Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 1

With my law school exams more than half over and my departure from Florida for New York imminent, I am starting to look forward to a New York Christmas and hoping it will be a white one. For those of you who have never been to New York for Christmas (you poor benighted souls) and to get myself into the spirit, I have written that which follows.

The first thing that charms about a New York Christmas is the blatant and unashamed commercialism of the entire affair. I know some hate this, but frankly I can’t understand why. Granted that some people go crazy on Black Friday (when don‘t they), but in New York it is mostly just fun and profit. The obvious fact is that ours is a free and liberal, that is to say, capitalist society. It stands to reason that our holidays are going to be commercialized and New York fortunately doesn’t waste time pretending otherwise. Every store of note has its Christmas display. Windows are turned into celebrations of the season.

Another great thing about a New York Christmas is that if you are lucky enough to have a white one, it is really beautiful. Most probably don’t think of New York City as a very snowy place. It is the reds, browns and grays of concrete, stone, and brick, not the white of snow that New York usually brings to mind. However every few years New York gets a good snow during the holidays and the city is transformed.

I want to try and share with you why I love New York especially at Christmas, but all the year round. To do that I am going to go on a tour of the city with you. Since this is a fantasy lets suppose it is a few days before Christmas and the conditions are just right.

It is about half an hour before noon when we take the elevator down from my parents apartment on the east river in Manhattan. The lobby is decorated in what has become something of a winter holiday tradition for our building with a Christmas Tree and an abstract Menorah. We say good afternoon to Joseph the doorman and walk out under the green awning just as the first flakes start to fall from the steel grey sky.

We walk a block south to 79th street where we jump onto a cross town bus. This major cross street is largely residential but as we proceed west we pass York Avenue (named for Sgt. York if you were wondering), First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue, the heart of Yorkville. These north-south avenues are full of shops and restaurants. Most are small family businesses, but many are larger corporations or chains. If we continued further west we would pass the mansion of Mayor Bloomburg, but we don’t.

We hop off the bus at Lexington Avenue and button our jackets against the wind and cold. The stretch of Lexington Avenue just south of 79th Street is relatively less developed. Most of the buildings are about five stories high. To the north the buildings rise higher as one looks towards 86th Street once called “the German Broadway” and still this area’s main commercial street. To the south the buildings rise toward the great midtown business district.

Here at 79th Street it is almost suburban from a New York perspective. We head south on foot as the sidewalk now wet from melted snow starts to catch the first flakes to stick, in cracks and crevices in the sidewalk and in the angle formed by the intersection of buildings and the sidewalk.

Two blocks south at Lenox Hill Hospital we turn west and head down the stairs into the 77th Street Station of the Lexington Avenue Subway. Snow follows us down the stairs riding on a blast of wind. The 6 Train or Lexington Avenue local was built in the early years of the 20th century by the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation or IRT and some signs of this remain for those who look closely. I point to a small tin sign which you can barely read hanging from an overhead conduit which still bares the name of the private corporation that built the first of the system’s major lines. This one line carries more riders than the Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston rail transit systems combined.

With a roar and a gust of wind, the train comes out of the tunnel and into the station. We board and are serenaded by a trio of mariachi performers who have made their way north from Mexico City to this more profitable ground for street performance. After a sufficiency of Dane geld has been collected they stop playing and move on to the next compartment and we are left in peace to contemplate advertisements for Goosedown Vodka “It tastes more like nothing than brands A, B, & C vodka.”

Three stops later we disembark at the 42nd Street station. This is a major subway station where two important lines cross and a shuttle leads to Time Square and even more subterranean transportation options. We ignore these and head for the exit. A semicircle of devout Catholics stands to one side witnessing for the faith. “Hail Marry full of grace the Lord is with thee.” they proclaim as they finger a bead from their rosary. “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” the seasonal thought follows us up the escalator.

We emerge into one of the exit corridors of Grand Central Terminal. Instead of leaving this hub of the commuter railroads running north and east from the city, we head inward, west through the building. It is cold out and a block or two walked in the warmth of the building and its warren of tunnels and passages is inviting.

The passage soon opens into the Terminal’s great hall with its brass information hut surmounted by the famous four faced clock where friends and lovers meet. A huge American flag hangs from the ceiling as it has since shortly after Sept. 11. Its bold red, white, and blue stand out against the sandy stone and the pale turquoise ceiling. We walk through the crowd and back into the pedestrian tunnels lined with shops. As we mount a ramp for the surface the smell of fresh baked pastry tempts us, but we manfully ignore it.

We surface at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and 42nd Street. On all sides the building soar upwards to the heavens, but the falling snow softens the stark elegance of their upward thrust. We walk west on the floor of 42nd Street’s canyon mixing with the throng of people busy making money.

Two blocks further on we arrive at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street one is tempted to say, the corner of the world. Looking to our left we see the Empire State Building rising from the street half a mile to the south. To our right is one of the most exclusive shopping districts on earth.

Before us is The New York Public Library and Bryant Park. (a picture of NYPL here) We walk over and stand at the foot of the steps leading up to the entry. If we mounted the stairs we could burry ourselves in the leather and dark wood of the current periodical room or listen to the echo made by wooden chairs scraping on the stone floor of the 297 foot long main reading room.

More entrancing however is the sight of the snow slowly blanketing the two great stone lions Patience and Fortitude which guard the entrance to this Fort Knox of knowledge. In recognition of the season these rulers of the empire of the mind have deigned to have wreaths placed around their necks and now bejeweled in red and green and caped in white, they are a dignified personification of the season.

To our left Macy’s calls to us, but we have other plans and head north along Fifth Avenue. The light is starting to fade under the weight of snow as we walk north, passing Nat Shermans’ Purveyor of Fine Tobacco Products to those willing to trade money and time for a little pleasure.

Part 2 is here.

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