Christmas in Manhattan: Santa, Prada and pernil

The tree at Rockefeller Center
The tree at Rockefeller Center

The day began with gusty wind and torrents of rain — and a fresh hairdo thanks to Ilda, who arrived at her salon at 7:40 a.m. to help me prepare for my BBC television interview.

The BBC studio, a very small room with lots of lights and a camera mounted on a tripod in the corner, is part of their New York City office, which shares a wall (!) with Al Jazeera next door. Both of them, like some sort of journalistic Russian matryoshka doll, are inside the offices of the Associated Press, in a huge building at 450 West 33rd — the same building where I worked in 2005-2006 as a reporter for the New York Daily News.

During the live hour-long show, which was heard worldwide, I perched on a stool with an earpiece in my ear, producers’ tinny voices from London competing with the five other guests, from Arkansas to London to Connecticut. Afterward, I went to the lobby and sat in Starbucks and drank tea and read magazines for an hour just to calm down. It’s thrilling to be part of an international broadcast, but also a little terrifying.

If you are interested, here is a link to the audio of that show.

I went to the Post Office to buy five stamps. I stood in line for almost 25 minutes, in a line full of people bitterly grumbling at the only clerk.

I took the subway uptown and northeast and decided to wander the West 50s. (For non New Yorkers, the West side begins at Fifth Avenue.)

The narrow gloomy depths of St. Thomas Episcopal Church offered respite, its white stone altar a mass of carvings, saint upon saint. Enormous Christmas wreaths of pine hang on the bare stone walls. The church is still and calm, an oasis of stillness amid the crowds and noise and light and frenzied spending of money all around it.

Lunch is a lucky find, Tina’s, on 56th, which sells Cuban food. The place is packed with nearby office workers gossiping. For $14, I have pernil (roast pork), spicy black beans, potato salad and a passion fruit batido (milkshake)– across Fifth Avenue at the St. Regis Hotel, a single cocktail would cost more.

I walk to a gallery on 57th Street to see a show of works of women — all done by one of my favorite artists, Egon Schiele, closing December 28.

Do you know his work?

I love it: powerful, simple drawings of an almost impossible economy of line. Some of them are raw and graphic, of women with their knees drawn to their chest, legs splayed, naked. They were done 100 years ago, between 1911 and 1918. Schiele and his wife, then six months pregnant, died three days apart in the Spanish flu epidemic that killed an impossible 20 million people.

He was 28, and his final drawing was of his dying wife, Edith. I find everything about his life somewhat heartbreaking. Dead at 28?!

The small gallery, showing 51 works on paper, all pencil drawings or watercolor and gouache, was mobbed, with men and women in their 20s to 70s. Two of the images in this show are here, “Green Stockings” and “Friendship.”

Two small ancient white terriers, one named Muffin, kept bursting out of the gallery office, barking madly.

I loved the pencil drawing of his mother — “Meine Mutter” written on one side, drawn on deep tan paper — with her rimless glasses and dour expression, her hands half-hidden beneath her dress.

His women almost burst from the weathered pages, one woman’s right leg, literally, stepping off the edge of the paper as she lunges towards us. They often wear no make-up or jewelry or furs. Some were said toΒ  be prostitutes, his association with them scandalous in bourgeois Vienna.

In our jaded, virtual era of all-pixels-all-the-time, I revel in the physicality of these works on paper, their edges thick and smudged, their cotton fibres crinkled and wrinkled. You can imagine his hands holding them a century ago, his young fingers so confident in their vision, so soon to be stilled.

Some of the works are for sale, for $45,000 to $1 million+; only one has sold, but the young woman at the front desk won’t tell me for how much. Oh, how I long to win the lottery! A Schiele has long been on my most-wanted list.

In the cold, gray dusk, I walked the 15 blocks south to Grand Central Station, down Fifth Avenue, crammed with contradictions. For the fanny-packed and white-sneaker-shod from the heartland, agape and moving waayyyyyyy too slowly for the impatient natives actually trying to get somewhere quickly, there’s Gap and Juicy Couture and Friday’s, all comforting reminders of home.

