At Best A Tepid Tempest in the Park (Reprinted by permission of Catch & Release, the Columbia Journal Online

It is downright unpatriotic to be a New Yorker and walk out on a performance at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in the middle of A Shakespeare in the Park production. But that’s just what I did. After I stood in the sun for two hours waiting to be handed two free tickets, I looked the city’s gift horse in the mouth by throwing my hands at mid-show and walking – no, running – away. It felt blasphemous. It felt treacherous. It felt good.

The air was cold, the seats were hard, the show stank, and after forty years of attending what Shakespeare in the Park I was lucky enough to get tickets for, I felt like I had earned the right to stalk away in an exasperated huff. Especially since the Public apparently feels like it has earned the right to present so unimpressive a production as this one.

The critics have been generous with the show.  While they have found some fault, overall, they are loathe to come down hard on it, and this perplexes me. Having spent much of my life studying theater and acting, directing student productions, reading copious amounts of criticism and history, taking a dramaturgy practicum at Columbia, I know that even if some people disagree with my assessment, I cannot possibly be alone. If any other production with such a high profile failed so miserably as this one, the critics would be screaming their displeasure at the city. But The Public Theater’s annual Delacorte starfest is a sacred institution, dependent on donations and sponsorships, and no one wants to be the little boy pointing brazenly at the emperor’s nudity.

Which is too bad. Because good criticism should make the program grow stronger; in a perfect world, sponsors and patrons would want to invest more money in the idea that making really good theater requires making some really terrible mistakes. That to suggest that something is not as good as it should be is to encourage it to reach its own potential.

Why, then,  does my feeling of treachery persist when I say that the production was flat, that it created no magic and no island, that it had no sorcerer of any kind performing miracles in a play that, at its best, is one miracle after another?

There was a time when I attended the shows at the Delacorte knowing that I would see great acting, thoughtful design, coherent directing. In this production of The Tempest, the directing is unfocused, and the actors get away with blunders that would not be tolerated in the remotest hinterland productions. Once upon a time, actors donated their time and in return found grateful fans, who followed their careers. This show featured an actor who was cast despite the fact that he is absolutely wrong for the part simply because he is a beloved New York icon.

Audiences come to the shows to see faces they recognize from elsewhere. The star-studded Shakespeare in the Park productions have turned into the kind of stuff tourists’ dreams are made on, just like the mini Chocolate theme park called the M & M experience that draws out-of-towners off the tour buses at midtown. So casting is not always as thoughtfully executed as it should be.

I knew better from the start.  I should have eschewed this production of The Tempest altogether.  I was aware of this beforehand and was reminded while waiting on the line at the designated 135th Street spot for ticket distribution when one of the Public Theater pages came out to tout the show. He announced with great pride that Prospero would be “played by Sam Waterston, whom you all know from his amazing work as Jack McCoy on Law and Order.” I groaned. I did not want to see Jack McCoy as Prospero.

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Sam Waterston, as Prospero, and Francesca Carpanini, as Miranda, in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. (photo ©Joan Marcus, NY Daily News)

Let me digress here and say that I admire Sam Waterston’s work enormously. In Grace and Frankie, where his conflicted, ambivalent Saul is the soul of the ensemble, he is the reason I watched every episode despite the fact that the other cast members failed to convince me they were who or what they purported to be. I was enthralled by his work in The Killing Fields and always wanted more from him when I watched Law and Order. But when I traveled to New Haven to see Stoppard’s Travesties, which featured Waterston, I was sorely disappointed. Waterston’s mumbly, hesitant speech patterns didn’t capture the rhythm of Stoppard’s writing. The play was uneven, and the speeches tended to be long and ponderous, even for Stoppard, and Waterston was not nailing them. Spoken with aplomb, Stoppard’s speeches, even at their wordiest, are melodious and lyrical, downright Shakespearean. Waterston’s delivery made them seem clunky, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual. So why did I even bother to get tickets for a Shakespeare play in which he would play a character with some of the longest, most ponderous speeches in the canon?

Two reasons. Because I could. And because I should. Who would turn down an opportunity see a free production of one of Shakespeare’s best plays, directed by Michael Greif, a Tony winner, one of Broadway’s best directors? Who would not want to witness a spectacle produced by a Broadway-caliber production team? Well, I was wrong in thinking I did.

Mediocrity is, apparently, the measure of excellence in a Delacorte show.

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Trinculo in The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, now playing at the Delacorte Theater (photo © Sara Krulwich, NY Times)

The highlight of the evening at my Delacorte was Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Trinculo scene opposite Danny Mastrogorgio as Stephano and Louis Cancelmi as Caliban. Ferguson was good. He played Trinculo exactly as he plays his character on Modern Family, vascillating between over-the-top-reactions to things and understated asides. Stephano was okay. At least he was almost understandable. But Caliban seemed confused by the character he was playing, could not choose which of several accents to rely on, had no inkling as to how his body should move, and it was nearly impossible to catch his words, which were not falling trippingly from his tongue. The scene is pure Commedia fun as written; there is little any production could do to ruin it, but if the words were more critical, even that scene would have been lost.

