How could I not miss New York and yearn to return?
I once wrote to a friend, “In New York…I have felt securely bonded and tested at the same time. The city offers a comfortable cocoon yet drives a powerful confidence for adventurous seeking. I simply feel happy walking amidst the history, culture, and beauty. All the while, there lingers a compelling anticipation to discover the unexpected. It’s the Ying and Yang of it all.”
I first “met” New York when I was a 12 years old visitor. Even as a young girl, I felt a connection though I could not fully articulate the feeling and the experience at such a young age. But, as years went by and I became myself, I returned often. I call these the courtship visits. Sometimes, I simply sought to immerse myself and learn more about the city. I did the obligatory “tourist” stops. Other times, I came to see my daughter and friends, for business, or just because I missed the city. Soon I was no longer the accidental tourist. Courting evolved into a committed relationship. Every part of me became hopelessly in love with every piece and promise of New York.
And then…I lived two completely immersive summers in the city. I stopped taking taxis and learned to navigate the subway and bus system. I took my laundry to the wash and fold and schlepped my groceries through humid city blocks. I determined which floors of my favorite museums I wanted to continuously linger upon.
As I walked through all the neighborhoods, eventually, I found off the beaten, local paths. These less traveled streets offered glimpses into grand brownstones — lined in rows of attention, with curtains drawn open to disclose well-appointed parlors and foyers. I tried to imagine what New York stories these architectural gems held. My routine included daily visits to Central and Riverside Parks, sitting beneath statues and on benches that beckoned respite and inspiration. I attended lectures, theater (some performances on Broadway, some in after-hour offices taken over by local acting troops). The cacophony of traffic, sirens, and bustling footsteps became the omnipresent, symphonic backdrop of my world. And, running through the warm, summer rain and chasing the evening glow of fireflies…became my magical, freely choreographed dance of life.
My love for the city matured, defined, and exploded. I became a New Yorker. I wanted to shout it from a rooftop standing next to a quintessential water tower. To quote Delia Ephron, “New Yorkers are born all over…and then they come to New York City and it hits them: Oh, that’s who I am”.
Each departure, especially after those defining two summers, was exceptionally difficult. I never handled it well. But, as I have done all my life, I vowed to return.
These last years have made it challenging to do so. But a few months ago, with resolute determination to revisit and renew, I booked a one week stay in a hotel in the Upper West Side, the neighborhood I choose to call “home”. As it turns out, two friends were also visiting so I excitedly agreed to meet them for Broadway shows and dinners. And this time I had an additional compelling impetus…I would bring my new camera. I was going to capture my New York love affair through a reflective lens. My immersive experience. I was determined, excited, and happy.
Without a doubt, Central Park is a beautiful, welcoming respite. Its vast size reveals diverse landscapes and views, landmarks, and out of the way discoveries. The great thing about Central Park is that it is well utilized by New Yorkers. It is a thoroughfare where life intersects and extends. Amidst this manicured, perfect park, there lives a thriving urban vibrancy that is completely and uniquely New York.
As well, the park also holds sweet, personal remembrances of my past. Daily walks with my beloved dog, concerts, boat rides, conversations with friends at Bethesda fountain…a bounty of memorable flashbacks.
So, it was no surprise that, on that first morning of my return, I awoke, bought my breakfast at Zabars, and headed straight for the 77th and Central Park West entrance. Sitting on my favorite bench where two paths converged, I slowly savored my lox, cream cheese slathered bagel…and simply immersed myself in my moments of observation and recollection. And soon I was off–with camera securely strapped around my neck. As I have always done in the park (and in the city as well), I simply roamed. I have come to know my way around so well that there is confidence in meandering and knowing determination in my ramblings.
“Curtain Up. Light the Lights”: Giving My Regards to Broadway
Whenever I attend a Broadway show and the lights go dim and the orchestra starts, I immediately start to cry. There is something undeniably moving about those first strains of music that stir a flood of feelings within me—happiness, excitement, and, yes, a reverence for the experience. And during this visit, there were a lot of tears, gasps of delight, and joy. A Broadway bonanza of emotions.
Let me briefly tell you the back story…
I mentioned that I planned to meet a friend in New York. His name is Michael and he was visiting the city with his partner, Art. Michael and I have known each other since our teenage years when we both were active in Drama. He was always excited to not only participate in high school productions but in the newly burgeoning acting scene in San Francisco. Eventually, I left behind my acting dreams but Michael pursued his throughout his life. I admire his dedication and talent.
Art, Michael, and I were having lunch earlier in the year and, as we always do, began speaking about Broadway and New York. They explained they were going soon and I should schedule a coinciding trip. They were staying in Times Square and I could stay in whatever part of the city I choose. We would have our solo time to sight see, etc. but it would be great to see some Broadway shows together. Sounds like a plan. Kindly, he agreed to pre-purchase on line theater tickets. I was grateful and delighted as he was good at finding best prices. Once I booked my flight and hotel, Michael called to review his list of show suggestions.
“I love Hugh and Sutton and would love to see them.” (Funny how Broadway stars invite a first name familiarity based not on a meeting but on faraway admiration.)
I can’t Michael. Too expensive. But it is a dream of mine. Well…
Damn, I have to say no.”
Michael understood. He would get tickets only for Art and himself but suggested that he would go to the box office when he arrives in the city and try to find a last-minute ticket at a reasonable price for me. That’s Michael…generous and thoughtful. A true friend. Fingers crossed.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in a Neil Simon revival.
“I am in. I love her but hope she doesn’t do a Carrie Bradshaw interpretation”.
“It’s Neil Simon and Broadway, Denise.”
I trusted Michael and, yes, Sarah’s acting chops on this.
Stephen Sondheim. I felt duty bound to attend but Michael assured me the cast and the innovative turn of the musical would appeal.
“Sounds great. I am in.”
“Sorry, I have seen too many movies on this topic. Not in.”
And, probably tired of my “I don’t know if I am in or out” banter, Michael told me that he will book tickets for all of us to attend a Betty Buckley cabaret show at the Public Theater. No discussion.
As it turned out, all the performances were fabulous…as Michael “promises, promises” (theater joke there). But I have to share two in particular:
First, The Music Man: “There was music and wonderful…”
Upon my arrival in NYC, Michael, who came earlier than I, called. He had just returned from the box office and happily advised that he was able to secure an affordable ticket to the Music Man, in the orchestra section no less. I was thrilled and so grateful. I was going!!!
On the evening of the show, as I exited the cab, the lights of the Winter Garden Theater and all of Broadway were aglow…and so was I. It was dreamlike. As I stood in line to enter, my level of enthusiasm escalated. People were smiling, snapping photos, and openly expressing their delight. As I neared the entrance, I saw that one of the security guards was taking obligatory photos in front of a great poster of the Music Man himself, Hugh Jackman. I immediately switched lines and awaited my turn. I struck up a conversation with a lady and her daughter as they struck their pose.
“This is so exciting. We came from Connecticut. Where are you from? My daughter was named after Sutton Foster. She is our favorite Broadway actress. Tonight, Sutton is seeing Sutton.”
“I am from California” I replied. “So exciting for your daughter and you. I love it. Two Suttons in one theater. Trust me, that is something I would never have heard anyone say in California.” Yes, in the middle of Broadway, what a unique New York statement!
The actual production was above and beyond expectation. The choreography, the set, the talent of that cast came together with such professional perfection. Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster commanded the stage. Standing ovation after standing ovation. Screams and applause after each song. A whirlwind of exuberance. The last time I heard an audience so enthralled was at a Beatles concert!
As I left the theater, in my Music Man state of euphoria, as the taxi cabs whizzed by and cleared a sight line…who do I see standing across Broadway? My friends, Michael and Art. They were going to take me out to dinner and hear all about the show! The perfect epilogue that touched my heart. Indeed, this was an evening to remember.
The second story that I must share…Plaza Suite: The Hotel, the Play, the Experience:
This time, the three of us were going together to the theater. But before the performance, Michael had a brilliant idea. It was Art and his anniversary so, of course, we would celebrate with pre-show cocktails and dinner at…yes, the Plaza Hotel. I arrived before them and spent time walking through the park and the Square outside the hotel. At sunset, the light was magical. Then, entering the splendor of the Plaza’s golden atrium, past the watchful painting of Eloise, I felt so, so Upper East Side meets Broadway. That’s the thing about this city…you completely surrender to the surroundings and significance.
“Do you think we should take the elevator up to Room 719?” asked Michael. The actual Plaza suite that is in the play. Only Michael would know the room number. I was impressed. Alas, in this age of keyed elevators, that was not possible. We would never get past the ground floor. But it did not matter. It was another brilliant, only in New York idea.
A cab ride to the historic Hudson theater and we arrived at the next Broadway experience. To my delight, Sarah was fabulous. With every act, she transformed into a new character; conveying each with humor, great timing, Matthew was beyond perfect. He became his characters seamlessly and so convincingly that, at times, I did not recognize him. There was no doubt that he is an accomplished theatrical actor.
I think I developed a crush on him.
And it was Matthew Broderick as the first act character, Sam Nash from Mamaroneck, who spoke the best line of my visit. With the telling words of Neil Simon, Matthew delivered the following with such poignant simplicity and truth, that I gasped:
Sam Nash: “I don’t know if you can understand this…I had my whole life in front of me.”
Then his wife asks, “So what do you want?”
His response, “I just want to do it all over again”.
Sam’s declaration was a surrender to a life winding down. Like Sam, all of us spend decades filled with endless dreams and thinking that we had a promising future to fulfill them. And then, the years go by so quickly and time starts to run out. We must make a paradigm shift of perspective and expectation. It is the inevitable confrontation with the lessening of years. The ultimate acceptance.
Sam Nash from Mamaroneck spoke for and to me. Not only did this truthfully resonate but, to my surprise, it also sounded a carillon call to maximize the impending countdown of years. A “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” resolution to remain open, excited, and hopefully energized.
And for seven days in New York, life was in front of me; all over again.
“Before the Parade Passes By”
My cab was sitting in traffic on Central Park West and 83rd.
The weather forecast was for a rainy day. I decided to seek shelter indoors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and others along Museum Row. But I was stuck in gridlock, trying to get to the Upper East Side.
“We are not going to move for a while lady. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and roads crossing the park are closed for the parade. It’s a mess.” I looked out the window and realized that, for now, the rain had stopped. “OK, I will walk.” And with that, I paid the driver, entered the park and headed East. I was fine and always happy to meander. As I neared the back end of the museum and crossed under one of the many stone bridges, I said to myself. “I think I hear bagpipes”. Without a second thought, I decided to run towards the music. And, as I came upon 5th Avenue, there it was. The New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. If ever there was a photo opportunity, this was it. I love a parade!
To my delight, this did not disappoint. The sea of flags and banners confirmed the proud Irish roots of the celebration. Immigrants seeking a new life that ultimately defined the growth of their families and the city. As well, the parade had an “Anywhere, USA” Americana vibration about it.
Simply local citizens (high school bands and cheerleaders, municipal organizations) marching in proud display of their contributions in the local legacy. But it was the presence of New York’s finest that impacted most. The memory of all that the city has endured, their service as they bravely rose to keep the city great brought a poignancy and pride that could not be denied.
The View From the Top of the Rock:
In all my past visits, though I had spent so much time within Rockefeller Center, I had not visited the Top of The Rock. Perhaps I was too focused on the immediacy of the buildings that I stood amongst. But now, with my camera in tow, I wanted to capture more dramatic, sweeping views of the vast city scape. I had to visit the Top of the Rock.
The day after the rain, the sun was out and I knew this was the time to go. I was excited but, honestly, very nervous. When it came to photography skills, I was still learning how to operate my camera. As well, I needed to master the art of translating a scenic opportunity into a great photo. My relationship with the lens needed to become symbiotic in order to capture such an essence. Would I ever be able to achieve this?
After what seemed like the longest line and elevator ride skywards, I arrived and scoped out my vistas. There were opportunities for a diversity of angles, light, and perspective. I took a deep breath and started shooting.
I immediately made a mistake. I did not realize until well after numerous shots, that the protective plexiglass wall built around the perimeter of the outside terraces created a disturbing reverse reflection. When I checked my camera photos, I could see that, imposed upon the Empire State building was an image of a bright yellow Lego shopping bag. (It held a present for my grandson.) Yikes!! Lesson learned. I immediately sought out corner niches, angles with tight, open spaces in between—and started to try again.
It was not a clear day, albeit sunny. The haze that shrouded the buildings compromised the clarity. There would be no crystal-clear shots. But then…perhaps there would be a mystical and ethereal aura to all the pictures. Yes, I was stretching but when standing high atop a city, there is no turning back. I had to reach for interpretive visions.
I did discover that certain angles offered more clarity and the ability to experiment with better light and reflections upon the tall skyscrapers. I contorted my body into these spaces, twisting and bending to optimize such opportunities.
The interior windows offered creative experimentation. I wished I had another person to pose overlooking the cityscape. But I made the most with the movement and shadows of strangers as the Empire State Building towered behind.
I learned a lot at the Top of the Rock. I left with a sense of accomplishment and a personal challenge to return as a better photographer. I left with a bounty of photos…some bad (that damn Lego bag), some promising, and some very good. And I definitely left in a state of awe for this higher perspective of the city. Again, New York, even in a hazy sun, sparkled.
The Empire State Building
The reason I lived those two earlier summers in New York was that I had an art business and I came to the city to network, market, and try to sell. As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. One of the highlights was a weeklong gallery show in Chelsea.
Every evening of that week, I would lock up the gallery and walk to the subway or bus stop by myself. In the warmth of each summer sunset, I would see the city skyline. Always, the Empire Building caught my eye—looming and lit like the grandest of ladies. I found myself “talking” to her. I would review the day’s events and tell stories about the people I met. If the day disappointed, I would tell her about the challenges and concerns of my business. By the end of the week, I got to the point, that upon seeing her, I would share my deepest life thoughts and hopes. She was my ever present and much needed confidante.
My bond with the Empire State Building was sealed that week though she has always been an iconic landmark that beckoned. I studied her in an architecture class in college. I enjoyed her mystique as portrayed in film—from King Kong to the ill-fated, never to be rendezvous in An Affair to Remember. I was delighted that Tom and Meg finally met at the top (Sleepless In Seattle). And I understood why, when Don Draper (In the television show, Mad Men) looked out the window and saw her, he knew it was time for him to keep moving forward. What a powerful moment, what a visual.
There is deep symbolism in her majestic architecture. Her mystique compels dreams and decisions. She is an icon of a city and yet a close and knowing friend to all who look up to her; a beacon of inspiration. Can you blame me for seeking her out—not only on those past summer nights of art but every time that I visit?
So, I took these photos… in spite the haze, that reflective plexiglass barrier, and that damn Lego bag. It was my first homage as a photographer, it was my continued respect as a “friend”, and it was my ultimate thank you for all those moments when I looked up and excitedly told myself, “There she is!”
And then this happened…
Another day, I decided that I was going to Soho, then walk over to the West Village. I love the architecture, charm, and diversity of both and was hopeful to get some unique shots.
I arrived and started walking down Green Street. A row of buildings caught my eye. I took this photo and decided to angle further on the sidewalk in hopes of shooting above the cars. Completely focused on the capture, I took a step and…. SPLAT!!
The next thing I knew I was in a free fall. It took seconds I am sure but it felt like I was in slow motion–long enough for the realization of what was happening and then a complete surrender to the collapse.
Soon I was surrounded by kind passers-by who helped me get up and sit down on the closest stoop. My knees were bloody and my hands scraped. I was in pain.
“Are you ok?”
I was in a daze and all I could say was, “Please give me a second”.
A couple with a baby in a stroller, handed me some diaper wipes. “This is all we have but you can clean off the dirt and blood. I don’t think you broke anything but you should sit here for a while. We will wait with you”
The next words out of my mouth, “Where’s my camera?” Somehow, the camera that had been strapped over my neck was gone.
A man stepped forward. “Here it is. I watched it fly up and over your head. It was quite an acrobatic fall. I am sorry but I think the lens is broken.” I looked down and saw the cracked and missing glass. Honestly, I think I was more upset at seeing this damage than the actual fall.
Another person handed me a bottle of water. I was a sorry sight…this old lady sprawled in Soho with a bottle in one hand and a broken camera in the other. But I knew I had to sit there until I felt fully confident that I could move.
After I was convinced that I would be all right, I thanked everyone profusely and sent them along. New Yorkers are a very kind bunch. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I could not believe this happened. I don’t even know how it happened. The pavement was smooth, there were no apparent cracks or holes. But it did not matter. It happened.
I called a few friends and family. At the sound of their voices, I cried. Each gave me advice and encouragement. I needed to hear their words and decided that I would start walking and continue on. And that is what I did until I just stopped. I had to go back to my hotel and regroup. As soon as I arrived in my room, I lay down and immediately fell asleep.
When I awoke, I won’t say some AHA moment of strength came over me. I felt alone and still somewhat discombobulated. My knee throbbed. But I knew I had to pull myself together. I was not going to waste this time feeling sorry for myself in my hotel room. I reached into myself for that NYC state of mind that brought me to this moment in time. And with that, I grabbed my coat and walked into Central Park.
That night I met Michael and Art to see our next scheduled show “Company”. Michael was right, it was indeed innovative and brilliant…very Sondheim.
The next morning, I began another comfort walk through the Upper West Side–up Amsterdam, down Columbus. I soon found myself in front of Magnolia Bakery. Forget the diet, I bought myself a chocolate cupcake.
With the small, boxed dessert in tow, I decided to walk up to Riverside Park. On a park bench beneath the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, I dove right into the cake, savoring every chocolate bite. I do believe that Eleanor would have approved.
I did miss my camera but, for the rest of my visit, I used my cell phone to capture remaining highlights. I was with friends; I was in New York. My head was full of yesterdays and todays. My heart was touched by the kindness of all. I was happy.
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