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Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan’

Most Wonderful Time

December 12, 2014 | by

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Santas overtake London, 2011. Photo: Garry Knight, via Flickr

Two winters ago, I accidentally found myself in the East Village on the day of SantaCon. For those fortunate enough to have been spared it, this is an annual holiday event in which punters in Santa costumes (mere hats won't cut it) pay an entry fee toward charity and then go on a daylong bar crawl. This happens in cities across the globe. My most vivid memory of that nightmarish evening is a single lewd elf stopping traffic as he squatted in the middle of Second Avenue and slowly, hypnotically, rotated his hips to music only he could hear. 

SantaCon is one of the easiest targets for snark, but it really is pretty awful. The NYC branch says it’s going legit this year—no public nuisances, no blocking traffic, no street urination or gutters running with vomit—and to this end the organizers have hired a prominent lawyer and posted rules of conduct to its site. (Exposing yourself in public is a sex offense, it reminds the Santas.) In further efforts to curb the charitable, drunken Santas’ behavior, various commuter trains, including the Long Island Railroad, have banned pre-gaming. Read More »

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Rote Learning

October 20, 2014 | by

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A postcard of the Bleecker Street IRT stop, 1905.

“I’ve never seen the point of New York,” someone said to me last week, in a foreign city, upon learning that it was my hometown.

I must confess to being nonplussed by this. I hadn’t fielded such an idiotic remark since middle school. Back then, I would have responded in kind with some nonsense—“Well, since it’s not pyramid-shaped, neither have I,” or something about John Stuart Mill, if I knew about him—but now this did not come so easily. Most of us have long since learned that there’s not much sport in breaking the fine-print clauses of the social contract.

And most of us learn the hard way. My most shameful memory is of creeping around a tree, perhaps in second grade, at Reynolds Field, and hissing, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” at a mystified five-year-old. I knew instantly that I had not conjured the mystery and allure I’d been going for; that I was, in fact, an ass. I have never admitted that before. I wonder if that kid remembers it. I really hope not.

But now I am a grown-up. So I quoted to him one of the few things I know by heart:

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

I finished. We stared at each other blankly.

“That was E.B. White,” I said.

“I meant it rhetorically,” he said.

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What Is an Essay, Anyway? and Other News

October 8, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Michel de Montaigne, whom you can blame in part, maybe, for all these “essays.”

  • Essays—essais, essayes—what are they, how are they, where did they come from, why can’t we seem to settle on the meaning of them, is Montaigne to blame for all this, or Francis Bacon or maybe King James, and what’s the meaning of all this “attempting” anyhow … John Jeremiah Sullivan aspires (don’t make me say essays) to find out.
  • Horace Engdahl, who helps to judge the Nobel Prize in Literature, laments the “professionalization” of writing in the West: “I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions … Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
  • Relatedly: “A growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers … And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.”
  • Zadie Smith on a certain famous populous island: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue. There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day.”
  • “An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.”

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Prince of Darkness

May 19, 2014 | by

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Willis, left, on the set of Annie Hall with Woody Allen.

Gordon Willis, the cinematographer Entertainment Weekly has called “the closest thing Hollywood had to a Rembrandt,” died yesterday, at eighty-two. Over the course of his remarkable career, Willis photographed Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather—parts one, two, and three—and many of Woody Allen’s most enduring films, such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The A.V. Club writes, “His expressive use of warm-toned light and deep shadows—which led fellow cinematographer Conrad L. Hall to nickname him ‘The Prince of Darkness’—left an indelible mark on cinema.” And Variety quotes Roger Ebert’s astute observations on Manhattan:

All of these locations and all of these songs would not have the effect they do without the widescreen black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the best-photographed movies ever made … Some of the scenes are famous just because of Willis’ lighting. For example, the way Isaac and Mary walk through the observatory as if they’re strolling among the stars or on the surface of the moon. Later, as their conversation gets a little lost, Willis daringly lets them disappear into darkness, and then finds them again with just a sliver of side-lighting.

