What follows are excerpts from a month’s long voyage around the U.S. from August 28th, 2012 until January 2, 2013. Our travels included side trips into Canada and a holiday cruise in the Caribbean. We shaped our itinerary around visits to our far-flung friends and family members. For much of the time, we traveled in a rented motor home, which, to borrow a title from David Foster Wallace, was “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Though I’ll mention friends and famliy in passing (first names only), the intent of this account is to highlight the experience of seeing familiar parts of America after a long absence and unfamiliar parts for the first time. All in all, it was a journey of a lifetime.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Manhattan is like no other city we’ve ever seen. Its mix of people, commerce and both high and low culture confined and compressed in a single island gives it an atmosphere and an energy that is unique. We think of New York City the way Samuel Johnson did about 18th-century London. His dictum: “No sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Passing through our former neighborhood on the edge of the garment district, for years benignly ignored by the developers that were so relentlessly changing large parts of Manhattan, we noted the changes that have transformed it almost beyond recognition.
Behind our small loft building, where we once could sit in our deck garden and gaze at the charming brick wall of a small, hundred-year-old building, there is now a 20-storey hotel. This is on 28th Street, the heart of the city’s wholesale flower district and before that, the street known as Tim Pan Alley.
On the corner of 29th Street and 6th Avenue, in place of the garage where I used to park our van, stands a mighty, 50-storey tower.
We walked past our old home, now so hemmed in by change, and turned uptown on 6th Avenue and then onto Fifth to get to the New York Public Library. There, we took in an exhibit entitled Lunch Time: New York. The exhibit makes the point that the modern lunch was invented on the streets of New York. In earlier times the word lunch signified a kind of snack that could be eaten at any time of day but was not considered a proper meal.
Horn and Hardhart Automats were an early way of serving a quick, inexpensive meal to the growing hoards of office clerks and salesgirls that once filled Midtown Manhattan streets during the noon-hour rush. I recalled eating in them with my mother, brother, and sister when we would come to the city in the 1950s for my father’s vending machine conventions. Mom would give us coins that we would use to open the tiny, glass-fronted compartments, each containing a sandwich, a side dish, or a dessert. We loved the Automats; they were New York City fixtures.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Riding the subway several times today reminded me of how wildly disparate New York’s population is. I saw people of every description.
Union Square, where I caught an uptown train, was jammed with people, acting out, playing chess, drumming or just hanging out. It was a lovely, late-summer day and some, especially the women, were very lightly dressed.
Friday, August 31, 2012
In the early afternoon, we went to Gray’s Papaya, the famous hot dog stand on 72nd and Broadway, for its Recession Special, two franks and a Papaya drink.
At the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, we toured an exhibit dedicated to Winston Churchill, one that focused on his use of the English language, in both speech and writing, to shape his long career.
“Never have so many owed so much to so few.” This favorite line of Churchill’s is enough to underline his brilliance as both orator and writer.
Most impressive was listening to excerpts of the wartime speeches the great leader used to rally his countrymen during the darkest days of the Nazi air attacks on London. We also heard him give part of his post-war “Iron Curtain” speech in America.
Monday, September 3, 2012 Labor Day
This has been another long day. We began by heading down to the Village to meet our friend Kurt for lunch at Mambo Sushi.
Although he and I are both graduates of Wabash College, Kurt is a Village denizen and lives a life that differs in many ways from ours. He is very grounded in New York City and its neighborhoods. He has also traveled in this country and abroad for much of his life, journeying to places that most travelers would eschew. Some of his tales of travel are harrowing and would make a good memoir.
Kurt tipped us to the West Indian Parade, occurring today in Brooklyn. Since we had some hours to pass before we needed to meet our friends Lynn and David for dinner, we took the Number 3 train to Grand Army Plaza to see what we could see.
This parade is an extraordinary annual happening. Each West Indian Community was announced on a flat-bed truck that contained little more than a giant array of amplifiers and speakers. The volume of the music was deafening. As we emerged from the subway on to the street, the low-frequency vibrations were those of an earthquake; the air pulsed with sound waves.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
We spent most of an hour in the Strand Bookstore at 12th and Broadway. The store has changed. It seems much bigger and it has more new books than I remember from years ago. In this age of vanishing booksellers, the Strand is a major survivor. Our visit resulted in the purchase of several books.
On Park Avenue and 51st Street, we admired the Seagram Building, its International Style the iconic work of Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson who did the interiors. It houses The Four Seasons, the city’s most quietly elegant restaurant.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
As we walked up West End Avenue in the neighborhood where we are staying, we passed Straus Park, a memorial to Isidore and Ida Straus. Isidore, who founded the store that would become Macy’s, died together with his wife on the Titanic in April of 1912. At the south end of the park stands a lovely sculpture of a reclining female figure symbolizing MEMORY.
During our peregrinations around Manhattan, we’ve noted how many improvements have been made to make the city more livable. Around Madison Square Park, for instance, there are more pedestrian areas with tables and chairs to sit at. Of course, Times Square has been a pedestrian zone for several years now. Another big improvement is the increase in well-marked bike paths along some city streets. These changes are due largely to Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership; he has served the city well during his three terms.
