Walking along Brooklyn bridge it was impossible not to sing –
Start spreading the news / I’m leaving today / I want to be a part of it /New York, New York /
These vagabond shoes / They are longing to stray / Right through the very heart of it / New York, New York…
I am a visitor to this city. Here for the third time in my life, this city so unknown yet so well known through through a life time of watching movies (West Side Story, Woody Allen), reading books, (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Salinger, Roth, Miller, cool detective Raymond Chandler), music (Patty Smith, Dylan, Baez, Ella) icons like yellow taxis, Warhol, like Walk Don’t Walk – (which has been replaced with non verbal people), buildings like the Empire State, Moma, Gugenheim, vibrant graffiti.
I am here because of two Michael’s. My Michael was invited by his friend, Michael Weller, to celebrate his 80 birthday. It was a spontaneous decision.
We are back in Michael’s past. Michael Weller was Michael’s first US client. Here’s the story. A 20 year old student Weller had come to the UK to study play writing in Manchester which at the time offered revolutionary methodology, theatre in the round. At Manchester, Weller put on a play at the National Student Drama Festival Royal Court, London, to which Michael Imison, 6 years his senior, came, saw and liked and persuaded Weller to become his agent. Rarely did an agent bowed so low to come to student play. The play was How Ho Ho Rose and Fell. Despite CMA (the US Agent) saying their New York office would cover the US version of Moon Children, Michael was determined, got a charter flight over and took possession – so began his love affair with New York, the birth of an office there, and the blossoming of a friendship with Weller. Exciting times, it was the beginning of their careers taking off for both of them, so fittingly they were together to reflect back on that time, both now octogenarians and rich in experience.
Friday Michael’s story, Times Square, dinner with Michael
Appropriately on our first day we found Michael’s first office, in Times Square.
‘It was such a glamorous place to live’, Michael recalled whimsically as we arrived, and I got a taste of how radical this New York life would have been to Michael then, who’d led a relatively conservative life, (Oxford, BBC, London middle class), this must have been so diverse, tall and out there. Amid the massive hustle and bustle of this place, I notice it is not in fact a square. Full and confusing, fast and furious, this compared to Michael’s slow pace, was challenging today. We escaped for a coffee and rest room in a hotel Michael remembered, the Algonquin, opposite the Royalton, where Michael took Michael Weller one evening when the snow came down, and he was stranded. We sat to the side of where the round table used to be, where Dorothy Parker once held court.
Lunch at was at Grand Central Station, the oyster bar. The joy of internet meant that a friend from the east coast, seeing I was in NY, recommended this. Cavernous arches, deeply old fashioned, he said, and was spot on. French red and white checkered table cloths. A natural place to people watch. Our pound dollar at an all time low (little did we know then, it would fall further ) we blew $100 on oysters from Maine, white wine, and delicious fish. Outside I meander the station, admiring the oak leaf relief above the entrance to each concourse. Beaux Art style, neoclassical French architecture.
The evening dinner with Michael Weller and his wife Kathy was a great pleasure. We rocked up outside their impressive Brownstone home, welcomed by Michael and entered into an immediately very grown up and comfortable home. The sitting room with generous proportions, high ceiling, with crown and cornice molding, and from ceiling to floor a glorious bookcase. We sit on grown up sofas and the two old friends conversed their news.
Joining us were friends of the Wellers Char (Charlotte) and Larry, who were fresh off the QEII, (docked I noticed that morning south of Brooklyn bridge). They’d arrived in London to board the ship the day the queen died, so unexpectedly became part of this drama. The referential stillness and quiet that was observed in the London streets, impressed them. The monarchy conversation led us naturally onto our different social systems, the role of a king /queen, feudalism versus liberalism. It turned out Larry was an historian (he headed up the Lincoln Library) They were delightful people who ask questions, Larry spontaneously observing at one moment, what a pleasure our conversation had been. They were gracious.
Our main discourse, however, was around the recent cancellation of Michael’s latest play after an unexpected challenge from one of the lead characters, a man of colour, who objected to the N word in the script, and found racism implied in between the lines. Michael had engaged and did his best to refute, but met an immovable wall, and in effect the actors hijacked the play from the outset. The Black Lives Matter movement, vital and vibrant as it is, blocked and prevented any shifting discourse, which was frustrating and it was felt keenly by Michael.
Both he and Kathy were excellent mimics. I liked Michael’s meandering conversation, and found my own abrupt by comparison. Where I would say, it is black, Michael would meander black, yes it looks black because of the lack of colour in it, but what is black etc. The food was delicious – Italian marriage soup, with fresh salad beside.
