January 21, 2018

NYC Diary: Summer in the City

I spent a good deal of the summer up in NYC; two weeks in July, almost three in August leaving after Labor Day…“New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.” That saying was around before I was a kid but I’ve never understood it. I’ve always believed (and argued vehemently) that the exact opposite is true. When you live in NY you instinctually understand how to survive NY: how to navigate a battalion of pedestrians marching at you, how to calculate whether to take a cab, a bus or a subway to your destination, how to spot scammers and bullies before they spot you. You also acquire an internal database how to enjoy the city: which plays must be seen in previews, the cheapest prices and sales on clothes, electronics and ethnic food, the least crowded times to view a museum, the freebies available in summer months, the spots in Central Park that are great on a Sunday afternoon. When you’re a New Yorker you become PART of the city: its pace becomes your pace, its noise level becomes yours, its structured chaos is the framework of your life and most of the time you don’t even notice how dirty it is (well, I said MOST of the time!). I am a part-time New Yorker now and I’m losing some of that; I see the sweaty crowd advancing against me– typing on blackberries, talking on phones, ignoring everything in their path and I react like I’m seeing the shuffling mob on THE WALKING DEAD. I scan back and forth, back and forth on a street corner anxious about cabdrivers who drive like they’ve never left Karachi. And now that I’m a visitor I realize even more: New York is a better place to live than to visit…There is a new procedure at some bus stops (but not all). You have to use your Metrocard to buy a slip of paper BEFORE you get on the bus and then show the driver a receipt. The bus will not accept your Metrocard. There are no signs telling you this is necessary but there are blue kiosks selling receipts at the bus stop. I was thrown off the bus along with a dozen other tourists. It’s supposed to speed things up but it took minutes to explain to us why we couldn’t ride the bus even though we had Metrocards!… ’NYC Restaurant Week’ expanded to ‘Restaurant Month’ and then ‘Restaurant Summer’ (beginning mid-July and extending until Labor Day!). I had some excellent meals (Fishtail by David Burke, Toaloache in the Theater District) but with a glass of wine and a tip that $35 bargain is never less than $60. Some bargain!…I passed Steve Kroft of ‘60 Minutes’ dining al fresco at Café Boulud by Lincoln Center and our eyes met. He looked at me as if he knew who I was and appeared about to speak to me but I kept walking. Was I imagining it?…Why do tourists take pictures of a) window displays and b) themselves standing in front of store logos like Prada, Gucci and Hollister? Don’t they have stores where they live?…New York Magazine had an ink black cover asking: ‘IS AMERICA DEAD?’ (reminiscent of that famous TIME cover about G-d.) That brightens your day (well, at least “GM IS ALIVE!”)… I was reading the Daily News on a subway platform and an article made me laugh out loud. Two older women behind me asked what in the news could be so funny. I told them a new poll revealed that New Yorkers were more inclined to vote for a Muslim than a ‘Born Again’ Christian. The genial women turned frosty: ‘Well I don’t think that’s funny. I’m a born again Christian!” Oops! ….In Central Park there’s a beautiful line of elms sheltering a lane that leads uptown to the bandshell. Its one of my favorite spots and is called Literary Walk because its studded with statues of authors. Shakespeare is there, two Scottish writers and someone named Fitz-Greene Hallick?!?.


Where are Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Faulkner, Williams, O’Neal, Miller? Wouldn’t it be great to make a Literary Walk a celebration of great American authors? And use it as an environment to inspire kids to read? You could present readings from passages by these authors in the temperate months and perform scenes from our great plays. And you could present the space as a favored place under the trees for readers to spend time with books (and okay, E-readers too!) …Does anyone know if New Yorkers are the only ones who lift up the newspapers and take one from the middle when buying a paper? Do people in other places do this too?….I saw a beautiful Monarch butterfly flitting above the street on Lex and 59th and asked: “Where the hell did you come from?!?!”….I went to The Highline for the first time.


