Yesterday’s meander

I took a half-day yesterday from work. Cousins of my wife were in NYC and we were meeting them for dinner. Rather than risk running late with traffic, I decided to head in early.

Based on the location of the restaurant where I thought we were eating, I parked down in the west Village. As it turned out, Amy’s cousins (Wade, Robin, and Wade’s parents) weren’t interested in Italian that night, so she switched plans and we met up at a BBQ place near Times Square. In-between, I had about 5 hours to meander.

You know what that means: you can just skip this post and check out my collection of photos from the afternoon, or you can read whatever ramblings I come up with as I recollect my walk. If you’re one of those stupid brave souls who wants to stick with me through thick and thin, you’ve been warned.

It was stupidly cold for the first week of April: around 35-40 degrees, after a week of 60-70-degree weather the previous week. I wore a warm coat and grabbed my gloves before I left the house in the morning, so I was taken care of for two-plus-mile walk uptown.

See, dear reader, I actually had a goal for this walk, and it didn’t involve buying a ton of Orwell books over at the Strand. (Sure, I made my obligatory stop there, but it was only to use the bathroom! I swear! Okay, so I spent some time among the art books on the second floor, but I managed not to buy anything.)

People with too much time on their hands Astute readers may recall my recent post about Muji, the Japanese “no brand” company, and its amazing products. The slideshow mentioned that the company has a store at the Design Store at the Museum of Modern Art, so I figured I’d see just how ingenious and wonderful their products are.

Look. I don’t tell you how to live your life, do I?

So I made my way uptown from the Strand. I walked through Union Square, was disappointed that no one was protesting Israel, and decided to give my buddy Mark a call. He’s a public school teacher, and I had no idea if he was on break this week. I left him a message and kept walking.

At this point, around 2:30, I was starting to get pretty peckish. See, I have this tendency to Just Keep Going when that happens, and I know for a fact that this leads to my doing incredibly stupid things, as it appears my IQ and my blood sugar have a linear correlation. I needed to stop somewhere to eat, but my decision to keep “Passover kosher” made this a problem. See, in my incredibly half-assed universe, I’ve decided that I’ll stay off the leavened bread (and ancillary stuff) this week, even though I was heading out for pulled pork and brisket at Spanky’s for dinner. It’s hard work, being this inconsistent.

As it turns out, I was already becoming stupid, because I ended up getting lamb from a street-meat vendor. This was a bad idea both in the short term (when I realized I had nowhere to actually eat the stuff, and had to stand on a street corner while I devoured the lamb, lettuce, tomatoes and onions) and in the long term (when I lay in bed that night gripped by heavy nausea and realizing that, since my wife and I shared our dish at dinner, that my lunch was the culprit). Anyway, the lamb was delicious, though indecorous and mildly poisonous. Since I didn’t get too ill from it (basically, I spent the day feeling hungover), I consider myself a stronger man, and none of you can convince me otherwise.

Mark called back while I was huddled under a construction awning, eating my lunch. We briefly played phone tag, but soon got in touch and made tentative plans to get together once I’d finished up at MoMA.

From there, I decided to walk up Madison till I reached 53rd, at which point I’d head west for MoMA, which is between 5th and 6th. I figured that, since 5th heads south, I’d stick with Madison and if I got too cold, I’d get a cab up to 53rd.

(Bonus VM wisdom: David Gates, one of my favorite contemporary writers, once mentioned a great mnemonic for the easterly progression of avenues in NYC: Fat Men Piss Less, which stands for Fifth, Madison, Park and Lexington. Just try forgetting that one.)

New York is composed of a bazillion neighborhoods and districts, so it’s always possible to discover new sites that everyone laughs at you for never having seen. In this case, it was the Morgan Library, which I’d never heard of. I was impressed by the 36th St. side (here’s a pic from my flickr set), but wasn’t so interested in the modern section on Madison. I’ll have to go back some time to check out the collections and reassess the new section, which was designed by Renzo Piano and is supposed to be All That.

Just because I didn’t spend time at the Morgan doesn’t mean I was in some sort of rush. I had hours before dinner, and was conscious of my tendency to start rushing to get somewhere for no purpose. I just felt that I should save the museum for some other trip, when I’ve some idea of what I’d be looking for there (I think they have some Rembrandt drawings in the collection, which could make it worthwhile).

A few blocks up, I headed over to the south end of Grand Central. I’ve made a few visits to the terminal lately, but I came from the north or west. So I stopped and took some pics of the facade, which was typically glorious. I tried to get angles where “MET LIFE” wasn’t in the background.

