Sunday, January 24, 2016

Go East, Part Two

Whatever it was I caught on the plane coming to New York had dissipated by the end of last week, and Monday, since it was a holiday, my friend, the street photographer/union activist Mike Lee, came to visit. Mike used to live in this neighborhood, and we took a long walk, talking about this and that, catching up over lunch at the most wonderful old-school Italian joint imaginable, which we just happened to walk into. Both watching our carbs, or I would have suggested splitting a pizza, but as it was, I had mixed shrimp and scungilli (that's conch, folks) in a Fra Diavolo sauce: it doesn't get more old-school than that. No, I'm not going to divulge the name of this place yet because I'm going back for dinner this week.

We walked as far as Caputo's, an Italian deli that makes its own mozzarella daily (except Monday, when it's closed) and then we cut across on some side-street and headed back to the apartment. It was sunny, but cold, and with a lot of wind, making it worse. I saw places I hadn't seen before, the famous Brooklyn row-houses, one after another.

I was trying to figure out what this all reminded me of, and then it hit me, later: this was like Greenwich Village's pleasanter quarters in the years I first discovered them, but at a (relatively) affordable price. I probably still can't afford to live here, but it feels comfortable, and the mixture of hip (but not hipster) and family and old-time Italian is very appealing. Maybe it's time to play the Lottery. 

Tuesday was about packing: I'd bought a ticket on the Acela, the so-called high-speed train Amtrak runs between Washington and Boston, to spend a couple of days seeing Boston for the first time in oh, maybe 40 years. An old friend from Austin, Stewart, had moved there and fallen in love with the place, posting odes to cold weather and snow on Facebook that would've gotten him lynched back home. Turns out this may be deep-seated with him: doing research, he discovered that his first ancestor in the United States had a farm in what is now Harvard Yard! 

Well, I packed, but I also panicked. I'd used Amtrak's phone app to buy the ticket, and then couldn't get at it. I had apparently forgotten the password, and repeated inquiries got no help from Amtrak. Fortunately, there was an e-mail, and when I found it, I discovered the train was at 3, not 3:30, as I thought. This was going to be the test of my new iPad Pro, which is like my laptop but lighter and with fewer apps, but suitable for the Web and e-mail, as well as having the New Yorker and a bunch of Kindle books to read: a perfect travelling companion. Which I dutifully put in its bag and left on the couch, as I discovered as I was entering the subway station. 

The train trip was uneventful, with some immensely fat guy asleep next to me the whole way. Of course, you never see the most scenic parts of where you are, but I was fairly thrilled by the maritime activities in New London, Connecticut, and a sand beach a bit further up the route. We crawled a lot of the way -- word is it that Amtrak doesn't have much in the way of high-speed rails on this leg of the route -- but as soon as we got a glorious scarlet sunset, we started jamming. 

Best I could do
Boston was even colder and windier than Brooklyn, but the subway stop I needed was only a couple of stops away from the station, and then there was what seemed like an interminable walk down Charles Street to the hotel. 

But what a hotel! Only a dozen or so rooms, and Stewart (a chef by profession) told me he'd heard good things about the restaurant. It hardly mattered: I was so cold that if I'd been told the hotel restaurant was awful, but the place across the street would give me the best meal of my life, I'd still have dined in. It was cold out there! And as it was, I got the best meal I've had all year, although I did remind the staff that the year was only 20 days old. There was a charcuterie plate with a homemade pâté (served too cold, a common failing, but time will take care of that) that I loved and a duck liver mousse that was extraordinary. Then I had their take on what's becoming a welcome cliché, the iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing. This was little gem lettuce with various add-ons and a "blue cheese compote," with a bit of what they described as Serrano ham subbing for the bacon that's usually there, and which I don't think was Serrano ham. Whatever, it was good, and I was getting stuffed, so I was happy that the portion of leg of venison with "heirloom carrots" and mushrooms was as good as it was -- and enough to finish the job. With it, I had a Languedoc wine, Chateau L'Hospitalet, that matched everything perfectly. (I know, Gérard Bertrand is not a well-loved figure in Languedoc wine, but there's a pretty stellar wine list in this restaurant and this was a good compromise between affordable and correct). This was an expensive meal, but well worth it, and well worth having to subsist on celery sticks for the next week if I have to. 

