Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Autumn in Manhattan

Of all the places we’ve traveled, New York City is always the most emotionally difficult to leave. Long after we’ve returned home, I imagine myself strolling through the concrete canyons of the east side or rushing along Times Square. Our small postwar house seems so quiet in comparison.

Like usual, last week’s trip to NYC was business-related. I had a conference Thursday night and Friday, so Tim and I flew in on Wednesday. Trying to save money, we took the A-train into town and got thoroughly confused when the A suddenly turned into an F-train in mid-transit due, according to a barely audible voice from above, to a “police investigation.” After riding around from one unrecognizable stop to the next, we finally found our way to Grand Central Terminal, where we happily emerged and walked four blocks to the Shelburne Hotel in Murray Hill (the brownstone building above on the right, with the Chrysler Building peeking over its shoulder). This was the third time in less than two years I had stayed at the Shelburne, so it felt like I was coming home.

Surprisingly, I was able to convince Tim to accompany me to “The Today Show” when we both woke up ridiculously early the next morning. Rarely great journalism, “The Today Show” nonetheless keeps me tuned into American culture as well as the day’s major headlines. Plus I like the people: hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera, who replaced Katie Couric, weatherguy Al Roker, and newsgal Ann Curry. The network calls them “NBC’s First Family” and they genuinely seem to like each other.

Much of “The Today Show” is filmed outside (weather permitting), with the hosts actually mingling among the fans at the half-hours. It was 7:40AM when we left the hotel. I knew we’d probably miss the 8AM segment, but was hopeful we’d be on the air at 8:30AM. The morning was glorious: hazy but warm. Thank goodness I had packed a denim skirt and flip-flops!

Racing through midtown Manhattan by foot during rush-hour was exhilarating—I felt like I was visiting the city for the first time. We arrived at Rockefeller Center by 8:05AM and quickly went in search of the show. Tucked behind the news studios was a crowd of people, corralled by banners, lights and a removable fence. We squeezed our way toward the studio door and waited for the hosts to appear. A fake backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge shielded the area from passersby. Illinois Senator Barack Obama was being interviewed on several television screens affixed to the outside of the building. I saw Meredith, in a bright blue sweater, walk into the hall as soon as the interview ended. They were heading our way!

Ann Curry was the first to emerge. She made a beeline straight at us and then stopped to talk to an older woman celebrating her birthday. Meredith, Matt and Al straggled behind, waving to the crowd and talking among themselves. At one point, I remember Tim yelling, “Here comes the camera!,” so I looked up in a daze and waved. But mostly I was mesmerized by Ann Curry, who is stunningly beautiful and extremely gracious. Meredith, too, is much prettier in person than on TV and seemed to really enjoy chatting with the fans. Both she and Ann stayed and worked the crowd well after the segment. Matt, who looks older in person, had an in-studio interview and so quickly went back inside. Al just looked and acted like Al. I was absolutely thrilled to see my morning heroes.

For lunch, we took the subway down to Little Italy, where we ate our favorite coal-flamed pizza at Lombardi’s. Opened in 1905, Lombardi’s claims to be NYC’s first pizzeria. It certainly epitomizes all the standard clichés: checkered tablecloths, autographed photos of Martin Scorsese on the wall, and Frank Sinatra singing overhead. But the pizza is anything but standard: cracker-thin crust with just the right amount of sauce and Mozzarella. Yum! From there, we went back north to Broadway, where we bought tickets for two plays: “Fame Becomes Me,” the one-person show starring comedian Martin Short, and “Butley” with Nathan Lane.

Walking home through Times Square, Tim suddenly said, “Look, there’s the Naked Cowboy.”

“What do you mean, ‘Look, there’s the Naked Cowboy’?” I asked.

“See that guy over there,” he said, pointing toward the middle of Times Square. “He calls himself the Naked Cowboy. He’s famous.”

And sure enough, standing there was this tall, muscle-bound blonde, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boots, and a pair of white briefs with NAKED COWBOY stenciled on his behind. He was playing the guitar and posing for pictures as if it was the most natural thing in the world to stand around Times Square in one’s underwear. No wonder I love this city!

It was drizzling the next morning, so I donned my rain boots and ugly, but extremely practical, Kelty slicker before heading ten blocks north to the conference. It has rained or, worse yet, snowed every time I’ve been to NYC, so I came prepared! Tim spent his day wandering around Gramercy Park, where he lived for three weeks in 1985 while working on a job. The Gramercy Park Hotel, where we used to stay when it was the funky, rundown home to aging rock stars and hipsters, has since been renovated into multi-million-dollar condos, so Tim didn’t dare enter. Instead, he took the subway north and visited the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, where he got to see historic radio and television equipment—right up his alley.

We returned to Broadway that night and laughed hysterically at Martin Short. The rain had stopped, so we walked back to the hotel. Times Square was ablaze in neon and tourists were out in full force, despite a chilly wind. Autumn had descended overnight.

