Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I’m Dreaming of a New York Christmas Part 3

This is part 3 of a three part post, part 1 is here.

Snow is covering the bench lined path which leads us to an exit. We cross Fifth Avenue which is no longer a commercial street once the park begins. Instead prewar apartment buildings, clubs, mansions, and museums face Central Park. We walk briskly east along cross streets lined with brownstone houses and small art galleries. We pass Madison Avenue, another of the City’s many commercial streets.

Then Park Avenue opens before us. A wide boulevard that runs north from Union Square at 14th Street to 132nd Street in the North, Park Avenue is usually a major thoroughfare with heavy traffic, but this afternoon the snow has kept many cars off the street. Islands of grass, bushes and trees, now covered in snow, divide the North bound traffic from that heading south. Christmas trees slowly being decorated with snow are at each end of the islands. The money for them was donated by a family that lost their son during the Second World War. The lighting of them each year is proceeded by a Christmas carol sing at 91st Street and the playing of taps.

We head south on Lexington Avenue stopping at a push cart to buy hot dogs covered with sauerkraut and onions in paprika. The meaty salty sweetness of the hotdogs blend in our mouths with the sour of the kraut and the spicy savor of the onions as we stroll south until we reach the Citibank building, a silver tower balanced atop five pillars. We carefully descend the snows slick steps into the court yard in front of the building. In the mall beneath the building is one of my favorite New York Christmas displays. A huge model train display.

We join a line of businessmen stealing a moment to enjoy one of the pleasures of the season, parents with excited children, and many other people. In the first of the dioramas, the trains wend their way through Newark, New Jersey with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Then heading north along the Hudson Valley, they run through a diorama of a 1950s suburban landscape. I point out fast food joints, a circus, and a drive in movie theater complete with a working movie screen. The trains then climb into the hilly terrain further north with a lumber mill cradled in a valley. Then they descend into the farm land of upstate, with barns and farm houses. Finally the trains run through a winter wonderland of the far north thick with snow before curving out of sight.

We are not required to brave the winter wonderland above, but proceed through tunnels to the 51st street train station of the six train. We hop on a south bound train and look at the great variety of people sharing the car with us. New York has long been a melting pot with people from many different nations living in the city for a time before moving on to other areas of the country. I point out the closed 18th street station barely lit as we speed by. After a 15 minute ride we get off at City Hall.

We surface in a small park. The white neo-classical bulk of City Hall where the 51 member city council meets and the mayor has his office is surprisingly small for such a large city. Across the street is the neo-gothic Woolworth building, once the tallest building in the world, covered in beautiful carving, enamel work and statuary. We stroll south on Broadway into the downtown financial district.

Here the buildings are older than at midtown, since it was the original main business district in the city. Even today, it is the third most important business district in the country and the second largest in the city after midtown. The brownstone bulk of Trinity Church emerges slowly from the swirling snow. This is the oldest Episcopal church in New York and the richest in the country since it owns most of the land on which the surrounding financial district is built. The parish still pays the Queen of Great Britain a rent of one peppercorn per annum. Snow is starting to drift against the grave stones in the church yard. In warmer weather it would be pleasant to look at the old graves but in the cold of this winter afternoon we turn east into the shelter of the canyons of the financial district.

The streets here were laid out hundreds of years before the invention of the automobile, so they are much narrower than those in the rest of the city. The early skyscrapers here seem to close out the sky. After passing through a very narrow block, the street opens slightly.

To our left is the short six story stone bulk of the Morgan Bank building, still pockmarked by the blast of an anarchist bomb that detonated outside in 1920. To our right is the federal building with a statute of George Washington elevated on a plinth before it. It was upon this spot that Washington took the oath of office and became the first President of the United States.

Before us is the New York Stock Exchange one of the most important financial markets in the world. A large Christmas tree stands before it slowly collecting snow. Inside, drifts of paper are accumulating on the floor of the Exchange’s main trading room. Even in this day of computers, the exchange generates frightening amounts of waste paper every day.

We walk east down Wall Street passing office buildings housing some of the worlds most important financial companies. 40 Wall Street on our left was the tallest building in the world for a few months before it was supplanted by the Chrysler Building in Midtown. When I was a boy my father had his office on the 60th floor of this building.

A few blocks later we arrive at the old brick structure of Fraunces Tavern. It was here that General Washington said farewell to the officers of the Continental Army before returning home to Mount Vernon like Cincinnatus returning to the plow. We take a peak inside and look at the historical exhibits. Paintings, Washington’s false teeth, and a number of artifacts of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Leaving the old inn, we walk the through the snow to the Fulton Street station of the A Train. The wind and snow follow us down the stairs. The trains of this line are wider and longer than those of the six train, because it was built later by the city to the train specification of the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company, the IRT’s rival. We ride north for more than 40 minutes as a kaleidoscope of humanity parades before us. Something of the neighborhoods above can be cleaned from the dress, and ethnicity of the people who board and exit the train at each stop. At 190th Street we get off and take an elevator to the surface.
The elevator opens into a small stone building. We refasten our coats and put back on our hats before exiting into Fort Tryon Park. We stroll to where the park ends at a bluff overlooking the Hudson river. We can hardly see the far shore through the heavy snow, but if we could we would see woodland. This is because John D Rockefeller Jr. gave the land on the far side to the State of New Jersey as a park so that the land we are standing on which was once his estate would always have a country view across the river.

