For whatever reason, Spring Break is a major cultural moment for me. I am inordinately blessed to have this time off from work. It has allowed me to do extraordinary things such as: meet Dame Angela Lansbury, nod at Prince Charles, see shows on Broadway with extraordinary stars, visit major Egyptological exhibitions, and see fascinating locales around the nation. This year’s trip was no different, and I had the best time with the most wonderful experiences.
The only bummer was the blizzard — but even that was kind of fun in itself. I hate winter, but there is a delightful glee that goes around when major weather is about to go down. At work we all feel the anticipation of an early out, a delay, or a blissful cancellation. It’s a decadent change from normalcy. I quite like a snow day, mind you, but only a singular day. I want the snow gone by the next morning, and I want to be back out tanning in the vineyard with a gin and tonic and a trashy magazine. So when it was announced that a major blizzard was heading toward my Spring Break destination, I rolled my eyes and failed to consider the consequences of melted snow and ice salt on suede Chelsea boots. But still…to the stories!
Many moons ago, I read that Glenn Close was going to be starring in a revival of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. I immediately went into cardiac arrest. Can you imagine anything more fabulous? I knew that I was destined to go, there was absolutely no way I was going to be missing such a unique opportunity. Have I ever bored you to tears with my lengthy story about Sunset Boulevard?
Probably. But here it goes again. I’ll try to make it shorter. I doubt that will happen.
Long ago when I was a teenager, I fell madly in love with an obscure film genre called Grande Dame Guignol. The premise is quite standard: an fabulous elderly woman finds herself in a life threatening situation, and she has to save herself in the most dramatic and campy way. It’s always fabulous.
After I saw What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, then Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Lady in a Cage, Who Slew Auntie Roo?, the absolutely delicious Strait Jacket, and all the other classics of the genre, I started to research the origins. The film that really cemented the concept without realizing it was Sunset Boulevard. It was made a decade before the others and had all the right ingredients for Grande Dame Guignol. An older star. A decaying property. Creepy vibes. It’s flawless. So I watched it a million times.
When I was in pastry school in Paris, I brought along Swanson on Swanson, the autobiography of Gloria Swanson, who goes on at some length about the filming and impact of Sunset Boulevard on her career. She made mention that she tried to make a musical of it. I thought that was fabulous, so I searched it up. Unexpectedly, I came across the Andrew Lloyd Webber version. It is a masterpiece. The songs are fabulous. The costumes are divine. The sets are amazing. The show had been closed for years.
I accepted that I might never see it. But then I had the chance in London, but I made the proper decision to go to the Apple Store on Regent Street instead to see Eddie Izzard perform standup for a recording. Whist there I met the woman who is the voice actress for Piglet in Germany, and would that have happened at the theatre? No. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I accepted again that I might never see it, so I just amused myself by belting out the songs every time I went to Los Angeles. I’ll never stop doing that, by the way. Then the revival was announced, and it was on the dates of my break, so I bought a ticket as soon as I could. Then I booked my favorite hotel and got tickets on the train.
I was thrilled. I was happy. I had done everything I dreamed. But then I got to thinking, so I went online and looked around at all the events happening in New York City for the dates I was scheduled to be in town. I scrolled and I scrolled and then I shrieked.
Reader, Bob Brier was doing a lecture someplace called the Explorer’s Club the night I was scheduled to arrive. His talk was to begin the second my train was scheduled to arrive. There was just no way I was going to make it from Penn Station all the way to the Explorer’s Club at that time of night. Traffic would be heavy, and the train would inevitably be delayed. I was sad. But then I remembered what Maurice Sendak said on a podcast with NPR, “Live your life…live your life…live your life.” And then I remembered Hillary Duff’s iconic and inspirational song “Why Not?” And I said to myself, “Why Not?” And then I decided to treat myself. So I cancelled the train, bought a flight, and nabbed a ticket to see DR. BOB BRIER. I WAS LIVING. I WAS THRIVING.
I suppose I should take a step back and introduce you to this man who has been in my life for as long as I can remember.
Bob Brier is an Egyptologist, and he writes the most fabulous books on the subject. His writing is accessible and appeals to those with both a passing interest or with MAJOR interest…and to those whose bosoms are aflame with archaeological fever…me. I adore him. I’ve read all of his books. I’ve laughed at the thought of him saying, “Hundreds of men pounding for hours,” while in Aswan looking at the unfinished obelisk in the quarry. I’ve seen him on documentaries. I’ve downloaded all of his lectures from Great Courses. I have daydreamed of being invited to lunch or dinner and looking at his massive collection of Egyptomania. In short, I love him. When I found that I could have this most unlikely of opportunities, no fiscal restraints would stop me from hopping on a plane. So I did.
Getting to New York City was a breeze. Nothing at all went wrong, and the flight landed a half an hour early. For whatever reason, my brain wasn’t functioning optimally and I thought Laguardia was Newark and I couldn’t figure out what the train was…but then when I figured out where I was, I hopped in an Uber Pool.
