Postcard from Milan: Più Normale

On our fourth and final day of sightseeing around Milan and environs, we took a day trip to Lake Como. The excursion we’d bought included our train tickets and a guide for four hours. We met Renzo at Stazione Cadorna, a commuter railway station near the center of Milan from which trains come and go to the north.

Renzo was an affable guide – a lawyer who’d supported himself in school as a tourist guide and eventually returned to it professionally after tiring of the corporate legal grind. He was a native of Como but lived now with his wife and children in Milan. We let him know we knew some Italian, so we had the benefit of listening to him and speaking with him in both English and Italian. During the hour’s train ride to the end of the line at Como, we talked politics, social economics, history – whatever came up – and passed the time pleasantly.

The names of two men come up in association with Como. One is native son Alessandro Volta, who is credited with the invention of the electric battery. Anytime you are abroad, wondering if your electronic device is dual voltage, or anytime you thrust one of those hulking 9-volt batteries into something like a smoke-detector, you’re invoking his memory.

Alessandro Volta in the Piazza Volta, Como

The other frequently-mentioned name is that of George Clooney, who in 2002 bought the 18th-century Villa Oleandra on the shores of Lake Como at Laglio. With tongue in cheek, Renzo claimed that Como is grateful for Clooney, since he single-handedly lifted real estate values around the lake when he bought there.

We walked around the center city with Renzo for a few hours, seeing historical buidlings and peeking into courtyards and gardens. The highlight, of course, was the Duomo. There was a lot of interest there, and I was struck again by how well-preserved and maintained the churches I’d seen on this trip were. It should probably be no surprise, as Northern Italy is the more prosperous, industrialized part of the country.

Dome at the transept of the Duomo in Como bringing light into the cathedral

Chairs stacked in the Nave, Duomo, Como

One statue was rather unusual. In Catholic iconography, Christ is frequently depicted as an infant in the arms of his Mother Mary, and then, of course, as an adult. He is almost never seen as an older child. The statue of him as a young boy with his father Joseph, who’s placed one hand affectionately on his shoulder, is charming in its naturalness: Joseph seems to look up, beaming with parental pride.

Jesus and Joseph, Duomo, Como

Since I first discovered them during a college semester in Madrid in the early ’70s, I’ve had a fondness for Spanish polychromatic church statuary. The Spanish are the masters of these life-like tributes to saints and the holy family. Most recently I saw some great ones in the cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala. But the crucifix in the apse of the Duomo at Como is right up there. I especially like Jesus’ fright wig and beard, which looks a bit like he bought them in a costume shop to use as a disguise. The dramatic expressions of the women beneath him are great as well.

Crucifix in the Apse of the Duomo, Como

After our tour, Renzo left us in the main square, Piazza Cavour. It was lunchtime, and there was a café right on the square with the usual Italian spread of tables al fresco. I had to persuade Anthony, who was feeling a bit chilled, and who probably – unlike some people – has a BMI near zero, that it would be warm enough to sit outside in the sun. It was in the high 50’s without a cloud in the sky, and there was no way I was going to sit inside in semi-darkness on such a beautiful day.

We were seated with the usual warm Italian welcome by the maitre-d’ and began looking at the menus. At the table next to us, practically at our elbows, was a couple who seemed right out of Central Casting for The Sopranos. Everything about them was a little “too” – he was a little too slick, maybe his hair was a little too even in color; they were a bit too loud; she wore a bit too much make-up, her hair was a bit too platinum, she had a bit too many conspicuous designer brands visible in her accessories.

Covering the side of his face nearest them with his menu, Anthony gave me a “listen closely to what I’m about to say” look and said, “You’re going to have to switch seats with me, or we’ll have to get another table – she bathed in perfume, and I’m LITERALLY gagging here.”

When I was growing up, we had a Siamese cat who used to gag on a hairball from time to time, so I’m familiar with the sounds and actions of something that’s LITERALLY gagging. No such behavior was observed, but you know, I’m easy-going most of the time. We changed places. The perfume smell was really strong, but I got used to it after a while, they eventually left, no one was gunned down in cold blood, and we had a lovely meal in the nice, warm sun. Afterwards, we took an hour’s boat trip around the lake.