For the oligarchs, jetting in privately, there’s Harry Winston, a legendary jeweler, whose precious gemstones are the size of my thumbnail. This is not a place to browse. I wonder when, on this list of their outposts, the latter four were added. How times change!


Throngs of tourists are lined up — to get into Hollister, a national clothing chain they can see at home in Iowa or Florida.

At Godiva chocolates, a woman is dipping strawberries.


A huge, glittering snake made of lights encircles (en-squares?) the edges of the corner building holding the luxury jeweler Bulgari.

The diamond-studded watch-bracelets at Bulgari
The diamond-studded watch-bracelets at Bulgari

For a hit of hot carbs, carts sell pretzels and roast chestnuts.

Roast chestnuts are the best! Try them.
Roast chestnuts are the best! Try them.

Outside the enormous private University Club, people of power and privilege sitting in its tall windows, a black man sits in a wheelchair holding a plastic cup in which to collect donations. I give him a dollar and, to my surprise, he hands me something in return — a glossy postcard, a close-up of his artificial legs.


“What happened to your legs?” I ask.

“Poor circulation,” he replies. (Diabetes, surely.)

Amid the temples of Mammon — Bulgari, Fendi, Ferragamo, Henri Bendel, Saks, the Gap, Barnes & Noble, Prada

This bejeweled coat is in the window at Prada
This bejeweled coat is in the window at Prada

— there are three churches, St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.


One might stop to pray.

One might pray to stop.

On Madison in the mid-40s, I pass Paul Stuart, with the necessities of male elegance, like these…

Velvet suspenders. Of course!
Velvet suspenders. Of course!

The two bastions of classic male style, Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers, entered my consciousness when I was 22, on one of my first visits to New York — because the offices of magazine publisher Conde Nast (named for the man who founded it), sat right between them at 350 Madison Avenue. It’s now for rent.

Can you imagine my excitement when I stopped by Glamour and Mademoiselle, in the days when I carried a large artists’ portfolio with clips of my published articles, to meet the editors? As a young, insatiably ambitious journalist from Toronto, this was the epicenter of writing success, an address I’d memorized in my early teens.

Glamour liked one of my stories — typed on paper — tucked in the back and not even yet published by the Canadian magazine that had commissioned it. So it ran three months later in Glamour as a resale. Swoon!

Ahhhhh, memories.

Back to Grand Central Station to meet Jose at the entrance to the 5:38, the express train speeding us home, non-stop, in 38 minutes.

Grand Central Terminal, rush hour. Isn't it gorgeous?
Grand Central Terminal, rush hour. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Weary, happy, sated.

25 thoughts on “Christmas in Manhattan: Santa, Prada and pernil

  1. jen forbes

    Enjoyed this, it’s about the closest I’m getting to NY till my next visit in a month. I miss NYC at Christmastime. The city always feels better during the holidays somehow even more alive than usual if that’s possible. And what I wouldn’t do for one of those pretzels about now…can’t get those down here in the south πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks! It’s amazing to me what a wealth of experiences one can have in merely a few blocks of Manhattan. I really enjoy the place at Christmas, even when (!) we’re sharing the crowded streets and subways with all those tourists. πŸ™‚

      Have a great Xmas!

  2. When the Klimpt exhibit was at the Ottawa National Gallery, I loved his pencil drawings… very similar to the art you mentioned here. I had only seen his paintings, but I always love the rawness of sketches!

  3. Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele were all Viennese Secessionists — Klimt was one of Schiele’s mentors. I find the difference between their work fascinating — Klimt painting, literally, gilded portraits of the city’s wealthy and Schiele drawing prostitutes. Wish I had seen the Klimt show! Thanks for sharing…and nice to find a fellow fan. πŸ™‚

  4. leah wolfe

    Thank you for all the images and description of NY. Some day I hope to visit. The Guggenheim is my church. I find it comforting to know that NY post office customers and dogs are the same there as in Iowa.

