Friday, April 25, 2008

Thai Time

Once, again, right in one's own backyard! Or, at any rate, across the street in front of my apartment house. The Thai Embassy is directly across from me, as I, fortunately, face the front of my building. I understand that the building across the way, after the Thais renovated it, was dedicated by a Buddhist priest, but I missed that event. They work in there industriously, from fairly early in the morning until quite late in the evening. Maybe they take long lunch hours, but I'm not usually around to notice. Just now, on my normally quiet residential block, I heard a voice speaking through a bullhorn. Did not recognize the language, but then one hears so many different tongues here in Gotham-on-the-Hudson. Looking out of the window, what do I see but an actual demonstration! This happens from time to time, making life all that much more interesting here in dignified, decorous Turtle Bay. Our last big "happening" was the fatal crane collapse a few weeks ago. Now it's Thai protesters. Never a dull moment. I'm not exactly sure what they're protesting; it seems to be that they don't want certain people sent to China.  Maybe it has something to do with the Olympics. Their placards read "Free Chen Guan" and "Thai Human Rights Abusers." Maybe there'll be something in the papers tomorrow. Or on our "little channel that could," NY1.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


From time to time I have occasion to visit the Columbia University campus in northern Manhattan. As an alumna of the University's noted women's college, Barnard, I frequently experience what is sometimes termed "recovered memory syndrome," if this phenomenon actually exists. After attending an event at Columbia's School of Journalism last evening—sat a couple of rows behind the great-looking Paul Auster!—and passing my old dorm, Brooks Hall, I was reminded of our then mascot, whom we named "Cupcake" for unknown reasons.

My room, a single in those long-ago days, was tiny, but, as the Bard has it, "an ill-favoured thing but mine own."* It, and my friends' adjoining room, looked across 116th Street to a large apartment house. In one brightly lighted window, a middle-aged man in a white bathrobe would appear and, for our delectation, open his robe to reveal—not much of anything. This happened on a fairly regular basis. I don't know why we were not more appalled, especially in those more repressive years, but mainly we found him funny and dubbed the offender "Cupcake."

Now long awakened to the feminist cause, with many battles largely won but still a few more to fight—go, Hillary!—I realize that the man's behavior was at least headed in the direction of criminal. He knew that there were young, nubile women across the street. For him, it was better than the subway, as he couldn't have opened his bathrobe—only a dirty raincoat if he had one—there. The girls' dormitory directly across the street from his apartment was a veritable candy store. It would need a trained psychology professional to explain the exhibitionist mentality, and I don't know if anyone ever reported Cupcake's behavior. He was probably one of millions out there in the Big City and elsewhere. I'm more disturbed thinking about his behavior now than I was at the time it occurred. I was too naïve and bewildered at the time, I guess. Yuck.

*Touchstone in As You Like It, Act V, iv, 57-8 

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bloomingdale's, etc.

I suffer from a malady which may or may not be shared by others: Whenever I enter a store, I am overcome by exhaustion as soon as I cross the threshold. The symptoms are particularly acute with major department stores such as Bloomingdale's, which is probably the prime offender. The big B presents a brilliantly lighted, dizzying kaleidoscope of displays that can easily cause vertigo or even mal de mer. In general, I make a beeline for the escalator to the third floor, home of the so-called "bridge collections." These are generally quality, mass-produced garments which, while not inexpensive, do not fall into the rarefied categories displayed on the fourth, or designer, floor. I zoom past the sale racks, only then heading for the few designers appropriate to my age, height, and lifestyle. But I can't spend more than 15 or 20 minutes before virtual collapse is imminent. I know others who can go on with this for hours. Unbelievable. 

Another phenomenon absolutely incomprehensible to me is the usually cowed-looking husbands or boyfriends, who either accompany women shoppers or sit dejectedly on the (very) few seats scattered about the store. I can't imagine any man doing this, unless he's footing the bill, and as a totally independent, self-supporting woman, I can't imagine that, either. 

At least, wandering employees have stopped spraying passing shoppers with unwanted scents; apparently some people were allergic and potential lawsuits loomed. I am only psychologically allergic; glad this practice appears to have ceased. The general din and confusion of major department stores and, from my limited observation, shopping malls in general are probably designed to confuse people so much that they spend more than they intended. Of course, at this moment, we do need to keep money in circulation, as various old family members used to say.

And yet, and yet...I may drop into Bloomy's today on my way to a dance concert, as I need some household items which may possibly be on sale there. Haven't been in there in months, so if I'm never heard from again, you'll know that I was eaten alive or trampled to death.

