Travels postsTuesday April 16, 2019
I first visited Europe in 2002 when I was 39, and Paris was one of the first cities I visited, and Notre-Dame was the first landmark my friend Joan I went to. It was my intro to the city. I wrote about it back then, thinking I would write more about the trip but never did.
Here's what I remember: Even though it was April, the line to go up the tower was long, so Joan and I spelled each other by checking out the inside of the cathedral. At one point, I chatted up a woman in line, who was pretty, from Sweden, and had a boyfriend. Two out of three. Joan, a platonic friend, had a Flat Stanley she was carting around Europe for a daughter's friend. This was the rest:
The early April sun was hot enough that we were grateful when the line reached the shade of the Cathedral, and, after several more pauses, we finally began to climb the stairwell, which, to my delight, was circular and cramped, with stone steps worn smooth, and with a slight indent in the middle from all the feet pounding up it over the centuries. Even better was emerging onto a walkway outside, 46 meters above the ground, called the chimeras gallery because of the famous stone gargoyles there watching over (or dismissing) the city. While construction on the cathedral had begun in 1163 and wasn't completed until 1245, the gargoyles weren't added until the 19th century, when, in the wake of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral had been renovated by architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. The latter designed the chimeras. A wire fence separated us from them, but we managed to take a few pictures of ourselves, and Flat Stanley, with these guys, surely what Viollet-le-Duc had in mind all along. The stryga, a winged demon with hands on face, is perhaps the most famous, but I was drawn to one creature gnawing the head off a smaller one. What truly astonished, though, was the view to the east, over the remainder of the cathedral. The immensity and detail were both astounding, and couldn't be captured by my sad point-and-shoot camera. The zoom couldn't zoom in far enough to capture the detail, and I couldn't stand back far enough to include the tower's immensity.
A huge fire, its plumes of smoke reminiscent of the twin towers on 9/11, tore through Notre-Dame yesterday, destroying the wood ceiling and spire; the remainder is “structurally sound,” according to reports. I'm half a world away, with no rights in this matter, as Roethke wrote, but felt nothing but sadness all day. Today, too. And tomorrow. On social media, people are posting happy pictures in front of the cathedral, and on top of it, and reminiscing, as I'm doing here. There's not much else to do.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
I was walking around lower Manhattan last week, focusing on Chinatown, then decided to visit Trinity Church again. We'd been there in 2015 before “Hamilton” broke big—with me or the country—and I was curious if it felt any different. It didn‘t. Not much. There were a few more people hanging around, and a lot more reverence, and more coins left on the tombs of Alexander and Eliza. But that was about it on a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in early August.
This time I was particularly struck by the inscription on Hamilton’s marble tomb. It touts his career as a PATRIOT, SOLDIER and STATESMAN...
Whose TALENTS and VIRTUES will be admired
Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into DUST
Except between these two lines there's an ornamental flourish and the lines “Grateful Posterity,” so you don't initially connect the second line with the first. It reads like Hamilton is a patriot, soldier and statesman “whose talents and virtures will be admired.” I.e., one day. I.e., in the future. I.e., maybe after Lin-Manuel Miranda picks up Ron Chernow's biography for vacation reading, sees his father in the story, and music begins to form in his head.
All Mixed Up and Baked in a Beautiful Pie
Row AA, Seat 7
After Rehoboth, Patricia and I went up to New York for a few days and a few adventures. This was one of them.
We arrived Saturday afternoon, had dinner plans every evening, so the only chance for a Broadway show was a Sunday matinee. For a moment I considered a baseball game instead, but the Yankees were in Boston (getting their asses kicked), and the Mets were the Mets. I went Great White Way.
My nephew recommended the tkts app but P and I are old and had trouble making it work for us. More specifically: For the shows we wanted to see, the Times Square tkts booth wasn't available on the app. Other ones were: Brooklyn, etc. But we were staying near Union Square; we wanted Times Square.
The TS booth opened at 11 AM and last time we did this, January a few years ago, we wound up way back in line and got slim pickings. This time we arrived early: 9 AM. How early were we? There was no line yet, and no indication of where the line even began. There was just a lugubrious security guard in the glass booth, who looked at us, kind of shook his head, got up slowly, came to the door, and, somewhere between saddened and amused, let us know: “You guys are way too early. You can go get a good breakfast, take a walk around, and you‘d still be too early.” But he indicated the bench where the line began, and Patricia, who had blisters on her feet from a hike in Rehoboth, manned the position while I walked up to Central Park.
It was early but already getting hot and muggy. I wandered past a run, 5K or 10K, in the park. I walked past Trump Tower on 5th Avenue, shuddered, then walked past St. Patrick’s, Rockefeller Center. You can walk anywhere in New York and find something interesting or iconic. It's the best way to see the city. Then I picked up an iced coffee for Patricia and joined her on the bench. It was now 10 AM and the line was about 20 deep. We were at the front. We kept hearing the gossip from more seasoned theatergoers. We were leaning toward “The Band's Visit” but many were down on it. Others recommended “Come from Away” but when the booth finally opened, and we asked about it, only single seats were available. We asked about “Hello, Dolly!” but Bette Midler was off for the afternoon. So we went with “Waitress.” Mostly for this reason. I never even saw the film and I barely looked at the tickets. For some reason, I assumed we were in one of the balconies.