Paradoxically, I started to become absorbed by how little I was thinking about myself. By now, you’ve surely guessed that I’m my favorite subject of conversation, among other things. But despite the cold and the wind, I found myself simply enjoying a mid-day walk uptown. There was a background anxiety about making sure I could get together with Mark and still get back to the Village in time for dinner (the plans hadn’t changed at the point), but it wasn’t too pressing. It would sort itself out.

Instead, I just eased into the throng (as it were), making little observations about the styles of retail in this neighborhood, noting the flow of traffic on different blocks, and keeping my eyes open for good photos. (This generally involves buildings. I’d love to take pix of people, but worry too much about getting my ass beat. This afternoon, the town crazy was on his way into our supermarket, and I thought, “I oughtta take a picture of him,” and then thought, “That’s an awfully big walking stick he’s carrying.”)

So there’s no Joycean reverie about NYC for you, dear readers. Just a guy in a nice coat walking uptown, until he reached the Muji section of MoMA’s Design Store. If you wanna find out what I actually bought there, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go through the flickr set. I kept snapping pix as I walked, figuring I’d get up to the Time Warner Center, laugh at it, get a coffee, and call Mark.

He told me that he wouldn’t have time to come down there to meet me, since he was still cleaning up his apartment, and we’d likely only get half an hour together, but if I wanted to come up to his place, that’d be great.

Now, there are two things you need to understand about my reaction to this invite:

a) it involved using the subway, which is fine in theory, but I’m always convinced I’m going to get on the wrong or mislabeled train, and end up on Staten Island;

b) Mark lives in Harlem and, to paraphrase Avenue Q, I’m a little bit racist.

But Mark walked me through the subway setup (that is, which line to pick up, and where to exit the station near his place), and I remained a little bit racist.

See, when I came up out of the subway stop, I saw a neat building, took a picture, and immediately thought, “I shouldn’t show that camera around here.” Why? Because I’m a racist. I was only a few blocks from Mark’s place, and it was broad daylight, but the lack of people in the neighborhood just made me nervous. “But only because I’m wearing a nice coat” and because I’m white. It was utterly moronic of me. Within a block or two, I said, “Mark’s lived here for years, and never had any incident,” and concluded that it’s Just A Neighborhood. But it was one of those instances where my point of view of white-guy-in/from-the-suburbs really made itself known.

Passing a black guy in a tracksuit, sitting on a stoop, I felt a little nervous. Then he smiled and called out to the UPS guy, and I realized, “This is where the guy lives. Don’t be such a douchebag.”

So, of course, I got to Mark’s place, and we shot the breeze for a while about books, friends, economics, his dad, my dad, his dog (whom I got to meet), Harvey Pekar, Robert Moses, Ben Stiller, and Mark’s unexpected invite to the previous night’s Knicks game, which he enjoyed (he’s not a huge basketball fan). Somehow, this all took place in about 30-40 minutes.

Eventually, I got the call that our dinner plans had changed, so Mark joined me on the trip to the BBQ joint. We had a drink at the bar while waiting for Amy, and continued our rambling conversation. It was a nice way to cap the day, since our conversation tends to be very easy. Even when we’re talking about complex subjects, I always have this feeling that Mark’s able to parse my sentences, and that frees me up to speak better. Because it’s rare that I can use a ton of clauses when I speak, and I really do find them necessary to make and qualify my points.

There’s not a lot more to tell. Amy arrived, and the breeze-shooting continued. I took a picture of the two of them, and realized that we need to get a nice pic of Mark, a good-looking guy who doesn’t photograph well in bars. Her cousins soon showed up, and told us about their day-tour in southern Manhattan. A rowdy Yankees fan kept cursing at the TV over the bar, which led me to say, “It’s only the second game of the season, dude. There are 160 more of ’em. Pace yourself.”

But the meal was good, and the conversation was fun. I like getting the perspectives of out-of-towners. Wade’s dad commented about the walk over from Times Square: “There were some burlesque shows over there.”

It was a phrase so astonishingly archaic that I could only reply, “The Square was a lot seedier in the ’70s and ’80s.”

There isn’t much more to write about. I’m really sorry about the lack of introspection, angst or anything else that you’ve come to expect from my posts (literary references, naked chicks, etc.). But it was a nice day, it yielded some good photos, and there’s always the story of how I scorched my finger while trying to put up a cork board earlier today.

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