Tag Archives: New York

Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going The Right Way, Of Course.

I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.

After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.

On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.

This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street.  For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.

Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction.  I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street.  Rats.

Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.

At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon.  It’s a deal.

Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written.  By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland.  This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.

On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office.  I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so.  The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.

I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic.  To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.

Trip Report, Part 2: Hi, Society!

When I last left you — at least for the purposes of this particular narrative — I was in the lobby of the Roosevelt hotel, monitoring text messages from Barb and Madi as they made their way up from Maryland on the train.  They were running only slightly behind schedule (as I said earlier, “on time” for the Northeast Regional seems to mean about ten minutes late), so I arrived in plenty of time to meet them, even after walking the mile or so to Penn Station.  A short cab ride back to the hotel (when did New York cabs start taking debit cards? Brilliant) and we went into a bit of decompression mode until it was time to leave for the St. Nicholas Society Event at 6:30.

The Maxfield Parrish bulletin board at the Coffee House Club.

The dinner was being held at the Coffee House Club over on West 44th, only a block or so from the hotel, and an easy walk in the brisk February air.  The Coffee House Club is considered a private New York club, but it’s got  an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek outlook that I love. (Its Constitution consists of a half-dozen “commandments”: “No officers, no charge accounts, no liveries, no tips, no set speeches, no rules.”)  It’s also a comfortably unassuming place, just two large rooms — one a reception area, the other a cozy dining hall.

Just inside the door, I met Jill Spiller, the Executive Director of the St. Nicholas Society, who worked hard over the past few months leading up to the evening to take good care of me. True to form, she escorted us into the reception room and put off to one side a nice gift from the St. Nicolas Society, a set of glasses etched with their logo.  Very nice.

The reception was a very classy affair, yet also laid back — St. Nicholas members are genuinely interested in telling and listening to stories, and a well-told story will usually cause an eruption of laughter.  And people had so many different interests that moving from one small circle to another was like entering a live encyclopedia.  Over here, you could talk about astronauts and one man’s collection of space memorabilia.  In this corner, it was about children’s songs.  Over here, people chatted about medicine.  I even found one gentleman who had in his private collection one of my Holy Grails of Washington Irving portraits: a photograph of a painting of Irving’s best friend, Henry Brevoort.  I had scoured the planet looking for a portrait of Brevoort back when I was working on Irving and had no luck — and now here was someone who had one.  It’s wonderful when things like that happen.

After an hour or so at the reception (the hosts had done a good job taking care of Madi, ensuring there was plenty of teen-friendly food and drink), we were gently herded into the main dining hall.  The President of the St. Nicholas Society, Dr. Billick — who is class and charm personified — had gone to great lengths to seat Madi on his left, with me on his right, and Barb right across from us at the horseshoe of tables.  I smiled as Dr. Billick made certain to engage Madi in conversation throughout the meal, offering up history questions, chatting about the European Union (!) and generally making her feel at ease as the only young person in the room.  Not that Madi can’t hold her own in almost any conversation (at one point, someone came up to me, laughing, and said, “After talking with your daughter, I asked her  what she was majoring in.  She told me ‘eighth grade’!”), but it was a lovely gesture on his part, and I so appreciated his effort.

We were still enjoying our dinners when it was time to conduct some business.  Two new members of the St. Nicholas Society were introduced and initiated to much applause.  I was then introduced by longtime member (and fellow New Mexican!) Mr. Hilliard, with Dr. Billick at his side, who stepped to the mike and presented me with their award.

I promised everyone who wrote to me with their good wishes that I would put up a picture of the medal.  Here it is — and it’s a beauty:

I spoke for about twenty minutes, telling one of my all-time favorite Irving stories: the hoax that Irving pulled off to launch his mock history of New York City, and the Dutch reaction to it (someone threatened to horsewhip him). Given the St. Nicholas Society’s mission to preserve and perpetuate New York’s history, I thought such a talk would be appropriate — and I was delighted that it went over so well.  I took questions for about twenty more minutes, then spent the rest of the evening signing books, talking with members, and generally having a terrific time. It was one of the nicest evenings I’ve ever had — and having Barb and Madi there with me to share in it made it that much more special.

It was cold as we stepped out onto 44th for the walk back to our hotel — we had already changed our travel plans to leave early the next morning, in hopes of getting back to Maryland in front of the advancing snowstorm — but we walked slowly, trying to make the evening last even longer.  Our thanks to the St. Nicholas Society for such a remarkable night.