Traveling for me is typically an edifying experience. New York City, with its diversity, historical significance, and sounds, did not disappoint.
Last Saturday, after a long day of lines and air time, I and Julie—my brilliant wife and travel guide—took in the cold New York City air, fog, wet pavement, horns, and the enormous yellow line of taxis curbside, just outside baggage claim. We like big cities. The way they smell, the density, the rhythm, the countless avenues and streets. The neighborhoods. Downtowns. The languages understood by us or not. The countless stores and restaurants, delis, coffee shops, and museums. And the walking.
We got in late, so we had time before our 8 O’clock show at The Stone only to grab a couple of appetizers and over-priced drinks at the hotel’s restaurant bar. Potted duck & foie gras with pistachios and drunken raisins. A plate of artisan cheeses. Alpha Tolman, Pawlet, and smokey blue. A vodka martini, dirty, for me. A cocktail with pear vodka, lime, bitters, and soda for Julie. We talked at length about our long taxi ride from JFK to SOHO. Our taxicab driver, driving slow, offered us a detailed tour through Brooklyn and provided insights on religious centers, the various boroughs, politics, police, and the “motherfuckers” on Wall Street. After the ride, I paid the cabdriver handsomely. We exchanged genuine smiles and shook hands. Wished each other well.
We went to The Stone to see Rudresh Mahanthappa, a New York-based alto sax player and composer. The Stone was a tiny place. An 800 square foot room at best with 25 chairs, a table at the door, and one bathroom shared by the audience and the musicians. Julie and I paid our $15 to get in and found seats. Mahanthappa walked in behind us with a bright smile and a gigantic overpacked backpack. Nothing fancy in his clothes. Modest. He stood a bit taller than me. A kind and gracious guy. Didn’t know it was him until he introduced himself to the woman at the door.
As Mahanthappa, Dan Weiss, the drummer, and Rez Abbasi on guitar played their set, I was awed by their technical skill, creativity, and blending of sound from American funk, rock, jazz, and music from India and places I’ve not yet seen. And I was amazed at the audience. Young and old, from New York to Stockholm. People sitting on the floor. A lot of smiles. And me next to Julie with her eyes closed listening. The diversity in the sounds mirrored the diversity in the crowd. Perhaps in all of New York City. And the joy and peace I experienced that night was as close to the transcendent experience as Thoreau seemed to get to in nature. It seems my place is the city, around people and musicians. Artists. That night my Walden pond was The Stone.
After the show, we walked to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street on the lower east side. I had the knoblewurst on rye. Julie had matzo ball soup. We shared a soda. This was much more satisfying than the appetizers we shared earlier that night. As we ate, we talked about the music we heard and the path we’d take on our walk back to our hotel. I reveled at the beauty of the moment, eating simple food with music on my mind and appreciating Julie’s sophisticated presence and insight, and her gorgeous blue eyes and slightly crooked smile. We walked back to the hotel eager for Sunday’s explorations.
On Sunday, we took the subway to Central Park and walked through it, admiring Belvedere Castle along the way, stopping at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out the Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek and Roman collections. The Cuneiform tablets, beads, amulets, gravestones, sculptures, weapons, armor. Items dating back thousands of years. Ancient languages and religions just as complex, diverse, and fascinating as they are today. Perhaps even more so than today. I was awed by the numerous civilizations and cultures that predated or existed in parallel with religions and traditions we know today (although greatly modified). Humans have an incredible imagination and sophistication.
Leaving the museum, I thought back to Mahanthappa’s set and his blending of modern American music and music from India. And how a museum like a city has a similar affect on me. But while we humans can be extremely creative, we can be brutal in war and uncaring in day-to-day life.
Just outside Central Park on Fifth Avenue on our way to see the Empire State building, I heard a guy yelling. Julie and I were at a stoplight waiting to cross. Julie was taking pictures. This guy was stalky, broad-shouldered, bearded. He had large uneven teeth. He wore what looked like a tracksuit, yellow, blue, and white. His cadence had a distinct rhythm. Aggressive. And he had an unlit cigarette.
“Let’s see if all you all rich people with your fancy clothes even cares,” he said. “Look at you taking pictures. With all your money and things.”
|Grand Central Terminal|
Then even louder and directed at me, ”Does your heart even fucking flutter?”
I tensed up and, keeping my hands at my side, made fists. I said nothing to the guy. Nor did I look back at him. But I listened. And stayed at the ready.
“Take a picture of me and this guy,” he said to Julie pointing at me.
“No,” Julie said as the light changed from red to green.
Anger hit me. But I calmed myself with a calculation. Better to walk away then to engage. I didn't know him. And he didn't know me. Julie and I crossed the street leaving the guy behind at the light. This man was having a bad time. And despite his belligerent, confrontational approach and abrasive language, he reminded me about the harsh reality of inequality in the city. He did me a service. Helped a random stranger understand. What struck me was he somehow knew I needed the reminder. That I was lucky to be traveling. And that birth was a lottery. I could’ve been him and him me.
As Julie and I took the long walk to the Empire State building that day we stopped at shops and diverted a bit. We saw the Chrysler Building, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, the New York Public Library, MOMA, Grand Central Terminal, and more. I reflected on the marvels of architecture and human ingenuity. And human progress. I thought about the night before, looking out the window of our hotel room. The skyline. The lights. But I also thought about the economic disparities in a city I found myself beginning to love. The extremely rich. And the desperately poor. All hard working. All human.
And while we had nice, elegant dinners in New York City—the oysters, the wine, the money spent—and while we admired the brilliant buildings and overwhelming lights in Time Square and other wonders of the city, I found that the one place that suited me most of all was The Stone, a modest 800 square foot venue that served no drinks or food, had no signage but the small print on the tinted front door, with nothing architecturally to speak of and graffiti on the outside wall. Listening to artists do their thing. Feeling the rhythm. Tapping my foot and fingers. Having Julie by my side with her eyes closed. Being around other people, young and old. Falling in love with a place and culture.
Yes, Mister. It does flutter.