I left New York City on July 4th 1976 with my wife Margaret and our two cats. We cruised among the Tall Ships in New York City Harbor celebrating the Bicentennial from a boat off lower Manhattan. We could see President Ford on the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz. We sailed by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island where so many came to these welcoming shores, and in the distance, Manhattan, with the recently completed World Trade Center.
We left singing (the then not very old) song by Berkeley’s Country Joe McDonald (of The Fish, not Phish) “Aw, New York City goodbye-New York City goodbye-goodbye New York City-I’m comin’ home…”
I did my time in the Big Apple as a sculptor (sold well, but starved), building demolition inexpert (too much dynamite on that last one) and a traveling salesman selling milking machines to farmers from Florida to Nova Scotia. I can say that I have held in my hands more than my share of… but that’s a story for another time.
Going west we passed a trailer park in Pennsylvania which had been neatly bifurcated by a tornado; broke our drive shaft in Washington DC; one of cats tried to commit suicide by jumping through the sunroof in the 105 degree heat of Tucumcari, Kansas and then we hit the west coast, had three kids, six dogs, nine cats and what seemed like several hundred chickens. That pretty much brings us up to date.
I have been back to New York many times and from many directions and on my recent trip I took my mother. I promised her on her birthday I would take her anywhere in the world and she picked Japan but she later learned that in the countryside their toilets are just holes in the floor (what about some Paris restaurants?) so she spun the globe and said, “New York,” primarily because of the plumbing, I guess.
We had been planning the trip for some time then the morning of September 11th arrived. I was walking into Buck’s and I heard an unusual commotion from the bar. I saw live coverage of the very restaurant at which we had reservations, fall to earth. We took about three days to reassess our options and we concluded that we not only could go, but should go.
Now, I’ve been arrested in Moscow, climbed the great Pyramid in Giza, run for my life from drunken gunmen in Jamaica and been banned for life from Ozark Airlines, but for pure adventure no trip ever topped the one I took with my mother to New York City in November of 2001.
New York has a very special place in my mother’s heart. She once visited me there in 1972. I had to go up to 145th Street to finish knocking down an old fire house so she was on her own about town for the day. I arrived back at my place at 84th and Columbus, covered in dust, and prepared to change and take the old girl out (she was younger than I am now, yikes!) but she said she couldn’t make it. It seems that she was in The Museum of Modern Art and a man tapped her on the shoulder and told her that he was done with his New York Times and would she like it. I said, “Mother, he was just trying to pick you up.” She protested that he was just some nice man and he was concerned with recycling. They were married for 15 years until his death 8 years ago. Milton Fendrick was a witty, urbane New York City attorney and he chased my mother to California. He was the great love of her life.
Our United flight from San Francisco was perfect in every way. They did serve some prawns for lunch, which will kill me if I eat them, but I spotted them and once again came up singing. In fact, the song we sang was New York, New York. “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down-The people travel in a hole in the ground-New York, New York! What a wonderful town.” We could just see Frank Sinatra dancing in a sailor suit.
We read Golf Digest and Smart Money Magazine as we gloated over our business class seats just as the first classers were gloating over theirs. Approaching Manhattan the plane banked right, leveled out, and we had a clear view of the city. The sixty some blocks at Ground Zero were ringed in red tarps covering the damaged buildings which were still standing. It was as clear as hell, and I use that word on purpose.
When we got to the airport our luggage came off first! That has never happened to me before. We were inseminated (the appropriate word considering what we would see in a couple of days) by cab through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. And Boom- into the pulsing heart of the beast. We were deposited at the Essex House on Central Park South and whisked up to the St. Regis Club on the 37th floor. The nice man with the bags fixed everything up for us and politely held out his hand which we both shook roundly and wished him good luck. Before I could go next door to my room there was a knock at the door. -Enter a distinguished man in a tail coat with white gloves explaining that he was our butler.- At that point I ran to the bed and looked under it for Groucho but, alas, he was not there. We told James, (I’m not kidding, James) that if we needed anything buttled he would be the first one we called. We closed the door and watched the sun set over Central Park. OK, I know the sun couldn’t set over the Park from our vantage point, but this is my story, right?
Off we set in search of things eatable and after a fruitless attempt to find an old haunt we settled on a Greek place on then Upper East Side. Much to my chagrin I discovered that Needle Park was gone as were many of the Cuban Chinese restaurants. They are now Starbuck’s and all sorts of different eateries. Oh well, I don’t really care. It used to be farmland so I expect change.
