Christopher Lloyd (right) as the corrupt and drunken but wise in his lunatic fashion judge Azdak, prepares to deliver one of his signature logically twisted verdicts while his dim but faithful bailiff (Tim Riis Farrell) looks on as if it all makes perfect sense in Classic Stage Company’s Chekhovian---think Star Trek not The Three Sisters---production of Bertholt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
I wonder how much longer Soviet Era Boris and Natasha-We Inwented It First Russian accents will be funny.
Long enough for Classic Stage Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle to complete its run, that’s for certain, which is good for Moose and Squeeril and for humans lookink for amoosink and movink night out at theater. The central conceit from which the comedy arises in this rambunctious staging of Bertholt Brecht’s retelling of the Judgment of Solomon is that a provincial troupe of Russian actors has somehow wandered its way from Minsk circa 1958 onto the stage of CSC’s East Village theater circa right now, cheerfully determined to perform despite an extremely tight budget, uncertain abilities, and a generally blissful obliviousness to their own ridiculousness.
When they are “performing,” they speak perfect English, but when various minor emergencies interrupt the “play”---blown fuses, blown lines, missing props, missing actors---and force the “actors” to “break character” and, routinely, break the fourth wall, they talk to each other in Russian---or maybe “Russian.” As far as I could tell, they actors playing the “actors” might have gone to the Sid Caesar School of Languages---and talk to us, the audience, in heavy accents that make them sound like Chekhov---Pavel not Anton---inquiring the way to the nookleer wessels in Star Trek IV.
If you’re like me and think that’s one of the funniest moments in all of Star Trek or, again like me, remember fondly the Wendy’s ad from the 80s showing a Soviet fashion show in which one singularly stern and unglamorous model keeps appearing on the runway in the same utilitarian gray outfit a uniformed announcer calls by a different name each time out---“Day Vear.” “Evenink Vear.” “Sveem Vear.”---this will crack you up all night.
Please to not geet wrong idea, comrades. Funny accents and a few comically-timed small-scale explosions are far from the whole of things.
Many productions of Brecht’s plays are all about the amusing and entertaining ways their directors have decided to deal with one of the dreariest concepts of 20th Century theater as I learned about it in college: that Brechtian means making sure the audience is never allowed to forget they’re watching a play and that what’s happening on stage isn’t real so that they don’t get caught up in their own emotions instead of attending to the ideas being theatrically illustrated and develop sympathy for the characters as if they were people and not just stand-ins for whatever intellectual concepts the playwright intended them to represent.
I’ve never seen this work the way my professors said it was supposed to, because it doesn’t take into account that audiences are people and people have the imaginative capacity to accept all kinds of realities, separately and all at once, including ones in which a broken line of suitcases stands in for a rickety bridge over a mountain gorge and a puppet sharing the stage with live human beings becomes the emotional focus and the heart of the story and the actors in the play are at once themselves and the “actors” they are playing and the characters those “actors” are playing.
Director Brian Kulick and his company of young players and wily veterans led by a growling, skulking, shambling, scratching, galumphing, grinning, cowering, clamoring, leering, lurching, laughing, roaring, rascally Christopher Lloyd approach the clowning with an economical if not always light touch. Their intent seems to be to use the alienating devices not to deflect our feelings but to protect them, as if, if the cast didn’t gentle and jolly us along and occasionally interrupt things just for the sake of a laugh, the play would break our hearts.
I’ve always believed that Brecht was a rank sentimentalist at heart and the story at the center of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a retelling of the Judgment of Solomon from the “true” mother’s point of view, is one of his most sentimental.
In a time of revolution, in a country that might be Russia, at a time never quite determined but might be 1917, with war raging and armies on the march, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a young servant in the house of the royal governor, finds herself the protector of the governor’s infant son who has been condemned to die by the revolutionary forces for the crime of having the wrong parents. The governor has been beheaded. The governor’s wife (Mary Testa), self-absorbed in her preparations to flee for her life and more concerned that she get away with as much of her money, jewelry, fancy clothes, and possessions as she can, loses track not just of her child but of the fact that she even has one and leaves the baby behind. Grusha is left to take care of the baby.
She doesn’t want the responsibility. She wants to wait in the village for her soldier fiancé to return from the front. But there’s no one else to hand the baby to and anyway it wouldn’t matter. Grusha looks into the child’s eyes and her fate is sealed.
The rest of Act I is taken up with Grusha’s trials and tribulations as she makes her way towards her brother’s farm in the mountains where she hopes to find refuge.
Grusha is almost impossibly brave, stoic, and earnest as she endures hardship and disease, faces dangers natural and man-made, and fights off and outwits various pursuers. But Davis, a Tony Award nominee last year for her lead role in Once, has successfully taken on the daunting task of giving heart to an essentially one-note character. She manages this not just through her own beautifully sad-eyed, mournful but musically-voiced performance but also through some magically adept puppeteering, the baby Micheal being played by a puppet Davis brings to full expressive life.
