NYC: Day 6
International Men (and Women!) of Mystery
Rosie, MaceVindaloo, ThePlazaQueen, SteakGrrl, Diana, Wraith6, Runt, Farklempt, Susu, PandaCat, Csillag
We had seen a lot and had juggled our schedules somewhat to see as much as possible, but there were a couple of important ones which fell through the planning cracks. We decided to make the effort to see them today this was really our last possible tourism day in "the city" so if we didn't make it today, we'd have to wait a long while for the next trip!
Several of us are long enough in the tooth when we recall that as young women, our career employment prospects did not include being a director of a company or even a lawyer or doctor. The height of achievement? Not nurse, librarian, or secretary but stewardess (all that international travel!) and United Nations tour guide (so cosmopolitan)! And if we'd mastered German and maybe four or five other languages to be fluent, being a U.N. translator would have been even MORE glamorous after all, who knows from what kingdom one's prince would hark?? Even with today's much more liberal and equalized work climate, the height of glamour for many young women is still being a Rockette or working for the U.N., though not necessarily as a tour guide anymore. Maybe more as undersecretary general!
Plus who in the United States can really say they do not owe this country's immigration policies something? We are all here by the grace of the almighty, the chutzpah of our ancestors to up and leave behind everything they knew, and those who'd let us in. Some of us can trace our ancestry to the boatloads of immigrants from Europe who's first glimpse of "America" was the Lady in the Harbor. The Statue of Liberty is currently closed for renovation, but the Immigration Museum on Eliis Island where nearly all immigrants of that era were processed is open. So we headed first downtown to Castle Clinton to get tickets to ride.
Castle Clinton / Castle Garden is a fortress that once defended the southern tip of Manhattan Island during the War of 1812, though it never had occasion to fire upon the enemy, and later served as a restaurant, opera house, aquarium, and customs and immigration clearing house. The "Clinton" is DeWitt Clinton, the then-mayor of New York, and for whom the state county and the neighborhood formerly known as Hell's Kitchen are named. Dave, the Circle Line tour guide, mentioned that there were maybe nine forts protecting Manhattan at one time, and these were positioned to provide complete coverage for the harbor. Today, the cannons are still here and the old fort serves primarily as the portal to the ferry which takes people to Liberty and Ellis Islands. You get on and off as you please, as long as you catch the last ferry back to Manhattan at dusk, so you can stay as long as you'd like at either place. Castle Clinton also serves from time to time as a concert venue, too that would be awesome to attend!
The castle also is the "gateway" to the Battery Park behind it, which has many memorials within its grounds dedicated to several groups: the Salvation Army, the Walloon Settlers (Belgium), and the East Coast War Memorial, the most impressive. This monument is comprised of columns shaped like scrolls with the names of soldiers lost in the Atlantic battles of World War II. The centerpiece is an very impressive metal eagle in flight, and people were walking within the memorial to read the names and pose for photos. It's actually a very unobtrusive and subtle war memorial not melodramatic like the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., but impressive and quietly proud.
By the way, note that the fortress is officially called "Castle Garden" but those of us who live and grew up in the city have only heard it called "Castle Clinton." It's interesting that like for pedigree dogs, some names only exist on official documentation; locals will choose their own names for features. Like the name of the city is Greater New York, but is never called that; the name of the borough is Manhattan, and the county is called New York, but to the locals, it's simply "the City." Or that the Statue of Liberty's actual name is "Liberty Enlightening the World." Happens all the time. Even the poem by Emma Lazarus, which is inscribed in a plaque mounted on the base of the statue, has a title no one would recognize: The New Colossus. In fact, we don't think anyone would realize it had a title at all, referring to it only by its most famous line: "Give me your poor, your tired ..." Hymns are commonly referred to this way, too ... wonder if there is a tune to go with this? (Like the Star Spangled Banner is based on the British drinking song, To Anacreon in Heaven of the Anacreontic Society, dedicated to "wit, harmony, and the god of wine." And Francis Scott Key, who wrote America's national anthem, did write several church hymns how's that for free association!)
