Most summers, I have gotten out of New York City, but not this year – the Summer of the Coronavirus. This dramatic change has caused me to think about past summers of my life.
For years, I resisted traveling abroad, preferring to work summers as a counsellor at a boys’ camp in the beautiful state of Maine. Pine Island prided itself on being a campers’ camp. For much of the week, the camp, located on Great Pond, a part of the Belgrade Lakes, was empty, the campers being out in the wild, climbing mountains and paddling on the rivers of Maine. But being a New York City boy, and a touch sedentary, I preferred to spend the entire week at the camp where I would be fed by the kitchen staff; the beds were far more comfortable than hard ground and my tent water-proof. Thus my work assignments were camp-based, the first being to run the carpentry shop.
I brought zero experience to the position, a wooden shoe polish box being the only object I had ever made with my own hands, made in carpentry class at elementary school. The shop teacher helped me. Using a pencil and ruler, with a firm hand he drew straight lines on a board. I was to follow the lines with a hand saw. I did my best, but was inexact. Each piece had a jagged end. I nailed the pieces together to form the box, but none were aligned. Two hinges were used to attach the cover. I painted the box blue, my favorite color. Both the shop teacher and mother must have realized that my future, whatever it might hold, lay not in the manual arts. To this day, the box contains my shoe polishing brushes. My shoe box, primitive as it is, has served me for decades.
Bucky, my talented young assistant, taught the boys what they needed to know about carpentry. My responsibility lay in preventing them from hammering their fingers, or doing worse bodily harm with a saw. Much of my time in the shop was spent reading, “Of Human Bondage,” by Somerset Maugham, referred to with glee by the boys as “The Human Bandage.”
The next summer I served as the skipper of the “Jubilee,” a lobster boat transformed into a motor launch to convey campers and staff from the mainland to the island and back. Further on the nautical front, I directed a one-performance only of Gilbert and Sullivan’s, “The HMS Pinafore.” A gifted pianist on the staff came to my rescue, as Bucky had done in the shop, since I read not a note of music. I seemed to be drawn to activities where I knew nothing, tennis being an exception. I had been on the high school varsity tennis team, playing third singles. During the summer I taught tennis, I spent much time searching in the woods for tennis balls hit by the boys and, on occasion, by me.
But then mother, thinking that her college-student son should be expanding his knowledge of the world, not hitting tennis balls, invited me to travel with her to India where she would be conducting a course on American foreign policy to doctoral students in New Delhi, mother being a prominent writer, editor, lecturer and professor in the field of international relations. I could not resist her generous offer.
We arrived in New Delhi, after stays along the way in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Calcutta. In New Delhi, we lived in a Ford Foundation house at No. 5 Tuglok Lane. This was my first time living in a house since, like most New Yorkers, I was, and continue to be, an apartment dweller. And what a house, with five servants and a garden! I travelled around Delhi on a horse-drawn tonga, or on a motorcycle driven by a daredevil Sikh, and attended mother’s classes, learning much about the world. Extended weekends were spent in Bombay and in Kashmir, living on a houseboat on Dal Lake across from the Shalimar Gardens, with the Himalayan Mountains serving as a thrilling background.
I then traveled to Egypt and Turkey on my own, met my college roommate in Rome and we proceeded to Florence, Venice, and the French Riviera to stay with friends of mother, and then on to Paris and New York. What a summer! I had fallen headlong in love with the world of travel. The next summer I joined mother on her fact-finding mission through West and East Africa during a fascinating period when the colonial powers were leaving, or had already departed. We visited Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika. My book, “Into Distant Countries,” is dedicated to her: “To mother who introduced me to the world.”
Travels to Europe followed, including bicycle trips in Russia, Ireland, England and the Netherlands. This past spring I had planned to join the editor of this publication in the south on what would have been my fourth trip to India, but then the coronavirus arrived with a vengeance in both my country and city, and his – India and Mumbai.
Over the years, I was transformed from non-traveler to world traveler, and this summer to a different status, undertaking what I call personal journeys in the city of my birth, upbringing, education, and personal and professional life. My personal journeys may require a mask and social distancing, but no passport, visa or air travel is necessary.