There’s a definite Perils of Pauline one-thing-after-another over-muchness in Grusha’s adventures, and besides distancing us from possible over-emotionalism, the comic interruptions and musical interludes---the songs’ English lyrics are by the poet W.H. Auden; CSC’s production features a new score by Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik---help ironize the melodrama, although I think I would have enjoyed it if Kulick had actually made more of that. There are times when, despite the fact that the first act is basically one long chase scene, the characters and the story don’t seem to be going anywhere and things come to a near standstill.
Eventually, Grusha finds relative safety for herself and the baby, whom she has named Michael, through an arranged marriage with a shiftless and conniving famer who’s emotionally but not physically abusive only because he’s too much of a lazy coward. Grusha and Michael are able to hide out and enjoy three years together as mother and child.
Then comes another revolution. The corrupt and violent regime that replaced the first corrupt and violent regime is replaced by a third corrupt and violent regime---and, boy, if Brecht didn’t intend a lesson about human nature and politics in that…---and Michael’s biological mother, the executed governor’s wife, returns to reclaim the family’s property confiscated in the first revolution. That means reclaiming Michael because he’s his father’s heir and she can only get her hands on things through him.
And so Grusha winds up in court before the corrupt and, from all appearances, lunatic judge Azdak, the second act begins, and Christopher Lloyd takes center stage.
Lloyd, who in the first act mostly appears as a nameless and almost characterless narrator coolly and disinterestedly observing Grusha and her troubles with the barest trace of a smile, as if he’s gathering the information he’s relating fro future study, bursts into comic hyperactivity.
He ranges and roars and cringes and crawls and blusters and swaggers all over the stage, making funny and charming Azdak’s many vices and flaws---his knavery, his greed, his vulgarity, his misplaced vanities, his cowardice and drunkenness and self-serving cynicism---and then making clear that there is nothing truly funny or charming in any of it. It’s appalling. Azdak’s appalling. Wonderfully so.
It’s the kind of farcically outsized, Gargantuan performance that can swallow up all a star’s supporting players. But Lloyd knows just when he’s about to go too far and when to pull himself up, pull back, tone it down, and leave the stage to others and then when to throttle it back up full again.
Best of all, he knows exactly when to let it all go and leave Azdak revealed as just as vulnerable and susceptible to Grusha’s heroic decency as we are; in fact, to show us through Azdak our own opened hearts.
The supporting cast of four playing a cast of more than a dozen, Testa, Alex Hurt, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Tim Riis Farrell are admirably protean in their switchings between their several roles, with each one given at least one character through which to shine---Hurt as Grusha’s painfully earnest fiancé, Babinsky as the loutish farmer she marries, Radloff as a woman Grusha seeks help from who want to do the right thing but whose nerve fails her at the crucial moment. Testa is hilariously and horrifically imperious and clueless as the governor’s wife and a delight as an addled old woman benefiting from one of Azdak’s more logically twisted rulings. Farrell is a hoot as Azdak’s dimwitted bailiff and touching as Grusha’s well-meaning but timid brother, but for me some of his best moments came when he “broke character” and became the spokesman for the acting company, apologizing to the audience for each mishap and interruption and pleading for help to keep the play going, which of course he does in that heavy Chekhovian---again, Pavel not Anton---accent that cracks me up so much.
I kept hoping he’d ask the way to the nookleer wessels or at least make a reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I guess that would have been taking things too far, even for the sake of Brechtian anti-realism.
Note: Due to prior commitments, Mary Testa had to leave the show. Lea Delaria joined the cast in her place on June 11.
Duncan Sheik talks about his music for The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
And because I can’t resist, that Wendy’s ad:
And Chekhov and the nookleer wessels:
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertholt Brecht, translation by Ralph Manheim with lyrics by W.H. Auden, directed by Brian Kulick, with music by Duncan Sheik. Featuring Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Jason Babinsky, Alex Hurt, Deb Radloff, Tim Riis Farrell, and Mary Testa. At Classic Stage Company, East 13th Street, New York City, through Sunday, June 23. Running time about 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Call 212.352.3101 for tickets or visit the website.
Reviews are embargoed until next Thursday, so it’ll be a week before I can tell you what I thought of the play last night. I think I’m not violating any sacred oaths by saying I had a good time at the theater. Getting to the theater was not such a good time. Pain has a way of taking the fun out of things, and the four block walk from the parking garage was painful.
Four measly blocks. There was a time when I could take four blocks in a single stride. Last year, in fact. Oh well. After the first half block up East 13th I realized the only way I was going to cover the next three and a half was by gritting my teeth, bearing down, and taking it at a dead run. As close to an approximation of a dead run as an old man with a cane can manage.
I gritted my teeth. I bore down. I ran for it. And at the next corner I ran right into someone else coming my way along Sixth Avenue. Guy in his forties, although I didn’t get a good look at him right away. The collision spun us both around in our tracks.
Before either one of us had stopped spinning we were both apologizing profusely, so many excuse me’s and I’m sorry’s filling the air you’d have thought we were London instead of New York.