The next day we met up with Dale Djerassi and his son Alexander at Susanne Neunhoffer’s Chelsea loft. Dale said she was a Mohican, although she looked German. Dale was in town for the opening of a play he was producing but before that we had to see The Producers. Is everyone a producer? That morning the five of us strolled along the Hudson toward Ground Zero. We ate breakfast at a forgivably trendy restaurant called Park which is an old parking garage. We were sitting next to Ex-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska while we feasted on baked papaya, Austrian waffles and drank the place dry of strong coffee. I passed Jacqueline Bissett on the way to the can. “Hey, Jackie, que pasa, babe?”
It was a blustery day and as we walked along we all agreed that like the famous John Kennedy line “Ich bin ein Berliner,” we are all New Yorkers. We passed a fence covered with thousands of yellow ribbons, local citizens waving signs cheering the demolition crews on as they drove downtown and a great many people on foot. At about 14th St. there are no cabs and the only cars allowed are official vehicles or residents of Tribeca. We came within about a quarter mile of the site, but Dale had to get up town to produce and we had to go see Nathan Lane make fools out of the Nazis. We were well below the cab-line so we hoofed it east and hit our seats at The Producers 3 minutes to curtain.
Is The Producers worth all the noise people are making about it? Yes, it is. Casting Gene Wilder in the movie was more believable as it’s hard to visualize Mathew Broderick as an insecure, sexless nerd (he is actually married to Sarah Jessica Parker). He did find his inner nebbish though and Nathan Lane inhabits his character, Max Bialistock, lovable conman, like an old pair of Hush Puppies. What did tickets cost? Heck, who needs new tires and brakes anyway?
Dinner followed at Tamarind, a spectacular Indian restaurant. Each dish was not just good but completely new to me. Original, graceful and intimate. People say San Francisco is a restaurant town and it is, but it ain’t New York. We went back to the hotel and we saw that James has been messing about in out rooms turning the beds down, leaving fruit all over the place and hunting for missing buttons.
The next day was Columbus Day which is a big deal in New York. It seems that Columbus set out for the New World and the Italians are still pretty dern proud of the boy. The crowds were very light and we strolled, unimpeded, down 5th Ave. as the parade moved uptown. We saw Mayor Guiliani come by and then Senator Hillary Clinton walked by, all by herself, making a clear statement that she was on her own. About 200 U.S.Army soldiers marched along, without guns, singing The Star Spangled Banner. Floats motored by, Italian neighborhood groups and kids from military academies came in turn. A month ago being in a military academy made you look like you just bought a one-way ticket to geekville.
People in a big crowd will invariably bump into you. I’ve never thought of New Yorkers as particularly rude, just very fast. But now if someone bumps into you they turn, make eye contact and say pardon me. If you want to use the bathroom at Tiffany’s during the Columbus Day Parade they say, “Yes sir, let me show you where it is.”We ducked down the street next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and into a classic Jewish deli. We had matzo ball soup, celery tonic and coleslaw. The waitress was at least 70 and had blue hair with a pencil stuck in it. Her name tag proclaimed her name to be Flo. I asked her if her name was really Flo and she said no it was actually Florence. A perfect lunch. We went back outside and the parade was still going on after 2 = hours!
We made a pilgrimage to The Modern which is almost completely closed as they are rebuilding it but across the street is the the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Take my advice, always go there when you’re in town. Then we went to the Natural History Museum with its remarkable bone collection. Half a dozen terrifying T-Rexes with their silly itty bitty arms, graceful pterosaurs and saurapods as long as theRed Sox losing streak for The Pennant. We saw the show at the new planetarium and I was certainly impressed, but then I always cry at planetarium shows. I am a big fan of this Universe; hot stuff for us cosmologists. Go Universe!
Then a change into our theater clothes and a quick bite at Molivos on 7th at 58th. This is one of the best of the limitless restaurants in the NYC. A stunning Nuevo Greek place whre I had grilled octopus which takes you away to Santorini with the mere aroma. Until, that is, you see Al Roacker sitting in the distance giving you the hairy eyeball. Now I don’t watch TV except when I’m out of town and then I pretty much watch all the stations in an endless fury of channel hopping. I had just seen this guy ten minutes before on TV talking about the weather. As we were leaving I went over to him and said, “I see you looking at me and I know what you’re thinking.” “Really,” he said, “and what is that?” “You want my autograph, but I can’t do it, sorry.” “Sit down,” he said laughing, and we proceeded to have a nice little chat. As Ma and I got up to go he asked, “No chance of that autograph?” “No, sorry Al.”
Ahh, then off to the preview of An Immaculate Misconception, the play that Dale was producing. Dale, by all measures, is one of the most talented people anywhere and stands out, even in NYC.