No one in the cast, with the exception of Cotter Smith in the part of Prospero’s brother Antonio, was able to speak the speech. Waterston spoke as though he had pebbles on his tongue, and half his mouth was sewn together. Ariel might have been articulating just fine, but since he was whispering much of the time, nothing was reaching my ears. Miranda shouted everything. There were no nuances of emotions from her, just ebullient shouting to accompany her juvenile physicality. She seemed more like an over-excited six-year-old than a young woman encountering sexual awakening, and watching her I was reminded of a classmate of my daughter’s in her performing arts magnet high school, who had been Annie on Broadway and played every part, even scenes of quiet contemplation, with the same musical comedy hugeness.  As a high school theater director, I held my neophyte teenage actors in our several productions of plays by the Bard to a far higher standard than any of these credentialed professionals seemed to reach for.

It is worthless to go on about the acting. It was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening scene, the tempest itself, was lovely. I am a great fan of theatrical minimalism, of letting the actors carry the “sell” of a set, and in the opening, it all worked well. But as soon as the initial storm died, so did the success of the staging, the appropriateness of the design, the creation of the world. There was nothing to make me believe that I was encountering characters cast adrift on a seemingly hostile, enchanted island; they were simply pretenders stomping through roles on a stagnant playground in the center of a stage at the Delacorte Theatre.

Given how lacking I found the show, I can’t help wondering why I am already planning to seek tickets to Cymbelline, a play that is rarely done well?   The answer is plain, really. Because I’m New Yorker. It’s my patriotic duty.

 

 

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Get Real: Titanic on Wheels (Part 2)

Get Real: Titanic on Wheels (Part 1)

“Everyone’s up in arms about the poor horses, and I don’t mean any disrespect for those horses, but they are treated better than tour guides. The real victims out here are the humans driving this business.” Stefan Stanley.

Bob Ziering: Portrait of the Artist as an Old(er) Man (republished by permission of Catch & Release, The Columbia Journal Online)