I steadied myself on my cane before lifting my eyes to his to continue an apology and saw…
Him steadying himself on his cane.
We stared at each other a second and then broke into laughter.
Three Reliquary busts, circa 1530, thought to depict three of the eleven thousand virgin companions of of St Ursulaall eleven thousand of whom legend has it were martyred by the Huns in the third or the fourth or the fifth century. The Cloisters. New York City. Sunday. April 28, 2013.
Young Ken Mannion had a project to do for his Medieval and Renaissance History class that sent him down to the Cloisters today. His parents tagged along and the gang of us spent the early afternoon wandering among the tapestries, altar pieces, and sepulchers. A good time was had by all. The Gothic Chapel. The Cloisters. New York City. Sunday. April 28, 2013.
My jaw must have dropped at least once during every act of Zarkana, Cirque du Soleil’s “fantastically twisted acrobatic extravaganza” now enjoying a return engagement at Radio City Music Hall. I managed to keep the astonished gasps to a minimum. But I did gasp, audibly, more than a few times and I was astonished continually.
Of course, astonishment is Cirque du Soleil’s stock in trade, but, even though I’d never seen any of their troupes perform live, since I’d seen them any number of times on television (Most recently and still inexplicably at the Academy Awards, and what was that all about? Seriously, has anybody explained why we were treated to bouncing acrobats instead of Muppets?) I went into Zarkana not figuring on being astonished. Impressed, certainly. Admiring, appreciative, sure. Amused, almost definitely. Astonished? Not so much.
Turns out it’s a little different when you’re in the same room watching people hanging by their heels forty feet over your head.
Your jaw drops. You gasp audibly. You are astonished.
Watching a human being thrown through the air like a football on a Hail Mary pass is astonishing. Watching several of them go flying one after another and not just being caught but caught standing upright on somebody's shoulders, now, that's a jaw dropper.
Some other jaw-droppers and astonishments:
Victoria Dvoretskaya and Dimitry Dvoretskiy's ladder act, especially when he climbed a wobbling and waving ladder while balancing on his forehead another wobbling and waving ladder with her doing handstands on the top rung.
The Wheel of Death, actually two wheels of death, a pair of giant spinning gerbil cages revolving in tandem on a rolling base while Carlos Marin and Junior Delgado ran and did flips and jumped rope on the outsides of the wheels.
Jugglers are typically astonishing for keeping their balls in the air. Maria Choodu astonished me by the number of balls she let hit the floor, deliberately. Instead of throwing them up, she threw them down, rapid fire, bouncing what looked like a dozen balls at once in thrilling patterns off the stage floor and the undersides of table tops and the inside walls of boxes.
And as astonishing to me as the acrobatics and the juggling, although in a different, was Erika Chen's sand painting act. Chen stands at a large glowing blue witch’s cauldron and moves her hands over its surface while on a large rear projection screen above and behind her we see what she's doing, which is painting with blue sand pictures of astonishing intricacy in a few, quick and seemingly simple swipes and scratches, rubbing out one and creating another in seconds.
Cirque du Soleil bills Zarkana as a "rock opera" and there's a story at work here or the semblance of one, at any rate, meant to tie all the acts together. Zark, a handsome young magician in a flowing cape and a suit of Victorianesque design apparently borrowed from Willy Wonka, has returned to the abandoned theater to search for the lost love of his life, his former assistant, Lia. He is tempted to give up his search and his love by four seductive mutants, a snake woman, a spider woman, a plant woman, and a giant pickled baby woman. Somehow the acrobats and the juggler and the sand painter and a mad scientist help Zark resist temptation and press on with his search for Lila. Clowns become involved.
Many, many clowns.
Mostly this is a way to fill the time between acts with songs and comedy and fill up the stage with outrageous costumes, spectacular lighting displays, and colorful sets that literally crawl with rear projections of giant snakes and twining plants and spinning stars and planets.
But it isn't all background and filler. Much of it continues distractingly while the main attractions perform. I could hardly keep my attention focused on the high wire act because of the snake woman's fire-breathing backup singers undulating and literally torch singing center stage.
Oh well. Christian Goguen, as Zark, and Meeta Chilana, performing all the mutant roles as well as Lia, carry off their songs with verve and panache, apparently confident the audience is following along and caring, the music by Nick Littlemore is thrilling and often quite beautiful and, when providing a soundtrack to the acrobatics, as enhancing as a great movie soundtrack.
And some of the clowning is actually funny. It's astonishing how some routines that must be as old as red noses and big shoes can still get laughs.
Zarkana, performed by Cirque du Soleil, written and directed by Francois Girard, music by Nick Littlemore, at Radio City Music Hall through September 2. See the website for ticket information.
You got your Oreo cheesecake. You got your pineapple cheesecake. You got your cherry cheesecake. You got your cheesecake cheesecake…Lindy’s. 7th Avenue and West 53rd, New York City. Around 10 o’clock, Thursday night. June 14, 2012.
