I made a very brief working visit to NYC in the Spring of 2001 – among other things I broke a tooth on a Sourdough Pretzel Nugget, shuffled with beating heart round the top of the Empire State Building with my back to the wall, saw Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More at the Frick, Takashi Murakami’s installation in Grand Central Station, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night at MOMA, popped into the Marble Collegiate Church where Norman Vincent Peale had preached, and last but not least stayed a couple of nights after business was done with Sharon, an old friend living in the Bronx. We first met at a drama class at the City Lit in the mid-1970s, when I was a lonely teenager recently arrived in London.
Just after Christmas, I was fortunate enough to re-visit New York with my husband, when we stayed for a week with Sharon, who kindly invited us to stay, and whose hospitality and gift of her time was central to our enjoyment.
It was Martin’s first time in the city, and we were both excited to be there, not only for the sights, but also because of the joy of meeting up with old friends not seen for many years. There’s nothing quite like that rush of warmth round the heart when you embrace, and stand back to scan each other’s faces for the superficial changes time has wrought.
I worked once with a girl who liked to stay in the Hilton whenever she travelled, but for us the anonymous homogenised luxury hotel is a cold dish – and staying in the Bronx was a fantastic accompaniment to Manhattan. It was great to meet neighbours, and a visit to the Riverdale Diner persuaded me that on any future trip I should ask for a child’s portion, or maybe just stick to a starter! The size of the menu threw me into a paralysis of indecision. Apartments are heated super-efficiently throughout the winter, and Martin and I had to open the window at night in order to sleep, but it was great to spend time just sitting on the sofa after the day’s outings, chat, and catch the odd Judge Judy!
We visited The Cloisters, with its mediaeval tapestries and stained glass, and marvelled in particular at the stunning carving of a 16th-century Flemish boxwood rosary bead, the size of a walnut; we ate plantain and unlabelled exotic Dominican dishes at the 24-hour buffet on Dyckman and Broadway; we took the air in the New York Botanical Gardens, and queued for the Holiday Train show, featuring models of famous New York buildings made from seeds, stalks, and leaves, set amongst the jungle plants in the Haupt Conservatory, the pleasure enhanced watching children’s enchantment with the model trains that weaved in and out; we had coffee and macaroons at Egidio’s off Arthur Street, where a photo of the owner meeting a visiting Cardinal during a parade day in Bronx’s Little Italy was proudly displayed; and lastly we hit another famous Bronx sight: the Garabedian family’s house, where for 40 years a Christmas tableau has been proudly displayed – truly unique!
We ticked off most of a short-list of attractions this time, though torrential rain and massive queues one day left some choices for a future trip – there’s no way you can get round this city in one eight day visit. Having stayed in Central Park West last time round, I wanted to see some of the Lower East Side, and a must was the Tenement Museum. We booked for the ‘Hard Times’ tour, and our guide Annie fitted in a fantastic amount in sixty minutes. The upper storeys of this amazing property were abandoned as rooms to let in 1924, when a new law made it mandatory for new banisters to be installed. Since it wasn’t economically viable, the owner shut up the floors above his shop and garment factory, using them only for storage, and they remained unchanged until the 1980s, when they were discovered by two women who set about founding the museum here. Annie explained the historical background to the tenements, and the particular stories of a German immigrant family from Prussia, the Gompertzes, and the Italian Baldizzis, and at the end we heard a brief recording of one of the Baldizzi daughters recalling her childhood. She remembered her mother weeping daily with homesickness for Sicily, but how eventually, when they made the money to visit Palermo, with little work and terrible poverty still the norm, her mother had knelt to kiss the pavement when they landed back in New York.
In years gone by, it was likely the case that many emigrants never saw their relatives or friends again unless they made good enough to pay for the travel home. What a wrench it must have been to wave off your son or daughter at Cork, Liverpool, Bremen, Naples or Cherbourg. I thought of Private Thomas Bellingham, who was killed in action on the Somme in July 1916, after sailing at the beginning of the year from Melbourne to Egypt, and from there to France. His parents had not seen him since the day in 1911 he emigrated from High Brooms, in Tunbridge Wells, to Australia.
Orchard Street today of course is somewhat changed in its population, though there are still garment stores, and we popped in to a trendy coffee house for a cup of English Breakfast tea, and then on to two places on Houston Street our Jewish friends had recommended, where their grandparents had taken them as children: Jonah Schimmel’s Bakery (we had knishes and pickles, and split pea soup) and Russ & Daughters, a deli where the New Year’s Eve queues precluded purchases!
When travelling, we’re always keen to see the local artists, and at the Metropolitan Museum we made a determined beeline for the American Wing. As well as the wonderful paintings, we also enjoyed the exhibition of Bronzes of the American West. We were tickled to spot one over-exercised 21st century man who had fallen asleep sitting on steps nearby, camera round his neck and mobile clasped in his hand.
Everyone back home asked us if we’d be celebrating the New Year in Times Square, but, having walked through it a few days earlier (an experience akin to Oxford Street at Christmas shopping time), we elected to see a film (American Hustle – excellent!) and have a meal in upstate Ridge Hill. As a Big Bang Theory fan, I was quite excited to be eating at the Cheesecake Factory, and couldn’t resist taking some photos of the American-sized cakes display, where one slice represented my calorie intake for a whole day. American service was as good as advertised: the waiting staff looked genuinely pleased to be serving us rather than spending New Year’s Eve out with their own pals!
On New Year’s Day we caught the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Although most of the museum on Ellis Island remains closed after Hurricane Sandy, it was still poignant to stand in the main Hall on the first floor and imaginine the feelings of those waiting on the threshold of their New World. Though life in America would be a huge struggle, it also offered the opportunity for one’s children to gain a better life not possible back home. A member of the National Park Service (uniform reminiscent of Yogi Bear episodes) told us that, amazingly, a century on, the number of daily emigrants to the USA is roughly the same – around 3,000 per day.
We ended the day with an Indian meal, shared with friends living on 30th Street and 3rd. New Yorkers are always pleased to show you the local delights, and in this case we went on a mini-tour of the local delis including a shop that seemed to sell every possible spice, sauce or dried fruit you could think of.
We were lucky with our flight – having exited the UK just before another wave of wind and rain coming in from the West, we got away from JFK on a snowy morning an hour or so before cancellations began. Auf Wiedersehen & arrivederci New York !