Once we had our tickets we needed to stand in line to go through the security check, but we had not eaten anything yet. Fortunately, there were a couple of pushcarts nearby, so we did another hotdog, pretzel, and soft drink breakfast while waiting. The lines moved briskly and we suddenly needed to finish stuffing the dogs in our faces because the signs said no food could be carried in. They did look into our bags as we chewed, but they didn't seem to mind the comestibles tucked away. We finished them while waiting for the ferry to finish loading passengers.
French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to design and build the statue, and he modeled the face on his mother, but the toga-draped body on that of his mistress. He worked with Gustave Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel) who designed and built the interior support structure, treating it as an architectural tower rather than a statue. The statue was a gift from France to the United States to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America's independence the French Revolution had been inspired by the American, despite the fact that the French nobility actually helped fight and fund the American movement; of course, we all know what happened to the French nobility afterwards. The base was to be paid for by America, but donations were few until Joseph Pulitzer (for whom the Pulitzer Prize was named) shamed Americans into privately donating the funds needed to build the base including the famous contributions of children, who donated their saved pennies. He covered this in the papers, harassed the government, and at last the pedestal was built on Bledoes' Island, one of the fortresses protecting New York Harbor. The base stood atop a French star shaped platform nearly identical to the design of Fort Ticonderoga. Hmm ... identical, possibly because it had been designed and built by the French? It seems to be a little known fact that the New York State-located American Revolutionary-era fortress was in fact built by the French, in the shape of a French star.
Like the Circle Line Tour, this tour did have a guide, but he or she was hard to hear. So for this ride, it's best to buy books or check out the web for facts and figures in advance it will add to your enjoyment and appreciation. There are guidebooks on both Liberty and Ellis Islands, but you could by these on amazon.com or other bookseller, too.
By the way, being federal property held for the American people, there is no admission fee to either Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. The ferry fee however is $10 per adult and under-12's is $4, and that ferry is the only way to get there.
Although Liberty Island was open to the public, the Statue itself was still closed due to security concerns during renovation. It was scheduled to reopen a month after our visit so we decided not to get off the ferry there. A 10-minute loading period allowed passengers to disembark and re-embark to go on to Ellis Island, our next stop. Note: this is a one-direction trip. you can't go back to Liberty Island from Ellis, so if you want to see the Statue of Liberty up-close, get off here and catch a later ferry to Ellis. The ferry backed away from the dock then proceeded on to Ellis Island. It was easy to imagine how beautiful Lady Liberty looked to the tired, frightened immigrants lining the rails of the ships as they sailed into this golden harbor of promise. Imagine their chagrin at having to go through the ordeal on Ellis Island before they could set foot on Manhattan island, where friends and relatives awaited them if they were lucky.
All new arrivals were required to go through a health screening, which could turn out to be the death-knell of their hope for a new life in this new land. Travelers who followed other relatives who had already passed through the gauntlet at Ellis Island benefited from their experience. For instance, all new immigrants had to climb a stairway up to the main hall where they deposited their luggage. Physicians secretly observed them and if they showed difficulty in negotiating the stairs, they were marked for closer examination so that they would not become a burden on the state. To disguise any such difficulties, relatives told them to carry heavy luggage that would affect their movement. Further medical examinations looked for communicable diseases such as trachoma which could lead to blindness. The doctors used button hooks to pull the eyelids out to detect the disease, but the hooks on display in the museum looked more like torture implements. If they failed the medical examination there were two possibilities; they would either be sent back to their home country or, if the disease was treatable, they would be sent to one of two hospitals on the island. If only one member of a group travelling together had to be quarantined, the others faced a difficult choice: Go on to their final destination without their companion or wait in cramped quarters on the island until they could all enter their new home together.
Mental acuity and potential for mental illness were also tested, and many immigrants had to undertake puzzle-type exams, or had to answer questions that established their mental competence. The time required to solve a block puzzle was recorded, and children as well as adults had to undergo them. In some cases, a deportation order could be repealed. For instance, a senile person's relative could arrive to plead to care for them, or an interview could convince the immigration officer that the difference in mental acuity could have been cultural or class-based. A famous case included a woman who refused to show she knew how to sweep stairs; she said in accented English, "I did not come to America to sweep steps." That was enough to prove she understood and could think for herself.