Steve Kuusisto, poet, essayist, memoirist, academic, disabilities advocate, and friend, happened to be in the City yesterday and we met up at the Paley and then went out to dinner. Steve is a Red Sox fan whose National League team is the Mets. I’m a Mets fan whose American League team is the Red Sox. Which means that both of us are kicking ourselves for not being at Citi Field last night to watch Johan pitch his no-hitter. Steve called me this morning to lament how we didn’t think to go to the ballpark instead of Cassidy’s Pub. But the fact is that if we’d been there it wouldn’t have happened. Our presence in the stands would have affected the wind currents and a pitch that broke just right wouldn’t have broken or our added mass would have increased the gravitational pull of the stadium so that an easy-out pop fly to the outfield dropped in for a Texas Leaguer or something one of us yelled at the the third base ump would’ve irritated him and made him feel less than charitable towards the Mets when that ball off Beltran’s bat skipped down the foul line or the rattle of ice in one of our cups of soda would’ve raised the noise level just enough to distract Baxter at the crucial moment. Something.
So I’m giving us credit for helping out Santana by not having been there.
And what did he do when it was over? What did Johan Santana do when he put his signature on Mets history with as gutty a performance as you will ever see? He saluted the fans, the announced crowd of 27,069 at Citi, a figure that will grow significantly through the years, when moms and dads tell their girls and boys where they were the night Santana changed the state of the organization.
Santana knew. He didn't need to grow up in Queens or arrive from the Mets' farm system to gauge the torture-meter that had risen to dangerously high levels for these fans. He didn't have to see their faces when Carlos Beltran took a called third strike from Adam Wainwright, both, in perfect symmetry, part of Friday's strange reunion. And Santana didn't need to see tears of joy streaming from the faces of Mets Nation a bit before 10 p.m.
He knew what they've been through. He was pained, in more ways than one, watching from the sideline last season. A serious shoulder injury threatening his career, to many fans the last hope for short-term glory. But Santana came back this season and helped a band of relatively anonymous ballplayers punch holes in the wall of misery. Here they were on Friday, a few games over .500, contending proudly, because of David Wright and a handful of kids whom you couldn't find in a case of baseball cards.
But mostly, the Mets were making us proud because of the work being done by their ace.
The headline says it all. When undocumented immigrants are swept up and sent “home,” any members of their families who are U.S. citizens stay here, because the know-nothings haven’t yet been able to write a law that makes it illegal to be related to anyone they hate. They’re working on it. They’re targeting “anchor babies.” The point here is, though, that anchor babies can’t be deported along with their parents because they’re citizens from the moment they’re born.
Their parents are allowed to take them with them when they leave (or more usually sent after them after they’ve been deported), provided a court approves. But people aren’t just swept up and sent home. They are “detained” while their cases are evaluated. That can take months. In some instances, years. So what happens to their children while they’re waiting?
Many of them disappear into a foster care system that’s not at all equipped, funded, or motivated to do the job of reunifying families it’s supposed to do.
As Freed-Wessler reported:
…at least 5,100 children whose parents are detained or deported are currently in foster care around the United States. That number represents a conservative estimate of the total, based on extensive surveys of child welfare case workers and attorneys and analysis of national immigration and child welfare trends. Many of the kids may never see their parents again.
These children, many of whom should never have been separated from their parents in the first place, face often insurmountable obstacles to reunifying with their mothers and fathers. Though child welfare departments are required by federal law to reunify children with any parents who are able to provide for the basic safety of their children, detention makes this all but impossible. Then, once parents are deported, families are often separated for long periods. Ultimately, child welfare departments and juvenile courts too often move to terminate the parental rights of deportees and put children up for adoption, rather than attempt to unify the family as they would in other circumstances.
It’s a heartbreaking story. And it infuriates Danny Glover. That’s why it meant so much for him to be here tonight, he said as he introduced Freed-Wessler, that he rushed over to the Times Center from the set of the movie he’s filming here in New York still in his make-up.
Naturally, my first thought on hearing this was, What movie is that?
A quick visit to his entry at imdb.com showed listed as currently filming a film called Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. But you never know how up to date the entries are. So I confirmed it with him at the reception after the ceremonies.
Yes, the whole point of this post is to tell you how I met Danny Glover.
He’s a very pleasant and mild-mannered guy and he seemed glad I asked him about the movie because he’s having a good time making it. He really likes working with the director, Stephen Frears.
I asked him who was playing Ali.
Ali doesn’t appear as a character.
His greatest fight, according to the movie, which is being made for HBO, was before the United States Supreme Court and in that ring he slugged it out by proxy, through his lawyers.
Facing the draft during the Vietnam War, Ali applied for conscientious objector status on religious grounds, although he sounded as if his reasons were as much political as moral. Didn’t matter. The federal government was having none of it. They arrested him for evading the draft instead. His case worked its way up to the Supreme Court where it was decided in his favor when conservative Justice John Harlan changed his vote, deadlocking the court, four to four. (The Court was down a justice at the time of the decision.) Harlan was set to write the majority opinion and I’m guessing the focus of the movie is on Harlan’s struggles with his conscience as he argues himself into changing his decision.