Later: Interesting fact: Bloomingdale's no longer carries 50 percent cotton/50 percent poly bed sheets—only 100 percent cotton, and luxury labels at that. A salesgirl informed me that if I wanted the more plebeian type of sheets I would have to go to Macy's. I asked, "Who wants to iron sheets?" She replied, "They have maids." Well! Bloomingdale's was not the zoo it usually is on a Sunday; relatively few shoppers. I guess the  reports about declining retail sales are indeed a fact. Next stop: Macy's, but not today.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

"Le violette"

As one of the champions of free association, I started to hear in my head Alessandro Scarlatti's well-known aria antica "Le violette" when I bought a couple of new African violets the other day. Although I privately consider collecting these particular flowers a sign of old-ladyhood, I can't help it. I love them even though I don't have tremendous luck in growing them. But they're inexpensive, and there's a rather grumpy florist across the street who keeps me supplied. I've finally learned to water them from the bottom only (duh—I guess most people know this already), and they're doing better. Anyway, back to arie antiche: Among those in the know, "Le violette" is practically a cliché in the vocal world; it's one of the songs beginning vocal students often work on. But its delicacy and loveliness prevent its ever becoming stale. Here's a favorite tenor from the recent past, Alfredo Kraus:

Violets have long been a metaphor for shyness because their little buds stay hidden beneath their velvety leaves, only gradually peeping out as they mature. The utterly charming words—conveniently repeated ad infinitum in songs and arias of the period—delightfully reflect the shyness of this little flower:

Voi vi state vergognose
Mezzo ascose
Fra le foglie,
E sgridate
Le mie voglie,
Che son troppo ambiziose.

Music by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) from the opera Pirro e Demetrio
Words by Adriano Morselli (fl. 1674-1691)

Dewy, fragrant, graceful little violets,
You stay, shamefaced, half-hidden among the leaves,
And mock my desires that are too ambitious.

So charming it brings a tear to the eye! (Sniff!)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Who Needs to Go Anywhere Else?

"Only in New York, kids, only in New York."*

I just took this in front of one of the several Irish pubs in my neighborhood: Second Avenue between 52nd and 51st Streets.  What a great town!

Just when you think it's a routine, if pleasant, Saturday afternoon, you run into a bunch of  bagpipers. And right near your apartment! How great is that?

*Cindy Adams's sign-off to her gossip column in the New York Post. Yes, I confess to reading the Post on occasion, mostly online. Where else does one get the salacious stuff that's too lowbrow for the Times?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

South Pacific 2008

I may be one of the few people of my generation who never saw any staged production, be it in summer stock or a high school musical, of the wonderful landmark 1949 show South Pacific. I have seen the not-very-good 1958 movie (given two and a half reluctant stars in Leonard Maltin's movie guide) and the even less successful 2001 TV version with a miscast Glenn Close. I thoroughly enjoyed the semi-staged concert performance from Avery Fisher Hall that PBS telecast last year. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Reba MacIntyre were wonderful, but they did not repeat their roles for this Lincoln Center Theater production. Oh, yes, I did grow up with the original cast album, an early LP (remember 
them?) featuring the two and only Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.

Last night, I remedied this deficiency and came out singing—and even weeping a bit from Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot's magnificent performance of "This Nearly Was Mine." Mr. Szot is a real find: a matinee idol who has the voice, looks, grace, and above all charisma of the old-time Broadway leading men. And his final song is the equal of many an opera aria. Although he's onstage in only a few scenes, he walks away with the solo honors. Second, or perhaps equal, to Szot is the 30-piece orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations. And we have a real overture, and an entr'acte: much-missed relics of an earlier Broadway era, before the invention of the synthesizer.

Later: Kelli O'Hara, roundly praised by the critics whom I have just been reading, is indeed fresh, lovely, and highly accomplished as Nellie Forbush. But for me, she lacked the real star charisma that Paulo Szot projects. This does not spoil a wonderful evening, though. The likeable and gifted Matthew Morrison (I've seen him in Hairspray and The Light in the Piazza) was a highly sympathetic and well sung Lt. Cable, the doomed marine who loves the Tonkinese girl Liat. But the main thing about South Pacific is its evocation of a more optimistic America, as we pulled together to win the last "just" war in which we've been involved. The show dared to bring racial prejudice out into the open at a time when it was seldom alluded to on the stage, and the characters are all realistic, believable human beings rather than the exaggerated stereotypes then common in the musical theater. It ends quietly instead of with a rip-roaring finale, although as we leave the theater, the excellent orchestra plays us out with those unforgettable melodies.

And here's Ben Brantley's review from the April 4, 2008 New York Times:

It will be a hot ticket and could run as long as the original did. I wouldn't be surprised if they moved it to a regular Broadway house after its Lincoln Center run. But only if they can afford to keep that orchestra!

Update: It is indeed a hot ticket. I now read that the run has been extended indefinitely. The original ran for five years.