Hygiene was a big concern for immigration; this was an era when the existence of germs as the source of infection and disease was being discovered, and America because obsessed with public cleanliness. The facilities of Ellis Island were swabbed down with cleaning and acid solutions many times a day, and they knew the overcrowding that many immigrants suffered at home was the carrier of many contagious diseases. The system did work for most, in that it did protect public health. And though these third class and steerage passengers had to undergo mentally horrifying (in modern terms) inspections than those who could afford first- or second-class tickets, the system was efficient and people within it were treated fairly and generally without abuse. Still, having undergone the humiliation and uncertainty of these treatments, there are many stories of men coming to America in advance and then toiling long and hard to afford second-class tickets for family members so that they did not have to undergo the inspections.
These stories are so ingrained in the immigrant experience that they became inspiration for stories and the arts both here and in the "old country." Take for instance the popular Irish dance troupe, Riverdance. Their Radio City Music Hall performance included a segment depicting the separation family members endured in the name of immigration the tearful goodbye as a ship left, and the loneliness of waiting, followed by the elation that your ticket has come to join your husband in America. It's a familiar story and resonates because it's based on real events in history. It's a good thing to remember such things, and that we are all the product of decisions made by our ancestors based on situations they chose to change in their lives. One of the Wooklets realized that if not for the decisions of about 16 people, she would otherwise live in Budapest, Amalfi, Quebec, or even Australia ... if she had been born at all! She decided on the spot that America was not such a bad place to be raised, after all. Imagine how bad the conditions "at home" had to be to think going through the Ellis Island inspections was worth it!
Another inspiration in popular entertainment and culture: All shipping companies undertook the aforementioned health exams for passengers upon boarding, for they were responsible for all deportation fees and transport of any disqualified applicants. The companies had to supply accurate manifests to immigration in New York, and not doing so could cost the company dearly. So, immigrants often underwent these tests twice. And you can imagine how harshly they'd deal with stowaways, for if these people were caught without manifests, they became the shipping company's problem. There are legends of these people usually young boys with nothing to lose and no family to miss them being abandoned at sea, or being conscripted to work on the ship or perhaps being "traded" to other work situations. We don't know if any of it is true, but imagine if the story of young Vito Andolini could not have been imagined? If he had not managed to wangle his way through immigration? Or if the immigration officer had been more attentive and realized he was from the town of Corleone, not named Vito Corleone? Why, there'd be no The Godfather a sort of terrible American "success story," in its way. And then there'd be no young Francis Ford Coppola directing that blockbuster to pay the bills of a movie company he founded with another young director named George Lucas ...
The immigration experience is in the background of every American, even those groups who were here when the "old country" realized this rich, fertile, spacious place existed. Everyone came from somewhere else, and no matter which side of the multi-faceted immigration issues you're stubbornly sitting, it's the reality here. Those of us with immigrating relatives we remember know they came mostly by boat, and so our boatride was a pale echo of their experience. But we used our imaginations, even pretending we were denied access to Liberty Island, and were ordered to board one of the overcrowded barges to take us to Ellis Island for "processing."
The museum renovated and duplicated as much as possible the main building a Beaux Arts institutional orange-red brick building. While it's true that iron railings to channel the hoards of people passing through daily did exist, and fencing was often used to separate groups, those of us with experience in crowd control didn't think it was particularly onerous. However, an immigration officer processing thousands of arrivals daily would have had a challenge communicating amidst the hundreds of languages and dialects in the echoing cacophony of the registry room. Today's visitors retrace the route the immigrants of 1918 to 1924, they heyday of Ellis Island. It's estimated that over 40% of Americans can trace at least one ancestor's entry into America through here.