It is along about two o'clock of a nippy Tuesday morning, and I am sitting in Mindy's restaurant on Broadway with Regret, the horse player, speaking of this and that, when who comes in but Ambrose Hammer, the newspaper scribe, and what is he carrying in one hand but a big bird cage, and what is in this bird cage but a green parrot.
Well, if anybody sits around Mindy's long enough, they are bound to see some interesting and unusual scenes, but this is undoubtedly the first time that anybody cold sober ever witnesses a green parrot in there, and Mindy himself is by no means enthusiastic about this spectacle.
In fact, as Ambrose Hammer places the cage on our table and then sits down beside me, Mindy approaches us, and says to Ambrose:
"Horse players, yes," Mindy says. "Wrong bettors, yes. Dogs and songwriters and actors, yes. But parrots," Mindy says, " no. Take it away," he says.
The New York Times Building as seen from the Mannionmobile in May 2008.
Six PM. Tuesday. May 1, 2012. At the Times Center for the Hillman Prizes. I'd driven by the new New York Times building a few couple of occasions, but tonight walking over here from Grand Central was the first time I was confronted with the fact of its actual location, which is nowhere.
Technically, the address---620 Eighth Avenue---is in New York City, and I could see I was in a city. I just didn’t see anything particular to tell me for sure what city it was and what part of it I was in.
Not a neighborhood or part of a neighborhood or a place where neighborhoods bleed together. A space between neighborhoods that got filled up with buildings and businesses that could have been commuting in from New Jersey along with the people who work in them.
The facades and storefronts were characterless, charmless, indistinguishable. Signs on windows and over doorways identified this place or that place as a restaurant or a bar but for all I could see of them or into them they might as well have been office supply stores, chain store pharmacies, or banks. The exception to all this apparently deliberate anonymity, as if all the businesses here are hiding from people who want them to loan them money, is Beer Authority, which I suspect of being part of a chain catering to blazer-wearers desirous of spending a few hours after work reliving their frat boy youth and anyway it sits on top of a bank.
The only thing iconically New York in view was Port Authority, which isn’t really part of New York. It’s the rabbit hole through which the unsuspecting fall in and out of New York.
What I’m saying is there’s not enough of a there there to tell you what there there is there.
It's on the back end of the theatre district. The theaters where Newsies and Mary Poppins are playing aren’t too far away, the Nederlander around the corner and up 41st, the New Amsterdam’s backstage door across the street from that. But I don’t imagine many actors, stagehands, Stagedoor Johnnys, if there are any such characters left worthy of the name (or deserving of the insult, depending on how your sympathies distribute themselves), and other hangers see any reason to wander in the Times building's direction after the curtains fall.
Members of the audiences for those shows likely do not wander in any direction except that of home, especially if it’s a school night. After matinees if they linger it’s to take the kiddies over to the amusement park once known as Times Square.
Looked to me, Times reporters don't work in the City, just sort of near it. New York City isn't right there. You have to make a special trip.
What I was looking for and what the the area seemed to be most egregiously lacking, considering that it’s home to a newspaper, is a place where the people who read that newspaper or who grace its pages, to their pride or chagrin, can be found at all hours going about the business of living the lives that newspaper is supposed to record.
What I was looking for, then, was a Mindy’s.
But of course if a guy is looking for trouble on Broadway along towards four o'clock in the morning, anybody will tell you that the right address is nowhere else but Mindy's, because at such an hour many citizens are gathered there, and are commencing to get a little cross wondering where they are going to make a scratch for the morrow's operations, such as playing the horses.
Mindy’s you know if you know the musical Guys and Dolls. Mindy’s is where early in the commotion Nathan tries to get Sky Masterson to bet on if Mindy’s sold more cheesecake or strudel that day. Mindy’s is frequently the setting of Damon Runyon’s short stories the musical is based on and Mindy’s is based on one of Runyon’s favorite hangouts, Lindy’s, which is not to be confused with either Lindys doing business on 7th Ave today. Those are named in memory of the real Lindy’s and they sell cheesecake they are proud of, like the guys and dolls used to eat. But they are owned by the same corporation that runs TGIFridays and Pizza Hut and therefore respectable in a way that would have made Runyon’s citizens uncomfortable about openly discussing plans for making a scratch for the morrow's operations. Also I do not know either joint is yet open at such an hour as four o'clock in the morning.
The one at up at West 51st is at least located where some action is. There are citizens to be mixed with if not day and night than as early in the day until as late into the night and into the next day as the proprietors allow.