Living as I do in a city where in the past few months 23,000 of my fellow residents have died, and hundreds of thousands more been infected by the coronavirus, I have come to feel a strong need in my life to embrace beauty and sought to do so this summer through music, art and reacquainting myself with city treasures, such as our bridges, parks and harbor.
Music, by listening evenings at home to fifteen full-length operas when the Metropolitan Opera began streaming nightly operas from its video archive. The opera house is closed, hoping to reopen on the final evening of this calamitous year. My usual seat is found in the last row of the Family Circle. The Family Circle is even higher than the balcony. When I stand by my seat, I can almost touch the gold painted ceiling. Visually, powerful opera glasses are needed, but acoustically, it is one of the best places to be in the 3800-seat house. Now I watch operas close up, watching them lying on the living room couch, holding an IPad inches from my face. I have been watching my favorite operas of Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, and hearing for the first time the operas of Gluck. Evenings, as the opera is about to start, seeing as I do the Austrian glass chandeliers rising to the ceiling and the house darkening, we video viewers hear the stage manager from backstage say, “Conductor to the pit.” A thrilling moment for me.
Layers of personal gloom melt away. So often in opera, the beautiful Italian word, “corragio,” appears. We all need “corragio” in these times. Opera composers, librettists, singers and musicians provide us with courage.
And the city inspires me with thrilling sights – Central Park at my doorstep – and the harbor where each day 260 billion cubic feet of ocean water surge beneath the Verranzano – Narrows Bridge into the Upper Bay and along the shorelines of this city of islands, and rush hundreds of miles northward up the Hudson River, later to return to the sea.
My ultimate personal journey this summer was to the Frick Collection located at 1 East 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. “Ultimate,” because the Frick has been closed the whole time since the March arrival in New York City of the coronavirus. How do I visit a museum when it is closed? Simple, by years of having visited what I consider to be my “neighborhood museum.” I have come to know the placement of every painting in every room. I know the Frick floor plan better than the placement of states on the map of the United States.
For my “visit,” I place myself on a Fifth Avenue bench across from the Frick. Behind the closed full length French windows is the Frick’s “Living Hall.” Here Venetian art is well represented by two Titian portraits – the Venetian writer, “Pietro Aretino,” and “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap” – and Giovanni Bellini’s, “St. Francis in the Desert.” Across the room, side by side, are two bitter antagonists in English history, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, both painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Above them, by El Greco, “St.Jerome.”
Henry Clay Frick, the coke-and-steel industrialist, who lived here, had three favorites among the paintings he had collected. Two are the St. Francis and Thomas More. The third is Rembrandt’s
“Self-Portrait” in the West Gallery. These are among my favorites, along with four others not selected by Mr. Frick, but added to the collection later by the trustees of the Frick Collection.
The first is “Still Life with Plums,” by Chardin, the 18th-century French painter. Here Chardin delights in life’s simple and familiar pleasures: A plate of plums, two loaves of bread, a bottle and wine-filled glass. At times of anguish, as we are now experiencing, how deeply appreciated do life’s simplest pleasures become. The second is “Vetheuil in Winter” by Monet. The painting conveys the intense cold of the winter of 1878-79 in a small town on the Seine. Even on the hottest days in New York City, when standing in front of this painting, I feel winter’s icy blast.
In his painting, “The Arch of Constantine and the Forum, Rome.” Corot brilliantly captures the rich colors of sunlit Rome. He loved the city, as do I. When standing in front of this painting, I am warmed by the sun and the beauty of Rome. “The White Horse,” is by the English painter, John Constable. The painting depicts a horse being ferried across the River Stour in East Anglia. Of this countryside, Constable wrote, “I love every stile and stump and lane in the village; as long as I am able to hold a brush I shall never cease to paint them….” On my trip to East Anglia, I walk past the schoolhouse Constable attended through fields, along the way, communing with cows who seem to have stepped from his paintings. Having walked and bicycled in Constable Country, I shall never look upon “The White Horse “ free of these rich memories.
My enthusiasm was shared by a Frick guard. He told an interviewer years ago, “This is my favorite, I love landscapes…. Sometimes in the morning I have to check the floor and all the paintings. When I come to this one, I always take an extra look, just to admire it.”
This summer, I am making good use of time in the city with my personal journeys.