The next day, I met Stewart to hit a couple of art museums. The first was the Isabella Stewart Gardner House, site of the largest unsolved art-heist in America when a couple of guys disguised as cops lifted a Vermeer and about 39 other paintings about 40 years ago and a scandal erupted when it was discovered that security was virtually nil in the place, a sprawling pile designed after an Italian villa. Mrs. Gardner was left $1.5 million when her father died (not such a huge amount in today's crazy art market, but this was the late 19th century) and immediately decamped with her husband to Europe to start buying art. She got decent advice and went back year after year, stuffing it in her villa willy-nilly. When her husband died she came into more money and continued collecting until she died. Her will stipulated that the house be open to the public, but there would be no rearrangement of anything at all, no labels on the works, no change of any kind. The minute you step into the place you can tell one thing: she was mad. Some of the art is good, a lot is mediocre, some is just plain bad. There's a Rembrandt self-portrait that's more important for documenting the way he looked when he painted it than for any particularly artistic merit (mind you, I'm not much of a fan of his, and I do wonder how the "cops" missed this one, because I identified it right off). The place is dark, disordered, claustropobic, and I was happy when we headed towards the door. 

Except we didn't, and I'm glad. The place has an active trust that's bringing in money, and at one point they had Renzo Piano enclose it in a sort of glass box, as well as create a second building in the enclosure. This has a gallery that pays host to travelling shows or shows curated by the foundation, and at the moment has a show dedicated to the Italian Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli, aka Cucumber Dude for the number of cucumbers that appear in his paintings. I'd read a rave about it in the New York Review (or maybe the London Review of Books; I can't find it in either), and was happy to catch it. His weird gourd obsession aside, he had a masterful eye and sense of color, and although there aren't that many paintings of his surviving, the bunch here are lovely, and, given the chaos next door, well-displayed. It closes tomorrow, so I'm very glad I saw it. 

Next up was just around the corner -- well, nearby, anyway. Stewart is a member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and breezed us past the admission desk with his card. I'd still have paid, I realized as we were leaving. This place is as chockablock full of great stuff as the Metropolitan Museum. Its collection starts later, with the Italian Renaissance, its Egyptian collection isn't nearly as big, but although I'm not sure I saw everything I would have wanted -- the building is in a confusing shape, thanks to a rotunda whose ceiling is covered with a huge John Singer Sargent fresco. Its American collection, particularly from around the time of the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, is, unsurprisingly, tremendous, as (also unsurprisingly) is its collection of Sargents, including "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," which Stewart tells me was as controversial as his "Madame X" in the Met. It's displayed flanked by the gigantic Chinese ceramics it portrays. And one of the coolest things in the museum is a humongous Roman statue of the goddess Juno -- well, it wears her head, although that seems to have been added later, albeit during Roman times. Juno stood in a garden in the Boston suburb of Brookline until it was donated to the MFA, at which point it was transported by helicopter and deposited, through the roof, at its present location via a nail-biter of a helicopter ride, all documented at her base. 

I wish I could be as kind about its contemporary collection, but there are very few first-rate works in it, if what was on display is anything to go by. Of course, I was also experiencing art burnout by this point in the afternoon, as any reasonable person would. Clearly, this is a collection shaped by the Boston Brahmins of years past, with an admirable spirit continuing into the present, but perhaps without the vision of the Met or the talent of MOMA and the Whitney. 

Thursday was my last day in town, so Stewart showed me some of the tourist attractions which, it being colder than humanly imaginable, were pretty thin on tourists. I realized that I had a strong affection for pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary tombstones, dating back to family vacations in Vermont where my father became convinced that where Revolutionary War veterans were buried there'd be copious blueberry bushes. This is irrational, but he was right almost all of the time, and he had two willing helpers with kid-sized hands to harvest them. Needless to say, there were no berries out at this time of year, and in Boston probably at any time of year, but we tromped through the Old Granary Burying Ground and I snapped away. 

All manner of famous people are planted here -- Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock -- and as you can see it's quite a collection of funerary art, American style. 

After I dragged Stewart to another graveyard, he insisted we go warm up at the Boston Athenaeum, just up Beacon Hill. He's a proud member of this, too, and spends some of his days doing research here. What, exactly is it? The best I can do is that it's a venerable private library with impressive holdings of periodicals (I saw bound Harper's and Atlantic Monthlys going well back into the 19th century, and no doubt they have the entire run) all housed in a building dripping with art (part of the reason the MFA was built was to house the Athenaeum's collection, which it then grabbed when it became a separate institution), serving, for most of its existence, a rarified stratum of Boston society. After all, a lot of people in Boston have access to libraries at Harvard and MIT, whose collections must duplicate some of this stuff, and there's also the Boston Public Library, which probably has a book or two. And, in fact, the membership at the Athenaeum was literally dying off when the trustees mounted a membership drive that coincided with the digitization of the collection (a mighty undertaking, I bet) and a revamped lecture and concert series that seriously lowered the median age and boosted the membership rolls. It subscribes to a huge number of magazines, which was heartening to see for an old magazine-head like me, including everything from Toad Suck to One Story (which prints one story per issue) to Petite Propos Culinaires (the number of scholarly food magazines was impressive, too). I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. 