At Lindy's, the old Lindy's, the real Lindy's, gangsters, gamblers, actors, journalists, poets, singers and songwriters, ballplayers, storefront preachers, politicians, and salesmen would mix over their cheesecake and racing forms, along with the more respectable citizens who worked in the neighborhood, shopgirls and countermen, clerks and telephone operators, truck drivers, barbers and hairdressers, the occasional priest, minister, nun, and rabbi, even families in town to see a show who'd heard about the cheesecake or read Runyon's syndicated columns in their hometown papers.
Just a quick impression. Anyone who works at the paper or in the neighborhood can probably rattle off the names of ten bars, stores, or lunch counters where the citizens congregate at all hours. What’d I miss? Should I have given Schnipper’s a chance to show off the quality of its kitchen? They close at ten, you know. I didn’t have time for a long explore, but I was on the scout for such a place as Mindy’s as a destination for after the ceremonies in case the reception failed to deliver as advertised in the way of refreshment and going by what I didn’t see, if you work at the Times and aren’t chased out of there by your editor, you could spend the whole day at your desk without being tempted to venture outdoors.
Nothing to see, hear, or engage the imagination within a few blocks. Nothing right nearby to pull you away from your computer screen. No place for Times staffers to run out to to down a quick one, buy some smokes, or place a bet. I know. Hard to imagine any of this generation of journalists drinking anything more potent during business hours than iced lattes, needing to indulge a filthy nicotine addiction, or even knowing how to read a racing form---we're talking about people who think they're raffish when they fill out their brackets for March Madness, after all. That’s a bum rap. It’s unfair to judge the whole profession by a few tassel loafer-wearing bad apples. Organic bad apples from Whole Foods.
The habit all the newspapermen and women I know need to indulge is the habit of mixing with the citizens on a familiar basis with notebooks closed and eyes, ears, and minds wide open.
An excuse to mix and mingle and spy and eavesdrop and be a general busybody and get paid for it is what they went into journalism for.
Born snoops and gossips in honest and honorable ways, cynics who are secret romantics, their job is to laugh at the human comedy and weep for its characters while standing center stage and writing it all down.
They live for the company of other people and thrive on telling their stories which they do because it’s fun but also because they know a lot of people whose stories need telling can’t tell them for themselves.
Like the people in the stories the journalists who reported them were receiving prizes for tonight.
A story about the children of undocumented immigrants rounded up and deported lost in the system.
When the journalists came up on stage to accept their prizes and talk a little about these stories, their voices were on the verge of cracking and not because they were choked up by the honor of You like me, you really like me.
The stories broke their hearts, the cynical bastards.
New York City. Tuesday afternoon, around five. The young lawyer is thin and long-legged and looks taller than she is. She wears a white blouse with squared tails and black slacks. She carries a small brief case and has a backpack slung over her shoulder. I think she’s black. Her skin is dark brown but her features have an Indian cast, both sorts of Indian, East and Native-American, the latter emphasized or maybe just suggested to me by her wearing her hair pulled back into a long tight braid that descends from the side of her head and down over her right shoulder. She’s walking ahead of me as I head up West 43rd, her face in profile as she is looking at the man walking with her on her left. Her expression is grave. She’s listening intently to the man.
“So you sat with the judge,” the man is saying.
He’s white. Not young. Not thin. Not tall. Her height, though as I said she comes across as taller than she is so next to her he comes across as short. Shorter. He’s in his forties, broad in the back, broad at the waist. His wide shoulders are hunched so he appears to have no neck supporting his heavy round head. He wears a blue suit with a faint blue-green check pattern. I can’t get a good look at his face because he’s mostly looking straight ahead as they walk and he talks. The few times he turns his head to glance at her---making sure she’s paying attention, I think---I see he has a small blunt nose and big puffy bags under his eyes.
That “So you sat with the judge…” is all I hear him say because we’re waiting for the light at the corner of Fifth and as soon as the light changes they shoot off across the street. I walk pretty fast, but they’re faster. They’re quickly out of earshot. But there was something about the sternness he packed into that “So you sat with the judge” that made me think he was lecturing her on a mistake and the lecture seemed to continue as they went on ahead. He walked with his right hand in his pants pocket and gestured regularly and emphatically with his left.
They turned onto Sixth and I caught up with them again stopped at another light, on 42nd, across from Bryant Park.
“This isn’t personal,” he was saying. “It isn’t about you. It isn’t about me.”
The light changed and they were off at a clip again. They continued on up Sixth. I wandered into the park. I had time to kill and the weather was beautiful.
“This isn’t personal.” The same stern, lecturing tone. I suppose he could have been talking about some disagreement between the two of them. But I chose to think different. I chose to think he was trying to teach her or at any rate make sure she’d learned from somebody one of the first rules of lawyering for a living: Disengage.
It isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. It’s about the clients and not even about them really. It’s about the law.
And I chose to think he was teaching her the way he was taught it, by an older lawyer lecturing him as they walked out of the office or out of a court where he’d just screwed up.
I tried to picture him twenty, twenty-five years ago. Was he thin? Probably not. He had he look of someone who was built like a fullback from the crib. Thinner. Straighter in the back. No bags under the eyes. Hearing the exact same words he’s repeating to her. It isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. Did he listen as gravely as his young associate appears to be listening to him? Did he need to hear it? Did it sink in right away?
