Penman No. 19: Autumn in New York

Penman for Monday, November 5, 2012

I FIRST visited New York 32 years ago, as a young man on his first trip abroad, and I can still remember the convulsive thrill that I felt as I peered out the window of my plane from Detroit and saw Manhattan’s spires rising toward me, to the accompaniment of a Gershwin tune.

At the same time, I looked at New York with not a little dread, both because of its sheer immensity and also its fearsome reputation for harboring mobsters and hucksters. While I marveled at the Christmas lights of Rockefeller Center, I also saw Times Square and Bryant Park at their worst, long before Rudy Guiliani came in with a broom, and 9/11 lent the city the kind of composure that comes with tragedy.

I’ve been back many times since—with my mother, daughter, and sister, and Beng’s sister living in the US, we try to visit every year—and over the years, I’ve slowly learned to trust if not to love this mother and mentor of modern cities, holding my wariness in check just long enough to let New York’s many and unexpected charms seep through and permeate my senses.

It’s a tired cliché by now, but while I go to my sister’s place outside of Washington, DC for rest and recuperation, I go to New York for the energy and the excitement, for the buskers in the subways playing everything from Vivaldi to That’s Amore, for Paul’s Burgers in St. Mark’s Place, for the two lions guarding the library (Patience downtown, Fortitude on the uptown side), for the $6/lb. Chinese takeouts, for the Art Deco flourishes nearly everywhere you look, for the Housing Works resale shops, for the discounted Broadway tickets, for the Sabrett’s hotdogs on the sidewalks, for the muscular subway, for the parks that sprout up amidst brownstone and cinderblock, for the warren of words that’s the Strand, and, of course, for the translucent glass stairway leading down to the reverse-heaven of the Apple Store.

New York can have the newest of the new—think of the iPhone 5 and the iPad mini—but oddly enough, what Beng and I enjoy most on our New York visits is seeking out old treasures (or what might be junk to most other people) in the thrift shops of 23rd Street and the flea markets of the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen. Sometimes these treasures even come free, shamelessly dragged in off the street on my sister-in-law’s block in Forest Hills, like that miniature wooden Christmas sleigh that I salvaged last week off the top of a pile of detritus (the polite Roman word, I think, for garbage).

Inevitably, despite our absent intentions, every visit brings something new. Two years ago it was the magic of dusk in Coney Island, at the very end of the F subway line and, it seemed, of New York itself, so serene was that velvet hour with the amusement park’s fun machines in off-season repose. This year it was a day trip we took by train to a small village called Cold Spring, up the Hudson River, after learning that it hosted a cluster of antique shops and was a good place to catch the fall colors, besides.

It did not disappoint on either count; autumn declared itself resplendently for most of the 90-minute ride along the ribbon of the Hudson, and exploded in brilliant yellows and reds on our arrival in Cold Spring. As Beng and Mimi scoured the shops for old buttons, bottles, and trinkets, I strayed into a shop with a small door that turned out to be a huge warehouse of vintage knickknacks—among them, a lovely black hard-rubber-and gold Conklin ladies’ pen from around 1920 and a marbled Parker Vacumatic desk pen from 1935. Having earlier picked up a Waterman silver-overlay pen and a contemporaneous brass inkwell from 1915 at the Greenflea Market on the Upper West Side, I pronounced this trip sufficiently penworthy, and contented myself for the rest of the day with photographing the Hudson’s color-washed banks.

Another novelty on this trip was my first walk into and across the heart of Central Park, which I had somehow never done in three decades of visiting New York. All that time I had contented myself with reconnoitering the fringes of the park, forewarned by a score of movies and CSI New York episodes about the demons and dangers lurking within. On the Saturday that we crossed the park on our way to Greenflea, we met nothing more dangerous than sprightly squirrels and latter-day hippies channeling John Lennon in Strawberry Fields, the corner of the park across the Dakota Apartments, where Lennon lived and was shot dead (a few days after I left New York on my first visit there in 1980). And how can you walk across Central Park without (again) George Gershwin, Simon and Garfunkel, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli performing in concert in your dreaming head?

We had earlier visited the 9/11 Memorial downtown, where the Twin Towers used to stand; last year it had been under construction—and still was, to some degree, as the museum within has yet to open. But the two large reflecting pools were already in operation, acting like four-sided waterfalls whose constant flow—broken only, when we looked, by an almost unbearably theatrical rainbow—seemed to represent a perpetual dousing of the fires that burned the towers down, a cleansing of the evil and the ill will that came before and after the event. I had also been there in 2001, a few months before 9/11, and had seen the towers—had even gone up to the top of one of them on an earlier visit—but had no personal connection to the place. Still, I paused when I caught a name—one of almost 3,000 names etched deeply into the bronze railings around the pools—that was unmistakably Filipino: “Ronald Gamboa,” who turned out to be a 33-year-old Fil-Am, a manager at The Gap who died as a passenger on UA 175, one of the hijacked planes.

In yet another unintended irony, I’m writing this paean to New York from Lansing, Michigan, where I’m attending a conference and from where I’m supposed to fly back to JFK tomorrow and then back home to Manila on Thursday—but can’t, because New York and much of the American East Coast has been shut down by super storm Sandy, and I’m effectively stranded. If I can’t get back to JFK by Wednesday, I’ll have to rebook my Manila-bound flight, and stay in New York a little longer. That’ll be mildly annoying—but I can’t wait to spend a bonus weekend in Manhattan, poring over heaps of junk at the flea market, in quest of that golden glint that could be the clip of a 1936 Parker Vacumatic Oversize, one that George Gershwin himself might have scripted a tune or two with.

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