Bob P'town “There aren’t a lot of restaurants like this one left in town,” Bob Ziering says, leaning over his lunch.   A glint appears in his eye as he quips in a spot-on Eastern European/Yiddish accent, “So, you think maybe we gonna eat?”  Of course I laugh.  This is how Bobby dispels his basic disdain for talking about himself, and I have asked him some very personal questions about his life and his art.  Whenever he wants to deflect his reluctance to talk, he slips into one of a hundred accents. He has chosen to meet in the Piccolo Café, an intimate little Italian restaurant on the upper west side, where Bobby has lived since the early ‘60’s.  Like Bobby, who was born in 1932, the Piccolo, established in Italy in 1938, has at once an old school charm and a hip vivacity. Piccolo might look like a little, old café, but there’s a robust energy here, and it’s a good foil for Bobby, who looks like he might be getting on in years until he starts to talk – or sing or paint – and you realize he’s younger than any of the hip upper west siders who frequent the Piccolo. I met Bob not long after he moved to this community.  He was, in those days, as he remains today in a more mature way, remarkably handsome, extraordinarily entertaining, unerringly funny. My Uncle Fred, a loud, opinionated Genovese, introduced us at one of the weekly open houses he and my aunt hosted, where copious amounts of delectable food preceded equal servings of delicious music played live or selected from his extensive record collection.  Fred had met Bob through a gay friend, and he loved to point out to us that while he was definitely not attracted to men, if he were, Bobby would be the only man he could ever love. Even then, I understood why. According to Uncle Fred, Bobby sang like Caruso or Bjørling, painted like Rembrandt or Caravaggio and did imitations like Rich Little.  Well, in those days they were imitations like Rich Little; today he does imitations more like a geriatric Jimmy Fallon. In any case, Uncle Fred knew whereof he spoke. “He’s a true Renaissance Man,” Fred would declare in a rasping voice that no one could mimic as well as Bob Ziering.  “A monster talent.” “I’m 80 years old,” Bobby says now.  “I’ve had a great career as an illustrator, I’ve traveled and sung in some wonderful operas.  But no one knows who I really am.  I am working to re-invent myself, and I want to be noticed. I’m still working, still creating, and you’re never too old be discovered.  I just want to be seen!” In truth, Bob has been noticed.  Is still being noticed.  He had a long and storied career as an illustrator, his works featured in advertisements, on book jackets, on posters at the Metropolitan Opera, in The New York Times, all over the place.  And all the while he was working – freelancing –he took time to represent other artists, to study music and voice and sing in the (now defunct) Amato Opera Company, among others. Along the way, he found time to establish himself as a collector: Bob Ziering owns an impressive array of African tribal art, Enrico Caruso memorabilia, classical opera recordings.  Just as impressive is that as busy as Bobby has been, he has never been too busy for friendship, and he has managed to create lifelong friendships that attest to the depth of the man’s humanness.  Ziering is a man who simply commands attention and is anything but obscure. It is true that he has not been very masterful at self-promotion.   “I want to be reborn, “ he says with a laugh; “but I am easily distracted by my many fascinating projects.” The Kiss This is a man who, above all else, communes with the world through his work, and his work is his first love.  He has, in recent years, produced a major body of work, and the subjects are as diverse as the wonders that stimulate Ziering’s imagination. Nowadays, Bob’s work is colorful, expansive; it succeeds the elegantly drawn illustrations that provided Bob with a comfortable income for many years.  At their best,  the illustrations are tributes to Ziering’s profound observations, his remarkable insights, his ability to capture the essence of an idea or a character in the simple but dynamic assembly of lines drawn with pen and ink, and they are reminders of his salient influencers, the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Francis Bacon, J.M.W.Turner.  Ziering’s illustrations caught figures in motion and projected whole stories in single images.  http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/artist/bob-ziering// Bed But the newer work, the work of the past twenty years since he left illustrating, comprise the body of achievement Bob is proudest of.   In the new art, he is able to explore his emotions – universal human emotions – by telling visual tales, which he finds in his fellow humans, in animals, in burned piers and discarded chairs alike. “This woik you should see, dahling,” he whispers slyly, channeling his inner yenta.  “The woik everyone should see.” Silverback Ziering is a serious artist, interested in very serious subjects.  In the 1990’s, during a time of great personal loss, Bob was drawn to the plight of the Mountain Gorilla.  He became obsessed with the idea that mankind would soon render these magnificent beasts extinct. My Future Is In Your Hands In an interview with Nicholas Polities, of Print Magazine, Ziering explained, “The deep feeling of hurt I experienced seemed to fire my passion for expressing loss in terms of the species. . . . Without losing focus on the plight of the gorillas, I was also using it as a metaphor for universal themes of loss, cruelty, inhumanity, and death.”  He spent fifteen years researching, examining, compiling samples from gorilla life, from the foods they ingested and the environments they inhabited to the layering of their skin and the color of their eyes.  He worked to depict them as the complex organisms they are, to dispel the stereotype of the angry, beastly gorilla loner and to show what gentle, social animals they really are.  But he did not flinch from also honestly illustrating moments of aggression and retaliation. Reaching The series is a remarkable body of work and had exhibitions at the Marywood University Art Gallery in Scranton, PA, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.  As the Marywood catalog described, the “skillfully rendered images of the majestic and imperiled Mountain Gorilla underscore their endangerment. . . . The artwork is descriptive, suggestive and bold. . .showing subjects that have a poignant familiarity.” So Close The waiter in the Piccolo brings us our soy caffe ‘l ‘attes, and Bob cannot resist the urge to slip back into his accented alter ego.  “You gonna write about my sexy stuff?”  I laugh.  Discussion of some of his newer work still make him the slightest bit uncomfortable. As a child of the pre-boomer generation, Bob Ziering has came late to an acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and he had to learn to accept himself as a gay man, a journey he has given beautifully textured life in his artistically erotic chalk drawings of people on the verge of lovemaking, figures in intimate repose, etc., which have been frequently exhibited by the Leslie Lohman Gallery; three pages Ziering’s work are permanently on display on their website (http://www.leslielohman.org/).   The work is deeply affecting, but it never verges on pornography.   Rather, in the tradition of the great masters, Bob conveys a life seething with sensual stimulation that insinuates sexuality and tantalizes without exploitive titillation. Bob draws his face into a kind of exaggerated squint.  “You look too serious.  Vot’s so serious? “  I tell him that I am just concentrating on hearing the details, understanding how he himself perceives his work, and I am probably responding to the expression on his own face.  “Ya,” he quips now in a mock Dutch accent.  “The face tells all.” It was Rembrandt’s face that inspired another recent series.  Fascinated by the variety of countenances, the unabashed aging in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Ziering created a series called Rembrandt’s Face, his own interpretations of the artist’s interpretations of self.  It’s a startlingly revealing series, one that illuminates both Bob and his subject in surprising ways.  When I spoke earlier to Miki Marcu, an old friend of Ziering’s, about his work, and she chose the Rembrandt series as one she especially adored. “He decided on REMBRANDT?” She exclaimed.  “What a jump.  What a facility he has as an artist.” Rembrandt Not content to express himself through the animate realm, Bob has looked to what other artists would call still life for two other major series: The Burnt Pier, which studies the thrumming vitality of an abandoned pier on the Hudson near Bob’s UWS home, and the Blue Chair, in which a discarded wicker-back chair veritably dances, reverberating with color and motion. Burning Pier Bob lapses into seriousness when he talks about the medium in which he works.  “I think the biggest thing I have done as an artist since I left the illustration racket is that I am working in color.  I deliberately sought to transition into color, but I wasn’t comfortable working with a paintbrush.   Then Alan gave me a set of pastels one year, and I have found that they have freed all my spirits, which gave me the momentum I needed to really immerse myself into the life of my art. “ Pink Mist Alan is Alan Lawson, a fellow artist, who has been with Ziering in a steadfast, ever-evolving friendship for thirty-three years.  “Early on, he showed me a copy of Vermeer’s Lady with the Red Hat he had done in pastels, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen . . . .  He had done it when he was still a kid of maybe 17 . . . . He had not touched pastels since then.  I thought to myself that this was the medium that could bridge his transition from being a draw-er to becoming a painter.  So for Christmas one year I gave him a box of pastels, and what he can do with those pastels is just beyond description.  He finds layers of color, dynamism of scenes that I’ve rarely seen done in any medium.” Sitting in the restaurant, Bob sighs.  “I expected to do so much with that work.” “You’re still working,” I protest. “But nothing has changed.  The gorilla  — along with so many animals! — grows closer to extinction every day, and . . . .” His voice trails off, and he sighs,  “There is so much more to do.  I may do things a little more slowly than I used to, but I can still do so much!” Bob at Twighlight Everyone who knows Bob says it is, above all, passion that defines the man, and it is passion that drives the artist, keeps him young. Lawson, a painter and scenic charge for both film and theater, came to NY to attend school in 1979 and took a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he met Ziering in 1981.  He says that it’s always been hard to keep up with the older man.  “When I met him, I was just in my second year at Pratt, and here he was this seasoned native New Yorker, so knowledgeable, so passionate.  He was passionate about everything.   Talk to him about his tribal art collection, his record collection, his own work, and so many things . . . things that I had never heard of.   He introduced me to so much. . . . .And I have to say, his passion today is the same as it was thirty-three years ago.   His passions run very deep, they’re very strong, and he has an amazing vitality.  Boundless.” Ziering credits his happy Brooklyn childhood for his zest for life. Lapsing into Yiddish tones again, he tells me he was an aesthetically astute child, who loved the Friday night family food extravaganzas at his father’s parents’ home, in the company of all his exuberantly musical and artistic relatives, the first generation born in New York City, USA.   He had a great voice, and he loved to sing, but even then he knew he would be a visual artist.  “My mother told me she believed I was already drawing in the womb, that she felt movement that was more akin to the scratching of a pen than the kicking most babies inflict on their mothers.”    She felt compelled from the very start to introduce him to the cornucopia of visual art available to anyone growing up in Brooklyn, and he cherished the time he spent with her visiting museums and galleries, his favorite destinations. “You’d think I’d wanna go to Ebbets Field or play stick ball,” Ziering laughs. “I was a lousy baseball player . . . but wonderful gallery goer, at a very early age!”  His parents and his friends alike admired his talent, and he was fueled by their respect.  Yet his love for the work was always his strongest motivating force.  “I couldn’t wait,” he says; “to get to my studio in the finished basement, back to my drawing and painting.” “I enjoyed being with the other kids, but I loved being with adults, and I loved to show off.  The other kids didn’t seem to mind.  They knew I would play for a finite amount of time, and then I would retreat to my work.” Joyce Hellman, a classmate of Bob’s in the High School of Music and Art, Class of 1950, remembers Bob as a warm, loving, gifted but extraordinarily disciplined teenager.  “I was  music major, so we didn’t become close, “ she says, “Till years and years after graduation, after our 35th reunion, but everyone knew who Bob was.  We knew he could sing – oh, how he could sing – and we knew he could dance, but we also knew he loved to work.  Couldn’t seem to get enough of it.” Lawson concurs.  “Bob’s one true love is his art.  He has the good fortune of having his studio right next to his bedroom, so he can get up in the morning and be right at the heart of where he needs to be to do his work.   But you know, that takes a lot of discipline.  I’ve had it both ways, had a studio in my home and a studio away, and each presents a different scenario.  I mean, to get up every day and to face first thing what you did the day before can be challenging.  You’re with it 24/7.   Then too, it can be too easy.  Sometimes people need the effort of getting to somewhere to make them work.  That’s not Bob.  He’s an incredibly disciplined person.“ I ask Bob if he thinks he has this drive, the kind that sets the artist apart from the dabbler.   “Yes,” he asserts.   “First thing, every day, I go for a little walk, get my coffee and a croissant, and then, after I go to the JCC to swim or lift weights, I return and work till the light dims in my studio.  Then it’s music and friends and books and all the wonderful things there are to experience.  But first there’s the art. ” Face Me Miki Marcu, who met him when she was the director of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of African Art in Chelsea, where Bob was a client, says that it’s exactly his relationship to his work what makes Bob Ziering different even from the other artists she has known.  “He’s a funny man. . . a very loving friend, has seen me through some truly tough times,  and he loves all kinds of music and art.  But I always know that he is committed entirely to his art.” “Working every day is how Bob stays balanced on the beam,” says Lawson.  “Life can be a narrow path, and you can find yourself losing your footing.  Having that discipline, that drive to stand in front of that board is what keeps him balanced.. . . . “  Lawson tells me that Bob’s favorite work shirt is one he bought at the Dia  Art Foundation, in Beacon, NY, designed by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a sculptor whose work Bob greatly admires.  The t-shirt proclaims, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”  “I think he wears that,” Lawson goes on, “because  it speaks so profoundly to the truth of his own life.” In A Child's Garden And Sky Bob’s studio was probably the master bedroom of his spacious, rent-controlled apartment, and he is an eager host who never tires of showing off his works in progress that hang on his work board or his past oeuvres, stashed neatly in his art drawers.   On shelves, in albums and books, he keeps more of his work, carefully cataloged, meticulously arranged so he can easily find anything he wants to share.  The newest series is startling.  Youthful exuberance, naiveté, shyness captured in portraits of several models, most notably  “K” the personal trainer at his gym, a kind of surrogate for the young man Ziering was himself at 23. (K) 1 The series is called Aloneness, and through the work, Bob explores the dimensions of being alone.  “Understand, I am not talking about loneliness.” Bob says as he shows me a particularly engaging picture – the young man, alone, covering his face with his hands, posing but not comfortable posing, knowing he is semi-nude and being watched.    “It’s very different.  Sometimes it’s thrust upon us, but more often we choose it.”  This is his most personal series to date. (K) 2 By his own accounting, Bob’s best companion is his art, but he says he craves human relationships.  So his relationship to aloneness is dynamic, morphing as he discovers new dimensions in himself and in his environment.  He spends most of his time away from human contact, rubbing chalk on a paper hung on his board, drawing a story he is compelled to tell.  He works from photographs he takes of his subjects and his models, and he breathes his own life into them, interpreting their skin, their expressions, their breath.   “Listen,” says Lawson, “Bob and I have been together for a very long time, and we have been through every kind of relationship experience two people can have.  I know him well, and I wouldn’t say he’s exactly a loner.  He can have periods of isolation, but I can’t say I have ever known him to be lonely, and he seeks others out.  He lives alone, is self-sufficient . . . It’s very true that he stands alone in his studio when he is working, but his dialogue with his subjects is so strong that one can imagine him having a conversation  with the image, whether it’s of beautiful bodies in bed or a gorilla or a chair or an aging Rembrandt or even a burnt pier being washed over by the incessant sea.  And that’s what makes the work so resonant.  You feel the dialogue between the artist and the subject.” Bob at Twilight II In Ziering’s life, Lawson reminds me, he has had three very deep, very long-term relationships.  His communion with Alan, which began and remained for many years a romantic partnership, has transcended the many ways both their lives have changed. In the new series, relationships are at the core of the vivacity that defines them.  There is distinct dialogue in every piece Ziering creates, and it is clear and ambient.  The work is exuberant, joyful, celebrating the human just being.  The joy the artist clearly derives from the engagement points to a very important difference between aloneness and loneliness.  As Alan Lawson explains, “People who have been alone for a long time and feel lonely reach a certain level of bitterness.  That’s not Bob.  All you have to do is be with Bob, walk out the door with him, see him looking with interest at EVERYthing, and you realize he is not that kind of a person.  His receptors are always up, and he allows the world in.  With open arms.” I can see that here in Piccolo Café, where the waiters treat him like a beloved brother, and where he nestles comfortably into his familiar seat at a booth in the back of the restaurant.  “I want to be known, to be loved, but mostly I want to keep on working!” Which he will undoubtedly do for years to come, descended as he is from a long line of nonagenarians.  Like my Uncle Fred, his fans adore him, and they hope his best work is yet to be “discovered.” “He’s brilliant,” effuses Miki Marcu.  “A truly modern Renaissance man.” Burning Piervisit  www.bobziering.com