Lake Como
One of the towns along the shore of Lake Como

The boat is a shuttle that stops at various little towns and villages along the shore of the lake. Renzo suggested we get off at one to wander around, so we did so at Torno, on the eastern shore at the northern end of the loop the shuttle boat makes.

We were completely off-season – Lake Como is a bit like Provincetown or the Hamptons, swelling during the summer with tourists and those escaping the cities. So everything was closed and almost no one was in sight, except some tree-trimmers and a few other tourists who got off the boat with us.

Church at the dock at Torno
The Bar Italia, Torno, closed for the season
Tree-trimmers, Torno

We wandered up a narrow, winding street from the dock to the center of town just past the City Hall. For such a small town with narry a soul around, a sign suggested a lot of places we could not go and would not see.

Town Center, Torno
Must be quite different in the summer

There was one sign on the way back to the town that particularly amused me. The large Italian type translates as “Our Shoes are Full of It.”

It was getting on toward 3:00pm when we finished our boat ride. I saw some people walking around with ice cream cones, and the urge struck me. There was a big Gelateria sign in a café near the water. We went in and were confused by the lack of tubs of different flavors; “only table service,” we were told.

I was not deterred. I have a sixth sense for gelaterias and was sure there would be one nearer the train station, and indeed there was. We got on the train with cones and headed back to Milan.

For our last night, we’d bought tickets for a Maurizio Pollini piano recital at La Scala. We had seats in a red-velvet box or palco that we referred to as “the coffin,” though I think most coffins are lined with white silk or probably rayon today. But it was that small. The concert was great, however – short pieces by Chopin and Debussy – and it was certainly charming to walk out onto the Piazza della Scala afterwards in the late evening.

Piazza della Scala

I’d forgotten that Carnegie Hall was modeled on La Scala, but a comparison of photos when I got back demonstrates it.

From our coffin at La Scala
Boxes at Carnegie Hall

After the concert we went back to Il Ristorante Galleria, where we’d had lunch after seeing the Duomo of Milan, and had a late dinner. Anthony’s mostly a vegetarian and a light drinker, so when we’re out to dinner, my portion of the bill is generally more than his. I’m careful to try and split the check fairly rather than 50/50. When we’d put our cards on the table – credit, that is – I asked the waiter to split it 60/40, with the greater to me, in more ways than one. Perhaps it was the bottle of wine, or just the opportunity to chat up the waiter in Italian, but indicating Anthony, I explained to the waiter, Lui è più rico, ma io mangio di più. “He’s richer, but I eat more.” At which the waiter, with typical Italian generosity, commented that while Anthony may be fit and slender, I was più normale. More normal. This is one of the many things we love about Italy.

We left the next morning, amazed at how much we’d seen, done and eaten in four short days.

Postcard from Verona: Was There Gelato?

At some point on our trip to Milan, we noticed that all the self-respecting, young male Milanesi – OK, maybe not all off them, but a lot of them – had their eyebrows shaped: perfectly defined arches tapering to a fine point at the temple. A Dominican trainer at my gym claims this is also true of Puerto Rican boys in the Bronx.

I love stuff like this. Reading an article once about two sets of identical twins from different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum who were mixed up at birth in the hospital, I learned that all self-respecting, Colombian professional men have their nails buffed and polished – proof that one doesn’t have to work with his hands.

In any event, Anthony and I took to “brow-spotting” as we made the rounds of Milan. All we had to do was look at each other, raise a brow of our own, and nod silently in the direction of some young guy to say, “There’s another one.”

It was probably because we were both noticing the tapered brows on our good-looking taxi driver in the rearview mirror of the cab, that we were awe-struck by the sudden appearance of our destination – the central train station of Milan, Stazione Centrale. I think we both said, “Wow!” at the same time.

Stazione Centrale is the largest train station in Europe (by the number of trains going in and out daily.) It was inaugurated in 1931, and impressively does its job of glorifying the State, Fascist as it was at the time. Unfortunately, I was either so intent on finding our track or so entranced by the cab-driver’s eyebrows, that I neglected to take a picture of the exterior. But the interior was equally impressive.