“People don’t understand the elegance of simplicity,” Willis said once. “If you take a sophisticated idea, reduce it to the simplest possible terms so that it’s accessible to everybody, and don’t get simple mixed up with simplistic, it’s how you mount and present something that makes it engaging.”

Here are Manhattan’s iconic bridge scene and an hour-long interview with Willis. Read More »

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The Disappearing Face of New York

April 8, 2014 | by

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What was once Optimo Cigars is now a boutique cupcake shoppe. Photo: James and Karla Murray, via Facebook

Smithsonian Magazine, Beautiful Decay, and others have recently featured photographs from Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, published in 2008 by James and Karla Murray. In 2004, the couple “began a project to capture New York City’s iconic storefronts—the city’s unique, mom-and-pop restaurants, shops, and bars—before they disappeared.” Now, ten years later, they’ve revisited the storefronts to find that most of shops have, in fact, disappeared:

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Many traditional “mom and pop” neighborhood storefronts that had prevailed in some cases for over a century were disappearing in the face of modernization and conformity, and the once unique appearance and character of New York's colorful streets were suffering in the process … We noticed very early on while photographing the original stores that if the owner did not own the entire building, their business was already in jeopardy of closing. The owners themselves frequently acknowledged that they were at the mercy of their landlords and the ever-increasing rents they charged … When the original 2nd Avenue Deli location in the East Village closed in 2006 after the rent was increased from $24,000 a month to $33,000 a month, and a Chase Bank took over the space, we knew the contrast of before and after was severe.

More of the photos can be seen on James and Karla’s Facebook page. They’re especially sobering given the sad fate of Rizzoli Bookstore, which will shutter its beautiful, historic Fifty-Seventh Street location on April 11.

 

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Some Realms I Owned: Elizabeth Bishop in Manhattan

June 18, 2013 | by

Elizabeth Bishop, "Interior with Extension Cord." Undated; watercolor, gouache, and ink.

Elizabeth Bishop, "Interior with Extension Cord." Undated; watercolor, gouache, and ink.

There are thirteen addresses in Manhattan where devout readers can stalk Elizabeth Bishop’s ghost: seven hotels and six apartments. Because no historical plaques have been hung to mark them, vigilance is crucial. You could pass by any one of them without realizing one of America’s greatest poets once called it home, or some version thereof. If these locales are not enough, peruse the writer’s several thousand letters for additional jaunts. At the entrance to the public library’s main reading room, for example, you can sit on the bench where, in 1936, Elizabeth arranged to meet Marianne Moore. The city is dirty enough that a small remnant of the writer, if only the dust on her soles, might linger there.

The compulsion to visit Elizabeth’s former residences is the same one that drives Shakespeare lovers to Stratford-upon-Avon and Thoreau converts to Walden Pond. Oscar Wilde’s lipstick-covered tomb proves such journeys are never simply educational field trips, but affairs of deep passion. Accordingly, I begin a pilgrimage: I will visit all these addresses. And so I set out on a cool spring day for 16 Charles Street, the poet’s first Manhattan residence, where she spent the fall of 1934. Bishop was then twenty-three years old, a would-be writer whose mind was as much a boxing ring for hope and trepidation as my own. She was sick that New Year’s Eve and spent the night on the floor, perusing a map of the North Atlantic. Doped up on “adrenalin and cough syrup,” she wrote:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

As I examine the wide building where Bishop once lived, my own questions sound comparatively banal: Was this the same brass doorknob she turned every day? When Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber was renovated in the twentieth century, several of the queen’s dress pins were found wedged between the floorboards. I scrutinize the red-brick facade for a similar detail that might bring the poet into focus, but whatever she may have left behind cannot be seen through these stoic windows, all gridded neatly in white, each revealing less than the last. Read More »

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