Monday, 30 November 2015

Waiting in Greeley Square Gardens for a Wedding in Central Park

If you've got a little time to spare,
I want to take you there, 42nd Street

My nephew and his fiancee were to be married. We received an invitation to the wedding from the bride to be’s parents and I was later asked by the future bride and groom if I would recite or sing one of Robert Burns’ finest songs, ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’ I surely wasn't asked because I can sing, and nor was I asked because I had any talent at recitation, more it may have been because it was thought likely that I might know some of the words. In any case I agreed to do it. The affianced couple live and labour in the city of Birmingham in the Midlands of England and so it  followed as sure as night follows day that they would be married in Central Park, Manhattan, New York City in the State of New York, USA. To be sure, not only were we delighted to accept our invitation to the wedding, we also were excited to visit New York City again, for we had spent some time there in February, 1990.
What follows is what might be loosely described as my personal account of our weeklong visit to attend a very happy event in the city that never sleeps. 


Arriving at the Walcott Hotel : Friday 18th September

Despite our early resolution not to take a Yellow Taxi Cab to Manhattan from JFK Airport we did. It cost $72 and was worth it for it turned out to be a relatively stress free exercise.

The driver who was, I guessed, between 25 to 30 years of age was originally from Kashmir. He described himself as an immigrant and he said most of the yellow cab drivers were.

His told us his fiancee lives in London and works at Heathrow Airport. He told us he has family all over the world but not in Scotland. 

We arrived at the Walcott Hotel on West 31st Street at about 3.30pm.  The hotel, built in 1904, is an impressive place perhaps just past its years of pomp, where, as well as us, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers have stayed.  Our room on the 6th floor was very good. It was spacious and had excellent easy of access shower facilities. The latter is important if like me, you have reached a stage of life when you struggle to manoeuvre your body with any measure of control in confined spaces.

Once we felt settled in our room we sauntered forth for a Korean supper at a restaurant on 32nd Street (Korea Street). We shared a chicken dish, rice and pancake rolls – very good. I was irritated  – jet lagged  -  and feeling alien.


Boating around Manhattan : Saturday 19th September

Still living on UK time we were up at 4 am and waited patiently until 6.30 a.m. when we could descend to the hotel lobby for our complimentary coffee and muffins. Sitting in the lobby we met a friendly New  Zealand couple who were probably in their late 50s or early 60s.. He was a heavy vehicle driver. He mainly drove and manipulated very big earth removers and he had recently worked with archeologists scraping off layers of soil which were only millimetres thick so that what lay below would not be damaged as they searched for ancient artefacts. The couple were on a 7 week world tour. They told us that one of their guides had almost been killed while leading them on a motor bike ride in India.

The man recommended a boat trip they had taken around Manhattan the previous day. They gave us the name of the place from where every morning at 10 o’ clock the boat set sail. 

At 8 am we had another coffee around the corner on Broadway at Greeley Square Gardens. At that early time in the morning there were quite a number of itinerants and other people bravely suffering various social difficulties sitting on the chairs at the tables that are provided for the public there. No one seemed at all concerned about this. The Gardens had the feel of being a continually changing yet inclusive community. Even so one of the staff who cleaned the tables, and swept the litter had a row with a young man who was taking plastic bottles from the bins. We saw other people around Manhattan going into waste bins and taking out plastic bottles but we never found out why they did this.

It was down by the Greeley Square Gardens that my love and I did rest

Afterwards we walked to the 33rd Street subway station to buy tickets for the buses and subway. A man fixing one of the ticket machines told us how best to buy our tickets and he immediately identified who the boss was in our relationship. It wasn’t me and his assessment was accurate.

We decided to take the New Zealanders’ advice to cruise around the island by boat. After some difficulty locating the bus stop we waited for the bus that would take us to our boat. One soon arrived and stepping on the bus we encountered a bus driver with little patience for ‘out of towners' who didn’t know how to put their tickets properly in the ticket machine slot. Nonetheless she and her charabanc took us to the location of Pier 83 at the end of West 42ndStreet where our boat awaited us.  Our circumnavigation of Manhattan cost $80 for the 2 of us. We thought this very reasonable. It was a worthwhile trip and being able to see the other boroughs and other places on the surrounds of the island was as interesting to me as seeing the sights of Manhattan.