Was he thinking as he said it that what he was saying was word for word what that older lawyer had said to him and that that older lawyer was probably saying word for word what another older lawyer had said and that that other older lawyer had said…
Did he think of his young associate, I wonder who she’ll be saying this to, twenty-five years from now?
I imagine this is how the law’s been taught, really taught, ever since there first were lawyers. Two people talking as they walked around a city on a beautiful spring afternoon.
They weren’t all down in Union Square, but notice the dog is the only one paying attention to unsavory characters getting off the train from upstate. Just outside Grand Central, looking up West 43rd Street. Shortly after 5:00 PM this evening. Tuesday. May 1, 2012.
You all know I’m an honorary Jew, right? I’m sure I’ve boasted of this before. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. My best friends were Jewish. My first job was as shabbos goy at the orthodox synagogue. Friday evenings my job was to go over and turn off the lights. Saturday mornings I came back to turn them on again. I was paid a few bucks PLUS whatever I wanted to sample of the deserts for that day’s bar mitzvah or Saturday night’s or Sunday’s wedding, which had to be delivered on before sundown on Friday.
Naturally, I attended a few seders. More naturally, for eight days I got to feast on matzo.
This you consider a feast? A cracker?
But such a cracker!
That was our afterschool snack. Either Sandy or Chuck or Jerry would invite us all over to his house and we’d empty a box. Peanut butter on matzo! Now that’s a party in your mouth!
For years after I left home for college, every Passover I bought myself a box and a new jar of peanut butter.
Then I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where for the first time in my life I was living among the goyim.
No Jews among my colleagues. No Jews among my students. No Jews among our friends. As far as I knew, there were no Jews in our neighborhood. There was a synagogue a few blocks from our apartment. A very small place. I’ve been in lakeside cottages that were bigger. And on Saturdays they didn’t exactly do a booming business. The only Jew I knew, it seemed, was me and without the company of my tribe I didn’t feel like my honorary-ness counted for that much. With no one to (vicariously) celebrate Passover and Hanukkah with or wish Happy Rosh Hashanah, I lost track of the holidays. No more matzo. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I could have found any if I’d tried. Probably if I’d looked hard enough I could have bought a box at the local Kroger. But after a couple of years I started forgetting to remember I wanted to look, if you know what I mean. By the time we left Indiana for Syracuse, New York, which, by the way, is where the Midwest begins, so it wasn’t quite like returning to civilization, I was out of the habit of even remembering the I’d had the habit of buying matzo.
But this year will be different, thanks to Barry Lewis, a columnist for our local paper, and, incidentally, a friend. Barry loves matzo. He grew up on it, not as a Passover tradition, but as what he calls “a year-round delicacy.”
Which, he goes on to say, “might explain why my mom thought ketchup on spaghetti was exotic.”
When Moses led the Jews and, as Cecil B. DeMille reminds us, Edward G. Robinson, out of Egypt, they carried with them in the desert dough that, in their rush, didn't have time to rise.
To commemorate the Exodus and freedom from bondage, Jews during the Passover holiday eat matzo, a bland, cracker-like flatbread made of flour and water, and refrain from eating bread and other tasty leavened products. We do this as a way to punish ourselves in the present for the pain we suffered in our past. We do that a lot in my religion.
Of course, Barry had always thought of himself as a matzo connoisseur. But as he found out, a person can’t claim he knows matzo until he’s taken a tour of Streit’s, “the last family-owned and operated matzo company in America.”
As he says, “When a Streit's guy talks matzo-making, you listen.”
Barry went to Streit’s recently. He listened. The Streit’s guy doing the talking was Alan Adler, Streit’s director of operations.
We were in his cluttered office with multiple desks and family pictures of matzo bakers, including portraits of his great-grandparents, Aron and Nettie Streit, who left Austria in the 1890s. In 1925, Aron opened a matzo factory on the Lower East Side. Today, on that same site, folks can peruse the corner grocery store for matzo, matzo meal and matzo ball soup mixes, as well as gluten-free cake mix, chow mein noodles and Texas ranch brisket sauce. Adjacent to the store and the office is the factory, with a conveyor belt that moves millions of pounds of matzo annually.
The fact that this alleged madam was born in Scotland is not the most interesting thing about her---the guard pig at her country home who chased away a cop and her “friendship” with the Morgan Stanley investor broker helping her finance her new “dating” service and her animal rescue work and her third husband the realtor and once upon a time local football hero and her brother-in-law being a sheriff’s department detective and her bodyguard Sly being a former New York City cop and her four school-aged children and the pro athletes coming in from out of town who knew that for a good time visit Anna’s and her assuring nervous clients that she had sympathetic connections high up in the police department all trump her ethnic heritage in the colorful character department. But I can’t help it.