Tracks at Stazione Centrale

We’d set out on a day trip to Verona – just an hour away by high-speed train. Amtrak take note: as elsewhere in Europe, the Frecciarossa service out of Milan toward Venice via Verona gives you a seat number as well as a car number, the latter marked on the platform to tell you where to stand to get right into your car when the train pulls in. No wandering the cars like on the Acela, looking for an unoccupied seat or having to address someone sitting next to a backpack with the accusatory, “Is this seat taken?”

When we got to Verona, we had a pleasant walk from the Porta Nuova station to the Castelvecchio Museum to pick up our all-sites-access Verona cards. There was a race winding through the city, and we kept having to circumvent streams of runners with numbers pinned to their t-shirts, as we made our way to the Roman Arena. Leave it to the Italians to have a Race-for-the-Cure – or whatever it was – with a finish line right after two billboards of women in lingerie. C’è la dolce vita.

The Arena in Verona (that’s almost an anagram!) is very cool, because it’s so complete. Although only a remnant of the exterior arcades remains – the rest having been plundered for building materials – the seating area itself was untouched, preserved by some untimely but prescient preservation edict in the 13th century. It’s still used today for concerts, plays and other events.

The Arena in Verona with remaining section of the exterior arcade
Theater in the round, anyone?

Buyer beware if you suffer from vertigo and want to catch the view from the top row. The Romans weren’t big on hand-railings or handicapped access – or if they were – none of it’s survived.

We’d bought this excursion in advance, and in addition to the train tickets and Verona cards, it included a three-course lunch at a local restaurant, which included a full bottle of wine. We noted that the guy at the table next to us had his eyebrows shaped.

Maybe the wine put us in the mood to wander leisurely through the old town with no actual destination in mind. We made our way to the Piazza Erbe – the Times Square of medieval Verona – with the Torre dei Lamberti looming above it.

Torre dei Lamberti, Piazza Erbe, Verona

We skipped several sights that most tourists would consider de rigeur when visiting Verona – Juliet’s Balcony, Juliet’s Tomb, and Romeo’s House. Let’s be clear: Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters; they were not actually people who lived and died in Verona. “Juliet’s house” is a 13th-century home that was owned by the dal Capello family, whose name is close enough to Capulet that the city of Verona bought the house in 1905 to make it into a tourist attraction. Supposedly, the famous balcony was added in 1936. A sarcophagus with some mystery surrounding it was dubbed “Juliet’s Tomb,” and “Romeo’s house” – while an authentic medieval home – may never have housed someone named Romeo, tapered eyebrows or not.

The 13th-century Chiesa Sant’Anastasia, however – our next stop – was as authentic as it was impressive.

Vault of an aisle at Chiesa Sant’Anastasia
Sant’Anastasia herself

The Duomo – the Cathedral of Verona – was less impressive, and they were either just finishing or about to start a guitar mass. (Didn’t we get that out of our systems in the ’70s?) In the last of the afternoon, we headed to the 2nd-century Ponte Pietra for the view on the River Adige.

Fiume Adige, Verona

Winding back through the old city, we returned to Porta Nuova to catch the train back to Milan. We may have had a gelato on the way. Or was that in Milan? Or maybe the next day in Como.

Postcard from Milan: In Da House

The Duomo of Milan – the Milan Cathedral – is the largest church in Italy, since Saint Peter’s Basilica is in the Vatican City, officially its own state, separate from Italy. It is the third largest church in Europe after Saint Peter’s and the Seville Cathedral in Spain; and the fourth largest in the world after the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, which no one has ever heard of, much less visited, sorry, Brazil. Saint John the Divine, the Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan at 110th Street, just happens to round out the top five globally. I mention it here only out of civic pride as a New Yorker.

When the sunlight shines on the Duomo’s white marble façade, which was only built in the early 1800’s on an order from Napleon who ruled Italy at the time, it looks like an upside-down icicle sculpture – its 135 spires topped with statuary reaching hungrily up toward the sky. My photo of it in the shadow of the morning sun doesn’t do it justice.