Because his father is so well known, Dale could have turned out as “the son of Carl Djerassi,” and you do hear that, but you just as often hear that Carl is the father of Dale and eventually Dale’s son Alexander will step into the spotlight as he is in no danger of being eclipsed either. Alexander at seventeen is already his own man.
Carl was just in the news recently because the birth control pill just hit 50 years old and it was Dr. Djerassi’s pioneering work with a little firm called Syntex, in Mexico, which made this culture changing paradigm possible. Carl long ago left the lab to concentrate on the arts and specifically to write books and plays. This play dealt with the recent history of the intra cytroplasmic sperm injection of artificial insemination. The story is based on a woman scientist who wants a baby and by dubious means picks an unwitting father. The plot thickens up with a second possible father and one leaves this play about the ethics of reproduction with more questions then answers. The production is tight, the cast gets naked and there is a scene featuring email on a big screen. If they were to add a dog I believe that it would be nearly perfect. This is thought provoking Off Broadway at its very best.
My mother had to get back to the hotel to work out in the gym, so the cast, along with the director Margaret Booker (yes, that Margaret Booker) Dale and I went to the Film Center Cafi, an actors cafi, where you get a discount if you have a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card. Some ordered martinis in shakers the size of howitzer shells. The two men who play the possible fathers both had huge plates of mashed potatoes and gravy and, unconsciously raising their forks in sync, ate these mountains down to the molehills. There was rich symbolism in this but even with a collective IQ of nearly a 1,000 we couldn’t figure out what it meant. Margaret and the cast stayed behind to deconstruct the play while Dale and I went to the St. Regis. Dale said we were going to the Nat King Cole Room. Okay, Fine. Later he amended it to be the Cole Porter Room. Still OK with me (I didn’t care if it was the King Kong Room) but we found ourselves in the Old King Cole room surrounded by immense murals by that old pederast, Maxfield Parrish. We found Susanne and I learned that she was actually Monegasque (a citizen of Monaco). Christine Sperber the geophysicist owner of The Mimi Ferzt (read that name with care). It was at the Firzt Gallery last year where there was a loud noise involving Hillary Clinton, Rich Lazzio, campaign funds and religion, with Dale, somehow, right in the middle. Christine introduced two Dutch friends who were presently living in The Galapagos (one was the fashion model Natasha Vermeer, therefore I never noticed the guy).
In fact, Dale finds himself in the middle of a good many goings-on, although he is not generally wrapped in scandal. He does normal things such as making the donation to purchase the chatty gorilla, Koko, for the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside and has made award winning documentaries in Bhutan, Rio and Zaire. The man is an inveterate story teller and his tales are peopled with the rare and the great. Once he was at a party in LA to which he brought Timothy Leary who wobbled over to the King of Sweden and, poking a finger at his medal strewn chest, said, “You may be the King of Sweden but I’m the King of Drugs.” Now we can’t take Tim anywhere. As a rocker in his teens Dale would holeup at The Band’s (The Band, c.1972) studio, Shangri-La in Malibu. He pulled 4 years at Stanford and is the only person I have ever met who has actually seen a working flea circus, as a kid in Vienna.
I’ve known Dale for many years and I have never seen him without a smile as wide as the Hudson River and this is the really unique part. I have never heard him complain even once about anything. I can assume he has had downs as well as ups but there is no way to know it. Dale is an investor in many egalitarian, sometimes offbeat ventures which generally have the spin of promoting free speech, personal expression and the arts. If you want to pitch him look for him on the streets of Algiers; tobogganing, at dawn, in a tuxedo, in the sometimes fatal Cresta Run at St. Moritz; backstage with his old friend Neil Young at a concert or paragliding in the mountains. The guy has scope.
The next day brought Jim Byrnes and Beth Trailer into town from Palo Alto. They stayed at the Essex (they had no butler, ha!) and we had breakfast with them looking into Central Park and forthwith, decanted ourselves into that same place for a stroll. Actually, stroll is the wrong word. Walking with them is more like running in coats. They’re too fit to live. Central Park was designed by Fredrick Olmstead, the same fellow who layed out Golden Gate Park and in both he used an innovation of his own devising, the overpass. We then went to have breakfast with Jim’s son, Eric. Eric was on his way to a baseball game. It seems that when he was six years old he announced that he wanted to be a professional baseball player. His father and his mother Judy believed him, but no one else took him seriously. One should pay attention to the dreams of children. Nineteen years later he was on his way to suit up with the Oakland A’s for his first time in Yankee Stadium for the playoffs. Eric is a hitter (watch out, Barry).