 

Times Square Apassionata

The other day, I heard a tour guide telling a walking tour, “Back in the days before Disney came to New York, Times Square was not so family friendly, but nowadays it’s been cleaned up, more like an urban amusement park.”  I sighed.  Remembering.

When I was 18, I had a job on 44th Street and 12th Avenue.  I lived in Queens, so to get to work, I took a bus to Main Street Flushing and then jumped on a still new-looking 7 Train, which took me to 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, from whence I walked west to the river.   My report time was 7:30; so, even in the summer, darkness lingered over most of my journey, and when I emerged from the tunnel into Times Square, the gray steam of early morning still dripped from the building overhangs.

The first time I made that journey, I entered the world hesitantly.  Times Square in the crepuscular minutes just before the sun rose was peopled by potentially terrifying characters.  I grew up in the granite-guarded isolation of the Adirondack Mountains, after all, and the only place I had encountered people like these was in the books and comics I read, the movies I went to see.  City of Night, Manchild in the Promised Land, Batman, Midnight Cowboy. Luckily, they were characters with whom I had an intimacy that promoted a modicum of understanding I did not have for myself. I didn’t know what they might think of me.

There was a small group of prostitutes who congregated together in front of the Lyric Theater, where the Hilton Theater is today, having coffee from a nearby greasy spoon, smoking and talking and giggling, perhaps too wired to go home to sleep or maybe waiting for someone to pick them up; I never knew.  I felt like I was in Junior High, having to pass the cool girls, hoping they wouldn’t make fun of me.

They didn’t. “Good morning, Sweetie,” a very large, older woman called to me; the others chimed in, warning me to be alert, to watch out for vagrants hiding in the shadows.  By the third or fourth day, they had coffee for me — I couldn’t drink it because I hated the “white Coffee” (extra cream) they drank, but I didn’t want to insult them, so I fake-sipped it as I headed west, thanking them profusely.  I lasted in the job (a story unto itself) for eight months, and every day in every kind of weather, the bevy was always there, expecting me when I emerged from the subway.

I finished work at 4, and the streets could be already pretty dark when I made my return trip.  I walked briskly East on 42nd Street from the river, one of many, mostly other members of the work force wrapping up their day.  I moved in sync with gal Fridays, clerks and typists in too much make-up, too-high spiked heels, too-tight mini-skirts, with office managers in dowdy, cheap suits, sensible flats, hats and gloves.  Construction workers stopped packing up their wares to shout their version of compliments at us as we walked or to jeer at the drag queens slinking along the edges of the buildings.  Well-dressed family men pulled their hats down over their eyes as they were sucked in by the blaring, undulating light of one of the many peepshow or porn  flick theaters that staved off the deepening darkness.

Cleaned up?  Times Square may be overrun with families now, but it’s far more tawdry, far less wholesome than the Times Square of my youth.

The Naked Cowboy and his imitators strut around in tightie whities, miming molestation of people’s adolescent daughters while parents laugh and snap photos.  A ridiculous-looking middle-aged man, wearing a headdress right out of a ’50’s western, parades his insignificant jewels in a skinny pair of black or white briefs as he drums a come-hither on a child’s tom-tom.  A massively wrinkled drag queen in a green bikini, her face and torso too red from an overdose of tanning rays, adjusts the Ms. Liberty crown perched on her head and collects tips in the sagging bottom of the over-packed bathing suit.  A vanful of migrant workers, bussed in from Queens and handed costumes in a lobby near the Discovery Museum, walk about as the dramatis personnae from best-known Disney films and television series, encouraging the kids to hug and fondle them.   In the center of it all, every Friday, a group of hate-spouting Black men spew ill-disguised racism and anti-semitism while tourists from around the world grab photos to send home on their iphones.

Who would call this wholesome?

I saw Batman talking to the Naked Cowboy the other day, and for a moment, it looked like Batman might ensnare the offending creep and carry him off in the Batmobile.  Wishful thinking.

Oh, well, even if he did, there’d be another to take his place.  It’s simple economics.  Just like they did in the late 60’s of my youth, people gotta make a living.  Come to think of it, the tour guide was right.  Times Square really is just an amusement park, and the revenues are where it’s at.

Hot Time, Summer in the City

Something I’ve observed this summer, worse than ever before, is that tourists are invading every corner of the city, making demands, being cranky, expecting to find Valhalla and finding instead the tricked out, dark underbelly of Oz.  They have bought into the Disney image of New York that Mayor Bloomberg and his 1%-ers have hyped to the hilt, and they blame New Yorkers for the fact that in real life, this city is still a dirty, noisy, hot, muggy, polluted, poorly air-conditioned and ridiculously expensive cesspool.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love New York.  I have never wanted to live anywhere else.  But when I am solvent enough to leave the city every summer, I shall.  Where will I go?  Anywhere but here.

Summer temperatures top 1000 at least in heat index for much of the summer.  While weather idiots on the tube regularly crow about the gloriously hot summer temps, they are safely ensconced in studios with average temperatures of 700F or lower, knowing they are about to get into hyper-cooled town cars that will whisk them back to whatever well A/C’d suburban lushness they left this morning. The rest of us are pouring schvitz, and no building we find ourselves stuck in is adequately cooled.

For most of us in New York — both native and visitor — there is no place to go for real relief.  The tourist who paid exorbitant prices to get here is not going to leave the city for a weekend spent floating in a not-nearly-as-icy-as-it-used-to-be glacial lake in the Adirondacks, which might be the only place left in the Northeast that isn’t miserable.  That tourist is probably wishing s/he had considered Alaska for this summer vacation.  Whatever possessed her to come here?

New Yorkers — well, those of us stuck down her here on the ground for the summer; remember, the 1% are out of town or in their refrigerated towers where weather is irrelevant — take the blame.  The tourists scream at us, push us out of their way, scowl at us when we try to help them.  And the way they treat service industry workers is appalling.