The western, main façade of Il Duomo, Milan

Many think duomo is Italian for dome. It’s not. And although Il Duomo di Milano has an octagonal dome, it’s not highly visible from the exterior, not nearly as prominent as Brunelleschi’s famous dome on the Duomo of Florence. Duomo is most properly translated as cathedral, and derives from the Latin word domus, meaning house. So the Duomo is the House of the Lord or perhaps the House of the Bishop, as a cathedral is technically the church where a bishop presides.

Begun in 1386, the building is described architecturally as belonging to the Italian Gothic. One of the great innovations in Gothic architecture was the use of the flying buttress – those odd, exoskeleton-like arches that look like exposed ribs on the sides of Gothic churches. They buttress the walls of the church, relieving them of some of the downward weight of the vaulted roof and dome, which otherwise would push the walls outward. That innovation enabled walls to be built higher, allowed them to be thinner at their bases, permitted the greater use of glass in larger windows, bringing color and light inside the church and allowing the interior to soar upward, lifting us visually and emotionally toward heaven, toward God. The very architecture changed the worshiper’s relationship to God in some ways, emphasizing aspiration over submission. And soar, the interior of the Duomo certainly does.

One of the aisles in the Duomo
Sunlight falling through a stained glass window onto a pillar
(and check out the marble floor!)

We wandered throughout the Duomo without the benefit of a guidebook or an audioguide or a human guide; just to be present to it is what one should do. Regardless of your religious affiliation or lack of one (I, for one, am a rabid atheist), the attitude of worshipfulness which the Duomo inspires – which is really nothing more than gratitude – is worth experiencing. Anthony mentioned to me that before we went into the Duomo, while he was standing in the sunlight outside, waiting for me while I was in the restroom, he felt immediately present to his life. This is one of the great things about travel: jettisoned outside of our everyday environment, we are forced to be present to our immediate surroundings. It is an uplifting experience, just as being present to the Duomo’s uplifting-ness is.

There is artwork too numerous to mention in the Duomo, of course. The most famous statue compels you to itself, even before you know it’s the most famous statue in the cathedral. Saint Bartholomew Flayed, 1562, by Marco d’Agrate shows the saint after the torture of his martyrdom, i.e. flayed of his skin, improbably standing contraposto as any good Renaissance statue should. Until I read the Wikipedia entry, I didn’t realize he was wearing his “flayed skin thrown over his shoulders like a stole.” I am reminded of my grandmother’s fox stole, which had six or so small fox heads with glass eyes dangling from it. Sitting next to her in the back seat of our car, I would play with them as if they were puppets. I refrained with Bartholomew’s stole.

Saint Bartholomew, 1562, Marco d’Agrate

The real treat visiting the Duomo, however, is to buy a ticket to go up onto the roof. There are great views out over the Piazza del Duomo below.

Spires on the roof of the Duomo overlooking the Piazza del Duomo below

As we walked around the perimeter of the roof, up close and personal to the intricate decoration around us, we kept wondering why you would create such detailed artwork on a rooftop that presumably – until modern tourism – no one would ever see. I suppose it was for God’s benefit: that he could look down from on high and see how he was glorified. Now, for about nine euros, anyone can appreciate it, as we did.

Shadows of statuary on the roof of the Duomo

One mystery remains unexplained. We noticed that all of the statues and gargoyles had wires – in some cases, multiple strands of them – running along their length. Our guess was that they were to draw lightning strikes away from the statues themselves, but if anyone knows the answer for sure, Anthony and I would both appreciate being enlightened.

A statue atop a spire, thonged by a wire, at the Duomo

Postcard from Milan: Chinatown?

Everyone says there’s not a lot to see in Milan – hit the Duomo and The Last Supper and you’re done. So when my friend Anthony and I found an inexpensive, six-day, airfare-and-hotel package to Milan (read four days on the ground), we figured it was more than enough time to see the city and do a couple of day trips in the surrounding environs.