Saturday, September 8, 2012
New Canaan, Connecticut – Hyde Park – New Canaan
The quiet streets of New Canaan with their stately homes and manicured lawns are an hour’s train ride and a world away from New York City. Our friends Roger and Joanne make their home here.
Roger and Joanne had planned a most interesting day for us. After breakfast at home we drove an hour and a half to Hyde Park in time to join a tour of the Vanderbilt Mansion on the Hudson.
Of the many Vanderbilt mansions scattered around the eastern U.S., Frederick Vanderbilt, a grandson of the Commodore, built one of the smallest. Originally intended to be used only part of the year, mainly in the spring and summer when guests would arrive by train or yacht from Manhattan, it became Frederick’s principal residence only after his wife’s death.
It is a true Gilded Age Mansion built by McKim, Mead, & White in the Beaux Arts Style. Stanford White did the interiors, even buying the furniture and paintings, all from Old Europe. There are no personal touches; choices were made according to what was deemed to be the best and most expensive. Everything was chosen to impress.
A visit to Val Kill Cottage, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, was the highlight of our day’s tour. It began with a video relating Eleanor’s early history followed by highlights of her long and very purposeful life.
Because Franklin’s mother insisted that when he was in Hyde Park, he could sleep nowhere other than at Springwood, the modest Val Kill cottage became Eleanor’s personal home. There she was able to make the domestic decisions that had been denied her as a younger woman.
The house at Val Kill is modest, paneled in knotty pine and furnished comfortably. Its walls are covered with the photographs of family members and others, both famous and not.
We were all moved by what we learned of Eleanor and her life’s work. She was truly a great woman. It was Adlai Stevenson, whom she had supported in his three runs for president, who gave the eulogy at her funeral.
Sunday, September 9, 2012
The big event of this day was our long anticipated tour of Phillip Johnson’s Glass House compound here in New Canaan. The Glass House itself, built in 1949, is only one of the structures Johnson added to this 40-acre compound over the years of his long life; it is the ensemble and the way the architect shaped and used the natural environment that makes Glass House unique.
The Glass House was an architectural experiment: Johnson’s answer to the question of how one could live comfortably in a dwelling whose four walls were made entirely of glass. The result is a single-storey house for one person with an entirely open plan except for a circular structure containing the bathroom and toilet. Behind this is a bed not quite wide enough for two persons.
Looking across and below from the promontory next to the Glass House, we see an ornamental pond and on its bank, a Classical pavilion done in three-quarter scale. Beyond that is a structure known as the Lincoln Kirstein tower, really a set of eccentric steps leading to nowhere and that can be climbed only with difficulty.
Johnson was an important art collector. Part of his collection is displayed in an underground gallery, his Kunstbunker, entered through a pair of industrial-looking doors that give no hint of what lies behind them. Passing through a short corridor we enter a high-ceiling space with three sets of large panels attached to central columns. Each of these structures can be thought of as an enormous Rolodex turned on its side. Each panel is two-sided and designed to display large paintings. At the time of our visit, work by Julian Schnabel was on display. The panels are designed to be turned by hand to reveal the art on the panels behind them. It is a really ingenious solution.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Back in New York City and fortified with coffee, we went by subway and on foot to the uptown end of the High Line at 30th Street.
From there, we walked the entire length of the park to its end in the Meat Packing District. The High Line is built on the bed of what used to be a railroad spur that carried goods to and from the city’s West Side factories and warehouses. The architects and garden designers that have transformed this former eyesore into a unique urban space have done amazing work.
Acting like tourists in our own country, our next goal was to have a look at the recently built Frank Gehry residential tower on Spruce Street behind the Municipal Building next to City Hall Park.
Next, we walked downtown to visit the 9/11 Memorial, which consists mainly of two great pools, each encompassing the footprint of one of the twin towers. Water pours down all four sides of each pool, then across the granite floor and into another smaller pool in the center. Steel shelves positioned at waist height around the borders of the pools contain the name of every person that died in the 9/11 attacks.
Kay and I spent more than an hour taking in the scene. In addition to the pools, there is the nearly completed Freedom Tower rising above them. The striking mirrored surface of the tower alters continuously with the play of sun and sky.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
The drive in our rented Ford Escape to Centerville on Maryland’s eastern shore went smoothly. As navigator, Kay was gratified to find that our Garmin GPS worked as it should. It guided us smoothly to our destination.
Larry and Susan are long-time boat lovers. The view from their windows takes in a wide stretch of the Maryland’s Corsica River with their trawler afloat at the end of their private dock.
Since Kay and I are traveling with luggage that includes my ‘Long Haul Trucker’, a touring bike I’ve kept in the U.S., Larry and I lost no time in riding the quiet back roads of Queen Anne’s County to Land’s End, a spot on another river, the Chester.