A not too often photographed scene on Harlem River

Malachy Murray was the tour guide. He stood on the main deck and addressed us over the loudspeaker system. I may be unfair to him but I told my wife that Malachy  was someone who thought himself a bit a “character”. “What, you mean like you ?" she responded cruelly.  Anyway Malachy, stood about 5 foot 10 inches tall, and in years was perhaps, in his 50s, had long dark brownish red hair, wore sunglasses, a yellow teeshirt, white trousers  and blue baseball shoes. He subtly (but not too subtly) let slip that he was an ex US Navy vet, and a one time TV actor. For him everything in Manhattan was not only eternal but also the biggest and best. He praised the philanthropy of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Moses and spoke of New York’s partly ambivalent but mainly positive relationship with the great, the rich and the super-rich.  For Malachy  “Life is all about character. You are what you make other people believe you are. “This,” Malachy assured us ,”is what all the great New Yorkers have been able to do.”

As we reached the end of our circumnavigation of Manhattan, Malachy made an observation carrying with it a poignant yet deeper reverberation of an observation made about New York cabbies by the Kashmiri taxi driver who the day before had driven us from the JFK Airport to our hotel . What was different this time was that Malachy said, "All New Yorkers are immigrants." 

After our voyage we had an unimpressive lunch at a deli/diner on 42nd Street. My wife had a beef burger and I had a Caesar Salad. This cost us $30. I am mentioning the cost of things at this stage of my account because I was very concerned about what we spent on the first day since we had brought only a limited of amount of spending money and I was fearful that it would all go within a few hours. The person who accompanied me to New York City - my wife -  with whom some of my readers will be well acquainted, thought that I was being a ridiculously miserly skinflint. As ever she was right.

The bus driver who took us back to 5th Avenue was the same one as on our journey out to Pier 83. She seemed alarmed to see us again. Certainly on setting out in the morning we may have appeared an anxious, not to say manic, couple.

From 5th Avenue we took a bus to East Village which looked as if it would be an interesting place to explore. We saw the Cooper Institute of Arts and Science where our eldest daughter was going to attend until she changed her mind at the last minute and went instead to The School of Art Institute of Chicago. It had been with the intention of visiting her in New York while she was at the Cooper Institute that we booked our week in the Big Apple in 1990.  

Alas most of our time in East Village was spent finding out where we would get a bus back to the Herald Square area. I admit this state of affairs was in the main down  to my panicking about how we would get back to the hotel.

On our return we rested in the hotel for a wee while and went out to O’Reilly’s pub further along 31st Street for supper which cost $60 (including a beer and a mineral water). The joint was well reviewed in TripAdvisor but as far we were concerned, not good.


Back at the Chelsea : Sunday 20th  September

We met the New Zealand  couple in the lobby again over coffee and muffins. It was their last day in New York. They were moving on to Washington DC. The evening before they had been to see The Jersey Boys and were impressed by the show's slickness and its tunes. I think they had enjoyed themselves. The woman had been involved in amateur dramatics for many years and she was particularly impressed with the smoothness of the scene changes.

Unlike me, you may already have guessed they both liked motor bikes, and in particular, he did, having averaged over 200 mph at a speed trial in NZ. It was I think their second marriage. She had a daughter in Australia and he had children in New Zealand but he said he was not good at grandfathering and wasn’t too keen on the mothering techniques of his son’s wife ( a large  woman, his wife hinted to us non-verbally) and told us a story about his son, his son’s wife, their children, mealtimes, and ice cream. After hearing the story, I tended to side with his grandfather’s view of things.

Following this we had coffee at Greeley Square Gardens before boarding an M5 bus down to 23rd Street where we walked along to the currently closed Chelsea Hotel which was fronted with scaffolding. The two young men guarding the building allowed us into the lobby, where we last sat over 25 years ago. It looked exactly the same though the paintings which hung in the lobby that were given to the then hotel owner, Stanley Bard by impoverished artists - Willem de Kooning for one - in lieu of payment for their accommodation, have all gone. The reception desk was still the same but there was a larger more modern lift, sorry, elevator.  We weren’t permitted any further into the interior because of the building works that were going on. I think many people like us make a pilgrimage here to go down memory lane.

The Chelsea scaffolded
We had arranged to meet my sister ( the bridegroom’s mother) and her husband for lunch at El Quihote, the restaurant next door to the Chelsea. I had no idea if the restaurant was still in existence so we got down to 23rd Street early to check that out.  I imagine because of all the scaffolding and detritus of building work that lay around the restaurant the staff had placed a sign out on the street announcing that the restaurant was still “ Open for business”.   Above the front entrance of the restaurant the red neon sign was only steadily glowing on the  ‘ihote’ part while the ‘El Qu’ was flickering intermittently on and off. 

I went in to book us a table for lunch. Inside the restaurant was the just the same except that something like a rood screen of panes of clear glass framed in dark wood now separated the drinkers at the bar from the diners. 