We then took a leisurely stroll up Beacon Hill so I could see where Stewart lives, and as we passed one building he noted it was subsidized housing and he was on a list to get into it. It was astonishing enough that he could afford to live on Beacon Hill at all, but I was flabbergasted that in this age of real estate greed the city of Boston would have this large, beautiful building available for lower income residents. After all, right around the corner are some of the older buildings, one of which houses John Kerry and his wife. 

Next up was the show I most wanted to see. The Institue for Contemporary Art is way the hell out on a pier (don't worry, it's being developed for high-dollar residences with breathless marketing hype on the fences keeping people out of the building site) with a commanding view. Leap Before You Look is an exhibit about Black Mountain College, and back when I was being pressured to figure out what college to apply to (despite mostly mediocre grades), Black Mountain was my choice. There were great composers, painters, and not so many writers, but it seemed like a place where I'd meet the kind of people I wanted to meet, some of whom, I devoutly hoped, would be girls. And I would have, had the institution survived past 1957, when I was in third grade and not thinking much about girls at all. One of its first stars were Josef and Ani Albers, on the run, as were several other early faculty members, from the Nazis. The Albers were Bauhaus veterans, and it shows, not only in their work, but in the way they and the other faculty approached the learning process. The college wasn't very rich, and students helped grow their own food and constructed some of the campus buildings while learning painting, dance, design, textiles, and pottery. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Lou Harrison, Ruth Asawa, Robert Motherwell, the names go on and on, a roll-call of '50s avant-garde luminaries. Which were students and which were faculty? One takeaway from this show, which it's at pains to point out, was that it destroyed the hierarchy of the arts, and, along the way, the teacher-pupil hierarchy. In the end, a very Bauhaus idea. I'm sure I would have loved it, but experiments like this don't last. It sure looks like it was, well, not fun, but something bigger than that, while it lasted. Later, I went to the bookstore and they had a Black Mountain college pennant and a t-shirt, but at $40, that was a lot of mazuma for a t-shirt, so I let it sit. And as we left the Black Mountain show, we were presented with this installation:

Just what I needed. 

Dinner plans were to go to Legal Seafood, a Boston institution that, according to a friend of Stewart's, was good despite its having turned into a chain. I wanted good old New England Atlantic seafood, but hell, it wasn't even 5:30. So we jumped onto the MTA and headed to Harvard Square, where there was a branch of the restaurant plus The Harvard Bookstore, which Stewart assured me I'd like. It's not the official university store -- that's the Harvard Coop -- but an independent book store with everything from a zillion new and used books to a machine that can access obscure books and print and bind them right in the store. Much as I love Book People in Austin, I wish we had something like this there, too. We spent tons of time there and when we emerged from the used/remainder section in the basement, an author was giving a reading/talk. Right then and there, I decided I want to do one there when my book comes out, although I doubt my publisher will do much in the way of a tour. I think I'll be coming to the New York area, though, and this is just a train-ride away. 

We managed to spend enough time at Harvard to work up an appetite, and Legal was only a few icy blocks away. I had a kind of Yankee cioppino, where lobster replaced the crab. Most of the shellfish in it (as with the steamer clams I'd ordered for an appetizer) was overcooked, sad to say, but the broth was great -- I got tomato, white wine, and herbs -- and there was enough left over for Stewart to take home for lunch the next day -- and to torment his cat with. 

The next morning I hopped on the Acela, and saw the stuff I'd missed in the dark. This is the part of the country in which I grew up, although time has done a good enough number on it that it doesn't twang my heartstrings with nostalgia, and I doubt I'd want to move back to it. Brooklyn, however...

I had been following the news, which told me that a gigantic blizzard was coming, so as soon as I got home I put up enough food for two days -- or so I thought -- and hunkered down. The first day was no picnic, and I didn't go out into the blowing mass of snow, but today's okay if you're not going to take a long walk, and I'm sure tomorrow will be, too. 

Plus, I've got another week here!

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