Our ride over flat terrain took us past farms and estates owned by the same families to whom the King of England granted them while Maryland was still a crown colony in the 1600s.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Late in the morning the four of us set off in Larry’s Toyota Highlander for the village of Wye, one of the oldest on the Eastern Shore. The walls of its Anglican/Episcopalian Church date back to the early 18th century. We were welcomed by the pastor and spent a few minutes in the church’s restful interior.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The plan was to drive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Manassas, Virginia, drop our luggage at the Cruise America agency, drive to Dulles Airport to return the rental car, and taxi back to the agency to pickup our motor home. Well, things did go as planned, just not very quickly.
As we left Centerville, MD, the sky was ominous. It would rain for sure. The drive to Manassas in the early morning rush-hour traffic was slow, especially through the District of Columbia. Arriving at Cruise America, we discovered that there was a series of procedures to undergo before we could drive our rig out of the parking lot. The first of these was an orientation video, followed by ‘walk’ through the rental contract, and finally a tour of the exterior and interior of the motor home. This being our first RV experience, there was a lot to remember. It will take us a few days on the road before we feel comfortable in our home on wheels.
Driving the rig took a bit of getting used to. Its cab-over body is built on a Ford G van’s cab and chassis. It handles well enough but feels heavy. When we stopped to rest and eat, I was careful to park where we could pull-through and not have to back up. We’ll get to that maneuver
soon enough, but for now, tiny steps for tiny feet. The gasoline fuel tank holds 55 gallons, so with gas prices what they are and at a rate of 9 miles to the gallon, this will be an expensive trip
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Fogelsville, PA – Bethlehem, PA – Herkimer, NY
We’re beginning to love the KOA RV camps. They are well run and maintained, clean, and located in attractive natural surroundings.
We drove the 20 miles into the city of Bethlehem where we ate a late breakfast at Billy’s Downtown Diner, a fancy-pants eatery with whimsical creations. We drank good coffee with our oversized breakfast sandwiches while being welcomed by Billy himself and other employees that stopped by to see how we were enjoying our food.
Our drive north to New York’s Mohawk Valley took us through the rump of the Alleghany Mountain Range of northern Pennsylvania and through the rolling hills of central New York State. We skirted the cities of Scranton and Binghamton, staying on the interstate highways until our final leg on Route 28. We’ve always loved this road through beautiful rural New York.
The early fall scenery we drove through lifted our spirits. The upland forests would give way to occasional valleys with wide views of the hills beyond whose deciduous foliage is just beginning to change color. With pure air and such a blue sky, we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day.
Checking in to the KOA campground near the Herkimer ‘Diamond Mines’, we called my cousin Ed. Shortly, he and his wife Becky drove up outside our motor home. At an earlier time in our lives we had seen Ed and Becky more often.
This campground along West Canada Creek where we are spending the night is only a short distance from the village of Middleville where my mother grew up in a large immigrant Finnish family. Not far, also, is the farm in Russia Corners where my father was born and worked until he went off to Northeastern University in Boston.
I can’t spend any time here without thinking of my beloved Aunt Marion, who Kay and I would often come up to visit. She was a strong woman whose direct manner and sense of humor reminded me so much of my father.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
One great thing about this motor home is the curtain that closes off the bed from the light in the rest of the space. I sat at the table and typed early in the morning without disturbing Kay
As I walked around the campground with my camera, I struck up a conversation with a man from Warren, Michigan. When I told him that Kay and I had been Michiganders for many years, we had a lot to talk about. People that camp with RVs are mostly friendly. Meeting and talking with strangers is one reason they choose to travel this way.
East Aurora, New York, south of Buffalo, is not a large town, and we quickly arrived at my Aunt Betty’s home on Sycamore Street. It had been years since we had been there, and Betty in now 90 years old, the only surviving member of my parents’ generation.
There being no convenient options, Kay and I checked in to the town’s extraordinary Roycroft Inn, the centerpiece of what was once a larger community. Inspired by England’s Arts-and-Crafts Movement, Elbert Hubbard began his ‘campus’ in 1895. Hubbard was a visionary who espoused the philosophy of William Morris and deplored the effects of the Industrial Revolution on society and artistic production. He founded a colony of like-minded individuals whose ideal was to return themselves to pre-industrial society where household items would be designed by artists and made by hand.
Roycroft came to be home to many skilled craftsmen and artists, including typographers, printers, book designers, furniture makers, metal smiths, sculptors, potters, leather workers, and writers. The Inn’s mission is to keep the memory of this cultural experiment alive.
The building and everything in it is of Roycroft design. There is much oak furniture and paneling, and the textiles and other objects are made from natural materials. At the Roycroft we were surrounded by handcrafted artistry combined with modern comfort – very traditional, very American.
During the following two days we spent time with my aunt, my cousins Nancy and Walter, and Nancy’s husband Al. We ate together in East Aurora’s traditional restaurants and talked about many things. In the course of our conversations I learned some interesting facts about my mother, who had been Betty’s teacher in a one-room, country school in an older America that exists now only in memory.
I regard these few days visiting with my family as precious. We live so far apart that it may be a long time until we are together again.