Postcard - Easter in New York
April 2006©Nigel Spiers
It’s a cloudy evening so we don’t get to see that magnificent Manhattan skyline as we descend into J.F.K. It’s been over 16 years since I was last here, I loved it then and you just can’t help yourself - "Start spreading the news da da-da da da….New York, New York"."Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses
We check into our 44th Street hotel and head straight out for a well earned drink at a bar in Grand Central Station. As the barman hands us our drinks he asks;
"So where are you folks from" to which I reply "New Zealand". He smiles brightly and says:
"Hey yeah I know exactly where that is. It’s somewhere near errr... no arrr…. it’s just….anyway hey, believe me, before I die, God forbid – that’s one place I’m going to visit. Actually last summer I took a vacation out at Long Island – boy I was sure glad to get back home."
Saturday and it’s the Easter holiday weekend. Not a cloud in the sky, a balmy spring day and there are tubs of yellow and orange tulips in full bloom right up both sides of 5th Avenue. Things have sure changed here. The streets are immaculate and everyone has a smile on their face. There are policemen on every corner who joke and talk with the many visitors and seem more like genial tour guides than the gun toting siege mentality I remember from the late 1980’s.
We sashay (you don’t just walk up 5th Avenue) to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on 53rd street. It looks smaller than I remember – just like when you revisit the house you lived in when you were a child. We go straight to the top floor to meet up with some old friends. Jackson Pollock, Marcel Breuer, Pablo and Vassily. They are all here, looking great and they haven’t changed a bit. The cream of early 20th Century art was skimmed from the galleries of Europe and brought to New York by wealthy American Industrialists. Three great patrons of the arts; Miss Lillie P. Bliss, Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. started MOMA in 1929. They contributed their art collections and encouraged others to do likewise. The gallery is now widely recognized as the finest collection of 20th century art in the world.
Eleven o’clock on Easter Sunday and the great doors of St Patrick’s Cathedral open to signal the start of the famous parade up 5th Avenue. The halcyon days of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland are over but it’s still an opportunity for the weird and wonderful to strut their stuff and we still sing along "In your Easter bonnet with all the flowers upon it…….Easter Parade".
In the late afternoon we walk down 42nd Street to BB King’s nightclub for the Harlem Gospel Choir Soul Food Brunch. This world famous choir performs here every Sunday and for a very moderate price you get the show and an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. The choir was formed in 1986 and they now have over 40 of the most talented musicians and singers from the many churches in Harlem. There are actually three Harlem Gospel Choirs who take it in turn to travel the world. Each choir consists of a drummer, bass and keyboard player plus 9 singers. The choir has performed and recorded with such diverse artists as The Chieftans, Diana Ross, Stevie Winwood and Lyle Lovett and in 2003 they were granted an audition with Pope John Paul II at The Vatican. When we have finished our fried chicken, corn cakes and grits the show begins. The band leader asks the audience "who has been to church today?" A smattering of hands goes up and then he announces "we are going to take you all to our church today and this is how we do it". Drums and bass rap out an irresistible beat, the organ swirls and the choir starts to sway. The audience is on their feet, the arms are waving and no one in is immune to the sheer commitment, passion and brilliance of this great choir.
Late at night wisps of steam escape from deep underground and curl around our legs like tired sighs as the great city gets ready for bed and a few well-earned hours of rest.
Easter Monday is a very popular family day here in Manhattan. Central Park is picture perfect; the Daffodils are out and so are most of most of New York’s Jewish community. We take the opportunity for some serious people watching. The families, including parents, grand-parents and children are all dressed in their best black. There are Hasidic ringlets, big fur hats and long straggly beards and that is just the women. We sit on a park bench and ogle the natives at play;
"Good morning Silverstein".
"Good morning my friend and how are you and the lovely Mrs. Finkleberg today?"
And as they move off;
"Hey Silverstein – Shalom, take care of yourself and Silverstein, remember, file your taxes already eh".
It’s another splendid day in NYC so we take the underground down to the terminal and a ferry trip out to Staten Island. Sure, you have seen the great lady a thousand times on the TV, in books, on postcards and in King Kong. But when you see the statue close up those great words from the poet Emma Lazarus, and inscribed on the base, still stop you dead;
yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Two o’clock on a very warm afternoon in Times Square. We join a long queue for half price tickets to Mel Brooks’ musical "The Producers" which has won a record 12 Tony’s and is billed as "Hitler’s Gay romp through the Berchdesgarten". We meet theatre producers from London, directors from Los Angeles, a Jesuit Priest from Cincinnati and a drama teacher from Sydney. Everyone is in high spirits and eagerly discussing which Broadway and off-Broadway shows are a must-see this season. Starbucks have set up a pavilion in the middle of Times Square entirely made of ice and their staff provide everyone in the queues with free iced coffees. Traveling with Roz is a real blessing. Her artlessness is so transparent that strangers start yelling directions even from the other side of the road and right across the concourse of busy train stations. Her highlight came today when a street vendor, selling fake Gucci handbags started speaking to her in French. I have always thought the London Stage to be the benchmark for quality and professionalism. However Broadway productions are on a higher level altogether in terms of sheer size, budget and talent. Walking home up 48th Street – hey! Isn’t that Manny’s Music shop and look there’s Sam Ash and look at all those Saxes in New York Woodwind & Brass… and they are still open! – "mmmm - I won’t be moment dear".
The Metropolitan, as ever, is a must-see in New York although this time round I found it a little frustrating. They have such a wide variety of art and sculpture but not a lot of anything. A couple of notable exceptions are their amazing collection of works by Degas. Two galleries of paintings and one gallery of his sculptures ranging from the most famous to interesting works that I have not even seen in books. Also a very spectacular collection of Picasso’s finest.
And we are starting to get the hang of the language here too. Every word has at least one “y” as in "moyda in the foyst degree" and some have two or even three as in;
"It’s so warm here in spring you don’t even need a jersey"
"Joysey – did you say Joysey – I’m from Joyysey".
I don’t know if New York is the finest city in the world but I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.