I love Manhattan on the weekends—everything is much less frenetic. We had arranged to meet a former student, Stuart, at 11AM for brunch on the west side and so lounged around our apartment-sized hotel room (separate living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen!) until it was time to leave.

After a tasty brunch at the charming “44 1/2” on Tenth Avenue, we returned to Rockefeller Center where, at Stuart’s urging, we bought tickets to tour the observation deck at the “Top of the Rock.” The view from seventy floors up was phenomenal, even for someone like me who fears heights. I may not be religious in any traditional sense of the word, but looking down from such a high perch, one has to believe that there is an ultimate order to the world. I was very moved.

Back on the ground, we basked in all the activity surrounding Rockefeller Center. Skaters were enjoying the ice rink, which is installed every year in front of the signature gold statue of Prometheus. I caught a whiff of the holidays in the air and so bought NYC-themed Christmas cards and an ornament. Then I made Tim promise that we would return one December so we could spend the holidays in our second most favorite city. I quietly wished we didn’t have to fly back home the next morning . . .


Friday, October 13, 2006

YES on 87

I got one of those funky automated phone calls yesterday, saying that Bill Clinton was going to speak today at UCLA in favor of Proposition 87, the Alternative Energy Amendment. Now I’m a big fan of alternative energy, but I’m an even bigger fan of Bill Clinton, so I listened up. The rally was scheduled for 9:15AM. Attendees would be admitted by ticket, which were available through the “Yes on 87” website. The deal was sealed for me when a student emailed, saying that the rally was being held in UCLA’s Sculpture Garden, just east of the building where I teach.

I had already seen Bill Clinton twice: (1) two years ago when Karen and I bought balcony tickets to see him speak at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and (2) a year before that, when I waited on line for twelve hours to have him sign his autobiography. He shook everyone’s hand at the book-signing, even though he’d been standing there himself for four hours. It’s a moment I will never, ever forget, and so it didn’t take me long to decide to attend the Prop. 87 rally. I registered online (some sort of security check?) and printed out my ticket. I was ready to go.

In the spirit of Prop. 87, I decided to take the bus and so got up extra early to get there on time. By some miracle, the bus arrived just as I crossed the street, a sign that good things were to come. The ride, which would have taken 30 minutes by car, took 50 minutes by bus. I got to UCLA at 9AM and hightailed it up to the Sculpture Garden, located on the other side of campus. En route, I started to notice all these students heading my way and so speeded up my pace. Sure enough, they were all going to see president Clinton, which became apparent as soon as I reached the Garden. There, among the sculptures, were “Yes on 87” signs and a clutch of cameras pointed at a small dais and microphone. On the walkway above were hundreds of students jockeying to get a good view. No one was taking tickets, though I heard several people say that there was a queue forming on the east side of the Garden.

I tried to see the dais from several places along the walkway and finally settled on a spot next to a big tree. There was a large man standing in front of me, but when everyone in front of him stopped moving, I had a clear shot of the microphone. It was now 9:15AM. I took out a book and started to read.

The crowd, which someone estimated at roughly three thousand people, was made up primarily of young (probably undergraduate) students. I saw no more than four or five professor-types. I was definitely one of the oldest people there. At 9:30AM, someone started playing music—soul and rhythm & blues—over the loud speakers, much to the dismay of most of the kids standing nearby. “This music is soooo inappropriate,” one of them complained as I silently chuckled to myself.

At 9:45AM, people started to wander into the closed-off area in front of the dais. Apparently these were the ticketholders who had waited on line. Clinton later mentioned that some had queued up overnight.

I started getting grumpy at 10AM. I’ve never been to a political rally that started on time, but this was getting ridiculous. Then I overheard someone talking on a cellphone, saying that Clinton wasn’t speaking until 10:30AM. Obviously, I hadn’t gotten that memo. Ten minutes later, a man in a “Yes on 87” t-shirt announced that the president was only three minutes away (the crowd: “Hooray!”) and that he would be speaking in another fifteen minutes (the crowd: “Boooo!”). A group of young engineers to my right started to cheer: “U-C-L-A!! UCLA!!! Fight, fight, fight!” Followed by: “BILL!! CLINTON!!! BILL!! CLINTON!!! [clap, clap, clap],” which successfully lifted the mood. I stopped reading. Five minutes later, we heard cheers and applause from our left. Clinton’s motorcade had arrived.

Two short women moved in behind me, happy to be there even though they couldn’t see a thing. One of them was confused over why the guy at the microphone kept calling Clinton “president” instead of “former president.” “Well, I wish he still was president,” her friend said, renewing my faith in young voters. Then suddenly, city council president Eric Garcetti was being introduced and the real rally began. Garcetti addressed the crowd in English and in Spanish (!) and then introduced the next speaker. “She’s not the president, but she did play one on TV. Miss Geena Davis!” (applause, applause, applause). The two young women didn’t know who she was, so I had to explain. Davis then introduced Bill Clinton, who got a rousing ovation. “I can see him!” one of the women shouted. “Me, too!” her friend said. When I asked if I could poke my head over, they said yes and so I did very quickly. They laughed when I blew Bill a kiss and then we all settled down to listen as people quietly snapped pictures with their cellphones. (Clinton is the tiny figure standing between the flags in the photo above).