Then I did my methodical trip planning – scouring a guidebook, circling things that interested me on a map. We’d decided on day trips to Verona and Lake Como, which left two days for sightseeing in Milan. Suddenly, there seemed to be an overwhelming number of things to cram into those two days – monuments, museums, churches, gelato. That I have a penchant for obscure churches with one significant piece of art or an oddball feature didn’t help. (We didn’t make it to San Bernardino alle Ossa with its chapel covered in human bones and skulls.)

We landed early on a Thursday morning at the airport at Malpensa with a plan: check into the hotel, walk to Santa Maria delle Grazie, where we had a 1:30 p.m. reservation to see The Last Supper, and catch a couple of minor churches in the neighborhood.

Miraculously, the hotel had rooms ready for us. We freshened up, grabbed map and camera, and headed out. Our route took us along Parco Sempione to its southeastern tip, dominated by Castello Sforzesco. We found a place for a coffee and a bit to eat, standing at the counter in true Italian style. Some flowers were in bloom outside the Castello like a miniature army on march against the last of winter, bravely furling their scarlet standards.

Castello Sforzesco

Our first stop was the Church of San Maurizio on Corso Magenta. Built in the 16th century for Benedictine nuns, it has a front hall for the church-going public, and another hall behind it for the cloistered nuns. Both halls are heavily frescoed.

Front Hall of San Maurizio; Father with Child

The light in the back hall was particularly pleasing, falling on the nuns’ ordered rows of seats. The guidebook noted that on Sundays at 10:15 a.m., a Greek-Albanian mass was held, presumably for the few Greeks who are not Greek Orthodox and the odd non-Muslim Albanian.

Back Hall of San Maurizio, where the nuns hung out.

It was a short walk to Santa Maria delle Grazie, the home of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, or the Cenacolo Vinciano as its known in Italian. We had about an hour to kill and enjoyed it, sitting on a bench in the sun in the piazza in front of the church.

Entrance to Il Cenacolo from the Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie

The fresco is in the refectory or dining hall of the monastery attached to the church. One gets fifteen minutes to view it from a distance of about fifteen feet in groups of no more than thirty at a time. The use of perspective – one of the defining advances of Renaissance art – and the overall symmetry and harmony of the composition are what are most striking. Second, is the deterioration of the painting. Da Vinci’s technique (he’d never done a fresco before) left something to be desired in terms of durability. Over the centuries, several attempted restorations have done damage of their own. Milan was heavily bombed in 1943, and for some years, though the painting itself was undamaged, it remained open to the elements. Nonetheless, it still captivates. Our guide pointed out that the landscape outside the windows behind Christ is a local one with the Alps and a tiny, typical Italian village.

Detail of The Last Supper

The apostles may have been having their last supper, but we hadn’t eaten lunch. Fortunately, there was a café across the street. When I asked if it were too late for lunch, the waiter replied, Non é mai troppo tardi – it’s never too late. The Italians are so good about food!

After lunch, we made our way to the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. Originally built in the 4th century C.E., it was enlarged and altered in the 8th, the 12th, and the 15th, and repaired after the bombing of 1943. It’s light, clean and airy; still Romanesque in feel; and the sunlight lit up the nave.

The Nave of Sant’Ambrogio

Afterwards, we wove around looking for the Roman Amphitheater, only to finally find it under excavation and shrouded by a white, plastic barrier; there was nothing to see.

We found a taxi stand. After a short wait, one arrived, and we headed back to the Leonardo Hotel Milan City Centre, which was not in the City Centre but in Chinatown. Who knew there were cinesi in Milan, much less a Chinatown?

Postcard from New York: The Academy

The New York Adventure Club offers “unique, private, and exclusive tours of lesser-known New York City attractions.” I heard about them from a friend and signed up for their newsletter some time ago.

Earlier this week an upcoming tour caught my eye: a visit to the American Academy of Arts and Letters – “an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers.” Their headquarters – built by McKim, Meade, and White in 1923, who are best-known for designing the original Pennsylvania Station in New York – occupy a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, west of Broadway on 155th Street in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, home to New York’s Dominican immigrant community. Empanadas Monumental and El Patio Mexicano are just across Broadway up one block.

