Friday, June 12, 2009

NYC 2009

We travel to NYC so often that it always feels like home when we arrive. We’re so comfortable, in fact, that we rarely plan our trips in advance anymore, preferring instead to play things by ear once we’re there. Things were especially serendipitous this time around.

We had, of course, bought tickets in advance for Stacey Kent, since that was the main reason we were in New York; but the rest of our three-day stay was purely spontaneous. After checking into our recently renovated apartment-sized hotel room (with fabulous views of the Hudson River as well as the Chrysler Building!), we ran over to Broadway in hopes of buying tickets to two shows: the Tony-nominated comedy God of Carnage, starring Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, and James Gandolfini (of Sopranos fame), and In the Heights, which won last year’s Tony for best musical. We lucked out and got excellent seats for both plays. We then returned to the hotel to get ready for our first night in the Big Apple.

Although Stacey Kent isn’t too well known in the U.S., the venue where she played certainly is. Birdland, the self-proclaimed “jazz corner of the world,” opened 60 years ago during the height of the postwar music renaissance. Originally named after the great saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, the intimate club is located off of Broadway on West 44th St. We’ve gone to several jazz clubs in L.A., but none as famous as this. The walls were festooned with photos of past performers.

Stacey Kent, who sings mostly American standards and bossa nova, was wonderful: funny, charming, and clearly in love with her husband, who accompanies her on saxophone. She sang old as well as new songs and all within about four feet of where we were sitting. It was a magical evening, well worth the trip to NYC.

We woke-up to rain the next morning, but headed out anyway. En route from the train station the day before, we noticed a poster for the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex, featuring an exhibit on John Lennon. Only a blizzard could have kept me away! Just a short subway ride to Soho, the Annex is a much abbreviated version of Cleveland’s massive Hall of Fame. Still, we both thought it was effective at capturing the history of rock-n-roll and Tim was particularly impressed by the headphone technology that automatically played relevant music as we passed by the various displays. An entire room was dedicated to John’s life in NYC, including a bag filled with the clothes he wore when he was murdered. I signed Yoko Ono’s petition for gun control at the end of our tour.

After the Hall, we walked five blocks to Lombardi’s, our favorite NYC pizza joint. We then took the subway uptown to our hotel in Murray Hill, where we relaxed for the first time all week. At 7PM we braved the rain again and headed toward Broadway for God of Carnage. It was outrageous and amazingly well acted. But I wanted more plot. For me, the play was something of a cross between David Mamet (i.e., witty and funny) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? (i.e., intense and full of interesting human dynamics). Not surprisingly, it won best play at Sunday night’s Tony awards.

The New York Times tipped us off to a mid-century design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on Saturday. As usual, the city was filled with tourists in town for the day. Luckily, the rain had stopped and it was a glorious afternoon. I had a very tasty pork chop for lunch at the MOMA cafe, but Tim held out for street food: an 8-inch sausage dog that would have made a normal person sick. Gag!

At 6PM, we met our friend Stuart for drinks at a bar that’s so exclusive it doesn’t have a name (!) and ended up seeing Tom Hanks’ son Colin, the priest in TV's Mad Men and star of the recent film The Great Buck Howard. We then made our way over to the Richard Rogers theater for In the Heights. The play, which is set in Washington Heights (where my mom grew-up), was fun, but a little too derivative of West Side Story. I did enjoy the Spanglish dialog, though, and even Tim understood the raunchier bits.

We flew home the next day in plenty of time to see the Tonys that night on TV. As we were watching, I couldn’t help but wish we were still in New York even though I was glad to be home.

Monday, June 08, 2009

More Philadelphia

On Tuesday afternoon, we finally got to see Independence Hall, the first Congressional Hall and the National Constitution Center—all free and part of the Independence National Historical Park. But even more impressive was the murals tour we took that morning: 40 city center murals in 2 hours and these were only a tiny fraction of the street art that enlivens Philadelphia.

Established in 1984, the city’s Mural Arts Program was created to help abate a graffiti crisis that was plaguing Philadelphia. Twenty-five years later, the city is home to over 3000 murals—most of which are magnificent and worthy of hanging in the finest art museums. Here are just a few of the pieces we saw on our whirlwind tour. All blank walls have now become potential canvases to my eye.