Though not burdened with all our worldly possessions, we did get the feel of the experience by retracing the steps of hopeful immigrants. In place of the machine of processing were signs, displays, and illustrated statistics pertinent to immigration, both through here and in general. The height of immigration occurred during America's "open door policy" years, when a mere 2% of applicants were deported. Over time, American immigration became more exclusionary, as more government departments became involved (such as the labor department, in recognition of immigration as a source of legal labor), international conditions deteriorated or treaties signed, and attitudes of the public altered. The fears and hopes of people hoping to exclude or include immigrants are basically the same now as back then: jobs, hygiene, social welfare, etc.
The ceiling of the Registration Hall is 56-feet high, and lined with interlocking terracotta tiles a system designed by Italian immigrant Rafael Guastavino, based on ancient Catalonian Spanish techniques. He and his young son both of whom passed through Ellis Island set 28,832 self-supporting tiles in a grid that proved to be so light, strong, fireproof (a concern since the original ceiling was destroyed by German saboteur / terrorists in 1916 when a munitions barge was exploded in New Jersey), economical, and durable that when restoration of the badly decaying building commenced in 1986, only 17 had to be replaced!
When Ellis Island closed as a processing depot, it was allowed to decay and even went on the bidding block in the 1950s. During the post-Kennedy years, the Island and all its contents were placed under the protection of the National Park Service, which designated it as part of the Statue of Liberty monument. In 1976 the dilapidated building was opened to the public for the Bicentennial, which had the effect of raising public awareness of the condition of the "magnificent wreck." Though Congress had allocated a million dollars to the upkeep of the place, it only managed to rebuild the seawall (the island is mostly landfill) to prevent it from being washed out to sea!). Private monies were donated and both monuments were closed to the public in order to start renovation in the early 1980s. The Statue of Liberty reopened on her Centennial, and Ellis Island reopened in 1990.
Since our group consisted of immigrants as well as second and third generation, Ellis Island was especially intriguing. Our own heritage was closely tied to the place. The exhibits of the types of clothing, personal items, and sentimental tokens from home dramatically illustrated the lives and the almost incomprehensible life change arriving here meant to the over 12 million who passed through Ellis Island. We took photos from one of the upper floor windows toward Manhattan, wondering how many people had peered at the view, and thought to themselves, So close!
But the restoration of this World Heritage Site brought modern technology onto the scene as well. A huge database of immigrant records and ship manifests was created and it is designed to be completely searchable. We tried to find some family records, but found out that you have to have as much information as possible to run a successful search. We didn't find our family records then, but the Ellis Island database is also accessible through the Internet. After asking family members for recollections of first names, hometown, port of embarkation, ages, year of entry, etc., we tried again and Voila! There was Great-great-grandpa! It's estimated that over 100 million Americans have a relative who'd passed through Ellis Island as an adult or child.
In addition to the computer searching stations and displays of artifacts found during restoration, there were many graphic displays: enlarged photos of the immigrants on the ships and in various places there on Ellis Island and many graphs and tables illustrating various immigration statistics. There was even a display of the graffiti'd pieces of plastered walls from the many hospital buildings used throughout the history of this immigration station. Some were names and dates in pencil, some used the blue chalk that the medical inspectors had marked them with for "further inspection." Many were poetic laments about this awful place where they were contained till their illness cleared up or perhaps they were awaiting legal resolution or deportation.
The Immigration Museum consists of three floors of exhibits and displays using sound, video, photographs, etc. which you walk through at your own pace; there isn't a tourguide, so it's more like other traditional museums. "Artifacts" on display include things left behind by immigrants, through neglect, death, or we wondered if perhaps some was offered as bond against the possibility of becoming a ward of the state (meaning you swore you could support yourself). These items included clothing, national costumes, even what look like wedding dresses. There were also official documents, tickets, books, bibles, letters.
The guidelines indicate you need to allow three hours to tour the museum, but we could have spent many more hours absorbing all of this fascinating history, but we were suddenly reminded that we had a lunch date midtown! One honorary Huttie actually came down from Glenburnie to see us, we mustn't disappoint! We imagined the immigration process, so many hours of waiting ... waiting ... worrying ... wondering ... not even having a cellphone to let your relatives know you'd arrived safely ... and then suddenly ... you're done! Your name is announced, you get your things together and you are directed down the stairs to the aptly named "Kissing Post" at the bottom of which was a gate where relatives clustered to collect you, and often, they'd waited there for as long as you had waited on the other side! Imagine embracing husbands you hadn't seen in years, fathers you'd never consciously viewed, children who were still in the womb when you left to make a new life ... no wonder it's the Kissing Post!