We were learning to pace our food intake because we immediatly went to lunch at the MetLife Building which is right above Grand Central Station. My mother begged off as she had to go back and keep James busy (don’t ask) and passing through the station we saw the commemorative wall of those lost on September 11th. I brought with me a copy of the Country Almanac newspaper article to post on the wall about our friend Andy Garcia of Portola Valley who perished in the plane in Pennsylvania. His passing connected me with September 11th as no media coverage ever could have.
Getting into this building took a bit of time. We were on a visitor’s list and the long lines of people were patiently compliant. We rode up to the top floor and I got to chatting with a fellow in the elevator. Not strange for me perhaps, but a bit unusual for a pre Sept. 11th New Yorker.
We exchanged a howdydo and on my return home I had already heard from him by email. This is what New York is like today. You can speak freely with passers by, doormen, people at an adjoining tables with ease. I’m not exagerating. There is very little horn honking or squeeling of brakes. While not exactly pastorial there is a feeling that people are being their best selves.
At the top we met the American Bureau Chief of the Irish Times, Connor O’Cleary. Connor lives in Tribecca and could not get to his apartment or office for a time. He treated us to a grand lunch at The Sky Club, a great emptiness at the far end of the island dominating the view. Connor is very Irish but seems like an American at the same time. In fact, all New Yorkers regardless of their country of origin are proud of their city and have joined a sad fraternity of those in Hiroshima, Dresden, Leningrad, London, Pearl Harbor and too many others to count. Connor is also an international citizen having lived for years in China and Russia. The Irish Times is the word in Ireland and important to so many of his compatriots in other countries. Connor told us that only 20% of the cops in New York are of Irish descent but 30% of the firefighters are. The image of these selfless men and woman who rushed into the doomed buildings is one we will never forget.
A quick change at the hotel and we were off to dinner at the Black Cat, a Chelsea eatery with an insider status. Naturally we were so gorgeous they put us in the window and plied us with duck with pomegranate sauce and baked pears. Beth and Jim disappeared uptown to see The Producers or to produce something (I’ve forgotten which) and Mamacita and I went to De la Guarda. Roxy and Michelle Rapp made me promise to go to this East Side happening and I did and we went. De la Guarda is one of the most astounding experiences in a city loaded some rather remarakble stuff. We descended to a flourescent painted basement in a deconsecrated bank building and then were led upstairs to a huge open floor. The ceiling was made of paper and we all stood, surrounded by scaffolding and weird, screechy music. Then the lights above the paper silhouetted shadowed figures of people swinging over our heads and small toys and rain fell faster and faster on the ceiling. The performers began to poke holes in the ceiling and scream through at us until finally they dropped on cables through the paper and in a moment the entire ceiling collapsed around us and we were covered with toys, rain and pounding music. The aerialists began to run along the vertical walls and a scaffold was rolled out through the crowd with a man in business suit being drenched by a 2 foot wide rainstorm. He was singing in a language I recognized as Primal Navaho Esperanto and he was joined by others on the scaffold playing the trap drums and more or less howling. Two aerialists zoomed back and forth on a nearly vertical big screen faster than seemed possible, as they were essentially weightless. A pair of hopeful lovers above us tried to grab one another in the fog and the performance briefly turned into a romance. Then one of the performers, the guy without pants covering his backside, swooped down and threw a harness around my mother in her long embroidered Chinese coat and took her away into the sky, in a rainstorm, to swing with him around the room.
As we cabbed uptown I asked her if she was having fun. She was. All the cabbies have their name and picture posted. This driver was named Mohamed Ali. I could feel the fear of being in New York around this young man as we sped along. When we reached our hotel I paid him and reaching through the opening I put my hand on his shoulder and I said that “this” was not his fault. He immediately burst into tears and told me he was very scared. I think that the best part of traveling, or for that matter living at home, are the personel encounters with everyday people.
The next day I had a few minutes and I went to a coin store and bought a US Double Eagle and some Roman coins for the kids. I also managed to track down a lead which finally netted the exceedingly rare Henry Noel Humphreys Ancient Coins Second Edition which had been eluding me for four years. Of course, I had the inconsequential third edition (there is no first edition) If you’re as fanatical about Victorian bibloneumismatics as I am than you realize that this was like climbing to the top of Mt. Everest to pick up your Noble Prize. More on this later.
And then off we went into the sky. There below us was the most friendly and cleanest small town in America. New York, New York, what a wonderful town. And to think we bought it from the Indians for just 26 bucks.