Thursday, March 15, 2001:
The phone rang around 3pm. It was the 'rents. They had arrived earlier than I'd expected, and Moms was asking what was on tap. I said, "Er...uh...hmm..." So she said that they were going to walk around a bit and call back. --CLICK-- I jumped in the shower, and a few hours later, I was on the horn with Moms again. Then I heard a question I REALLY didn't expect: "Do you want to go to Harlem tonight?"
Moms (74) and Pops (75) had driven out here from Indiana to attend Lion's Club Day at the U.N. (a tour of the building, lunch, speeches, etc.) scheduled for Friday morning. On a family trip to D.C. 30-odd years ago, we made a quick stopover in NYC and climbed up Lady Liberty; this time, it was my turn to play the spacious host.
So, they're staying at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. (The Y? Why not? It's close to the U.N., and why pay top dollar just to sleep in the city that never sleeps?) When I get there, I find out that a mini-bus takes off from the Y every Thursday night at 6:45 for something called "The Harlem Jazz Tour." It's 40 bucks a head, so Moms hands the desk clerk $120 cash. (American Express? You can leave home without it. They don't take any plastic whatsoever.) My folks and I take the seat directly behind the driver/guide Michael, then the rest of the van fills up with twenty-somethings from around the globe: Belgium, Canada, Argentina, and Japan. We head over to the west-side Y to pick up one more passenger: an older woman from Michigan who's here to see seven Broadway shows in seven days.
The first part of the tour consists of Michael speaking... very... slowly... about New York City history and pointing out sites of interest. When we pause at the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street, Michael says, "This building to the left is an example of the architecture of the late 1800s . Many famous people have lived here. And "Rosemary's Baby" was filmed here." (I'm biting my lip, trying hard not to blurt out, "It's The Dakota!") When Michael continues, a collective gasp escapes from the group when he says, "This is The Dakota, where John Lennon was shot in 1980..." As the tour progresses, I'm beginning to suspect that our guide isn't entirely happy that he's got a ringer in the group. (I probably shouldn't have told him I was from Brooklyn back at the introduction phase. "Oh yeah," he grimaced, "I've heard of that place.") But I give props to all NYC tour guides for their good-natured efforts to educate and entertain out-of-towners, so for the rest of THIS tour, I really do try mightily not to laugh insanely and shout, "Well, duh!"
The next stop is actually an eye-opener: the massive work-in-progress known as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. (Of course, I'd heard of this joint and had probably passed it many times, but I'd never stopped to really check it out.) Micheal pulls over, and we all spill out of the van onto the sidewalk. He tells us that what looks like renovationbecause of the scaffoldingis actually the construction of the southern tower; creation of a northern tower will begin... possibly this century. Then we gather at the main entrance, which is a large archway with seemingly ancient statuary surrounding the three-ton bronze doors. "This entrance is called The Portal of Paradise," Michael says, "but I call it The Portal of Irony." He explains that the carvings of the Old and New Testament figures were actually completed a mere five years ago by the English sculptor Simon Verity, and that if you look closely at the base of each eight-foot-tall figure, you'll see some strangely modern ornimentation, including an atomic particle, the New York City skyline, a subway car falling off a bridge, and a nightclub scene.
Now, we're rolling east on 125th Street, and I'm elbowing Moms and pointing. "What?" I point again. "What?" Michael exclaims to the group, "To your left is the famous Apollo Theater..." Then he tells us that if we look into the darkness to our right, we'll see the only active cemetary in Manhattan. "Yes," our guide says, "this is the only place in Manhattan where you can be buried..." (As Michael pauses before delivering the punchline, I whisper to Moms, "...legally.") On cue, he intones, "...legally." A moment later, I'm elbowing Pops and pointing. "What?" I point again. "What?" Michael points and asks the group, "Who wanted to see Yankee Stadium?" We then roll through Spanish Harlem, and we get a taste of the Puerto Rican experiencethrough the tinted glass. Michael mentions the fact that even though "El Barrio" looks downtrodden financially, at least the money stays in the neighborhood, and the people are solidly represented politically. He refers back to this as we drive through "Little Santo Domingo" on Harlem's west side, saying that while this area looks a little more upscale, the stores are mostly owned by people outside of the community. Pops, who has spent some time in Central America himself, attempts to engage our guide in a little discussion on the subject, but Michael's already off on a different tangent.
