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.
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 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?!
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 to 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.
For a hit of hot carbs, carts sell pretzels and roast chestnuts.
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
— 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…
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!
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.
There are still a few Manhattan restaurants that satisfy my multiple desires for a calm, peaceful and lovely space with lots of room between the tables, enormous floral arrangements, quietly competent and unobtrusive wait-staff, excellent food and the time to fully savor all of it. A place worth dressing up for, but not one demanding I carry a $5,000 handbag and attitude to match.
This week, after many years living here, I finally walked through the doors of the legendary La Grenouille, a 47-year-old fixture at 3 East 52d., a world away — although mere steps — from the frenzied insanity of Fifth Avenue’s fanny-packed tourist hordes.
Upstairs is a narrow room, with white-painted brick walls, lit by three 20-foot-tall lead-paned windows. A huge rug in the lightest shades of yellow, cream and green. A highly polished dark wood table marks the entrance. There are only five white-tableclothed tables, with another at the top of the stairs beneath a skylight, shaded by palms. Each has a small, perfect floral arrangement. There are paintings and drawing everywhere. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many years, this was the home and studio of French painter Bernard LaMamotte — and before that, in the 1800s, the stable housing the horses of the owners of the mansion across the street, now the Cartier boutique. Those tall windows were once used to bring in hay.
It is, wrote Vanity Fair last year, “a private dining room of such beauty that one could be talked into becoming bedridden as long as one’s bed were there.”
The waiters wear starched white jackets and do not, thank God, introduce themselves or try to chat you up. I ate my first, delicious, cheese souffle. My Dad — celebrating the sale of my latest book — treated. Six elegant Germans sat at one table, two bored Britons at another and half a dozen Frenchmen huddled around the table at the top of the stairs. We passed on dessert but were brought a tiny silver server with thumb-sized madeleines and tuiles, just the perfectly tiny hit of sweetness to go with the dark, rich coffee in white Bernadaud cups. (Yes, I peeked.) There are three prix-fixe lunches, the least $29 for three courses. I could see spending my last $29 on it.
As we left, I discovered that one of my favorite books was begun in that very room, “The Little Prince”, this historic fact marked outside by a bronze plaque on the wall. Some people might find this sort of classic French food and service oppressive and stuffy. I loved it.
There’s nothing like a list of cities vying for Miss Congeniality to whip up a little hometown pride. So Travel and Leisure’s new poll puts New York — my adopted city of 20 years — number 27, of 30, under “Quality of Life and Visitor Experience.”
Number One? Honolulu. Hm, not so much. Two? Denver (Haven’t been, yet.) Third, San Diego (ditto.) Santa Fe is 4th. I love Santa Fe as the hometown of my sweetie and the place I celebrated a birthday at the Pink Adobe, but our motel room overlooking a parking lot was $90 in 2000, which is not my idea of a great visitor experience. (Ten Thousand Waves is, though, worth going there for, all on its own. Heaven. On. Earth.)
But how New York rates 27th. is beyond me.
OK, we all walk reallyreallyreally fast and, yes, we hate tourists who….stop….stare…take photos of one another and do that bizarre thing of walking three or five abreast, totally blocking the sidewalk. When we hipcheck you out of the way, please don’t take it personally. We do get really sick — so, maybe, yeah, a little testy here and there — of watching Euro-loaded teens with pontoons of shopping bags when we can’t get or keep jobs in our very own personal recession. The subway is, um, noisy and dirty and slow and has no one in the booths to help direct you, but…hey…it’s an adventure, right?
What I never understand about tourists in New York is the perpetual line-up (?!) on Fifth Avenue for — Ambercrombie. You’ve got the impossible elegance (OK, snotty and intimidating, but still) of Cartier and Ferragamo and H. Stern and Bergdorf’s and Takashimaya, Saks and Bendel’s and the Pierre. None of which you’ll find in the heartland, which is why, maybe, you make that long trek to Manhattan. But, no, a chain store you can see in any mall anywhere gets the nod.