The new owners of the Chelsea have also purchased the restaurant so I think the days of El Quihote as it is now are numbered. The staff were still dressed in formal uniform and the head waiter remembered the evening in 1990 when Vaclav Havel and Milos Forman had been dining there and we had been there too. A few days previous to that evening in 1990 we were sitting at the bar in El Quihote wondering whether we had made the right decision to stay at the Chelsea. It was we thought just a little more bohemian than we had bargained for. The hotel seemed shabby. The decor  and furniture in our room had passed their best, the TV hardly worked and we got electric shocks whenever we touched anything metallic. When we questioned Stanley, the proprietor about this, he seemed genuinely surprised by our complaint and all he said was, "Well it's New York , what do you expect ?" Things were looking bleak and we thought we had better move to another hotel. And so, as I mentioned we retreated to the bar at El Quihote to mull these things over. As fortune would have it we met Richard, a close friend of the hotel’s owner who, without any sales talk, but by telling us tales of the great, the good and the bad who had stayed at the hotel, charmed us into deciding to remain there.We have never regretted being charmed for we were about to enjoy a most exhilarating week. More of that another time.   

After booking a table for lunch we had a coffee in an Italian cake and ice cream café before meeting up with my sister and brother in law at the restaurant.

At El Quihote the servings were enormous. The men had veal in almond and lentil sauce. My sister had mussels and my wife had a chicken dish. These had been preceded by a complementary bowl of white bean and cabbage soup.

For pudding, my brother in law and my wife had chocolate cheese cake, I had peach sorbet, and my sister had strawberries.

We started our meal at 12.30 and finished at 4. The conversation and the food were good but perhaps we’d eaten too much.

Earlier on my spouse and I had found the Garden of Eden an excellent “deli” on 23rd Street and after we had parted from my sister and her husband we picked up some groceries there. We returned to the hotel. where the Mrs went to the laundry in the basement to wash some of our clothes. I went around the block to find out what the building we looked out over through our bedroom window was. I discovered it was a Jewish bookshop, a gymnasium, an oriental martial sports centre of some sort and a rehearsal studio.


From Central Park to Bleecker Street : Monday 21st    September

We had muffins and coffee for breakfast in the lobby but there were no Kiwis today. After this we had coffee at Greeley Square Gardens.

We took an M4 bus up the east side of Central Park to 72nd Street and walked across the park on what was a sunny but cooler day. I haven't mentioned how hot  - sometimes uncomfortably so -  and sunny it was in NYC this week. With the help of the advisor at the information kiosk but without exactly seeing it, we roughly located the Ladies' Pavilion which is where the wedding was to take place on Wednesday. 

After watching some dogs at play we exited the park at West 72nd St near the Dakota Buildings. 

We bussed down to West 23rd St to purchase lunch items from The Garden of Eden Deli and ate our lunch sitting at a bus stop on 7th Avenue. The food was excellent, tasty and good value. My partner for life had a mixed salad, I had macaroni cheese, French chicken, corned brisket beef and green beans. 

The M20 took us to Bleecker Street and almost by accident we came upon Pagani’s, the restaurant where the wedding reception was to take place. 

We shopped along Bleecker Street,  getting, as our eldest daughter, might say, ‘the Greenwich village feel’. The person who was by my side throughout the week bought post cards and cheese and I nosed around a book shop for a while. I had a pint of ale at a craft beer pub. My constant companion had a Diet Coke. Shortly after this we had more coffee, this time with biscuits and a shared lemon meringue tart at Rocco’s an excellent and popular local bakery.

'Getting the village feel'

We bussed back up to Herald Square and into Macy’s but we were knackered by that time and for that moment Macy’s held no charm for us.

We cooled down mentally and physically by sitting in Greeley Square Gardens for half an hour watching people as they were returning home from work or going out for the evening.

My fellow traveller bought a tea to take away from the kiosk and we returned to the hotel.  From the hotel shop we bought a liquid soap capsule for the washing machine down in the laundry and a beer for me.  It’s always been the same I guess : the woman gets the drudgery and the man gets the pleasurable things in life. (Before anyone has a go at me I put that last observation out as a cheap line. This delineation of the fate of woman and man is not nor ever has been my view on the relative status and role of woman and man). Nonetheless, as on the previous evening, my wife washed clothes in the basement laundry and I joined her after relishing my beer. When the washing was finished, we retired.


The High Line : Tuesday, September 22nd

As we got used to the NYC time zone we found that we were rising a little later each morning and were no longer among the first for coffee and muffins.