Its an elevated walkway in Chelsea with wildflowers, weeds and a few modern art installations. It was attractive and interesting for a short while and it certainly is preferable to the rusted elevated roadway it was once–but I just don’t see the big deal. As they say ‘Meh’ (Actually does anyone EVER say that or only write it on a computer?) …Overheard on THE HIGHLINE: Young woman in tight shorts: “It’s so incredible. Like I’m learning so much about my relationships now. And I feel like I’m contributing which I never did when I was a bartender!”….The Empire Diner is still open. How many nights did I end up there after clubbing, eating a chili omelet and playing the rickety piano?…I saw some wonderful art exhibitions: 1. Larger than life Richard Avedon portraits of the Chicago 7, the skinny tied and uniformed men of the Vietnam Era Defense Department, Andy Warhol and his naked ‘Factory’ crew 2. An art exhibition inspired by the Marx Brothers with new works relating to them, memorabilia (including Harpo’s wig) and some paintings by Harpo Marx which were better than alright. One of the commentary cards described the Marx Brothers as ‘occupying a form that needs disruption and then destroying it from the inside.’ I can identify with that… 3. Most of all I was fascinated by the Rineke Dijkstra exhibit at the Gugganheim which included a series of pictures of adolescent kids at that moment when they’re as awkward as baby chicks right out of the shell, contorted between childhood and young adulthood. As different parts of the psyche and body grow at different speeds its as if they are wonderous and afraid of what life is doing to them. She photographed them in color in swimwear on the beach highlighting vulnerability, naïve pride, fear and insecurity. Also she shot a month by month series of portraits of a pimply teenager who joined the French Foreign Legion transforming into a hardened soldier. And a video installation of an elementary school class of 12 and 13-year-olds interpreting a Picasso without adult supervision. All quite fascinating and unique…At Columbus Circle in front of the Time/Warner Center a blind man is shouting for help catching the M3 bus. The bus is pulling up and some joker grabs his arm and leads him directly away from the bus. He looks to the crowd smiling at his cleverness and putting a finger across his lips not to warn the blind man what’s happening. I go up, stop it, and try to lead him to the bus stop as the prankster runs off. But we are too late. The bus is pulling away. I ask the blind man if he can take any other bus and he starts screaming at me: ‘No! I want the M3 bus and I want it now. I want what I want when I want it!” No good deed goes unpunished… When you’re tired of NYC you’re tired of life. I know it was said about London but that was centuries ago. I’m not tired of NY. I’m not tired of life. But when one gets older one does get tired more quickly—no matter where you are!…and why are the days so short in Florida?



I know. How could I praise one of the Koch brothers?!? I shudder every time I walk into Lincoln Center and see David Koch‘s name on the wall. David and Charles Koch are notorious for supporting extreme right wing causes including the Tea Party. If you are progressive they are the most dangerous corporatist bete-noirs of our age.

David and Charles are the most (in)famous of the clan but many people don’t know that there are actually four Koch brothers, the sons of an engineer who discovered a better way to retrieve gasoline from refining heavy oil early in the Twentieth-Century. Actually, two of the brothers are twins, David and Bill, but as the Village Voice pointed out in a 2011 profile: “In the shadow of his brothers’ Tea Party fame, Bill Koch seems almost like a normal billionaire.” Which doesn’t mean we share an obvious affinity. In 2010, Forbes Magazine estimated Bill Koch’s wealth at $3.4 billion and he uses those billions to support Republican candidates and stifle renewable energy projects among other things. No Thurston Howell, he also is an amateur yachtsman who blew $65 million to win the Americas Cup in 1992.

But another of his hobbies is one that interests me: preservation of historical artifacts. Bill Koch buys and collects American Western memorabilia and artwork and he has a collection that will knock your socks off. You may have read that he recently bought the the only existing photo of BILLY THE KID for $2.3 million.

Billy the Kid's $2.3 million dollar tint type

But that is just the cherry on the sundae. His collection includes stagecoaches, wagons, rifles, Native American clothing and weaponry, Custer’s guidon (military flag) recovered from THE LITTLE BIG HORN, Custer’s yellow deerskin glove, a lock of his goldenhair, his folding chair, Sitting Bull’s breast plate and rifle worn at the battle, the gun that shot Jesse James, Pat Garret’s folding rifle that was in his hands when he was gunned down, actual Indian scalps (!) hanging from spears, memorabilia from Western brothels, saddles, Wyatt Earp’s vest and the Marshall’s star pinned to it, a vast array of cowboy hats, chaps and boots, 150 antique guns and knives-many belonging to famous outlaws and lawmen, a Howitzer cannon from 1867 and a large plexiglass case filled with gold nuggets mined in the West that must be worth a fortune just in itself! And then there is the artwork: original sculptures and paintings from Remington and Russell, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, sepia photos and landscapes.