We are staying 11th floor, Hampton Inn, corner of Tillery and Flatbush, two busy intersections, leading to or from Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. Brooklyn becomes my regular, my friend, it was the first photograph I took in New York, walking there that first morning, as dawn broke, amazed at its structures, outlined against the dawning sky. Bryan first took me to Brooklyn bridge, somewhere there will be a photo of us there. It is the engineering which captivates, the cross of wires delicate yet so strong, a woven mesh tapestry, between the two towers. On the bridge edge (nervously I go) a series of base-reliefs in bronze describe the building process, the story involved a woman, Emily Roebling, the wife of the chief engineer. During the many dives, he’d suffered oxygen deprivation, and so she took over the engineering work as he recovered. At the official opening, carrying a rooster as a sign of victory, Emily Roebling was the first to cross the bridge by carriage.
As one who lives close to the earth, in a bungalow with no stairs now, I am challenged by heights in New York. I felt surprisingly nervous, outside my comfort zone, walking on the slats of wood in the centre of Brooklyn bridge.
That first morning, I made it to the other side, enjoying a fresh juice from a street vendor, a woman who’d been there 7 years. The walk back was easier. There was small shift.
Saturday Death and Dumbo
We visited places of death. Michael had been up both twin towers, once taking his son Tom who was visiting him in New York, what must have been a year before his death. I had only seen the ground, razed, maybe two years after the event that shock New Yorkers and indeed the world. As we got close, walking along the streets in todays sunshine as it was then, I imagine that day, full of fear and uncertainty, danger, rubble, grey dust, and all the debris from those giant tower blocks, and all they contained; those bastions of capitalism, carrying so many lives, which as we saw in front of our eyes on TVs, crumbled down.
We are accosted immediately by the street hawkers, here to tout brochures, pointing to their image 20 years previous, evidence that they bore witness and now make their living with this story. What must that be like? They were savvy, sceptical, scripted, uninterested except in the $20 proffered.
We entered the Oculus, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, replacing the original Port Authority Trans-Hudson rail system that was destroyed on September 11. The great bird, wings outstretched representing freedom and flight from ground zero, but also I presume echoing the two bird planes that went into the towers. It is elegant and beautiful until that is, we realise that inside is all about shopping. I am reminded of hearing George Bush speak a day after 9/11 : ‘People ask me what can I do? You can shop. Spend money, show the world that we are not broken but buoyant’. The architect is Santiago Calatrava.
It’s white wings are dwarfted by WTC 1. I’d forgotten not 2 by 7 buildings and towers had been destroyed and the rest are being built. We try to go up WTC 1 but the lift is not working. Instead we walk in the park. What a difference a canopy of trees makes. In place of the two towers are two great square holes in the ground, water falling down their sides, and around them a park of trees, 400 swamp white oak trees (Quercus bicolor). I think of the wood I am about to plant on my land, this tall in 20 years I think, and so I gather seeds from underneath them.
As Michael drank a Sangria in a bar next to the bird, I visited my first New York Graveyard, St Pauls, opposite the site. The Church is well known for providing food and service for the workers and comfort for the families immediately following 9/11, and was nicknamed The Little Chapel that stood’, remarkable that it did. The church (1780) is built classical style, like St Martin in the Field. The graveyard was opened a year after Sept 11, gravestones cleaned and two inches of ash-filled topsoil were also removed and replaced with new sod. The graveyard too is European style, the physical writing amateur and all the more interesting. About it here.
St Pauls is part of the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street, which was my main objective, mainly to find the tomb of the Hamilton’s. I, like many, had never heard of Alexander Hamilton until the musical, which I gather has augmented visitors. Founding father of the US constitution and founder of the Federalist Party, the nations financial system and the New York Post. As with his son he died early in a duel.
It is a sweet graveyard, well shaded with oak, Plane and other trees, stones with lives briefly engraved, equally brief lives, many children. One in particular made me smile.
Sacred to the memory of Adam Allyn, comedian. He possessed many good qualities, but as he was a man, he had the frailty common to man’s nature,
What that frailty? An eccentric selfishness? a like of liquor?
This place, in the heart of Manhattans commercial and financial centers, offers a tranquil shaded green space in which one looks down rather than up at the sky rises, in which one contemplates the last jacket has no pockets.
Hamilton’s grave is declared, a prominent rectangle of stone with a tall pyramid hat, classical style. He is buried here as he was a member of Trinity Church, and at the very end of his life, as he lay bleeding and paralyzed in a house on Greenwich Street, he called for the rector of Trinity.
He is surrounded by his wife, their son, and his wife’s socialite sister. His wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, was the daughter of American Revolutionary and US Senator Philip Schuyler, co-founder and deputy director of New York’s first private orphanage. Unusual for her time, she was almost 100 years old when she died.