For us, we were disappointed to have to leave, but we'll be sure to come back next time and spend a whole day here and at Liberty Island, when the Lady of the Harbor is open to the public. It's weird, but it's a promise we're sure millions have made before us, and we're sure we won't be the last.
The ferry ride gave us many opportunities for photos of the islands and the south-facing Manhattan skyline. Though New York no longer reigns as the home of the tallest skyscrapers Kuala Lumpur has the tallest these days, and many cities around the world tout towers built especially to create a tall thing it really doesn't need to be. The skyline from almost any angle makes up in glamour what it may lack in absolute height.
A note about the area on this end of Manhattan -- this area was completely covered with debris from the collapsed buildings on 9/11. One of us in the group actually witnessed receipts and the previous day's faxes fluttering down in sheeting storms, along with dust and ash. She told of climbing over knee-high and higher piles of debris to try and get out of the area. Her friends had just bought new condos in Battery Park City, and they couldn't get into the area for a long time, not even to gather pets! Since so much had fallen here, no one trusted that the buildings would stand. But they did, and the area had been cleaned up so you'd never know anything had happened, especially when the sun is shining and the sea sparkles. Well, it is called the "battery" after all, where canons were meant to batter the city.
We took the Lexington Avenue subway line to 34th Street by first taking the express 4 or 5 up to 14th Street, then changing to the local 6. It got us midtown in less than 20 minutes from the Battery, not bad! We even got there a bit early, so we sat down and studied the menu and repacked our souvenirs: some books, postcards, fridge magnets, candy we were proud we haven't succumbed to absolute junk, though the temptation is everywhere.
One thing French bistros like Chez Laurence do well is pâté, so we ordered the ultra-smooth mousseline and the rougher textured, chunkier pâté de campagne. They also do amazing toast, made with sandwich loaves made with brioche dough. This place is actually not really a French bistro, but it affects it very well. There are giant movie posters lithographs in French (even for Hollywood movies) framed and mounted on the walls, the tables are marble-topped, and the waitresses have Polish accents. The food is pretty decent, well priced, and they have daily specials and "safe" stuff for Americans wanting French ambiance without the weird food. In summary, nice atmosphere; beautiful, sexy, clueless waitress; okay-level food, but the pâté was awesome!
The important thing is that we did meet the honorary Huttie and we had a great time catching up and getting tips for future trips to New York and everywhere else. She's very knowledgeable and she was happy to see us, and we congratulated ourselves again for arranging to meet part-time Undercover Tourists over meals anywhere in the city.
Another good reason to have lunch here: we could make a right turn and head for the United Nations! The land this international organization sits on is officially not actually part of the United States. In fact, the US owes fees to the U.N.! The land was originally purchased by John Rockefeller and donated for use by the U.N. because New York was seriously stalling on ceding land for this purpose, and there was purportedly talk that the U.N. might end up in Philadelphia. Not being able to endure such a thing Rockefeller must have considered it a slap against his beloved New York he ended up closing the argument by simply buying the land so that New York didn't have to.
However, the U.N. does benefit from it's "proximity" to NYC and freely welcomes the presence of NYPD officers. One of us remembers when the first Gulf War was fought, there were horse-mounted police wading through crowds of protesters who were walking down the very same street to holler at the U.N. But being separate from the U.S., they have their own postage and "post office" we had great fun sending ourselves mail from "overseas." It's a nice, cheap souvenir, and as little as we spent on stamps, it goes to the works and operations of this great organization.
Tours are offered many times a day, and they run about 45 minutes. The guides who give them speak nearly every language on the earth, so no matter where you come from, you have no excuse not to understand what goes on in this building. A group of 30 followed the guide to several of the council meeting rooms, including those familiar to us from television news broadcasts and movies. We all searched for the markers for our own or our ancestors' countries, and noted the many new countries were squeezed in, too. We don't know why New Zealand was seated close to the front, and Hungary to the back ... but we think it was because the New Zealand delegation misbehaves, so has to sit by the General Secretary ...