The building in not regularly open to the public. I’ve never been to Washington Heights, never having had a reason to go there before. I’m a writer, or as my friend Kay likes to remind me “an internationally-published, award-winning, and occasionally-compensated poet.” So I was up for the adventure. Seven of us met Lynne, our New York Adventure Club Ambassador, inside the building at 3:30pm on a chilly Friday.

Entrance to the Academy of Arts and Letters

We started in the Members Gallery. The Academy’s membership is capped at 250. They are members for life and pay no dues to belong. New members are elected annually by the current members to fill spots vacated by the deceased.

The Members Gallery showcases photographs and signatures of all the members starting with the founders in 1898 on your left as you enter the gallery and continuing around the room to the most recently-elected members who are now crowding the doorway you entered by on the right. Plans are underway to move the gallery to larger quarters in the building.

In the Members’ Gallery

The vagaries of time and fame are evident in the many members who were completely unknown to me, there alongside those anyone would recognize. I was glad to see some contemporary poets I’ve become familiar with – Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds among them. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was among the first in 1898. Julia Ward Howe of Battle Hymn of the Republic fame was the first woman to be inducted in 1908 at the age of 88. There are those who have refused the offer of membership.

Upstairs we visited the Members’ Meeting Room, which due to its small size is probably only used for committee meetings. The presiding official’s desk, however, evidenced a certain reverence for hierarchy, not to mention the need for control – one wonders how contentious the proceedings get, given the presence of a gavel!

Presiding in the Members’ Meeting Room

Next door, the library – which contains the published works of all members – can be used to accommodate larger gatherings. It’s not an actual library where people hang out to read, write or otherwise work; indeed there were no chairs in sight. Ever thinking about space for poetry readings, I asked if members gave readings there. They do not; the space is not used for readings or recitals. Our host seemed to doubt the willingness of the public to travel to 155th Street. Standing at one end of the room, looking toward two large windows that overlook Trinity Cemetery across the street, I could only longingly imagine rows of chairs and a microphone and stool in front of the windows. A nice little gallery off the library would be perfect for the wine and cheese.

The Library

There’s a 450-seat auditorium in an adjacent building that is reputed to have some of the finest acoustics in the city. Other than its once-a-year use for induction ceremonies, it’s rented out almost daily as a recording studio. But no concerts, recitals or readings are ever given there. The members meet for dinners three times a year in larger gallery-space on the third floor.

In 2005, the Academy purchased the former home of the American Numismatic Society next door and converted it into additional gallery space. There, as a permanent exhibition, the Connecticut studio of composer Charles Ives was installed after being donated upon his death by his family. A glassed-in passage connects the two buildings. Graffiti is still visible on the stone that was the external wall of the Academy building – a memento of the neighborhood according to our host.

Passage to the Gallery Annex

Our tour concluded with the visit to Ives’ studio. I kept thinking about all the beautiful, unused, unavailable space. Maybe trekking to 155th Street is an insuperable barrier. But then again, maybe it isn’t. Wouldn’t it be worth trying?

I left the building and walked up 155th Street to Broadway to wait for the bus outside the cemetery. The #1 train, which I took uptown from Chelsea, would have been quicker, but I wanted to look out the windows and watch how the neighborhoods change as we made our way downtown. I waited almost fifteen minutes for the local bus to stop there, while four or five express buses passed by. I joined the handful of elderly Dominicans and African-Americans already onboard, when it finally arrived.


Postcard from New York: Gettin’ All Smalti on Ya

If you asked any New Yorker if they’d like to spend seven hours in the subway with you – particularly on a weekend when many train lines are not running “normally” (if at all) due to ongoing track work – you would probably get more than just a “No, thanks.” The answer would more likely be, “Are you out of your f*&%ing mind!?”

