replica was updated about 30 years ago.
July 17: I walked the massively popular High Line in Manhattan, which is a pedestrian path converted from an old, elevated rail line. The linear park was verdant with diverse vegetation and plenty of interpretive signs, none of which I ignored.
At the southern end of the line, one is deposited into a plethora of attractions, including “The Vessel”, which I viewed but didn’t enter (and which was marred only a few days after my presence by a suicide that caused the artist/architect to consider closing the whole thing down), the “Little Island” which was sold out and I couldn’t get into, and the Whitney Museum of Art, which was wildly expensive and I didn’t feel I had the time to warrant an adequate examination. What I did find worthwhile, along the walk back to my hotel, was a visit to the Rubin Museum of Art which focused on ancient and modern Himalayan artworks. Turns out that the Rubin was also the site for a Jon Batiste performance and CD. Jean has been playing on a loop Batiste’s latest record this last month.
July 18: One does not adequately see the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in a half a day. Or for that matter, a week of half days. But along with my friends Howard and Angela, I got a bit of an MMA forschpice which makes me hungry for much more. Speaking of hunger and culture and a bisl of Yiddish, we also went to Zabars to pick up cookware, a little deli, and soak in the ambiance.
July 19: After my meeting with the Executive Director of SAJ, Mordechai Kaplan’s shul, mentioned above, I walked through Central Park, reading interpretive signs along the way, stopping by Penny Lane, the memorial to John Lennon, and listening to mediocre guitar players doing their best emulations of The Beatle, and making my way to the Guggenheim Museum. Like other NYC cultural attractions, I took advantage of the half-price entrance fee for us old folks, and saw another collection of mostly modern American art.
For dinner, a hot pastrami sandwich, potato salad, a half-sour, and some rugelach set me back $42 at the renown (but not as renown as Katz’s) 2nd Avenue Deli (which is actually on 3rd Ave). Like other delis I’ve been to in the city, the ownership is Jewish and the staff Puerto Rican.
July 20: While this travel day to Manchester limited my interpretive signage opportunities, an extra few minutes to peruse the walls of train stations whetted my palate for more culture to come.
July 21: The Millyard Museum in Manchester may be the finest medium-sized city history museum I’ve ever been to. Uncle Ted pointed me in that direction, and I was glad he did. The city housed the Amoskeag Millyard, a world-class textile powerhouse for more than a century. The museum told rich and deep stories of a place that consistently aimed high and often succeeded. And even when left for dead, city leaders took great risks to survive through reinvention.
July 22: There are two small city parks of equal size within a block of each other. Oak Park is nothing short of decrepit, with unirrigated lawns, cracked and partially paved walkways and sad, damaged play equipment. Then there is Wagner Park, utterly fancy schmancy, with neatly pruned vegetation, pergolas and water features. I asked Ted and others why the discrepancy. No one knew.
Manchester is the only city in the country that contains on the same two distinctive single-family homes both designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The homes have been purchased by the local art house, the Currier Museum of Art. I went on a tour of the two homes and then met Joann for a long and wonderful exploration of the Currier. Here’s the thing. I am repulsed by FLW. I am appalled by his ego and production of “look at me” buildings that absolutely do not fit into their neighborhood. His lack of attention to the practical is legendary. To quote the LA Times:
The occupants of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated houses have been obliged to drag out buckets, bowls and soup cans in many a rainstorm. Or as a colleague of mine once put it: “They don’t call it ‘falling water’ for nothing. Wright once received a call from an irate client who complained that the roof was leaking all over her dinner guests. “Tell him to move his chair,” he responded.
July 23: I left Manchester in the morning and only had to make it to Easthampton by dinner time. Driving across the Massachusetts border I saw a sign for Walden Pond. With the spontaneity that only an extra four hours to kill brings, I left the highway and was off to Thoreau’s hideaway. Besides a number of interpretive signs on the loop trail around the pond, there was a wonderful visitor/interpretive center with knowledgeable staff.
Now realizing that I was only a few minutes from Concord, I took in parts of Minute Man National Historical Park. First stop, The Robbins House, which was originally owned by a “free” Black family. The historic house, with seasonal interpreters from the non-profit that ran and preserved the site, told the story of the lives of those African Americans during the Revolutionary War period who were not officially slaves. That said, these “free” Blacks, were in constant danger from unscrupulous white folks who could steal them and sell them illegally into slavery.
Across the street from The Robbins House was The Old Manse and The Old North Bridge (where the “shot heard round the world” was fired). I took in the North Bridge Visitor’s Center, with the help of an insistent volunteer interpreter telling me details of gun loading techniques which went slightly askew from my passions.
July 24: Steve and Martine took me on an e-bike tour of Easthampton and surroundings. We explored a sculpture garden down the road from Steve’s pea patch. Later we drove to Mr. Sugarloaf State Reservation, laden with interpretive signs and vistas.
July 25: Steve is a volunteer at the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground Railroad Studies. As he attended a meeting in the historic house’s living room, I toured the museum dedicated to a friend and accomplice with Sojourner Truth and other abolitionists.
Then we took off for Fenway Park. Sure, the Sox won, and that was a thrill. But there was also plenty of time – there’s always plenty of time at a baseball game – to take in the historic panels of great Red Sox in history.
July 26: The fast drive down to Brooklyn left time for historic tours of Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. No museums, but one can always find interpretive signs worth reading.
July 27: On my last day of the trip, there were few opportunities for educational signage or great art. My birthplace, Horace Harding Hospital, had been remodeled into a mixed-use commercial/residential complex. The apartment I spend my first months in Arverne had no educational or interpretive signage in sight. The last cultural event prior to handing in my rental car at the airport, was stopping by one more deli for pastrami sandwich fixings for Jean.
So that’s it. Bit of a travelogue. Few keen observations except that as the trip progressed, and signs of COVID’s re-emergence began to grow, I couldn’t help feeling that I was sneaking one in. That we all are not out of the woods yet with this pandemic. That there are ups and downs still to come. And that given those uncertainties, I was glad to have taken advantage of the opportunity to travel, while the risks were relatively low and the rewards all the sweeter for their temporality.