Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Big Apple Chopsticky: Fish Eyes in Chinatown to Circus Highs at Coney ...

New York! New York! Yes, it’s a wonderful town, I guess -- when it’s not raining, and if I could only remember the subway to the Gershwin Hotel. The R, David. The R. And if Billy Elliot was only half price. And if those officious Billy Rose reference librarians would only conform to but one set of rules. Olive, come back!

New York, New York: Why did I ever agree to sample a fish eye in Chinatown? Getting ominously closer to an offer that seemed so amusing at first, now I’m bracing for a breakdown. Might need an ambulance standing by downstairs. Oakland friend Boyi invited me to meet his grandparents down there. Fine. But then I kept kidding him about his taste for fish eyes. And he responded in kind. "I'll have my grandmother make you one," promised he. I smiled. Now I'm cringing. People hearing about my date with exotic far eastern edibles make faces and groan. Big easy laugh, sure. What a clown gag this one would make.

But first, my entrance. Amtrak clangs into the Big Apple less than an hour late on Monday evening. The air is balmy fine upon escape out of schizophrenic Penn Station. Workaday people above a mass of streaming humanity. Merging into the crowd is a rare tonic. No place like. Gershwin is better each time. There's a picture of a young Walt Disney in the lobby. In my room, a huge, very heavy painting of Picaso over my bed, held to the wall only by the wire over hook affair, inspires visions of a cracked cranium. Mine. Stay with me here; I come from earthquake country. So I call the front desk and share my silly unease.

“Would you like us to remove the painting?” guy with French accent asks. How nice, I answer. Yes, please.

Tuesday morning, I meet Boyi and his friend Michelle for a “walk” through Central Park that feels more like a photo-snapping festival. We all live, I have concluded, to produce scrapbooks — or fake admiring facebook friends. Here are some shots. This park of parks, a glorious collaboration between nature and high art, unfolds like a Vincente Minnelli panorama. I envy the homeless here ... We walk miles, it seems, then wander into the Natural History museum, where Boyi’s inner director takes over, casting me into some audacious poses ...

Later, I’m touring a Chinatown I’ve never seen, because it does not look like San Francisco’s Grant Avenue version of a China that never existed. Boyi shows me the scrappy old building in which he and his family lived, all five in one bedroom, after arriving from China in 1998. And that evening, yes, THAT evening is upon me, up there at THAT place where IT is about to happen.

With Boyi translating through two languages, I talk to his charming grandfather, Mr. Yuan, who farmed in the Chang Dong province of China where Boyi was raised, and lived through the cultural revolution. “Everybody survived on one half cup of rice each day,” said Mr. Yuan. “And, they would scrape things off the ground like grass,” added Boyi, “to cook into the rice.”

And then, the moment you've been waiting for. Around a table of trepidation — lovely Chinese cuisine, thank you, Boyi’s smiling grandmother, there it is: THE fish and THOSE eyes. Relief. They are SMALL. Boyi chopsticks one of them elegantly out of its socket and plucks it into his mouth. I follow suit, impressing my friend and chopstick teacher. The eyeball lifts off easily onto my sticks. My eyes nearly closed, I drop the thing into my mouth, bite down and -- relief! It tastes like dirt. Now, I can do dirt. I had feared some strange taste that might have sent me flying out the window, a disgraced dragon crouching shamelessly.

But I feel a hard object. “Spit it out,” instructs Boyi.

Challenge completed. (There's the "eye" on my chopsticks. I am sparing you the stagey horrified look on my camera-unready face.)

On the TV, we are watching a CD of the incredible opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. And I turn to Mr. Yuan, via his translating grandson, and say, “It looks as if God himself directed this Chinese spectacular.”

How lame if not insulting, later I think. I should have said “staged and channeled in by Confucius.”

Next morning, I’m at the Billy Rose section of the NY Public library, pouring over the fascinating papers of one Richard Barstow (there he is) who directed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for about thirty years. How passionately attentive was he to detail, and what a master communicator despite his well known ego. The papers reveal the ways of Barstow’s boss, John Ringling North, who came up with many ideas of his own and took an active role at production meetings: “Mr. North wants to use the flash of horses with gold wings that open into rainbows around the track for finish." You like? Here is more: “He once got an idea for a new menage and called me from the Biltmore baths and tracked me down to a drugstore on Lexington Avenue.”

Wednesday late afternoon, I'm gazing at Broadway musicals listed for half price at tkts: Next to Normal, which I had hoped to see, is not even playing tonight. Billy Elliot doesn't need us. Surprise! South Pacific is up there. I'd go again for a better seat than I paid full price for last year. Anything close to the center, I ask the man at window? "No," says he. Okay, say I, ”Toxic Avenger." The man balks. What has he against Avenger? "That's okay," I repeat, "I've already seen South Pacific. If you don't have a good seat, give me one for The Toxix Avenger.” He putters some more on the keyboard. "I have something near the center for South Pacific." Fate intervening? $68.00. That evening, this inspiring revival, with magnificent William Michals standing in for Paulo Szot, and maybe because I hold a superior seat giving me a full view of the acclaimed seashore set, seems in some ways better than last year, all except for an actor named Andrew Samonsky, barely able to play Lt. Cable.

Thursday is circus day on two islands, one called Long, the other Coney, and just in time for torrential rainstorms. Oh, what fun. First challenge, to find the Big Apple one out in a faceless place called East Meadow, into an endlessly deep and empty park called Eisenhower that finally, through an increasing downpour, produces a tent. No signage leading to it. That’s Grandma's circus for you.

After the show, unable to thumb down Noah’s Ark, my pedestrian-bus-LIRR-Subway-pedestrian trek back to midtown leaves me totally soaked. Thank God I brought an extra pair of shoes. Into them I slip before taking the N down to Coney and Boom-A-Ring. THIS is the Big NY payoff. The Big One. Sold out that night. Was I clever, months before, grabbing a ten dollar ticket on line, even if Ticketmaster grabbed $7.50 more from me.

Farewell New York! New York! You can put that painting of Picasso back up, and please tell the great artist, I really do love him, just not over my head. Keep Toxic Avenger on the boards and I might come back sooner. And, oh yes, next time with chopsticks, I’m going for the Nathan’s Dog Eye special over rice, with one pachyderm eyelash on the side ...

Helluva town! — even when it tastes like dirt ...

[last two photos: stopping over in Chicago; Aboard Amtrak's the Southwest Chief on the outskirts of Lotus Land two days later]

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