I don’t remember now what he said, but I agreed with all of it. He got huge cheers when he talked about saving the environment and when he mentioned Hillary and “Al Gore’s movie.” Although he never talked about Bush directly, he did chide those who waste money on war instead of fighting against global warming. The students listened attentively, even though it seemed to me like Clinton was more interested in addressing the media than he was the kids. He ended by urging us all to spread the good word about Proposition 87 and then waved good-bye.

It was 11AM. Most of the students headed off to class, while I rushed to catch the bus. Less than a month to go until the election...


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Famous Homes of LA

As you know by now, Tim and I love Los Angeles and one of the things we love most about the city is its architecture. Few things in this world can compare to the architectural magnificence of Bullocks Wilshire or the simple beauty of the Eames house overlooking Pacific Palisades. This past weekend we were thrilled to be able to tour some the most famous houses in Los Angeles.

On Saturday, we participated in the Silver Lake Modernism tour of mid-twentieth century homes designed and built by some of the most prominent architects of the period. First up were the Bubeshko apartments, designed by Rudolph Schindler, one of the most influential local architects, possibly second in importance only to Frank Lloyd Wright, his mentor. Constructed in the late 1930s, the multifamily dwellings are set back against a hillside and make liberal use of plywood. I was ready to sell our house and move into the topmost apartment until I learned the monthly rent was $3500!

We also saw outstanding homes designed by Richard Neutra, Rodney Walker and Gregory Ain. But my favorite was the Meyers house, built in 1938 by Raphael Soriano, who specialized in the use of prefabricated materials and built-in furniture. Unlike most of the other homes we visited, this one had no view of the Silver Lake reservoir; but it did have an amazing kitchen (pictured here) outfitted in metal avocado-green cabinets. Awarded as a prize on the 1950s TV show “The Price is Right,” the self-contained sink-and-stove unit included an all-in-one washer-dryer, which was the talk of the tour. Thank goodness we just remodeled our own kitchen last year otherwise I might have felt compelled to change to an all-avocado motif.

After a good night’s rest, we were ready to tackle a second architectural tour—this one sponsored by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture located at Rudolph Schindler’s former residence. The centerpiece of the tour promised to be Case Study House #22, arguably the most famous house in Los Angeles. Designed by Pierre Koenig, the house was built in 1959 as part of the “case study” series of Southern California prototypes featured in “Arts and Architecture” magazine throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. House #22 became an icon when Julius Shulman famously photographed it, in 1960, jutting out over a nighttime Los Angeles skyline. No picture since has captured so well the supposed modern lifestyle of mid-twentieth century LA.

The first site we visited was the Harpel house, built in 1956 by John Lautner. Located atop a long 45-degree-angled driveway, the house is currently undergoing renovation, but still offers a fantastic view of the San Fernando Valley and especially Universal Studios. Tim took one look and whispered, “This tour is already much better than yesterday’s!”—proving that you can take the boy out of the Valley, but you can never take the Valley out of the boy. The view WAS stunning, but I was far more impressed by the Chemosphere, which we could see through the trees flying above the Harpel House. The Chemosphere (see above), also designed by Lautner, is another famous LA house that sits atop a long pole, looking very much like a wooden flying saucer. Although we couldn’t go inside, it was very exciting to see yet another Los Angeles icon up close and personal.

From the Harpel house, we snaked down a very skinny road to the Kallis house, which was built by Schindler in 1946, and then down to Hollywood, where we were next scheduled to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Freeman house. Faced with another steep and skinny road, I insisted on parking at the Hollywood and Highland mall three blocks away. “This house better be worth it,” Tim mumbled under his breath as we started to walk up yet another 45-degree-angled driveway. And indeed it was, for there—quite suddenly!—was one of Wright’s fabulous “textile houses,” made of precast concrete blocks decorated with Mayan-Islamic patterns. Although the house is no longer habitable—in fact, we had to sign an insurance release before we were allowed inside—it is nonetheless captivating with its imposing concrete walls and wonderful views of Hollywood. Everyone was extremely grateful that the University of Southern California bought the building in hopes of restoring it, some day, to its glorious splendor.

Anxious to get to the case study house, we quickly toured a nearby residence designed by Irving Gill in 1917 and then headed back to the Hollywood Hills. More windy roads (luckily we were driving the Miata) and one last 45-degree angled driveway and we were finally there. The outside is quite unassuming: a corrugated steel carport. We then walked through an archway and—yikes!—there was the entire city of Los Angeles at our feet! The panorama, from the Griffith Park Observatory to the ocean, was quite simply phenomenal. And to top it off, there was the famous living room window happily dangling over it all. Everyone just stood there in rapt amazement.

As beautiful as it all was, though, I was still happy to get back to the flatlands to our small 1947 traditional home. Perhaps someday someone will offer a tour of postwar houses in Culver City and our house will become a celebrity, too. Hmmm...time to hire a landscaper...