A Sign of the Times Square

I could have guessed: the entrance to this station was as lit up as the doors to one of the shows on Broadway around it. I’d dodged photo ops with Batman and Captain America before ducking into this shelter. I should have known that this cave would not be just another little hole in the wall. It was a full scale museum. I’d browsed a full catalogue of art works in the subway, but had forgotten to count how many there were in the subway station at Times Square and 42nd Street. Since I did not have a floor plan, I would miss several, but the ones I saw were marvellous.

I came face to face with a wonderful mural by Roy Lichtenstein as soon as I entered. It shows an Art Deco future from a Buck Rogers comic book, so different from the reality of that future around it. Lichtenstein made the Times Square Mural on a commission from the MTA, so the juxtaposition is deliberate. Very often that future is talked of as an utopia never found. But this was the weekend of Charlottesburg, and I could not help thinking how much more vibrant the New York above ground is than the future of these musty old imaginations.

Apart from Roy Lichtenstein, one person who called out that Buck Rogers future is the science fiction writer William Gibson in a great story called The Gernsback Continuum. I had it in mind as I walked along the 16 meter long mural, admiring the bright colours and the last gathering of all of Lichtenstein’s life’s themes. The mural was installed in 2002, a couple of years after my few months in New York. This was the first time I’d seen it. Lichtenstein died in 1997, and this work from 1994 was one of his last major pieces.

Noon Beneath the Underdog

I had too little time in New York to listen to new music. I passed by the New York Public Library, but it may require prior arrangement to look at the papers of Charles Mingus which it holds. I did not think of this until I passed the stone lions guarding, among other things, the life’s work of a musical genius (photo below). I do not really think of Mingus and his music in terms of geography, but if I had to, I would associate 42nd street with it. Sure enough, I met up with Charles and Sue Mingus outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminus (featured photo).

New York City: public library

The low curved roof at this junction of passageways is held up by four pillars, some of which you can see here. They form a whispering gallery. I found travellers pausing to try this out: one of a couple would stand at one of the pillars, and the other would go to another and whisper something. It works, because they would then go off laughing together.

It is said that Charles Mingus proposed to Sue through this elaborate long-distance method. I haven’t found this story in Beneath the Underdog his rambling book which we have to count as his autobiography. Perhaps it is there in Sue Mingus’ memoirs, Tonight at Noon. I should read it.

Just for that I walked up to 10th Avenue on 42nd Street. Another block north, and I could have gone to stand at the address where Charles Mingus last lived. I did not have the heart to do that.

Squirrels of New York

Squirrels shut down NASDAQ in 1987 and 1994. One of them became a squatter in Bloomberg Tower even before it was completed. Even the occupation in Zuccotti Park seems to have been directed by one. You would think that New York City would have a secret squad assigned to track and detain squirrels who could pose a danger to the city again. This seemed to be sadly lacking.

In order to flush these terrors from their hiding, I stalked through Battery Park, camera in hand, and found a chestnut coated one hanging on to a tree. It was bold, and held its place even as I extended a lens at it. There was little I could do except record it and report it to the public at large. That’s the pesky creature in the featured photo.

New York City: squirrel in City Hall Park

The Sciuridae family have their network. As I roamed City Hall Park later in the day, looking for the black squirrels which are supposed to have taken over the park, I saw the one in the photo above. It sat there bold as brass as I took photos. I noticed that there was a little chestnut colouring on its largely grey coat? Was this a chestnut, or a black? It was a master of disguise. I couldn’t decide one way or another. It had chosen its colour to cause maximum disruption. But I still had my camera, so that I could warn the public. Watch out for the one in the photo above.

The City’s department of Parks and Recreation (notice that: PR!) is clever enough not to fall for the artifice of these masters of disguise. They note blandly that all squirrels of New York are Eastern Grey Squirrels, also known as Sciurus carolinensis. Maybe these guys are good, maybe they manage to track the menaces, and I just did not see them doing their job in secret.

Essential New York

Never Google "quintessential New York", because you’ll be immediately sent to Forbes, or Conde Nast. If you are to believe Forbes, then the iconic New York snack is delicate sandwiches in the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. For the one-percent, maybe. But as my friend Mike would say, "Get outta here!" And if I wanted to get something back for The Family, I would not take the advice of Conde Nast and go shopping at A Détacher on Mulberry Street either. Mark Twain may as well have said quintessential is nothing but essential with a college education. Googling "essential New York" does not do much better.

New York City: breakfast at a diner

I turned to my favourite oracle: the wisdom of the crowd, and messaged all my nieces. The clear winners were an I-love-NY t-shirt (the kind which you can also buy on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi) and a hot dog from a street stall. I’d run this question past Mike a few years ago, and he told me to go to a diner. Other favourites included lox, bagels, pizza, doughnuts, pastrami, and cheesecake. There’s just so many calories you can take in a day. So I stuck to the phone-a-friend suggestions, hot dog on the street (featured photo, outside the Grand Central Terminus) and a diner for breakfast (photo above, on the East 60th Street). These were wonderful things to do.