Little time for a coffee in Greeley Square Gardens this morning.We bussed west on 34th Street and the woman I share space with was able to act as an NYC city guide for some Chinese women who were looking for 11th Street ! We were heading for the High Line, a walk along the old raised rail track of a disused west side freight line. The track has been  part paved and all along its margins are areas of self-seeded wild garden. The sensation was very pleasing for there was an air of calm stillness up there even though all the different noises of the city were around us. There were places to sit down all along the walk and because it was level it was a very comfortable jaunt for  old fogeys like us. Well, I’m an old fogey, I guess the person whose sidekick I am doesn’t qualify for that status yet. We walked for almost 2 miles through building construction, past art studios, above the streets - each with a different cultural atmosphere - which crossed under the line, and beneath huge advertisements hoardings towering above us, before we reached Chelsea and the old meat packing district.

Taking the High Line

After walking the entire length of the High Line, we chatted briefly  to a middle aged woman from Stratford upon Avon who is a tour guide for a New York company. She told us about a food market at the end of the  path - as I remember it may have been called the Chelsea Foodmarket where we, rather unambiguously ate an ice cream in an old warehouse where each stall sold food from a wide variety of countries and cultures.

A kiss from the High Line

We walked through Chelsea and reached Bleecker Street where we boarded the M20 to Battery Island. On this route we passed the new Peace Tower and we also passed through the Ground Zero area.

From Battery Park we boarded the Staten Island Ferry, making a there and back voyage, disembarking briefly at the St George Terminal before boarding the same ferry back.. We did this last time in the evening when the lights of Manhattan were a spectacular sight. We did it in daylight hours today and the view of all the skyscrapers of Manhattan was equally spectacular. Today, of course, the twin towers were not there.

We'll take Manhattan

We returned to our neighbourhood by the M5 bus and got off at Herald Square, where we bought some beer and enjoyed a second meal at our Korean restaurant on West 32nd street. The staff were pleased that we had returned. On returning to our hotel we found an email from  my sister (the bridegroom’s mother)  inviting us this evening to an informal gathering of some of the wedding guests on Long Island.  Alas it was too late and we were too tired to go.


Waiting in Greeley Gardens for a wedding in Central Park :Wednesday, September, 23rd

It was the day of the wedding. After muffins and coffee we passed time  in Greeley Square Gardens having more coffee and I had an empanada (like a tiny Cornish pasty or Forfar bridie). My wife had a croissant.

A workman accidentally bumped into our table, knocked over my wife’s coffee and spilt my coffee over me. I felt the hot coffee burning my foot but there was no permanent damage. He apologised and disappeared quickly. I didn’t blame him for what had happened. It was a complete accident and I didn’t want him to pay for another coffee nor indeed even to sue him but if you’re in a low paid job in this city may be there are things you can’t pay for. Perhaps that’s why he made the quick getaway.

At mid-morning we left the gardens and returned to our hotel to get ready for the wedding. We took the M4 bus up the east side of Central Park, getting off at 79th Street to board the 79 bus across the park. While on the first bus my wife hurt her back and was almost doubled up. We managed to get on the 79 bus which traversed the park  but when we got off on the east side of the park it was clear she - doubled up like a kirby grip  -  could not walk far. We summoned a taxi and the cabbie drove us around the park for a while but because of the Pope’s visit streets were  closed off and the taxi couldn’t get into the park so we found a tricycle pedicab man to pedal us to the event at the Lady’s Pavilion.  Though she was still shaped like a hairpin bend on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, her pain was substantially diminished by the mental relief that arriving on time brought.

We enjoyed the wedding, literally and metaphorically a blue sky occasion. The ceremony, held among the idyllic surroundings of Central Park, was moving, formal and yet informal at the same time. The bride was beautiful and the groom handsome. The day had a happy ambience

The reception  at Pagani’s on Bleecker Street was also great. It was a friendly, lively, yet traditional Italian Restaurant. There was un sacco di amore around. I thought the best man, the groom’s younger brother was the best ‘best man’ of any wedding we’d ever been to. His care for all the wedding guests and his vast knowledge of the New York City terroir made him an inspired choice. His wife was also wonderful company and the bride’s attendants, the bridesmaids  and the page boy were respectively beautiful and handsome. Though lacking in years the page boy, who was wearing a kilt, looked particularly manly and tough. Perhaps I haven’t mentioned, the bride and groom have Scottish connections so there were a few kilts around.