Our tourguide was Chinese, and she did an admirable job of answering the random questions that were asked throughout the tour, albeit with an accent that was sometimes difficult to decipher for the hicks and rubes and non-Chinese among us. She gave us the answer to the question about seating the countries are rotated annually by a combination of lottery and alphabetizing, by row. That way, countries with names starting with "A" don't always sit in front, and those with "Z" aren't always in the back. It's too simple, but symbolically appropriate, we thought.
The tourguide did make some flubs though. She insisted on mispronounced the country of Niue (pronounced "Noo-aye") as "Neh-yoo" and was quite annoyed at being corrected. The person in our group who happens to have some Niuean in him was much more annoyed at the guide's refusal to pronounce the tiny country's name properly. We teased him that this is how wars are started ...
The current Secretary-General is Kofi Annan of Ghana, and he has a really tough job as the 7th person to hold this position. His background in Economics, Science, Technology and Management make him very qualified for this important job, but his job must still make him feel like he's occasionally taking stupid pills ... Actually, our world never seems happy to be at total peace, and every Secretary-General has had to express "outrage" and "disappointment" when humans demonstrate their capacity to express their hatred and ignorance, then act accordingly to try and make things as right for as many as possible. Can you believe in this day and age that Annan has to draft plans to prevent genocide??
Annan was elected immediately after another African Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was not elected to a second 5-year term over the genocides and debacles in Africa during his term. The rule is that if your region serves two terms minimum, another continent gets a chance, but Mr. Annan impressed the U.N. enough to advocate another term. Asia will go again next; North American and Oceania have yet to have a Secretary General.
We discovered that if you want to be Secretary General, you'd better have a rather giddy name. The seven so far: Gladwyn Jebb, Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan. These are all essentially really cheerful, fun names, and we think that's a great requirement. (Note that this organization has been going for nearly 70 years, and there have only been seven Secretary Generals!).
There are many council meeting rooms, and we saw several of them. There are several major councils, including the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the UN Economic and Social Council, the UN Trusteeship Council, the UN Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice. These were designed in the 1950s and 60s and the style does reflect this, but it's not all Austin Powers here. The architectural style and interiors reflect the fact that this was meant to be an organization with promise for the future of the world. This idealized message still lives through the design, and we agree that it's a very important thing to remember.
The UN does many things, including help territories and protectorates attain status as independent countries. Like a business, it's not simply a matter of designing your own flag and having a party there are so many factors to consider and as a neutral entity, these new countries have enjoyed support never before available. From the dozens of colonies and "protectorates" there are only four left today; since being controlled as a colony was identified as a major source of violent conflict, it was important that these countries be allowed to self-govern without being threatened later.
We were very impressed with the many gifts of art from many member countries. All were meaningful and culturally significant, and in many cases they took on international themes and the hopes for peace. There was not a single gallery location, but rather since the art media and sizes varied greatly, they were placed in their most appropriate settings. Several were mounted outside as public art; paintings were of course mounted traditionally on walls, and more delicate sculptures were enclosed in glass coffins and set inside. Perishable or easily damageable materials were also placed inside in hallways and lobbies.
Noteworthy pieces included a metal sculpture of a gun with its barrel tied in a knot, frilly New Zealand carved wooden tikis, a mural donated by Nancy Reagan which is a mosaic based on a Norman Rockwell painting originally depicting the men, women, and children of the world as immigrants to America. There is a replica of Sputnik, hanging high above the entry foyer, and a Thai canoe delicately carved. At six feet long, it's about 1" to 1' scale, making it about 72 feet long if built to full scale. There is also an ivory piece made by over 100 Chinese craftsmen for a period of two years it's highly ornate and totally unbelievable.