Next stop: New York City!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Summer Vacation

About 6 months ago Tim announced that one of his favorite singers, Stacey Kent, was scheduled to perform in New York City the first week in June. Kent, who lives in England, rarely comes to the U.S., so he wanted to see her. I agreed to go with him, but insisted we spend a couple of days in Philadelphia beforehand. I fell in love with Philly when I was there on business (by myself) two years ago and knew Tim would love it, too. He agreed and so I made reservations accordingly.


Although we weren't flying to Philadelphia till Monday morning, our vacation actually started Sunday night at California Adventure, where Disney's 3rd annual Food & Wine Festival was being held. The featured food and wine expert was our fave, Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The meal was casual and good (pulled pork sandwiches, lettuce cups, pasta, etc., and an assortment of desserts); but the best part was listening to Guy chat for two hours about the show, his family, friends, and food. He was funny, cute, and down-to-earth. I would have loved to talk to him afterward, but still had packing to do, so we left as soon as folks started to queue up for autographs. We left for the airport 9 hours later.


Horrors! As soon as we arrived at our Philadelphia hotel, I realized I hadn't packed my mascara. So off we went (on foot!) in search of a drugstore that Tim remembered seeing on the way into town. A mile later, we were standing in the cosmetics aisle of an inner-city Rite Aid. Tim waited patiently while I decided which mascara to buy. It had been 30 years since I wore anything but Mary Kay products, so I was completely flumoxed by all the different make-up brands and types. After much silent deliberation (did I mention that Tim is a saint?), I settled on Maybelline, the kind my sister and I wore in high school. (More about this later . . .)

We next went in search of dinner. Despite complete exhaustion (in our family, food trumps sleep every time), we found a cute sidewalk cafe called the Kite and Key (I swear, Benjamin Franklin is The Man in Philadelphia!), where Tim wolfed down the “three slider sampler” (pork, beef and crabcake) while I devoured a most scrumptious pork shank. We stumbled back to the hotel, forcing ourselves to stay awake for Conan O'Brien's debut as Tonight Show host--it's impossible to miss home when every other TV show and commercial is filmed in Los Angeles. We passed out in our Sheraton "heavenly bed" at exactly 12:30PM.


With little more than 48 hours to enjoy the sights of Philadelphia, we decided to take one of the numerous tours of the city. First stop: the Liberty Bell, which had moved me to tears the last time I was there. Not so much this time. Apparently every student on the east coast learns about the Revolutionary War in June, because the entire colonial part of town was overrun with kids on field trips. It was fun watching them react to the historical monuments, etc.—some were excited, others were just plain bored--but the sheer number of people sometimes cramped our style. Although we arrived at Independence Hall (across the street from the Bell) at 10AM, we weren’t able to get tickets to the tour until 3:30PM. We opted to go elsewhere instead.

One of our favorite things to do on vacation is sample the local cuisine at large (usually) indoor markets typical of most metropolitan cities. Toronto, for instance, has the wonderful St. Lawrence Market. Seattle has Pike Place. Even L.A. has Grand Central and, of course, the world renowned Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax. One of the best, though, is the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia. Home to some 80 shops, this former railroad terminal offers everything from ice cream to gyros. Tim waited 20 minutes for a Philly cheesesteak, while I made a beeline straight for the pastries at the Flying Monkey Patisserie (yum!). Bellies full, we then hopped back on our tour bus and headed north.

I was intrigued by the Eastern State Penitentiary the last time I was in town, but had no time to visit, so decided to make it a priority this time. It ended up being a true highlight of the trip. Completed in 1836, Eastern State was the world’s first “penitentiary” where both men and women were brought to do meditative penance for their crimes. A high-concept masterpiece in its prime, the prison eventually became outdated and severely overcrowded and so was closed in 1971. Today it is a fascinating relic that hosts tours and art installations. I highly recommend spending a couple of hours there the next time you’re in Philadelphia.

Although it was starting to drizzle when we reboarded our double-decker bus, we decided to sit top-side for its better view. Within minutes we were drenched. I looked like a wet raccoon by the time we returned to the hotel. Now I know why Maybelline mascara is so cheap!

Raccoon or not, our day wasn’t quite over yet. At 5PM I remembered that Macy’s, which houses a 1904 30,000-pipe organ, features a live recital every day during rush hour. We got there just in time to stake our claim to a piece of balcony directly across from the massive pipes. Soon the store’s marble atrium was filled with joyous music. We gasped as locals continued to shop below. What a wonderful way to end our first full day in Philadelphia.

More soon . . .