A Big Apple Day

Is New York City the apple of my eye? Well, once it was. I spent who knows how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours in one or another of its five boroughs while growing up on Long Island. And after moving to Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, to start what became a 34-year career in government work, I made pretty frequent trips to NYC, 10 or 15 each year. I was pulled there magnetically by its museums, architecture, music clubs, gracious and spacious parks, and streets just made for strolling and girl-watching. Nobody needs me to tell them that the Big Apple is one of the coolest kids on the planet. It has been for, what . . . at least 100 years?

But, for one reason or another, those Philly-to-NYC visits became less and less common when the early 1990s rolled around, petering out to a mere one every few years. Incredibly, New York City, with which I’d had the cuddliest of relationships, faded gently from my mind. “New York, wait for me! You’ve meant the world to me! I’ll be back semi-regularly, I promise. Hell, you’re only 100 miles away,” is what I should have felt and said. But I didn’t. Man, if you’d have told me before then that such ever would become the case, I’d have had you committed.

This, then, is where Dave, one of my greatest pals, enters the story that you’re reading. He, like me, used to be a Long Islander. We became friends there in high school, during the Middle Ages. And he used to love NYC. These days, though, the city’s hustle and bustle does a superb job of frazzling Dave’s nerves. He ain’t in love with NYC anymore.

Still, Dave, who took up residence on the West Coast 40 years ago, visits New York now and then, despite the jittery situation with his nerves. I guess he’s a masochist. And one of those now-and-then occasions occurred recently. “Yeah, I’ll see you there,” I told Dave when he informed me of his impending eastward trip. Thus, two Saturdays ago I headed north from my home in the Philly burbs to hang out with Dave for half a day in the greatest of the famed metropolis’ five boroughs. Manhattan.

We met where 42nd Street and Broadway colorfully come together. In other words, at the bottom end of Times Square. And for the next four hours we graced various neighborhoods, and Central Park, with our dynamic presences. Though on the cusp of age 70, we strode the streets like the titans we vaguely once were. And vaguely still are. Gorgeous girls couldn’t keep their eyes off of us the other day. Isn’t that right, Dave?

“Damn straight, Neil,” Dave just told me. “Damn f**king straight! Even though it could be that our 20/80 visual acuity distorted our view of things just a little bit.”

Speak for yourself, Dave. I know what I know.

Here’s how we spent our time together: We shot the breeze vigorously, catching up on each other’s doings. And we walked and walked and walked while shooting that breeze. And when we got tired of walking we sat on boulders in Central Park, and a little after that on chairs in a snazzy restaurant near the park’s southwestern corner.

What’s more, we didn’t have any interest in taking in any famous sights, though we saw some anyway (such as Carnegie Hall, Columbus Circle and horse-drawn carriages in Central Park). You can’t not see them in this history lesson of a city. To repeat, then, what’s already been said: Yapping, wandering, eating and girl-watching proved to be the items on our agenda.

The time flew by, as sometimes it does, and around 3:30 PM Dave and I said our goodbyes. He needed to go back to his hotel and start getting ready for the wedding that had brought him to NYC in the first place. One of his friend’s daughters was about to get hitched.

But my bus wouldn’t be leaving for an hour and a half. I had time to kill. And what better way to do that than to stroll along some of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District and Times Square. Those nifty sections of the city run into each other, and would keep me close to the Port Authority bus terminal, from which my Philadelphia-bound ride was scheduled to depart.

Which brings us to the final topic I want to talk about. To wit, photos. I didn’t take any while with Dave, except for a couple of selfies of him and me. Why? Man, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting this blog, it’s that obsessive photograph-snapping can interfere one whole lot with enjoying the time you’re spending with people you like. Besides, who the hell would want to see a picture of the roast beef sandwich that Dave tore into at the snazzy restaurant, or of the boulder we sat upon in Central Park? Oh, you would, would you? It figures.

All I can say is that it seems that you’ve come to the right place anyway. Because after Dave and I went our separate ways my picture-taking mode kicked into high gear. And the pix that I shot over the subsequent hour are the ones you’ve been looking at on this page. New York City is a lot of things. One of which is photogenic. So, even a clod like me can’t help but come away with some nice shots.

Thanks for reading and viewing. Till next time . . .

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(If you click on any photo, a larger imager will open in a separate window)

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My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

Last Night When I Was Not So Young

The other day, while driving around the burbs, I heard a recording of a song on the radio that took me aback. It’s a number I’ve listened to many times in my life. Sinatra sang it (click here). Judy Garland sang it (click here). Hell, it’s likely that Bob Dylan, who has been recording nothing but standards over the last few years, will get to it before too long.