There are ceremonial shields, a mosaic depicting the entry to a mosque, brightly polished steel drums, dollhouse-like palaces, a tapestry depicting the Chernobyl disaster, African wall hangings (reminiscent of seeing The Lion King last night!), a Japanese lantern set in a virtual rock garden, a huge brass sculpture of a cracked mechanical orb ... it was better than many museums, if for no other reason than these are meant to represent what the people themselves consider to be a piece of them, to be shown to the world.
Other things are memorials and monuments to disasters and acts of men to be ashamed of -- a statue of Jesus bearing a lamb comes from Hiroshima, damaged by the atomic blast that effectively ended World War II and that era of war. There is also a display dedicated to indiginous cultures, their art ... and in some sad cases, their extinction.
There are also artifacts from the missions the U.N. has been obliged to launch. Things like helmets and berets, in the blue color representing the United Nations forces. One of us had heard a tale about why this shade of blue was chosen it seems that no country at the time used that powder or bright blue. Since then, it appears some countries did pick up the color, but usually in combination with other colors. The U.N. uses the blue on its own. Several of us loved the color and asked if the berets were for sale? Alas no, the uniforms need to be exclusive. We understood, but were totally bummed out!
To counter the idealized art and ethos of this organization, there are photograph exhibits of landmines and their aftermath. It seems that hate and distrust is a default human condition, but we were all grateful that a place like the U.N. exists, even with all its faults. After all, many of us truly believe that people are good and noble underneath the fear, but we often need a "Big Brother" to scold us into behaving once in a while.
There are several shops and the aforementioned U.N. post office at the conclusion of the tour. The proceeds from all sales go to UNICEF, the U.N. organization dedicated to aiding and saving the children of the world. Many of us remember the Halloween boxes we filled with pennies and nickels from door to door to send here toward those good works. Many of us also recalled the children of America giving their pennies toward the building of the base of the Statue of Liberty. This is a similar act: children helping children. What more motivation do we need to buy souvenirs, guilt-free? (Well, we'd have trouble sleeping if we didn't support UNICEF!) We got books, magnets, postcards, mugs, and sent a lot of mail to people we knew, "Guess where we are!" or "Hello from no-man's land, off the coast of the USA." Heehee!
Despite the packed content of the tour, it actually only took less than an hour, and we found ourselves out of the building too early to go to dinner. Some of the Hutties had never seen so many diplomatic license plates in one place, so we sat in the mini-park across the street from the U.N. The big, black sedans rolled in with gravity and purpose to take the delegates and diplomats away for their evening obligations we hardly would believe they'd be going home for ramen noodles and a night of the boob tube! We made up little stories about which ones looked most like Borssk Fel'ya and which might have been Princess Leia ... then to shake off the dorkiness, we trotted off to Dunkin' Donuts and had fruity blended drinks to fortify us for the walk toward midtown for dinner.
We'd crossed time and space today, from the huge waves of European immigration through Ellis Island to the modern hope for world peace and the end to humans suffering in this life. So for dinner, we thought long and hard about where we'd like to have our final dinner in New York City. But we'd already experienced very "New York" restaurants, from delis to fantasy hotels and classic restaurants. The one thing we hadn't experienced yet was "American food" from a foreigner's point of view. When people outside of America look at what Americans love to eat, it's hard to beat barbecue as our festival food of choice! But is it possible to find such a thing in the Big City?
Not only is it possible, but it turned out to be incredible. Blue Smoke is a Danny Meyer restaurant he owns the service- and great food-oriented legendary Gramercy Tavern, and in the short time Blue Smoke has been opened, it has been noted for authentic barbecue and "sides" and for it's New York funk and level of service. In addition, we had what we at the 'Hut call a "guest star" a person who is a guest of a Huttie, but who has no clue what we're about. He was here on business from way overseas, spoke no English, and was totally unprepared for what he'd find in New York. In fact, it was his first time out of Japan! This was going to be fun!
