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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Family and I saw the movie "Hidden Figures" recently, on the recommendation of my eleven year old guide to Chicago. The week before, she’d told me about the movie which her school had taken her class to see as we walked through the Adler planetarium. We liked the movie, and recommended it to many others. The first text book on programming that I had ever read had a photo of Dorothy Vaughn in it; it has taken me many years to find out why her photo appeared there.
The movie reminded me of descriptions of the first flights, and the expertise that had to be created. It was not known what physiological effects space flights would have, how hot or cold the capsules would get, and, as the movie tells us, how to even predict the orbits of the capsules. I found a recent newspaper article which talks of the way those early flights were put together.
We stopped in front of one of these early space crafts, Gemini 12, which you can see in the featured photo. Standing in front of it, I understood why they were called capsules: they are nothing but a couch with a few controls in front of it, and a heat shield behind for re-entry. In 1966 James Lovell (famous later as one of the three astronauts in Apollo 13) and Edwin Aldrin (famous as the second man on the moon, in Apollo 11) flew in this little capsule for over four days. I usually feel cramped in a space like this in a two hour flight, and have to get out into the aisle to take a walk. Aldrin took three walks in space during this flight.
I doubt that I will ever be a tourist in space, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful if I had a photo of the earth from space on my phone, as a souvenir of my last vacation?
Growing up in ancient India, I thought cars were either white or a dull grey. Doctors were subject to a different rule; they could have black cars. My grand uncle was an iconoclast. He would emerge with his stethoscope in hand from a dark blue car with cream coloured leather seats. That was it. Until the advent of red cars much later.
So I’m still taken by surprise when I see pink cars. They have to be special. The pink car which I saw on Valentine’s day in Chicago was clearly special. It stood in one place for hours, while the dull traffic flowed around it. The tarmac on the road was the grey of charcoal. The buildings surrounding it were dark and brooding black, or the brutal colour of concrete. The pink Valentine car was a touch of joy in the morning.
In the colourful and boisterous traffic of Bangkok you might not be surprised by cars coloured bright greens, yellows and blues. But when I see taxis in pink I’m still shocked. I was taken aback at the Bangkok airport when I saw a whole line of taxis in pink, as I got into a green and yellow cab. After that I kept my camera handy, and managed to take the featured photo while we were stuck in traffic next to one of these flamingos of the road.
On a walk near the Bell and Drum Towers of Beijing I saw a pink car parked primly on the road bordering the plaza between the two towers. I’d begun to get used to seeing pink cars on the road in India by now. I took a photo and asked my Chinese colleagues the next day about pink cars. It turned out that these colours were also relatively new in China. My colleagues had roughly the same reaction to pink cars as me.
I’m happy to see pink slowly diffusing over the world.
On my last morning in Chicago, as I started to pack, I looked out of the window and saw a pink vintage car standing outside the IBM building. I kept an eye on it through the morning as I got ready to leave. It was stood there through the morning’s rush. As I was about to leave my hotel room, I took a parting shot of Chicago, the one you see in the featured photo. I spent that day and the next in flight.
Later, after I’d arrived home, I showed the photo to The Family. Her diagnosis took into account the date, something I’d forgotten about. "It must be someone’s Valentine," she said.