Tag Archive | New York City

High-lining it

On the first day, I was walking the High Line above New York City’s Chelsea district. It was a perfect time to be alive, with soft breezes and a veiled  summer sun, a perfect day for walking this narrow mile-long public park built on an historic elevated freight rail line. At about 14th Street, approaching the Gansevoort Street exit, people were spread out eating lunch, eating from those ubiquitous clam shell containers that the better class of fast food comes in—stuff in wraps or spread across thick slices of homemade French bread. The shovels and cranes working on the new Whitney Museum, the trucks making their deliveries in the meat packing neighborhoods below, all the never-ending traffic of Manhattan roared below like a threatening sea, but lifted up like some flowered island in the sky, the High Line seemed quiet and protected. A garden with rails. Changes your perspective on the city.

That’s when I saw them: two elegant young women on a lunch date, their wine glasses raised in a toast, their striped umbrella turning gently in the breeze, a whole lobster on each of their plates staring up at them.
New York is always filled with surprises.
At the LGBT Community Center my friend Steven Dansky read from the sad broodings of young gay writers trying to find their place in the old Times Square. Hot, horny, desperate, very afraid. And the riot that everyone had forgotten, that began there and ended in the Village where the women at the House of Detention threw down lighted toilet paper to the demonstrators below.
At the Metropolitan Museum, two larger-than-life fashion designers, Elsa Schiparelli and Miucca Prada, who missed each other’s eras in real life, conducted “an impossible conversation” in a bar. Walking through the conversation, we were surrounded by skirts and hats and shoes. She’d worked with Salvador Dali, Schiparellli said, and would have liked to be a sculptor. “I’ve never wanted to be an artist,” said Prada. “I never wanted to be called an artist.” Implying that she was at least that, and a good deal more.

Everywhere, young people were running. More nannies than I’ve ever seen anywhere herded their broods of small and adorable white children from one park to another, or sat chatting, watching the youngsters dance in fountains or build sand castles and roads leading nowhere. Dog walkers leaned back, holding onto taut leashes that just managed to hold their lunging beasts. In an east side gallery, Picasso and his lover, Francoise Gilot, shared the walls with work dating from 1943-53. He painted her; she painted mostly their two children, Claude and Paloma, playing in Cubist style. I never knew Cubism could lend itself to pictures of play, but in her hands, it did: they romped, twisted and turned, leapt, fell in a heap….


Downtown, thousands of Americans and who-knows-who-else lined up for blocks in the hot, humid day, waiting to see the 9/11 site. With no reservation, I gave up and walked over to Trinity Church and sat in its graveyard by the stone of a 24 year-old woman named Ann who assured the world in the 1700s that she had been impatient for eternal life. I’m not sure I believed her.


When the rain finally came on Thursday, breaking into the warm wet air across from the Frick and next to Central Park, the thunder and lightning trumpeted a warning but no one rushed for shelter. No one ran until the deluge and then not with much resolve. This was New York, after all, and so much else was going on.


It had been seven years, and a little more, since I’d been in New York City and oh how I’d missed it. It’s a city that’s festooned with surprises. Living there, you sometimes grow tired and forget to look for them. Visiting, especially when so many streets are covered with memories, is something else again. In a way it’s the way it was before I moved to Manhattan in the late sixties—exciting because something is always about to happen. Because it frequently does.

I walked into a Washington Square blossoming with cherry trees and tulips, past the perpetual chess players. Nannies pushed prams with adorable charges; a pigeon-feeding gentleman murmured to the cooing birds perched on his shoulders and arms and taking turns to perch atop his head; NYU students consulted their cellphones and poured over their Cliff’s Notes; tourists posed for each other by the arch. There’s always been music in Washington Square—drummers, guitars, horns, dancers, choirs and choruses. On this day—it was hard to believe—there was a piano and a fellow playing it. Because it was New York, no one but me seemed surprised.

The piano player was busy, pounding out melodies with a flourish on a small beat-up looking instrument with most of its innards showing. A dolly was near the donation bucket. It was a perfect place for a piano—Washington Square between the fountain and the snack cart. But how did it get there? Even small pianos weigh at least 250 pounds.

I had time to listen before I met an old friend for lunch, and so I did and then I talked to him, not something I would usually do, but he was playing a piano after all, and doing it well. The piano needed improvement, I suggested to pianist Colin Huggins. He gave me his business card and advised me to look at his website: he only needed a thousand dollars more to buy a baby grand for the Square.

Colin Huggins, by his own admission, is “the crazy piano guy” and the “World’s Happiest Man.” A look at the Internet reveals that he has pianos at Manhattan Mini Storage in storage units around the city. He wanted an audience so he left his day job playing for the Joffrey Ballet, and began rolling out pianos to several subway stations, Times Square,Washington Square…. He’s on YouTube. Look him up, but if you’re able, go to Washington Square. He may already have that baby grand.

Crazy Piano Guy at Times Square. Photo by aatflicker (Ashkay). Creative Commons.

The surprises didn’t end with the crazy piano guy. I found a Mexican vanilla beer and a splendid Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. I ate Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Turkish, and the best of American; I even wandered around Zabar’s. I discovered the largest, grandest white tulip I’ve ever seen in the Riverside Park garden. Found a bookstore on Broadway that should have disappeared in a digital age, but hadn’t. Went to concerts and museums and galleries. Remembered whole lifetimes of people and events with old friends.

Then there was Maira Kalman’s show: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). I’d never heard of her, much less seen any of her books or art. I wish I knew her. I wish we had drunk tea together, and known the same gardens and dogs. I think I would have learned a lot about life from her. She knows how to ask questions.

From the brochure for the exhibit at The Jewish Museum. Self Portrait (with Pete) by Maira Kalman.

As I went from picture to picture, place to place, I was accompanied by a woman I’d only just met. A talker, a story-teller. And somehow, amazingly, her stories, which started one place and ended at another that was utterly other, were the perfect accompaniment to the exhibit. Like music.

Two days later I bought a book by Kalman, one with a title that promised all sorts of surprises: The Principles of Uncertainty. A two-page sample:



The other day I happened to hear an interview with Betty White. “Are you afraid of dying?” asked the interviewer. “Oh, no,” she responded, and explained that her mother told her when she was a child that death was a surprise, in fact, the greatest surprise of all. Death was like the most remarkable of birthday gifts.