The Bridges of Long Island

I flew into JFK last Sunday after many years. With the new automation at these airports, one passes through immigration much faster. I was out in no time and on the road to Long Island.

Driving from JFK to Long Island through its many parkways, the one thing I have always noticed is a succession of very low bridges. An article in New York Times written almost ten years ago details some of the hilarious and horrendous road accidents that these lead to.

I went back to that article and found the intriguing statement "Sometimes, this was by design, as in the case of some parkways on Long Island, where bridges were built too low for buses to pass under." Following this up, I came to Robert Moses, and the allegation that he built these bridges low deliberately to exclude the low-income black households living in Queens from accessing the beaches of Long Island. The reasoning given is that poorer people did not usually own cars, and would have to make a trip like this by bus. By keeping clearances under the bridges which are sometimes half of the standard, Moses is said to have planned to exclude buses from entering these areas.

The 40 year old Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses called "The Power Broker" which brought together evidence that there was systematic racism in the city services designed by Moses has now become contentious. The low bridges of Long Island however, continue to be traps for trucks.

Little hotels

Work brought me to Long Island, where towns spread out along parkways and roads. Hotels are set back from the roads, so that the view out of the front-facing rooms are of a parking lot and a road. The view out of a back-facing room is marginally better: a parking lot and a little patch of woods separate you from another road. The only views in Long Island are of the sea and beaches. Trying to get a room with that kind of view would put me quite far from work. Jet-lag changes your priorities. I prefer to wake a little late, and take the shortest time to get in.

There are other things that one gets to see here. Ducks flying overhead, their honking a joy to hear. I spotted a trio of cormorants in the evening, returning from a day out fishing. I spotted a female Northern Cardinal yesterday, mistaking it for a sparrow, until I saw the red around its head and shoulder. It is summer now, and walking at night you can hear cicadas bowing and scraping. The view out of the window is only a small part of living on the Island.

Art in the open

It has clearly been a very long time since I was in New York City. One lovely new thing that has happened is that there is more art in the subway. The example you see in the featured photo is from the Lexington Avenue and 59th Street station. Quite a stunner; it is called Blooming, and the artist is Elizabeth Murray.

New York City: City Hall Park

A beautifully quirky set includes the example above. The whole set together is called Earth Potential. The temporary installation in the city hall park is by Katja Noviskova. It blends beautifully with the surroundings, as you can see. As one walks around Manhattan now one sees a lot of interesting outdoor art.

Permanent Book Fair of Madrid

On a hot afternoon The Family and I found ourselves near the Atocha train station in Madrid and thought we would go and sit in the Buen Retiro park. The road took us past a line of wooden stalls with books. We walked along slowly, looking at the titles. Most of them were in Spanish, as we’d expected, but there were a few French, English and German titles as well. The quiet street with these charming wooden stalls, a few people browsing, all reminded me of a vanished time when in Paris along the Seine you could actually browse for used books. Like the stalls of Paris, these also stock a few old postcards and period posters. However, the focus is on books.

I found later that the stalls have been here since 1925, apparently through the Civil War. At the end of the street was a statue of Pio Baroja, the famous Spanish novelist of the early 20th century, who was apparently a great influence on Ernest Hemingway.

We walked slowly up the slope, crossed the road and entered the park. The heat was oppressive. We sat in the shade of the trees for a while, and realized why the siesta is still a good idea in Spain. Instead of walking further into the park, we left and took a taxi to our hotel for a real siesta.

Art on sale

I haven’t written about shopping before. But when the shop window looks like the featured photo, perhaps I could do it. We walked into the shop to look, and it was full of things which were as wacky as these. Apparently Art Escudellers of Barcelona collects contemporary sculpture and ceramics from across Spain. Apart from the figures which are meant to stand in your home and brighten it we also found things which are useful, beautiful, and equally costly.

We didn’t have time to go to the Museu de Ceramica, so it was pleasant to walk into a cool shop to spend a little time just looking at the samples of Catalan ceramics on display here. If we had to buy ceramics we would have spent some time researching the shops.

Hunting butterflies in a museum

There’s a clutch of very famous 17th century Dutch painters whose paintings we usually take to define the style. You can walk through a gallery of paintings from this period pausing only at the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Hals. But this time and place also produced a set of very skilled still-life painters. Walking through the galleries in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I was reminded of this. The names Ambrosius Bosschaert or Balthasar van der Ast were not familiar to me, but when I stopped in front of their canvases (detail from van der Ast’s just below, from Bosschaert’s in the featured photo and the last one in this post) I was immediately drawn into their world.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Ambrosius Bosschaert 1607

The Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of Madrid’s Golden Triangle, the others being The Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum. This was the private collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, who started by buying up the collections of American millionaires who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression. I decided to spend half a day in this museum because it was extremely hot outside, and I had half a day between checking out of my hotel and catching my flight back home.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Blathasar van der Ast 1628

With these three examples of the many butterflies I followed in this part of the collection, I thought I’d managed to spend one of the hours in this museum quite fruitfully. In slow stages I moved on to the abstractions of the early 20th century. This museum is the missing link between the collections of the Prado and the Reina Sofia, so it was an afternoon well spent.