We weren‘t. We were in the front row. Way over to the left as you faced the stage, but front row. Right next to the stage. This close.
Those seats used to be mine.
The show was fine but “She Used to Be Mine” is the showstopper and it’s not close. Second-best song is way down there. Plus the story is kinda meh. It's good things happen to good people. It's the magic of baking. It's “Why is she putting up with this?” and then “Ah, at the 11th hour, she grows a spleen. OK.” Katharine McPhee played the lead, and she's got pipes, but is a little emotionally unavailable. Adam Shapiro as Ogie, and Erich Bergen as Dr. Pomatter, were audience faves. Mine was understudy Anastacia McCleskey as Becky. She fit into the scheme of things but also seemed like a real person. Some of the others weren‘t. Earl had no redeeming value whatsoever. He was a man’s dream: Every man looks good in comparison.
I still loved it. I love those snug Broadway theaters. And now I'll have an answer when someone asks me how close I got to the Broadway stage. Just a foot away.
I took this shot a week ago on our last full day in Rehoboth Beach, Del., a few hours before they closed the beaches for thunderstorms. I know: You don't exactly see storm clouds brewing. Nor was it particularly dark when they closed the beaches. But it was raining hard in Lewes, lightning had struck (or flashed?) nearby, and so, though we were merely feeling a nice schpritz under otherwise sunny skies, everyone was herded off the sand and the beach umbrellas were folded. For a few hours anyway. We had one last go at the waves.
This was my first trip back to Rehoboth—my childhood vacation spot—since 2010, and I wrote about it enough back then. I don't have much to add. It's mostly the same. Funland's still fun. There's still only one mini-golf course, where, either in homage or warning, the animal remnants of the old circus-themed mini-golf course litter its fairways. Most of the customer service people are still from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. Even one Asian girl I talked to turned out to be from Kazakhstan. The anti-immigrant “Tea-shirts” (see here and here) are oddly toned down in the Trump era—although one on offer depicted a silhouette of a soldier crouching and taking aim in front of an American flag, emblazoned with the words: THIS IS HOW AMERICANS TAKE A KNEE. Grotto Pizza and Kohr Bros. prospers. Gus & Gus still does its thing. The Whitson and Bob's Bikes are still there, as is Lingo's grocery store, where my comic collecting began in the summer of ‘73. The week still goes by too fast.
We stayed in a big house three long blocks from the ocean, on Sussex Avenue, and set up camp on the north part of the beach, past where the boardwalk ends. Early on it looked like we would get thunderstorms every day but Monday was our only non-beach day. Normally we’d show up about high noon—stupidly for folks wary of getting too much sun—and stayed until the lifeguards left at 5 PM. Then drinks and dinner. We often ate out. We went to Funland twice. You get prizes now at Skee-Ball. Was that always the way?
There were injuries. The second day, after the lifeguards left, Patricia and I went in one last time. I ran in, like the kids do, but the sand was uneven and I hit a dropoff and went down hard. For a day it hurt to walk, and I worried I'd sprained my ankle, but it wasn't that bad: just a bad bruise on the top of my foot. Patricia got it worse. She kept hiking in the mornings in the Gordon Pond Wildlife Area and wound up with blisters. The ocean helped there. The ocean taketh away and giveth.
I think that's what I'll mostly remember: the waves and the density of the water, looking like mercury in the late afternoon sun.
Welcome to New York, Ya Schnook
A week ago Saturday I landed at JFK Airport after our flight circled for 45 minutes. Visibility issues. We didn’t come out of the clouds until we were maybe 40 feet from the ground.
Last time I landed at JFK—a year ago—I had to wait around for more than an hour before my luggage showed up, so on this flight I didn’t check baggage. Did the overhead compartment thing that everybody does.
(Sidenote: I don’t really get the economics of airlines. Why should passengers have to pay to check bags, which seems to inconvenience no one but yourself, but get to carry on big honking things, which inconveniences everyone? It makes boarding take longer, exiting take longer, requires more work from flight attendants. Shouldn’t airlines be doing the opposite of what they do?)
Anyway I was practically whistling a tune as I was wheeling my luggage through JFK. Before I knew it I was outside, spotted the taxi cabs, and was heading in that direction when a voice interrupted my thoughts. “You want a cab?” I looked over. “Yeah,” I said. “Follow me,” he said. I assumed we would head toward the yellow cabs, but we went past them toward the parking lot. Were there cabs there, too? I wondered. But we didn’t stop at a yellow cab. We stopped at an SUV-type vehicle.
“This isn’t a cab,” I said.
“It is a cab,” he insisted.
“Seventy-nine dollars plus tunnel fee.”
I was thinking, “I thought Patricia said there was like a flat fee of $50 for cabfare from JFK.” But for some reason I let the momentum carry me along.
That could be the mantra (or lesson) of my life, by the way: For some reason I let the momentum carry me along.
To be honest, I didn’t fully realize what I’d done until we were in traffic. That’s when I looked around, noticed no meter, no official anything, and realized, “I just got into the car of a complete stranger at JFK Airport.”
The dude got me where I needed to go but for almost double what it should have cost me. I don’t know if he was a different branch of cabdriver or if I just got took like a schnook. I assume the latter. It was so disheartening it took me three days to share the story with Patricia.