Bill Koch with Custer's guidon recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield

Bill Koch lives in Palm Beach (not far from David Koch). I can’t imagine how he keeps this collection (1.5 million objects) in his home, (like Fibber McGee’s closet?!?), but for a few months much of it was exhibited at the Four Square Arts Center in Palm Beach and I had a chance to see it. The museum was bursting with memorabilia and art to the point that some of it had to be hung in the hallway while wagons and coaches were set outside on the lawn of the museum.

Clearly this avalanche of artifacts could be overwhelming but breaking it into smaller displays made it easier to digest. These divisions include Native Americans, Women in the West, Mining, Saloon, The Brothel, Cowboy Life, Economic Growth and Migration, Indian Wars and Firearms.

It is jaw dropping to be inches away from the pennant recovered from the Custer-Sitting Bull Battlefield and to actually touch the table where Billy the Kid’s corpse rested after his assasination, but there were many unexpected things I found here as well.

After Dodge City, Bat Masterson became a newspaperman in NYC. He died in 1921, not in a gunfight but slumped over a typewriter writing his last editorial. His final words included these: “There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.” Wow! A progressive message preserved and promoted by a Koch brother!

Wyatt Earp's vest, badge and guns

The gun collection here is awesome, from rifles to derringers to pepperboxes and revolvers. One can viscerally understand how firearms became indelibly linked to the American experience. I’m not a gun nut, (although my brother is!) yet I was struck by the artistic beauty and craftsmanship of these pieces.
I hadn’t thought about the pepperbox in years. Pepper-box revolvers have multiple barrels that revolve about a central axis and there were several odd looking, fascinating examples here. Some derringers were so small you could hide them in the palm of your hand.

I was also shocked to see how closely my own toy gun from childhood resembled the actual Colt 45 Peacemaker, even down to the metal engraving and pearl handled grip.

Real or toy? Hint: This one doesn't shoot caps!

For my generation Western mythology was a big part of our childhoods. I remember how much we cherished that old air rifle. The barrel was blocked so it could not shoot out anything dangerous but there was a way to pour baby oil into a small barrel hole so it would waft smoke. That seemed so neat! And, boy did it make a LOUD bang! One day my brother (another brother, not the one with the guns) swung it like Davy Crockett when we got into a fight with neighborhood toughs. The neighborhood kids used to play cowboys (no Indians) dividing into rival teams from Eggert Place and Dickens Avenue, sneaking up and ambushing the other team. And I remember the night we were caught, roped and tied to the monkey bars in the playground until our parents came to rescue us for dinner!

My brother Brian, the Cowboy!

The Wild West inhabited a large part of our imaginations growing up and yet it seems to hardly exist for kids growing up today. Comic book super heroes have taken its place. Will that change in childhood role modeling, divorced from national history and actual heroism, make a difference to this new generation of Americans as they grow into adults?

The Palm Beach exhibit was open only a few months but this collection really cries out for a museum of its own. If we are lucky, Bill Koch will bequeath one someday as a legacy. I may abhor his brother’s name on Lincoln Center but I wouldn’t mind passing through the doors of a Western museum with Bill Koch’s name on it. Its not like he just wrote a check. He spent time, money and effort to gather all these important artifacts in one place and I have to admit, many of my favorite museums (The Frick, The Gardiner, the Neue, The Barnes, the Getty) were created by wealthy robber barons, businessmen and socialites. Collections like these, motivated by personal passions also display a unique individual taste and touch often lacking in professionally curated museums.

Finally, in an interview about this exhibit Bill Koch admitted: “Collecting all this stuff, I’ve become somewhat anti-Manifest Destiny.”

Which might indicate that even for a Koch brother there is hope for personal growth.