I hear she’s a Scot and all I can think is “A Scottish brothel?” and I picture tartan wallpaper and tartan curtains and the girls in kilts and a blindfolded bagpiper in the parlor instead of a piano player and Mike Meyers greeting the customers with “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crrrrrrap!”
Playbills from the 1910s line the walls, featuring stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, along with a signed poster of Buffalo Bill. Ms. Olmsted sat at a Prohibition-era table, built with a hidden lower level so that tipplers could quickly hide drinks. Downstairs by the bar, beyond the heavy wood-and-stained-glass swinging doors, a plaque from a wine and spirits company saluted Bill’s for outlasting Prohibition: “Another proud survivor,” the plaque reads, “of those ‘dry’ years.”
Bill Hardy, a jockey and boxer, opened Bill’s in 1924 as a speakeasy with his wife, a Ziegfeld girl. The ’20s may have been roaring, but Mr. Hardy idealized the 1890s, and fashioned the place after that decade, creating what may have been one of New York’s first retro bars.
Still, the bar bore the trappings of its time and was outfitted to withstand raids. There was a lever on the bar that, when pulled, would shuttle bottles of liquor down a chute to a basement pit filled with sand so that the glass would not break. A false brick wall in the basement still opens to a secret room where liquor was kept.
That’s Bill’s Gay Nineties, sadly soon to be no longer on East 54th in New York City. The landlord’s refusing to renew the lease. No explanation given. Maybe he just doesn’t like the singing of the star football player who’s said to come around Wednesday nights to warble along with the gang gathered at the piano. Bill’s owner’s looking for a new location but hasn’t committed yet so for a while the playbills and the vintage photos of once upon a time movie stars and athletes and the piano and, I hope, the beautiful wood and glass front doors and the saloon-style swinging doors leading into the downstairs bar are going into storage. Last call’s the 24th. The blonde and I are hoping to get back before then for one last round. But in case we can’t and you’re in the neighborhood please stop in and have one for us.
One of the bartenders there makes a wicked sidecar.
Saturday afternoon, after lunch, wandering around the Village before wandering over to the theater to catch the play, we wandered into Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers and wandered out again, the blonde clutching a bag containing Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon.
But while we were inside we got to talking to one of the owners who responded to the blonde’s expressed admiration for her store with pride and gratitude and, as you might expect of any small business owner these days, a touch of anxiety about the economy. Partners & Crime is holding its own, she said, but she was worried they were starting to feel the pinch.
The store’s weathered the rise of Amazon and outlasted Borders. From the sidewalk out front you can look down Greenwich Avenue and see a Barnes and Noble.
But now come kindles, now come nooks.
The owner doesn’t get the attraction. She’s one of those readers, like me, like the blonde, like she’d hoped all her customers, for whom the love of reading is inseparable from a love of books, the printed on paper kind. To her there is nothing like a book, and nooks and kindles are nothing like a book.
They’re missing the feel of books. The blonde and I know what she means and we start trading things we like about books besides the words on the page. The weight and shape of a book in hand. The sound it makes as you open and shut it, the sound as it slides from a shelf or when you set it on the nightstand. The tickle of the page on your fingertip as you turn it. The smells, of paper, of glue, of ink, of dust. All the little sensual pleasures that most of us take for granted until we’re asked to defend our attachment to these old-fashioned and cumbersome blocks of wood pulp and which I suspect sound to kindle and nook owners like defenses of manure and flies by horse lovers talking to the first automobile owners, as far as the three of us are concerned, they’re as much a part of reading as the decoding of the ink splotches on the page.
The owner’s antipathy for ebooks isn’t simply due to aesthetics and sensory deprivation. Staring into computer screens isn’t her idea of fun and relaxation.
All day she’s staring into screens, ringing customers up, researching books and authors, placing and filling orders---you can shop Partners & Crime online---paying bills, dealing with email.
But her main objection is practical. Ebooks represent the enemy. A downloaded book is a book not bought in a store, her store. This is why she calls buying a nook or a kindle going over to the Dark Side.
The owners of Partners & Crime take pride in knowing the books in their store and in being able to make excellent recommendations. That means a lot of reading ahead, so to speak. Publishers and publicists help out by sending them advance copies and galleys of new books before they’re published. Lately, they’ve been getting “offers” of digital advance copies. “Just let us know what platform you prefer,” those doing the offering add brightly.
This amuses and exasperates the owner.
“Can you imagine what our customers would think,” she says, “If they came in here and saw us glued to a kindle?”
Why actors hate critics. Sam Waterston’s daughters, Elisabeth and Katherine, have parts in CSC’s The Cherry Orchard, which caused the guy sitting next to me, as he flipped through his program before the play began to observe to his companion:
“Waterston Sr. is in Lear at the Public. He’s so past it, it’s embarrassing. He shouldn’t have waited. He’s too old.”
It wasn’t just the words. It was his tone of having been personally offended by Waterston’s decision to do Lear, as if he’d asked for and then ignored this guy’s advice. Apparently the guy is a working drama critic. The blonde has permission to shoot me if I start talking like this.