Recently, a friend from Massachusetts, Su Bailey, asked me the very same question. I met Su on an REI hiking trip in Scotland in 2009. I and four of my family had signed up for hiking around the Highlands. The group was capped at eight people, so three strangers – outnumbered by the Hogles, Slaters and McCarrons – basically found themselves on our family vacation. We made friends; Su and another hiker, Greg, joined us the next year on a hiking trip around Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney Islands. Now, whenever Su comes to New York, we get together.

Among her many talents, Su makes mosaics. She belongs to the New England Mosaic Society, and on December 1st this past year they were doing a tour of some of the mosaics in the New York subway system. They planned to meet at Grand Central Station at 11:00 a.m., tour the subway with a mosaic artist guide, and return to Grand Central at 6:00 p.m. for dinner at the Oyster Bar.

I’m a poet. Suffering for art is in my blood. How could I say no?

Our guide on the mosaics tour was Cathleen Newsham. Cathleen is a mosaic artist who designs, fabricates and installs decorative and functional mosaics for residential and commercial clients, working with architects, interior designers and homeowners.

Cathleen Newsham in the 72nd Street Q line station

Our first stop was on the new Second Avenue Q line at the 72nd Street Station. There, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has a series of three dozen “Perfect Strangers” – the kind of characters that make New York New York; the kind of New Yorkers that when you see them on Halloween, you might ask yourself – Costume or everyday?

One of my favorites was Vik himself done up as a businessman losing the contents of his briefcase.

Vik Muniz’s Self-Portrait as a “Perfect Stranger” Q Line, 72nd Street Station

By the time we got there, it was nearly lunchtime (we were instructed to bring snacks), so I did a very New York thing: I had a bagel with scallion cream cheese in the subway. It’s not illegal; in New York, it may not even be rude. Sometimes, it’s the only time you have to eat.

Three perfect strangers on the Q Line, 72nd Street Station

One stop up on the Q line is the 86th Street Station. Here, paintings by artist Chuck Close are reproduced in mosaics. One can appreciate not only Close’s unique artistry – his manner of painting – but also the incredible artistry of the mosaic fabrication company who translated his paintings into the medium of mosaics.

One of the great things about having an artist like Cathleen guide you through the subway’s mosaics, is that she commented on the techniques in evidence. Mosaics are created using pieces of colored glass and ceramics which in Italian are called smalti. Italian and Mexican smalti are the two main varieties. The circular piece they begin with before it’s broken into smaller bits is called a pizza in Italy and a tortilla in Mexico. Of course.

Take a look at the amazing detail of this eye in a Chuck Close black and white portrait rendered as a mosaic at 86th Street.

Eye in a Chuck Close B&W portrait in the 86th Street Station on the Q Line

In another Chuck Close portrait at 86th Street you can appreciate a painting technique called sfumato, which roughly means smokey in Italian. Leonardo da Vinci is the great pioneer of this technique in which the borderline between colors is not hard and sharp, but somewhat blurry or gradual, which is closer to the way the human eye perceives color distinction. It’s considered to be one of the things that makes the Mona Lisa so beguiling. The skill of the mosaic fabricators in selecting smalti that replicate the sfumato is remarkable.

Sfumato technique in a Chuck Close portrait at 86th Street

Here’s a Chuck Close self-portrait in the entrance to the station. You can appreciate Close’s technique of using concentric ovals of contrasting color to be the “pixels” of the portrait.

Chuck Close Self-Portrait at 86th Street Station on the Q Line

A close-up of the self-portrait attests not only to Close’s genius but, again, to the skill of the mosaic fabricators in replicating it.

Detail around an eye in Chuck Close’s self-portrait at the 86th Street Station

From its beginnings, the New York subway system was a showcase for mosaic art. In many of the stations, the station names on the tiles of the platforms themselves are great works of mosaic art. Sometime in the ’80s when New York embarked on a rehabilitation of its subway stations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided that 1% of the budget for the renovation of any subway station must be dedicated to permanent art in the station.

One of the earlier beneficiaries of this policy was the Delancey Street Station on the F and M line. On the Brooklyn-bound side of the station, Chinese artist Ming Fay created mosaics called “Shad Crossing.” Shad is a fish that was common in New York’s East River and a food source for many immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the neighborhood of Delancey Street.