Amid the many politicians, war heroes, and businessmen buried in Trinity Churchyard, is Fulton, after which the street is named, inventor and engineer, he developed the first commercially successful steamboat.
We dine that evening in the area called Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Michael W had alerted us to this funky place along side the East River. I cased it in my second morning walk, under Brooklyn Bridge and meandering up tree lined streets, with timbered homes, finding a delicious French patisserie frequented by middle class dog owners. That evening Michael and I returned, and ate a lobster roll from the well known Luke’s shack, sitting on a bench over looking the river, followed by ice cream from the equally famous Brooklyn ice cream bar. It was best meal I’d had.
Sunday Arboretum and failed Matinee
Sunday, a good day for tending graves. I took the 67 all the way from Fulton to Wood Green cemetery. Shy of half a million acres, it is huge. I’d found a few highlights on my phone while waiting for it to open, but soon realise neither the map nor a systematic search and find will suffice, and after a while I surrender to getting lost, and seeing what my eye falls on. No sense of north south east west, as the alleys twist and turn in circles.
The first photograph I take is not a grave but a tree. It is a rich arboretum with impressive range of trees, many of which I am unfamiliar with — one with strawberry red fruit bursting seeds, called a Cucumber tree, Magnolia acuminata. Giant beeches with their elephant legs and roots. Originally designed and laid out in the 1840s outside of settlement, for people to come to nature and meander the cycle of life, it is now a vital preserved green space with habitation all around it. This day a group of birders are wondering around with their binoculars. I collect seeds.
Layers of history as well as current grief is here today. A tranquil glass oriental water space is my first stop, the fish come forward eagerly in case I had food. Stunning sculpture of a head, sculpture by artist Javier Marin, a gift to green-wood from Michel Langlais. Familiar names of once trades, Cook, Taylor, Smith. Names from other lands, McDonald, McKinney, Bechstein, Wu, (many Chinese), Hernandez. Many deeply religious symbols, reminiscent of catholic countries funeral manifestation. Families, many families, stones circling one another, and relations clearly articulated on the stone: Mother, brother, father, son.
Around one such family I found these two epigraphs: you’ll miss me when I’m gone (begging the question perhaps not missed in his/her life) and Don’t forget me.
Mostly they were conventional graves, pillars popular, draped with a cloth carved in stone to look as fragile and delicate as a piece of draped silk. Walking up and down gentle hills, contour outside this space camouflaged by concreted and disguised by habitation and straight lines of road ways.
I sat down a while and elaborated on my current poem treatise – I will no longer be. This is the taste of my life right now, the realisation I will no longer be (an artist) or go (to south America) or know (our solar system or understand black holes), and here was a apt place to contemplate this realisation of my life limit.
A series of failures on return. An expensive Uber (£80) to Times Square to see if we could gate crash the MJ matinee. Not a chance. We were offered seats to Funny Girl at the next door theatre, at 300 dollars/pounds each. I baulked. Sardi was closed. Times Square was heaving. We returned to our friendly Dumbo, where the day was saved with finding a cocktail on the roof of Hotel One with the young things, followed by an early dinner at C. Not outside by the river, but the food was delicious, and another quick 100 dollars/pounds.
Monday – Michael Weller’s 80th birthday
Long morning walk along East River under both bridges, snapping New York images, engaged a helmeted worer man, asking what was to be built, to which he replied, I’m only ground works, no idea. Searching for a dry cleaners (shocked to find that Michael has never handwashed in his life!) I came across a New York nail bar. It didn’t take much to recruit Michael, so both our nails were cleaned and painted for the grand evening. Such delicious joy having someone attend to a part of the body.
We spent the day writing up our notes, as the pound plummeted after Truss’ mini budget that bought back the trickle down economic theory and removed all protective environmental protection legislation that got in the way of growth. The news is dismal, I am glad to be distanced from it.
We were collected by Michael in his Uber, and driven to Equinox, a hip new development on the west side. Dark spaces, fake fires, corners, creative lighting.
A highlight moment came when Wally Shawn arrived, greeting Michael with ‘Unbelievable’ a phrase he is most well known for. ‘The last time I met you, you took me to a Chinese restaurant and I ate seaweed for the first time in my life’, he proclaimed. Back in the 1970s, those firsts, so often around food or senses. He was masked up as he was still working and couldn’t chance exposure to COVID to loose the work.
Interesting conversation with Michael’s two sons around the idea of travelling or staying put. One had a fascination with volcano’s and I will send information on Oldonyo lengai, climbed long ago now, and sweet to remember unexpectedly here, and scent the bad egg smell of sulphur at the top, as the earth burped from inside its belly.