Last week, in a moment of exaggerated irony, I heard a woman yell at her husband, “Stop that.  You sound like a New Yorker.”  He was in mid-rant, flinging filthy epithets at a tour guide whose bus was full and could not take the couple onto her bus.  I was standing close by, a witness to the whole episode.  “I’m sorry for your trouble,” the guide had said consolingly.  “I’ve called the dispatcher to send an empty bus. You are not alone — we have . . .”  “You f-ing liar,” growled the man as the guide ran back onto the bus, pleading for the driver to close the doors behind her because the man was clearly about to lunge.  “You’ve made me stand here for two f-ing hours, you stupid bitch.  You think I believe for one minute that you got off your fat ass to. . .” The tour guide said less than nothing; she did look like she was close to tears.  If this guy was any example of the kind of customers she’d been taking on all day, she was probably frazzled.  And broke because no one was tipping.

Most Americans  — and foreigners these days, for that matter — turn their noses up at tipping, and many foreigners simply don’t understand our system because where they come from, tips are included in the price they pay for everything; no one ever has to ask.  Most tourists view service industry people’s asking for tips as akin to panhandling.  Yet the tip seekers are hard working, critical members of the labor force.  Nothing would run without them.  Yet their greedy, megalomaniacal bosses don’t pay them what they are worth;  they expect you to do it for them.

Consider the same tour bus, for example.  You have paid what feels to you like a king’s ransom for the pleasure of sitting on a steaming solarium, getting stuck in traffic long enough to have your skin sun roasted to the color of polished pomegranate seeds.  But in truth, you have actually paid very little for the service you are receiving.  Think about it.  On every bus, there is a driver and a guide who will answer all your questions, take all your abuse.  At every stop there is a dispatcher who keeps the buses rolling and protects you from one another when you fight over who’s first in line.  In the offices there are accountants who count and account for the money and bosses who tell each of the underlings what to do at every moment.  You use this service as a taxi, and in a day’s time, your handful of money has paid for some 500 people to keep the rig running.

Do you honestly believe those 500 people are paid what they are worth?  How could the employers’ profits soar as they do — these are figures Mayor Bloomberg loves to crow over — if all those foot soldiers were substantially paid?

Out-of-towners look down on service industry workers, consider them beneath contempt. They are, after all, the working class and deserve to be underpaid, undervalued, overworked, and maltreated because they didn’t pay their dues, get a good education, work their way up the corporate ladder.  In this age of Romney-ite philosophy, if you’re not rich, you are a loser.

Boy are you in the wrong city for that attitude!  I’m sure it’s like this elsewhere, but in New York, a surprising  — no, an ASTOUNDING — percentage of those working blue collar jobs are well-educated, well-read millions who were traind for jobs in industries that have failed in the past two years . . . like publishing and its fellows.

And here’s another insight.  Maybe where you come from your bosses talk to you like you deserve to be treated like a human being.  But in New York, particularly in the tourism industry, thugs are in key management positions.  That same tour guide who was being upbraided mercilessly by the unhappy customer will go back to her post and take another verbal beating for some infraction she executed unawares, and when she gets her paycheck, chances are it will be short by at least five of her exhausting hours’ work.

So, what’s my point? 

I hope you do come to New York — come soon, and come often.  We need your dollars for sure.  But try to remember that you need the service industry workers at least as much as they need you.  They go out of their way to make sure you are having a great day; they answer your questions, make lists, point to landmarks to guide you on your way, recommend places to pee, protect you from as much of the unpleasantness as is humanly possible.  They bring you your food, valet your car, carry your over-stuffed suitcase, call your cabs, drive your transports, clean the washrooms (yes, they do — people are slobs, remember?), ensure that you get safely to whatever floor you seek and, well, there is little you don’t take for granted that doesn’t require your thanking a service person.

Treat all New Yorkers with kindness and respect.  But treat all your servers with some extra consideration.  Leave a tip.

And for goodness sake, try to have a great time.  That’s what you came here for.

A Woman’s Project

I returned to New York City in 2005, long after my “Sell by” date had expired

In 2005, I left the relative comfort of a tremulous marriage and a tumultuous job (drama director/English Teacher) — the details of which are best left to fiction where they will embarrass no one’s children — to pursue my writing career. I knew the transition would not be easy, but having been raised by a Puritan Calvinist father and a mother who’d escaped Europe in 1939, I felt prepared for whatever difficulty might befall me. It seemed that the year’s pay I had vested in my pension along with the portion of my mother’s inheritance that I didn’t give to my children, would, at the very least, get me to a good job in New York, where I would then begin to write in earnest.

New York today is a cleaner, sparklier version of the city I left in my young adulthood; it’s no longer the nurturing artist’s environment I remember from those days. (Photo by Aaron Newman)

It’s a tale, as I think about it, worthy of Flaubert. Except that I was well past young when I ventured out of the provinces into the promise of new life in the city, and I had no idea what incredible bias I would be up against.

In the early days of my wife-and-motherdom, I had taken on a number of jobs (part-time, so long as we could afford to have me home part-time and then full-time as our financial needs grew), had served on boards and managed schedules and even had acted as interim director of a Day School.  I was an inveterate multi-tasker.