Detail from Ming Fay’s “Shad Crossing” at Delancey Street Station on the F line

The 23rd Street Station on the F line had been closed forever for renovations. Fortunately for us, two days before our tour, it re-opened. Featured in the renovated station are mosaics based on photographs of William Wegman’s Weimaraners, Flo and Topper. It’s worth noting that the top button on the dog’s jacket below is an actual button.

One of William Wegman’s Weimaraners at the 23rd Street Station on the F and M Line

Our last visit was to the newest subway station. The railway yards in the West 30’s near the Hudson River – Hudson Yards – is undergoing massive real estate development. To service the buildings going up there, the #7 Line which runs crosstown at 42nd Street was extended to 34th Street on the far West Side.

Xenobia Bailey is a fiber artist, who originally crocheted the designs that have been rendered in mosaics in the domed roofs of the station.

Xenobia Bailey’s designs at 34th Street/Hudson Yards Station on the #7 Line

We returned to Grand Central tired, hungry, and inspired. A bunch of us went to the Oyster Bar, where recently a diner discovered a pearl in their meal, according to the internet-enabled kiosks New York has placed around the city. No such luck on our visit, but the coconut fried shrimp was really terrific.

Postcard from the Times: Distribution

As happens from time to time, I received an email that was not intended for me.

Someone was writing to a group of people about an upcoming meeting of the “Alchemy group.” My name must have been among their contacts for another reason, and a slip of a finger added me to their distribution. I’ve occasionally received a reply from someone saying “I think you intended this for another Mary” and indeed I had. So when I received a notice that someone would not be able to make this week’s meeting of the group,  I was not unduly concerned.

Then I started receiving the “reply all’s” – Sorry to hear you won’t be there and I won’t be making it either and Could someone send me the details of what was decided? – etc. etc. I did my own “reply all” and asked politely to be removed from the distribution, acknowledging the unintended error of my inclusion.

No one replied. And I probably should have realized that my request was impossible to fulfill, as no single person was in charge of the “distribution.” The distribution was itself distributed: once the error was out among the group, it would be repeated, as members “replied-all” to old emails in order to communicate with the whole group.

So I continue to receive emails about the goings-on of the mysterious “Alchemy group,” noticing but otherwise ignoring them, as I do with so many emails from websites I bought something from, lists I may or may not have signed up for, and the myriad organizations who somehow have my email address.

Then yesterday, one caught my attention.

A son was responding on behalf of his mother through her email. I take the liberty of quoting from his note:

Just a little update on Mom and Dad.

Dad had a massive stroke just before Thanksgiving and is now in a nursing home… on good days he is aware of what is going on… on bad days, he will only speak Polish (his first language.)

At about the same time, Mom slipped into some bouts with confusion and can no longer live alone.  She is now unable to use her email;  we check it only once in a while and print off only a few things that we know she will read.

If the fates are with us, she might be able to come to a meeting in the spring.

Both my parents have been gone many years now. My sister will post a Facebook remembrance on their birthdays or the dates of their passing. My remembrances are more likely to find their way into poems, with their sometimes complicated or conflicted natures.

In May, I went to a memorial service for the mother of my friend Christine – the first person I became friends with when I moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1976. In those early years in New York, Christine’s family’s home in Connecticut was much closer than mine in Florida, and I was an adopted son there at holidays for many years – a generosity I have never forgotten.

My friends and I are “that age” now. Many I know are going through or have gone through the difficult time of the ageing and demise of parents. I was touched by the details of the communication from this one son to the group to which his mother belonged.

I don’t believe things happen “for a reason.” If anything, I believe in the randomness of things. But I also believe that the same randomness presents opportunities, should we choose to take them.

By accident, I became privy to communications among a group of people I didn’t know. One of those communications was a touching reminder of the ephemerality of our lives, and the value of the connections we have in the brief time we have together.

During this holiday season, in an era that often seems to be lacking in empathy, any opportunity to offer some seemed important.

So I replied to a stranger’s son, offered my sympathy, and wished him and his family joy in their time together.