Our general habit at WookieeHut dinners is to order way too much food, but this time we outdid ourselves, for the portions at Blue Smoke are so huge that they can only be described as colossal. We wanted to see if this place really was the real deal, so we got one of everything. We moaned over the hushpuppies, the fry bread, the superlatively gluey mac-n-cheese! We groaned at the huge racks of ribs: St. Louis, Memphis, and Kansas City the major styles for pork ribs in this country. We got beef ribs done in the Texas manner, rubbed with salt and pepper before they hit the smoke. We order marbled brisket (why on earth would anyone order it lean? We feel, as most Jewish deli owners do, that if God had meant for us to eat lean brisket, he wouldn't have imbued cows with so much darned fat!), fried chicken, pulled pork ... we got grilled vegetables, as well as classic creamed spinach. It was Americana at it's finest, and who would have thought it was attainable in midtown New York?? The "guest star" was stunned, that's for sure. He didn't say much throughout, just staring at the huge portions and thinking Americans must be VERY wild folks, indeed!
Desserts were things like purple cows, orange creamsickles, sticky toffee pudding, cupcakes, brownie sundaes ... you know, stuff Americans have in their dreams and in novels about idealized American childhoods. This place is another fantasy place, and we're so glad we came here, even if we had to schlep many, many bags of leftovers home on the subway! We'd stuffed ourselves stupid and we STILL had to schlep. Oy, we felt like amateurs!
Because Blue Smoke is so popular even on a school night, we were forced to accept an early reservation for dinner. We've noted that New Yorkers prefer to dine later for all three meals, so 6:30 to 9pm are the most popular dinner times. Our reservation allowed us to eat (it was still way crowded), then miss the worst of rush hour on the subway. Still, it was interesting to experience a taste of the real crowd-packing commuting. We don't know how people can stand to do this twice a day, five days a week, but we did notice that most people listened to music, read novels or the paper, or even took naps whether standing or sitting. We'd heard that NYC is a great place to "disappear" you can live inches from someone and no know anything about them. We can see how that can happen when you live with so many around you you lose the obligation to greet and smile and you are truly anonymous. No matter what ethnicity, style, disfigurement, etc. you suffered, it was possible for a person to blend into the crowds in this most diverse of American cities.
We got back to Queens thoroughly tired ... we changed into comfy clothing and enjoyed releasing our feet from shoes. It was still early, but we had no intention of going out again and settled for piling onto couches and cushions to sip our cool drinks. One of the younger Hutties found Guys & Dolls, released on DVD, and excitedly told us about how her school had done a production of this classic Damen Runyon-based musical. She threatened to sing the songs unless we could watch the DVD. What choice did we have? Besides, it takes place on the streets and sewers of New York we could enjoy the parallels with our tourism, even if we have to listen to the enthusiastic among us singing along with Frank Sinatra.
We love this version of the production, but many of us remember the 1990s production starring the likes of Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, and Tom Wopat. We noted how many of the songs were reconfigured or added/deleted to deal with the talents (or limitations of) Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Brando surprised many of the younger set, who had only known him as the Godfather Don Corleone or Jor-el, the father of Superman. They hadn't known him as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire or Johnny in the Wild One, when he was young, sexy, buff, troubled like a darker James Dean. They knew about the troubled man who's son had murdered his daughter's boyfriend and the corpulent, Jabba-like man who eschewed civilization, much like the renegade Green Beret Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. This Brando could sing, he could dance. And he showed his method acting skills by being Obidiah "Sky" Masterson. And the very next day, we read the news that Marlon Brando was dead at age 80. While we swear we had nothing to do with the master's death, we did feel a comic twinge hit us as we thought back on how we applauded his life and movies, despite his later oddness. Rest in peace, Sky.
Our final full day in New York City connected us to the world, to America, and to the history that binds us all together. Sure, Obiwan says it's the Force, but on earth, what binds us is more than duct tape it's our commonness, even if we are brothers in war and oppression, making it necessary to leave everything we know behind to try something new in a new land; making it necessary to create an organization to mediate the worst of what we can be; and our love of entertainment and entertainers so that we can be enriched in heart and mind and spirit ... the American dream is a wondrous thing, don't you agree? (Despite its faults, of course!) We were frankly surprised to see it demonstrated so clearly in a place like New York, which seems to revel in it's negative press. Well, now we know its secret: this is a great town, after all!
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