A love affair with New York

Strawberry Fields in Central Park.

Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Photo by Mark Bergin

My Daytripper column from February 19, 2015

In the uber village called New York, millions of people mingle in hundreds of small neighborhoods and communities.
Street smart and gritty, those people who inhabit one of the world’s greatest cultural centres are also the friendliest. They tolerate anything and have lived through everything. They look out for each other. We look out for each other. I’m torn between calling Canada and New York home. When I’m away from the City, I crave its energy.

I have heard from quite a number of people heading to New York over the March break, so I think it’s time for another love letter to the city of aspiration.

From fine cuisine to street vendors, world class museums to underground (literal and metaphoric) performance art, the New York City Ballet to spontaneous dance in Washington Square Park, from renowned jazz musician Ron Carter at The Blue Note to a busker in Central Park, you won’t find greater expressions of art and culture anywhere. Period.

Countless songs have been written about New York and recorded there. What musician doesn’t want to call New York home? From John Lennon and David Bowie to Patti Smith and Taylor Swift, they all end up living in New York. Where else would you hear about someone like the late Lou Reed showing up in person when he heard there was going to be a public listening to his first album to commemorate its anniversary? Mr. Reed walked into the gathering in a bar and sat and listened, along with his fans.

As for film, a lengthy list of movies and TV segments are filmed there every year. You can take tours of famous filming sites.

You can walk in the footsteps of folk and protest music pioneer Woody Guthrie. A book called My Name is New York came out a couple of years ago. It documents Guthrie’s haunts in Gotham. You can see many of the places where he lived, played music and hung out with friends like Pete Seeger.

Last year, not long after Pete Seeger’s death, a friend and I were walking past the New York Society for Ethical Culture building on West 64th Street and heard some amazing sounds coming through the doors. We peeked in, and were beckoned in by welcoming smiles. It was a memorial for Pete Seeger with many of his friends, fellow musicians, and family members. At the end of that evening, my friend and I could only look at each other, shake our heads and say, “Only in New York.”

It’s a city where you could actually run into Sir Patrick Stewart on the subway on his ride to a theatre for his performances on a Broadway stage. Or Michael Buble performing with an a cappella group on a subway platform, my subway platform no less—the #1 train 66th Street/Lincoln Center stop.

It’s not unusual to run into your favorite actor on the streets, especially on the Upper West Side, away from the tourist epicentre in midtown.

New York etiquette: this is their home; don’t go screaming for an autograph, freak out, stare or point. If you must go nuts and touristy, do it at the stage door after a Broadway show. That’s where actors expect to sign autographs and talk with fans. Don’t do it if they’re sitting at the table next to you having dinner. Respect and privacy, please. I confess I had to restrain myself the day I ran into Scarlett Johansson. Even moreso with Jennifer Connelly. Those things give New York its glamor; but it’s the little things that give it humanity.

A woman with her daughter in a stroller walked nearby when I was asking for a new subway map at a Metro booth. I was told they were all out. The woman heard this and turned back and handed me a subway map. “I got two yesterday, ” she told me. “You can have one of them.”

Or a street kid with at least 20 piercings on his face holding up his hand to stop four lanes of traffic on Ninth Avenue to help an elderly man with a cane cross the street. Or the homeless man, Larry, I got to know over coffee and cookies on a cold winter day. I asked if I could take his photo. He was okay with that. I ended up selling a copy of the photo for a nice price a few months later. When I found Larry to share the money with him, he told me, “No, man, just give it to the shelter. That way we all benefit.” That’s my New York. That’s the New York I know and love.

If you’ve never been to New York, I’d advise spending your first trip just getting oriented. New York is a wonderful, walkable city. Once you understand the street grid, it’s hard to get lost. That statement goes out the window when you are south of 14th Street in Manhattan. Then you’re looking at the lines of the old Dutch settlements. Streets radiate from central squares and turn every which way. It’s easy to get lost. But that makes it fun. Just start wandering Greenwich Village. It gets even more chaotic south of Grand Street and into Chinatown and the Financial District. If you’re exploring south of 14th, keep a map with you.

If you’re into jazz, The Garage at 99th 7th Avenue, at the #1 Metro stop at Christopher Street/Sheridan Square, is one of my favorite locations. There’s live jazz nightly (until 2:30 a.m.) and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Don’t be surprised to see Grammy winners get up on stage to jam. The food is great or you can just sit at the bar and listen. There’s no cover charge.

I’m often asked what some “must-see” sites are in the city. That’s difficult to answer. Depends on your interests. If you’re into art, obviously MoMA (Museum of Modern Art); for theatre lovers, there is no end of live theatre. You’ll see the finest performances in the world in Broadway and off-Broadway productions. The scripts gets edgier (meaning, to me, better theatre) off-Broadway.

The only difference (aside from off-Broadway costing half the admission price) is that Broadway theatres seat 500-plus and off-Broadway venues seat 100 to 499. Sometimes, shows are testing the waters off-Broadway before moving to Broadway. Some of the best and most powerful plays I’ve seen have been off-Broadway.

You’ll see the same actors in either setting. Famed Broadway (and TV) actor Bebe Neuworth and film star Cristina Ricci performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a small off-Broadway theatre. So do not hesitate to take in a good off-Broadway show.

If you are a theatre lover, don’t miss Alan Cumming in Cabaret. You won’t see a better actor than Cumming or a quirkier, yet very touching, show than Cabaret. It’s closing on March 29, so this is your last chance to catch it.

New York’s Central Park is an absolute must during a visit. Central Park is a free adventure. You can relax and be entertained. Musicians busk in many locations. There’s breathtaking scenery and beautiful bridges, along with fresh air and exercise. Many visitors have fun recognizing locations from movies or TV shows. Don’t be surprised if you see your favorite actor with a child in tow or walking the dog. I spend a fair amount of time in Central Park to get away from the sensory overload of the city.

As for getting to New York, there are only two ways I’d travel. By plane or Amtrak train from Syracuse. I love trains, and you can get from Syracuse to Penn Station (34th St) for about $110 return (CAA/AAA gives you a 10% discount). Seriously, I can’t get to Toronto for that amount. Amtrak has free wifi, a club car, and you can change your itinerary without outrageous change fees.

Next week, I’ll look at how to be a tourist in New York, and, more importantly, how to not act like a tourist.
Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
This entry was posted in Art, Dance, Music, New York City, The arts, Theater, Theatre, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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