I sat next to Cecil and her husband Gerry Bammen. Stimulating conversations with both, with Gerry about the aging process (I recall I relayed the 5 stages in the Indian tradition which interested him, but damn it cannot recall what either of them said to me).
Speeches were led eloquently by Gerry. Michael next, one of his sons, then the leopard jumper man, and finally a woman who’d been at college with Michael Weller, so was his oldest friend.
Tuesday – Broadway
Manhattan Bridge is quite a different character from Brooklyn. Built like a ship, rather than a dancer, with sturdy steel girders, fastened with huge rivets evenly all the way up and down. The pedestrian crossing is far more scary than Brooklyn, for not only are pedestrians on the edge rather than the middle of the bridge, the whole structure shakes when a subway rattles over it right beside us. I only make it to the centre.
To Central Park were we were taken for a ride metaphorically and literally to where John Lennon was assassinated. The Dakota building, built late 1800, faces Central Park, is where John and Yoko bought several apartments at the top, and which is still lived in by Yoko. Lennon was shot in the main entrance December 1980 returning from a recording session for his album Double Fantasy. Inside the park, where John and Yoko used to walk, Strawberry Fields Memorial was created through Yoko’s and the city of New York inititiatives. Over a hundred countries contributed to the garden with native plants, and stones for the Imagine mosaic.
Outside the Plaza (where we almost but didn’t spent 300 on tea) we asked directions to Trump Tower. ‘Trump?’ The official man jested with fake bemusement in his face. ‘Oh the gamester, yes him, and go right up to the doorman there and say for me…..’
At Sardi’s we ate in easy time before the Broadway experience, gifted to us by Michael Weller, a production of The Strange Loop. A generous gift as we clocked the ticket price -175 each seat. The Lyceum Theatre was full. The play was about a Black queer fat man, writer writing about a Black queer fat man writer, with a hand full of alter egos, supporting, contradicting, challenging. Rave reviews, won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 2020, dynamic acting, exuberant movement, clearly inventive and funny. But try as we might, neither of us got a handle on the language, so sat in frustrated silence while those around us laughed. There was a standing ovation at the end. An enjoyable cocktail – New York Sour – in our hotel bar rounded off the evening.
Wednesday – East River
The Hampton Inn has been a reasonable place to stay, friendly, efficient, with traditional bar with cocktail shaker, large double beds, with a lift, (impossible to find air bnb on ground floor or with lifts). But next time I’d definitely look in Dumbo, near the river and the French patisserie. Our last morning we feasted on Maple syrup waffles for breakfast, because they were there, watching traffic stacked 3 wide down Fulton, to rumble over Manhattan or Brooklyn.
We took a ferry from Dumbo terminal down the East river, as that was the way it was going, found a coffee at Bay, and returned in time to enjoy a perfect lobster sandwich with bisque soup from Luke’s on the river bank. It was a perfect September day, clear blue skies.
We returned via British Airways, and national rail to Halesworth, the pound by then equal to the dollar, fracking now government approved, energy prices soaring, taxes to be cut for the trickle down economics to take effect, and someone called Truss in charge. The dogs however, undisturbed by any of this, gave us full dog welcome.
I will not be the bus driver, talking with the loan passenger up front, as he drives to Greenwood cemetery.
It will not be a gardener in a municipal park, or along the High Wire Road,
Nor climb again to 6,000 meters, perhaps not even feet!
I’ve know for a while I’d not sail a sail a boat in the open seas, but hoped I’d sail again with one who knew the water wind ways, and feel the freedom of popping in and out of coves along our island coast, perhaps even to the Greek Isles in my dreams.
Nor will I enjoy a 22 inch waist line again, that’s well gone!
I will not play the piano in a piano bar spontaneously, improvise blues or jazz.
I’ll not be a diplomat or career civilian servant, rich in geography and different cultures, and negotiate a conflict and so avoid a war or something useful like that, nor draw a pretty pension now.
But I hope to plant a small field, in a part of eastern England, with trees that one day with offer shade to others passing by.
Some of the speaches at Michael Weller’s 80
1 thought on “New York with Michael”
Hi Rachel, great blog about your trip to NYC – how exciting – never been there. Pleased that you and Michael have been able to go.
Steve and I are just at the end of 30 days inter-railing in Europe. It’s been fantastic , especially as we have visited lots of cities we haven’t been to before.
While away I have become obsessed by street photography. I have changed the focus of my WordPress website. My name on it is plogart.wordpress.com – ‘Photographyinthestreet’.
Keep blogging x