We wind our way through the brownstones on Sugar Hill, then around 9pm, we stop at the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 149th Street. The eagle has landed. The group devans and is graciously greeted by the St. Nick's Pub owner Earl Spain. "Welcome to Harlem." It's a cozy little dive, and we settle in at the tiny tables in front of the bandstand. Two drinks are included in the deal, so I order up a Guinness. Pops calls for a Corona, and Moms gets the house drink: Harlem Punch; it's kind of like a nice Hawiian Punch leveled with rum. After checking out the clientele and hearing "Welcome to Harlem" again from the drummer, it becomes apparent that Thursday night at St. Nick's is Tourist Night. But my moment of skepticism about the music in store is blown away by the early Miles-ish bop when the six-piece band kicks off. The tunes all have the prototypical head + free chorus arrangement with each dude taking an extended solo; all are outstanding with distinctive styles. The tall, willowy tenor sax man plays octangular hopscotch one second, then soars into air-shredding squeaks and skronks. The elder statesman, also on tenor, steps up to deliver the good word in low, mellow tones. The youngest of the bunch (in his mid-thirties?) zigs and zags and frequently flips off some incredible stutter-pops on flugelhorn. The lone caucasian, who looks like Major Winchester (David Ogden Whatever) from M*A*S*H, bangs out like lightning on electric piano. At 11:15pm, it's time to go. The young 'uns and I hang back; we don't want to leave. But the tour boat is sailing, so we reluctantly get back in the van. As we pass Central Park, the Michigan woman says, "It's just like the postcards!"
Friday, March 16, 2001:
Moms calls around 7pm after the Lion's Club deal has finished. They're worn out, and actually, so am I. (I thought maybe we could check out Rogue's March at the Bowery Ballroom, but we'd have to run to get there, so...) We decide to pack it in and get together the next morning for the St. Paddy's Day parade. I pop the top off a tall cool one and tune in "The Lone Gunmen."
I team up with a couple of fellow Williamsburgers, Liz and Tim, and we head on into the city. (The floor of the L Train isn't slick with the green stuff... yet.) We meet my folks at the Y around 10:30am, then we all grab some grub at Ess-A-Bagel at 50th & Third Avenue. Poppy or pumpernickel? Pops gets lox on a green one. Then we head over to 5th Ave. You know that saying: "You'll always meet someone you know on 5th Avenue"? It's not surprising. It seems like the entire population of Earth (and Mars and the trailer parks of Pluto) is there, and soon, we're right in the center of it, worming our way through to catch a glimpse of The Pipes. It's chilly. At 57th Street, we duck out of the cold into the aviary-lobby of the Trump Tower, which just happens to feature an odd installation by L.A. artist Paul McCarthy called "The Box." It's basically a three-dimentional reproduction of his work space built entirely on its side. I imagine drunken revelers stumbling in, examining the tilted mileau and feeling quite at home here.
We cut through the southwest corner of Central Park and catch an uptown bus to the American Museum of Natural History at 79th Street. (I'm glad this was on Pops' "to do" list because, in the 17 years I've lived in NYC, this will be exactly the second time I've entered this great resource.) As we speed through the line to the ticket desk, we marvel at the Teddy Roosevelt quotes carved into the high walls: "C'mon boys! Let's camp out and shoot dinosaurs!" First, of course, we check out the bronto bones, then we move up the foodchain to sharp-toothed fish-life. After a few eras, Liz and Tim take off, but the 'rents and I continue on to the under-construction Big Bang spiral. Finally, we top off the trip in the African mammals room. At 6pm, it's time to go Mercantilling.
I guide the folks down into the tube; it's their first time on a NYC subway train. We take the B downtown to West 4th and transfer to the waiting F. We get out in the Lower East Side at 2nd Avenue, then trod over to Katz's Deli, where we stuff ourselves on egg salad and pastrami. After we send a salami to our boy in the army, we amble down Ludlow Street to the Collective Unconscious where The Mercantillers are just setting up their equipment. I spy Jon Berger and introduce him to my folks. (I had emailed Jon a few days earlier that I was bringing them to see The Mercs, and the first thing he says when we walk in is: "I thought you were joking!") We grab front row seats, and the band (or somebody) has thoughtfully placed several tubs of ice and cold beer down front, so I immediately snatch a couple Buds for Pops and myself, and a Heineken for Moms. The Mercantillers' set is smashingly ship shape. It's about 80% traditional sea chanteys and Irish folk songs; the rest of the set is original stuff with seafaring motifs like "Titanic," an amazing (emotional, yet hilarious) ode to the notorious maiden voyage of the hopeless boat written and sung by Al Ramos. (Al also sings "Mi Sueno de Amor," which kindles Pops to spontaneously shout, "Magnifico!") The final song of the night is one I'd never heard, but Pops sure knows it; he sings it word-for-word in my ear as the band plays it. The name of the tune is "A Capital Ship." Around 10pm, we slide out into the rain to the Bleeker Street 6 Train, then up to the Y. I bid adieu to the folks, trip on down to Grand Central, and ride the subway 'til dawn.
Dr. C. William "Pops" Trubey
July 1925 September 2001
P E A C E
A Capital Ship
A capital ship for an ocean trip was the walloping window blind!
The Portal Project
The Portal Project is an exhibition of photographs by Martha Cooper documenting the carving of the Portal of Paradise by Master Stonecarver Simon Verity and his assistants at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
St. Nick's Pub
The Collective Unconscious
The Mercantillers are: