I cannot disclose why I went to New York in late January as I’m constrained willingly by the contract I signed the day I left from La Guardia just hours before the city was hit by a snowstorm carried on winds of the la niña winter polar jet stream, and snowbound.
I can say it’s an NFT play, signed between me and my former neighbor in Brooklyn, Tom.
“Either you go tomorrow,” Tom agreed,”or you ain’t leavin’ til next week.”
My flight of escapees had mostly bought their tickets within the last 48 hours, with a weather eye on the polar jet stream. We were routed to Denver. The storm shut the city down while we were in the air. I had been in New York City and out in Long Island for two weeks.
Double-dose Pfizer-vaccinated in May of ‘21 and boosted in November, I decided in December of last year that 2022 was going to be different. I was going to travel. I would help the economies of some places I haven’t been in a while. I’d spend some money in some places in our country that I respect and love for cultural and intellectual richness.
I made a new year’s resolution to spend more days of 2022 out of the house where I have been for the last five years than in it. Unlike most of you, for whom the ‘quarantine’ was at most a year and a half of house-boundedness, at that point, I had been bound for several years in a house, in another state from my beloved NorCal, as I cared for my father until he died, allowing him to pass the way he wished, in his home. I was eager to get back on the road, and eventually, home.
I set aside money from my small inheritance for this purpose. I granted myself a year of me-time, to travel, write, read and consider places to live, in the wake of my father’s death.
I chose New York first, and landed on the nineteenth day of the new year, amidst the Omicron wave. I was a New Yorker for five years at the turn of the millennium, so I’m prepared with specific goals when I visit Manhattan. It’s a habit learned from my Lakshmi-auntie, who lived in Parsippany for five decades and used the island, and indeed the whole city, with precision and elegance. She still drove into town herself in her 70’s.
I watched her use Goings-On-About-Town in The New Yorker, and Time Out and the Sunday NYT and the Voice, to be fresh, and even avant-garde, to her last days. She showed me the fastest ways to get in and out of the city, down-low parking spots, old-school joints. When I moved to the waterfront in Greenpoint, it was from her place, where I had been staying in the wake of the passing of her husband, my Surya-uncle, back in ‘97. It snowed in Brooklyn that winter.
Now, it was a clear, sunny Wednesday afternoon as I flew into La Guardia. It was in fact the warmest day of the year thus far in the city – 44° F, almost no wind, great visibility. The pilots swung wide to allow us a vantage of the cityscape – the bridges, high-rises and skyscrapers, just a few thousand feet below.
There’s the east river. Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg bridge.
Where I used to live in Greenpoint no longer has a cityscape view because there are massive condominiums there that can be seen in this shot. That bright, shining white skyscraper in lower Manhattan is One Manhattan Square. Extell Development Company sold 100 units there last year. They also sold 100 units at Brooklyn Point, which is the tallest residential building in Brooklyn.
One Manhattan Square and Brooklyn Point, each sold over 100 units in 2021 for a total of more than $400 million in sales. Extell claims it’s the only developer in New York to sell more than 100 units at two separate buildings in a calendar year. The units sell for between $850k – $3m.
When I was a New Yorker, the city taught me how to move through it. I didn’t know what I was going to find now, though, amidst the Omicron wave of Covid-19. New York was a city that had been ravaged in the first Spring of the nastiest respiratory virus in human history, because of its density and diversity – a global city, with international reach.
I came prepared, with my vaccine card showing two shots and the six-month booster, and my matching i.d., with N95 masks. Temperatures were expected to drop later that evening. The forecast was for highs in the teens and low 20’s for the rest of the week. I brought thermals, wool scarf, an overcoat and a fur hat – all of which were useful.
But I made a tight, localized agenda that had me entirely in Upper Manhattan. On my last day, I planned to walk to the Guggenheim to see the chronological exhibition of Kandinsky on the ramps at the Guggenheim, so I rented a hotel a few blocks away on the Upper East side – 92nd street and 1st Ave, near Yorkville. I landed, cruised through baggage, caught a cab to my hotel within 20 minutes, snagged a couple-hour nap, then showered, shaved and suited up for the opera.
Tom and the Opera
Tom and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 20 years. He is an energetic, native Long Islander, who has lived and worked in the city for years. He is as comfortable in the city as any of the boroughs or out on Long Island. He was my neighbor in Brooklyn 20 years ago, when he worked in commodities, on the floor at the exchange on Wall Street. He was there that fateful morning, besuited, running and hustling others away from the crumbling concrete and drifting ash and dust. We saw each other a few days later.