    And thank you for your comments in the interview. You sounded great. I think your point of the “overlap” is a big part of what we need to address. Potential without obstruction becomes actuality no matter how much we want to deny it.

    1. Interesting…I think my favorite NYC museum is the Japan Society, which only has exhibits, no permanent collection. But I do love it dearly.

      I really appreciate you making time to listen to the interview. It will be interesting to see what, if any, changes actually result this time.

      1. leah wolfe

        It was the perfect analogy of our national conversation. I appreciated the non-US viewpoints. As long as the conversation continues the changes will happen, are already happening. They are just harder to see because of the insanity screamed on TV from the poles. The common sense in the middle will fix things. It’s just the American way to do it the hard way. I swear we’re always a century ahead and a century behind the world at the same time depending on where you’re standing.

      2. leah wolfe

        Tell me about it. Being an American is like taking my new girlfriend to the redneck, racist, white-trash family picnic-so embarrassing.

      3. Not everyone is quite that bad, but I do have to keep apologizing to some of my Canadian friends for continuing to live in a country so addicted to guns and riddled with violence.

      4. leah wolfe

        I know. I was joking of course. I come from that kind of family, and our national arguments tend to sound a lot like the picnic table conversations. Especially when we are hurting.

        And there is no need for you to apologize to anyone. We need to do that ourselves.

        As a nation we are the quintessential teenager. We are young and brash, ignorant and arrogant, over stimulated and under worked. We are cocky in our past success, coddled, and over-dosed on bad drugs and false bravado. We need more time with books and a good ass kicking.

        We’ll get it eventually. We usually do.

        In the meantime just ignore our hype. It doesn’t represent us as a country properly, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Most of us want what you have, we just have to fight through a bunch of stupid to get it.

      5. I’ve lived in the States since 1989, so I certainly see the difference between Canada and the U.S., let alone Europe. I do wish people here were much better educated about politics and economics — I am really bored by constant, loud argumentation based on emotions, not fact or logic. Speaking of teenage…

      6. leah wolfe

        Yeah, we can be pretty stupid as a whole. Forgive if I repeat anything in your comments, but I am only getting the first4-6 lines of your postings, so I am responding to that. I am bummed-I think I am missing out on some good stuff!

        I must say, I was surprised during our election by just how many people were engaged on the issues. That was encouraging. It shows we are getting to the tipping point.

        A year ago I started explaining policy on Facebook. I felt it was my duty to help my friends make good choices based on facts, and partly because I found my friends didn’t have time to wade through all 900 plus pages of the health care bill or tariff law. They need to put that stuff on audiobook. For real.

        It was a success. There was at least a 20% increase in people going after the knowledge themselves after reading a layman’s version. That same group changed their views as well. It also prompted more political involvement in the other people, and we had some wonderful problem solving discussions.

        There was still a good 50% that wanted nothing to do with it, and still voted by sound byte, family tradition, or not at all. If you want to find America’s problem, it’s that. We have the attention spans of gnats, because everything in our lives is industry driven which is quota-driven and time dependent. We have no decompression time the lower you go in economic bracket. Following anything longer than a commercial is pretty tough.

        As a demographic we poor have the belief that they were not smart enough to understand these policies that dictated our lives. Same old human control story. This far into our human history and a lack of education is still our number one downfall. We still have a long way to go in America, we are a very brainwashed citizenry.

        However, we can put on one hell of a tractor pull.

  5. Sounds like it was a perfect day! πŸ™‚ I grumble about much of life in NY, but it is always magical at Christmastime. Now you’ve got me wondering about this year’s windows at Bergdorf, and thinking my kids are going to miss my mother in law’s pernil this Christmas Eve (hard year for all, she isn’t up to cooking).

    1. I actually walked right past Bergdorf’s but didn’t check out their windows.

      It really was a great day. Jose insists I spend en entire day in the city every week. Whatever productivity I lose is made up for by my much-improved mood.

      Had lunch today with my softball pal Ed Lopez who says he’ll send me his recipe for coquito!

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