Opportunity for a wedding photo shoot  in Central Park 

It was good to meet the bride’s Mum and Dad again as well as being introduced, for the first time, to her sister. It was good to see my sister, the bridegroom’s mother and her husband, whom we had not seen since Sunday, to meet once more after many years the bridegroom’s father and his wife, all the way from Irvine in Scotland, also to see  the bridegroom’s aunt and cousins from thedepths of Birmingham , England, whom we'd not encountered since my brother in law's 70th birthday party last year. Good to meet up with the happy couple’s friends and so discover that the newly weds were mixed up with kind, and, as the day went on, ever cheerier people. 

At Pagani’s restaurant the maître d’  kept things going well. He was Sicilian and had been everywhere including Dundee and Edinburgh.

Speech at Pagani's

The speeches of the groom, the bride’s father, and of the best man were warmly informal. One moving moment was when the best man read out a loving message to the new husband and wife. from the groom’s eldest brother who could not be at the wedding. Following the orations, as requested I sang, after a fashion,  My Love is like a Red, Red Rose.

Yes, it's a red, red rose.

In summary, the company and food were superb. As we left at 10pm in a taxi , beckoned for us by the best man, “fun and jollification” as my mother would say, was all around. The joint was beginning to jump.
Things, in the happiest sense, were hotting up. Certainly too hot for us.
And so to bed.


A quiet sabbatical while the Pope did his rounds : Thursday 24th September

The Pope is very much about. We booked our shuttle bus for tomorrow at 3.15 to make sure we get to the airport on time. The Pope gave a great address to Congress today. 

We did very little, no doubt exhausted by the event of yesterday. I had sore ribs and occasional panic attacks and my wife’s back, though improving, was not yet right and  so we lay in bed until about midday but we did get up and go down for muffins and coffee at about 9.30 am, returning to bed immediately after.

We had an excellent lunch across the street at the Chocolate and Wine bar. The waitress asked us “ If Scotland was that place where the men went around wearing red check skirts?”

Strong young Scotsman in a red checked skirt propping up the Ladies' Pavilion in Central Park
After lunch, because it was very hot and humid, we retreated to our room again before going up the Empire State Building in the early evening. While in the queue for the elevator my wife said jokingly in  conversation, “We’ve done nothing today.” I was amazed to find I was quite embarrassed about this and hoping nobody had heard. What does this say about me ?

We were up at the top of the Empire State at dusk and took many photos. It was much more crowded than the last time we were here but then of course that was in February, 1990.

We had dinner at the Martinique Café on Greeley Square. The verdict was “Just OK”. My boss had a burger, while I had half a chicken with mashed potato and corn on the cob. Too much for me really.

Then a walk around the corner and to bed.


More of the Pope and down by Greeley Square Gardens for the last time: Friday, September 25th

The Pope has taken over NYC. He was at St Patricks Cathedral yesterday.He is addressing the UN this morning and then going on a procession in Central Park and after that he is carrying out mass at Madison Square Garden in the early evening. That may cause traffic jams in our area and so we’re getting an early shuttle to the airport  this afternoon.

Muffins and coffee partaken of early, followed by coffee, empanada and croissant in our favourite Greeley Square Gardens.
We trudged around Macy’s again. It may be the world’s biggest department store but we still found it charmless and exhausting.

We returned to the hotel to relax, and watched and listened to the Pope addressing the UN and  we packed ready for check out.

In the lobby at the Walcott : checking out and paying my half of the bill!

We enjoyed lunch again in the Chocolate and Wine Bar across the street, and had a final sit down in Greeley Square Gardens before returning to the hotel for our shuttle bus to the Airport.

One of the concierges let us have a look at the magnificent, but currently unused, old ballroom situated behind reception on the ground floor of the hotel.

We had a smooth run to the JFK airport and the time we spent there was relatively calm which was good,  because by leaving early so as not to be compromised by the Pope, we spent five hours to waiting for our flight. 

While having a drink at one of the restaurants we met a woman who was a pastor from a town in New York State called Davenport. She had a bus ride of about seven hours duration to get to the airport from her home. I  remarked on New York being such a big state, for I had intended to travel to a town called Dundee in New York State but finding that it was a five and half hour bus ride and I decided against it. She said the 7 hour bus ride to Davenport only takes you half way to the state border with the next state. 
While we thought what a bind it was to fly overnight from NYC to London, she was flying to teach English at a mission for 3 months high up in the mountains of Ethopia.  Her flight that night was to Addis Ababa with a stop over somewhere in North Africa.

We got on our flight with little trouble, JFK was the least stressful airport I’ve experienced for some years and we flew off on time. 

This is a final fond farewell to New York City.

Good Night Broadway, let's call it a day

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