Tom and I caught up last year and I learned he had been through some rough times. But he told me something else that shocked me, personally. He said that nearly 20 years before, I had given him a carved stone or wood necklace and had told him it was powerful. He wasn’t sure if he did something wrong or if it was just the object itself, but he felt that it had cursed him.
That’s no joke. You don’t see someone for years and you are catching them amidst heavy difficulties all around and they tell you that you gave them a totem that may have cursed them – have to take that seriously.
When I looked at the schedule for the Met Opera, I knew immediately I had to take Tom. They were performing Rigoletto. It’s a tragedy about a hunch-backed jester, a pathetic figure, who, upon being cursed by a courtier, believes in and fears the curse, then unwittingly aids in the accursed events which befall him.
The last line of the opera is Rigoletto’s bewildered wail as he cradles the body of his dead child, “La Maladizione!” – which means, “The Curse!”
The first time I went to the Metropolitan Opera it was February of 1998. Two dozen years later, I decided to splurge. I purchased Parterre Center Box seats. I had previously only ever sat in the balconies. This was special.
To enter we had to show ID that matched a proof of vaccination card and if the last dose had been over six months, a stamp for a booster. Masks were mandated. Before the curtain rose, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, masked, came out on stage with a microphone and said, with a sigh of relief, “everyone in your program is performing tonight,” the confirmation that we would be seeing Quinn Kelsey and Rosa Feola . There was resounding applause.
The Metropolitan Opera has suffered, like every arts institution, during the pandemic.
This production received great reviews for Conductor Daniele Rustioni and promotional material all featured the open throated face of Quinn Kelsey in clown makeup. The baritone has made a name for himself performing Verdi, and in particular, portraying the beleaguered Rigoletto. The program read: “Quinn Kelsey, a commanding artist at the height of his powers, brings his searing portrayal of the title role to the Met for the first time,” but Kelsey had been unavailable for performances on the 9th and 14th. There was a buzz from the hope we would get to see him with the soprano Rosa Feola, a pairing about whom much had been written.
The set was unique. Though the original opera was based on a story by Victor Hugo set in the mid 16th century, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, was set in pre-Revolutionary 19th century France. The current staging at the Met uses the Weimar Republic as the context, contending the times were comparably beset by careless inequity.
Production is directed by (Tony-award winning director) Bartlett Sher – the New York Times has described him as “one of the most original and exciting directors, not only in the American theater but also in the international world of opera” – and Set Designer Michael Yeargan. The costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, were thus 20th c. German.
The set had a massive revolving structure upstage that allowed for feature performances downstage, nearer the audience, for greater intimacy. There was a full apartment above a bar in one set, and Donald Holder’s lighting was agile, an active element of the production, spotlighting soloists seamlessly as they employed the entire stage.
Piotr Beczala, charged with the most famous role, Duke Mantua, was good. But a standout performance, in addition to Feola and Kelsey, belonged to Andrea Mastroni, the bass singing the part of the murderous blaggard Sparafucile.
What always amazes and delights me about the opera is that there are no microphones. The orchestra is not amplified, neither are the singers. We all sit quietly, no cell-phones or beeps or bells or whistles to bother us, and we focus for two and a half hours on these live performers making music in an extravagant production – entranced. People try not to even cough during the acts. I love that.
Kelsey was masterful.
Tom and I dined at The Smith, across the street from Lincoln Center and shared a blunt as we sauntered to the performance – it’s legal now to smoke a joint on the street in New York. It wasn’t when we were neighbors – not that it stopped us much then, we were just furtive.
Now we just stood by the fountain on the plaza, in front of the big Chagalls and the other patrons and the cops and shared a blunt. Tom is a blunt smoker, which is not my style, but when I am with him I partake.
He went to Fordham, which is just next door to Lincoln Center. He pointed out his old dormitory building, as we smoked. We shared a blunt before going in, and again at the intermission. To be clear, quality marijuana doesn’t attack my memory of the opera, it enhances it.
We left singing:
La donna è mobile/ Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento/ e di pensiero.
Sempre un amabile / leggiadro viso,
in pianto o in riso / è menzognero
**END Wednesday January 19th**
Ten days later, I checked the tide tables and took the accursed totem that I gave Tom twenty years before out to Lido Beach at just past high tide, recited the gayatri mantram, and chucked the thing out to be taken away by the sea.