Photo by Larry Busacca, Getty Images.

The song was Last Night When We Were Young. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the guys who are most famous for composing the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, wrote Last Night in 1935. Harold, as always, handled the music and Yip the words. The song is a beauty. Its melody is wistful. Its lyrics, direct and simple, are also profound. And the version I heard the other day, by Tony Bennett, seemed so right. Tony was singing softly, unusually softly for someone who rarely has shied away from issuing scads of notes with lungfuls of oomph. Discretely backed by only three instruments – piano, upright bass and drums – he took his time analyzing the lyrics, hitting, I thought, his contemplation buttons precisely. Naturally, that put me in a contemplative mood.

Last Night contains a mere 96 words, but if a set of lyrics ever encapsulated a bittersweet view of the human condition more movingly, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. Take a look at the tune’s first two verses:

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung.
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night.

Today the world is old.
You flew away and time grew cold.
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

I mean, wow. Talk about poetic. Talk about graceful. Talk about powerful. Yip Harburg was tapped into the higher frequencies of the ethers when Last Night’s images came to him. Here’s a song that speaks of love’s precariousness, of its sometimes fragility. But what actually has happened? Has the narrator and his/her mate argued violently, unexpectedly? Or has the mate, feeling inadequate upon discovering that there is much more to love than he/she ever understood, bailed out of the relationship? Ah, it’s a mystery. Any number of scenarios might be devised to fit the verses. That’s the genius of Last Night’s words.

But you know what? When, a few days later, I decided to write a piece about Last Night, I listened at home a couple of more times to Tony Bennett’s recording. And I saw that I had been mistaken in my assessment of his approach. Most singers fall into melancholy mode when singing this song, and in my car that’s what I thought Tony had done. It must have been his hushed vocals that threw me off.

Tony, I realized, came at the tune from a different angle, a slyly jaunty one. He sang with the glint of a twinkle in his voice. And that’s when, for a minute, I thought that he was doing the song a big injustice, missing its talking points, missing the pain and suffering embued in its stark and elegant phrases.

And then I woke up. Not from a dream but from a frozen mindset. Yo, Tony was delivering a message when he chose to sing Last Night in the way that he did. “Sure, love can be a rocky road,” I think he was telling his audience. “Sure, love can fade away. But you know what? It ain’t the end of the world. Things will get better. Probably. Very probably.”

Now, you might be asking why in the world I’m going on and on about a Tony Bennett recording. I don’t always have my reasons for what I do, but in this instance I do. So, here’s why:

I’ve had long talks recently with two of my greatest pals, Mike and Dave. I’ve known each of them since childhood, which for us took place not long after William The Conqueror invaded England. Mike and Dave make me look like a slacker, which isn’t hard for just about anybody to do, to be honest. Working long hours in demanding professions, they set a remarkable pace.

I’m not sure at what point Dave’s and my conversation turned to the undeniable fact that, if we remain above ground for the next handful of months, we’ll have completed 70 cycles around our friend the Sun. “Neil,” Dave said,”we’re old men.”

Huh? Me, old? Speak for yourself, Dave. I know for certain that beautiful girls still steal glances at me when I pass them on the street. Some might say that they’re eyeing my luxuriant nostril hairs, but I know better.

But maybe Dave put a notion, or some sense, into my head. Because two weeks later when speaking with Mike, who recently passed the 70-cycle mark, I said something or other like: “Mike, you know, we’re getting old.” To which he sighed in agreement and said: “Yeah. But what can we do about it?”

“Not much,” I responded. “All we can do is grin and bear it.”

Tony Bennett, a wise individual, I’m certain would have wagged his finger at me if he’d heard what I said to Mike. “Neil, you’ve got to do more than grin and bear it,” I can hear Tony, who is 90 years old and going very strong, telling me. “I was 66, not much younger than you are today, when I recorded the version of Last Night When We Were Young that you’re doing an incredibly so-so job of turning into a story. Putting that last comment aside, let me say this: Life is here for fortunate ones like us to embrace. Doesn’t matter that we’re not as young as we once were. Grin and bear it? Come on . . . you can do better than that. Put a meaningful smile on your face, not just a reluctant grin. Help others and don’t wallow in disappointments. Spread some joy . . . that’s the way to have a good life.”

Thanks, Tony. I needed that. Believe me, I can dig it.

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