As a teacher, in addition to serving as Vice President of the State’s Drama Association and as a member of our NEA (teacher’s union) Negotiations team, et al., I had produced and directed two shows a year for ten years, had run a very successful summer program in one town for 7 then got a grant from the State to operate a Summer Conservatory program in another for two; I had raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and had always brought my programs back to the black. I did my own marketing and publicity, made my own deals with state-wide vendors, hired my own musicians, designers and construction crews. I created dialogue between my students and professional theaters around the country, and I personally arranged at least two annual trips to New York for a performance and a talkback/tour with the cast and crew of the show we saw. For the summer grant program, which required professional theater people to serve in their professional roles as well as to teach, I auditioned, hired and oversaw all manner of talent and crews from New York, provided them with transportation, housing, and meals while I made sure they got paid, and at the same time I produced/directed Sweeney Todd and produced As You Like It in repertory. And in addition to everything else, I had co-authored and produced three short films, two of which had garnered festival prizes

In short, I had taken on many responsibilities — always — and had honed a great many skills. Yet when I began to hunt for jobs in NY, it became quickly apparent that out in the world there are two distinct types for whom professional people have a blanket distrust: older women and teachers. Ooops.

Older women are invisible. They are no longer classifiable. Even though there is a great deal made about the Cougar women men crave, most men don’t even look at most women over 50. Even those who are attractive, fit, vital women get very little attention. And what that means is that women don’t look at them either. Worse, the invisibility somehow makes them less desirable as new hires. Who wants to clutter an office — or, in my case, a theater — with invisible drones? I applied for every possibly suitable job, from education director to personal assistant, posted in America over the course of the two years it took me to realize I was un-hirable. But being over fifty was only part of it.

People in the “real” world believe that teachers go into education because they can’t do. And we all know how easy teaching is! Anyone can do it — so why would you hire someone who “only” knows how to teach? I talked myself hoarse about the various skills I had developed in my various capacities as a “teacher,” but my words fell on deaf ears. One young woman who was interviewing me for a job I could do with my eyes closed effused at me, “Oh, you were a class advisor too? You must love going to proms.”

And the irony was that even for teaching I was now too old to be hired in a new system. When I was shortlisted for a great part-time job in an Alternative High School that would have been perfect for me, the interviewer told me, “I could lose my job for this, but I want to tell you that even though you are my first choice for this position, you won’t get the job.” She went on to tell me that I had “years in”, which required money, and I was no longer “fresh.”

Though guiding is certainly not a dream job, it does pay the cookie bills

So, as my little nest egg began to dwindle — I didn’t fight my husband for what I should have insisted on having after 33 years of marriage, believing I’d find a great job to sustain me very quickly — I took a job in the surreal world of tourism and became a sightseeing guide. Now nearing 65, armed with an arsenal of words, two master’s degrees and a compendium of otherwise useless information collected with my autodidact’s obsession with New York City, wearing my royal blue uniform shirt and a thick coat of sunscreen, I trudge daily down to the place where the tour buses originate. There I endure the abuse by passengers who range from insensitive to moronic, and I allow myself to be ordered around by bosses, many of whom are recently released, convicted felons, and by over-eager ticket sellers, who tend to be newly arrived African immigrants  (priceless few of whom have a shred of empathy for women in general or older women in particular), and then I go home to sleep.

I do this because it allows me every morning to get up before the sun and revel in the knowledge that I have a few hours of precious writing time, and someday soon . . . . well who knows!  I’ve just finished a book, which will be released this month, and I am writing furiously in a way I haven’t since I was a teenager filling journals with self-absorbed ruminations.

I am not alone out here. There are any number of women who have set out to create new lives for themselves, to forge careers in creative endeavors; and I have discovered, after a lifetime of feeling disconnected from women and intimidated by the judgmental, dogged competition friendship with them engendered, that for the first time in my life, I have a true kinship with some of the most remarkable people on the planet. Amazingly, they are women!

It’s been a rough road, and it’s not getting easier any time soon. I know that. I accept it. But I hope to live long enough and to prosper sufficiently to make it easier for someone else. Some day I would dearly love to open a safe house, a home for women like me who have held in their overflowing creativity for too many years and just need a place where they can live and write or paint or study lines or clean their cameras or do whatever they need to do to fulfill the need to DO without fear of eviction and starvation. A fear I carry in my stomach at the end every single month. It’ll be at least a while before I’m where I can even think about making the dream house real. But I want to start the process of providing support right here and right now. In this, my new blog, I will inaugurate a series about some of my most admired, most loved friends, women who, like me, have risked absolute failure in the pursuit of resounding success. A section of this blog will be dedicated to those women who would like to be featured here. That will debut shortly.

My cousin Anna Thea Bogdanovich, one of the women I admire most, seated in a pantheon of creative women at the Museum of Arts and Design

I dedicate my efforts to my daughters and my granddaughters. May they never be invisible. Or disrespected for having lived.