A few minutes walk brings us the gothic buildings of the Cloisters. This northern outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is made of abandoned French monasteries disassembled and transported to New York where they were reassembled. It holds the Museum’s Medieval Collection, most of it, like the land it stands on was donated by Mr. Rockefeller. We enter the building and ascend a dark stone staircase to the main floor.

We look at the famous tapestries depicting the hunting of a unicorn then step out into the colonnade of the cloister where snow is gathering on the rose bushes. In the summer this is open letting people stroll through the rose bushes planted there, but now we are grateful that temporary glass windows are fitted to keep in the heat.

We walk down a few stairs and look at the gold religious objects in the treasury, then step through an open doorway into the garden. Hops now dormant for the winter cling to one wall. A Pair Tree has been trained into a fork like shape against another wall of the building. Other fruit trees now bare of leaves stand in the middle of wilted garden patches now covered with snow.

The snow fall has temporarily lessened so we are able to see a distance south across upper New York. Since this is the highest point in Manhattan, in better weather we would be able to see all the way down to the financial district 13 miles to the south, but this afternoon as the sky darkens only a mile of two of the city is visable. We retreat into the warmth of the Cloisters for a few more minutes looking at the coffins of crusaders laid out in a small chapel.

Leaving the museum we stroll through the park back to the subway station. The snow drifts around us as we walk through the darkening winter afternoon. The elevator lowers us to the station and we walk to south end of the platform so we can look out of the front of the southbound train.

With a roar and a blast of wind the train enters the station. Standing at the train’s front window, we can see the track ahead and the green, yellow, and red signal lights that tell the operator to go, slow, or stop respectively. Just before the 145th Street station we see the B and D tracks curve in and join with the A line. At 125th Street we get of the train to wait for the C or B trains which run as local trains for this part of the route.

The C pulls into the station and a few minutes later we are exiting at the 81st Street - Natural History Museum station. The station is decorated with mosaics of dinosaurs and more modern animals. We climb the stairs to the surface.
Before us is the great granite and marble bulk of the Natural History Museum. Inside are wonders from the world’s largest star sapphire to African and Asian mammals in display cases with the trees, bushes, and grasses of their habitat used to make realistic dioramas with exquisite paintings in the background. It would be wonderful to stop and explore, but we have one more Christmas stop before heading home and the late afternoon dark is closing in.

We jump on a cross town bus which enters the viaduct across central park. The stone blocks of the walls flash by and at one point we pass through a tunnel carved from the naked rock of the park. Three minutes later we exit the bus, once more on Fifth Avenue.

We cross 79th Street and walk two blocks north to the grand Beaux-Arts building of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We climb the broad stone steps and enter in the great lobby. Huge urns full of seasonal flowers stand in niches on the wall. The money for the flowers was left by a long time patron in her will. We give a donation then stroll through the Byzantine art. We stop and examine a bible bound in gold and gems before walking into a large hall constructed to look like a church so that a gorgeous rod screen could be displayed.

However it is the not the screen that grabs our attention, but the Christmas tree decorated with a swarm of porcelain angels with flowing silk robes. We join the crowd of holiday visitor waiting to get a closer look. At the base of the tree is a crèche with beautiful figurines of the holy family, the wise men, and the shepherds. The tree which is an annual Met tradition is composed of hundreds of figurines from three separate crèche sets made in Italy during the 17th century. As we get closer I point to one of the angels holding a censer. When we get close enough we can see the wise men riding on elephants, camels, and horses. Regretfully we have to move with the flow of people and are soon moved past the tree.

On the way out we swing by the Temple of Dendur a gift from the government of Egypt to the United State for the help given to move it and several other ancient temples when the High Dam at Asswan was built. Without the aid of the United States, the temple would have been flooded by the rising waters behind the dam.

We put back on our hats, coats and scarves before leaving the shelter of the museum. While we have been inside darkness has fallen. This reveals one of the glories of a New York evening snow fall, the way the lights from buildings light the snow. In the country one can’t see the great volume of snow in the air because there is no light to illuminate it except at ground level. The tall buildings of the city serve to light the snow hundreds of feet in the air.

We walk down 82nd Street enjoying the falling snow. I point out my favorite parts of the Upper East Side as we pass them, my sister’s apartment, a bar that our friends meet at during the holidays, and my favorite pizza place. Ten minutes later we arrive back at my parent’s apartment building.

I have to hurry because one of the other joys of Christmas in New York is the large number of parties in the two weeks before Christmas. During Christmas even the lawyers and investment bankers who work unbelievable hours take time to attend holiday gatherings and youngsters back from boarding school and college are eager to be reunited with grade school friends. Any big city is really just a large number of overlapping communities and that is never so apparent in New York as at Christmas.

During the holidays, the city that never sleeps turns its attention temporarily from the creation of wealth to the enjoyment of it. People take the time to realize what an extraordinary place we call home. Most of all we reunite with friends and family and so in that way at least a New York Christmas is not so different from Christmas anywhere.

To say more would be to parade my friends and family in their intimate moments before the public eye, so at the door to my parents home let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Some videos of New York snow Storms here, here, and here.

UPDATE: Typo corrected


Anonymous said...

"Mary" Christmas?

Anonymous said...

BTW nice bit of writing.