Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters walk the Big Apple

By Melvyn Kohn
August 2, 2009

I have been back in New York for a month now, and at times I want to sing a few lyrics from three Elton John songs: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters pt. 2, and New York City I wouldn't have you any other way. But there are quality of life laws now, and I am sure that one of them is you don't inflict upon passersby your bad singing. So I refrain. But oh how tempted I am to hum at least a few bars of any of these; the first was written about Bernie Taupin's frist trip to New York, where he saw a murder just under his hotel room: "And now I know, I thought I knew, but now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City..."
That is from the '70s. In the late '80s he composed pt 2, with the memorable line about a "walk through little Italy, down along the West Side, searching for the city, that took away the kid in me." The latest song about the Big Apple talks about his love for it's natural character, which is a city that demands chutzpah to live in.
What I first notice about NYC is the food. When I explained my ten year stay in the UK to a friend, he was totally shocked that there was no root beer or cream soda there. Gobsmacked he was, though they do not use that term here. How I survived without those drinks is a mystery, but it deepens when I admit that there were no cannolis, no real NYC pizza, no knishes, no Jamaican meat pies, no hotdogs...
So I tucked into all of these on my return. Good to get a slice with anchovies and a cream soda on every corner. That is what I call kosher, though I admit my level of Kashrut is not according to Leviticus.
But, though I might indulge in lots of things, there are limits, and my stay in London tested those limits - for instance, I once had a gazpacho with cream in it. For real. The waitress told me it was tres bon as I sat in a French cafe in Chiswick. I walked out. And also in W4, I was given ratatouille I had to refuse. It was not the rats; it was the celery. I have had this dish 40 different ways, but celery is not an ingredient. It is nice in matzoh ball soup and with hummus, but, as a part of ratatouille, it violates very basic laws of cuisine. Thus I sent it back, and kept to a certain level of kashrut. Jonathan Sacks I am sure would approve.
The town with the largest diaspora community in the world does not allow for these lapses. Celery goes with the matzoh balls, cream goes in the soda, and rats go, well, all over the place incuding the tubes - which they call the subways here.
And I went all over the place as well, remembering fondly some of the old walks. Midtown has been upgraded, I am pleased to report, and I spent time in Bryant Park, that hangout behind the Library on 40-42nd streets on 6th Avenue, or the Avenue of the Americas as they are wont to call it. I walked uptown a bit and recalled that on rainy days I could walk for several blocks between 6th and 7th and avoid the rain by using the spaces between buildings or their lobbies. And also, that several of these spaces also had art and landscaping, so I decided to see how far I could get.
Starting at 46th St, about 60 paces west of 6th, I came across The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Roundabout Theater Company, which is part of an outdoor space featuring stone benches and landscaping. This is behind 1185 6th Avenue. I then took a nondescript passageway behind 1121 6th, which is about 60 paces further west, and arrived on 48th where there is a choice of passageways; or rather, was, as the one that is to the east is blocked off, a pity because that featured waterfalls and lots of tables. So I took one that is another 20 paces to the east, being the lobby of the McGraw Hill Building at 1221 6th. Exiting that on 49th, I was directly across from 1251 6th, the lobby of which is the Rockefeller Center Concourse, an art decoish '30 kind of affair with stone floors, stone benches and landscaping. And here I explored, as this leads to a downstairs with many shops and subway entrances. It also connects to some of the aforementioned addresses. Back on the ground floor, I noticed an authorised replica of a stage curtain by Picasso hanging on a west facing wall - it is titled "Mercure". As I left I noticed the stained glass. The guard told me it was all executed in the '70s. Very impressive.
Exiting on 50th, I found almost directly across the entrance, actually there are two, to the Time Life Building - 1271 6th, where a large painting by Fritz Glasner hangs on an east facing wall. Next up is the UBS Building, accessed on 51st, and while this is not as impressive as the others, it does reserve space on the north-east side to art exhibits. This time it is one by the National Association of Women Artists (NAWA) which includes pieces by Naomi Grossman, Joan Hierholzer, Blanche Lazell and Alethea Hill Platt. One piece by Pat Adams, I note, took years, 1969-1972 it states, and I can relate, as I take sometimes years with my own pieces.
There is another way to get from 51st to 52nd, and that is to cross the outdoor space between behind this building, the Paine Webber Building if I am not mistaken. The space has red granite benches and two Larry Flanagan sculptures. Directly across from this one can continue this walkabout by going through a non-descript open space, where there are some wooden benches, and directly across from that, is another such space, which takes on to 54th. There one walks along the side of the Nouveau Hotel, under a partially covered skylight; on emerging at 55th, if one looks to the left, there is the Ziegfield Theatre, which has an outdoor seating space which goes through to 56th, or one can use the foyer of 131 W55 to be taken to 56th, where a large brightly decorated building, the location of the NYC Center Stage I&II catches the eye. It is not far from the next passageway, the foyer of 135 W56, a high ceilinged affair with stone floors.
One is now not far from Central Park, on 59th Street; exploration of which is material for another post.


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