This was, shall I say, an experience. It saved me considerable money, and I was sat beside a very peculiar character. He never spoke to me, and I am really more than okay with that. He was in a tank top and short shorts – in mid March in New York City – that revealed his various interesting tattoos. The most peculiar of many peculiarities was an unsettlingly well rendered version of Scooby-Doo smoking a joint. I couldn’t stop looking at it. He never seemed to notice.
It was a lengthy drive to the Jane Hotel, and it was gorgeous as ever. I don’t know how many times I’ve stayed at this establishment, but unless I come into some money, I doubt I’ll be staying anywhere else. It’s only a hundred dollars per night in a nice part of town. The room is admittedly small, and you don’t have private facilities, but the provided ones are perfectly fine. It’s beautiful, too, like the lovechild of The Tower of Terror and the Titanic. That’s apt as the location of the Jane is where survivors of that ill fated ship were brought when they were hauled into the city.
My room was absolutely frigid, which was not cool (see what I did there?), so a very nice repair person came up and sealed my windows with some special tape. It fixed the draft and soon the boiler was kicking in. I was blessed.
I went down to an early dinner at the Café Gitane, which I love with dangerous passion. It’s probably my favorite restaurant in town. Happily I sauntered downstairs. Immediately I clutched my pearls. READER! It wasn’t there anymore! Where that lovely establishment had once been, evoking Casablanca and Paris and a past long gone, was a lovely room that sold coffee and scones. I was beside myself.
My iPhone comforted me and told me that they had simply moved, so off I went.
I think I nearly died a hundred times that night. It was so damn cold. So much colder than I had prepared for. The wind was whipping harshly off the Hudson, sending tiny drizzly bits into my flesh. My jacket, which was more than adequate for Iowa winters, was nothing against this New England madness. I would never live here. I couldn’t stand it.
I was near to where the restaurant was supposed to be after freezing my nonexistent ass off – the squats stopped working – and I hurried into a basilica to get blood rushing back into my extremities. I lit a candle and thought of all the people that I knew who were having hard times. It was more than usual, and that made me a tad melancholy. I wish that nobody ever had to be sad or worried. I wish that I didn’t either. It’s not fair. Life is too short and can be too much fun to be sad. Let’s not think of that anymore.
The café was right across the street! I blissfully sank into a seat and ordered a bottle of my favorite Chardonnay. It’s called Ardèche, and reader, it is brilliantly good. It’s the only white I can drink anymore. They had the same menu, and I was so happy munching on a tower of couscous covered in hummus and red pepper jam. I was sitting right by the prep area, and I must admit that some of the magic was lost when I saw them pack the couscous into an everyday disposable soda cup and then pop it out in a decadent tower of food. I mean, it still tasted fabulous, but that really is not what I expected!
I thought I would make my way down to the obelisk in Central Park, but the weather was too much for me. I headed into H&M instead to grab a hat and a scarf. I couldn’t find gloves. The hat barely fit my monstrously oversized head and the bun I still wore at that time. I hated it. I should have gone somewhere tropical, I glowered, stomping down the street, but then I wouldn’t get to see Bob or Glenn or my friend who was also in town, so I suppose it was all right.
I stopped by the Chelsea Market for nibbles to eat that night and found some lovely cheeses and breads and wine. It was money well spent and the assistants all laughed when I proclaimed, “IT’S FOR THE SUPER BLIZZARD. THIS IS AN EMERGENCY.”
I popped quickly into Aux Merveilleux de Fred, which sits bizarrely at the end of Jane Street and bought a bit of everything whilst chatting with the Parisian who runs the shop. I never fail to get kind of misty eyed here. That’s a story I’ve already told, though.
Back in my room, I gorged myself sick as I watched some strange show about gentlemen who sail and hunt giant fish. I think I might have been drunk.
As ever, I couldn’t get out of bed, but as ever, I finally managed. The water wasn’t running in the building that morning, which was a particular annoyance, so I just did the best I could with my hair, shrugged like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries before she realizes she’s a princess and her grandmother is a queen and her life is endlessly more interesting than she thought, and hurried out of the hotel.
The walk wasn’t grueling, but this, reader, was the calm before the storm. It was cold, but it wasn’t really unbearable. I admired the buildings and tried to figure out how the hell the New York Subway works. It makes no sense. So many trains using the same lines and having the same names. I’m not having any of it. Be smart like my beloved Paris! We’ve gone over this, I know.
I sauntered through the park to find Cleopatra’s Needle, which I already knew has nothing to do with that legendary Egyptian. I admired each of the sides and the inner archaeologist in me came roaring to life. There are so many complaints about the damages that the obelisk is going through being in New York. One man was yelling to me at length the other year about how acid rain was ruining the engravings. He didn’t listen to a thing I said. Then I recalled Zahi Hawass going off as usual about needing to take it back to Egypt because we weren’t taking care of it. Now, reader, I have seen pictures of this obelisk over the course of its life. It’s been photographed since photographs were a possibility. It was an unremarkable obelisk in Egypt, laying on its side, mostly ignored. It was fairly damaged and eroded from being in the sand and the salty Mediterranean air near Alexandria. It has hardly changed at all in New York. Yes, it has gotten dirtier from smog, but that was recently cleaned by lasers. It’s hardly changed in the past few thousand years. Satisfied with my analysis, I realized I was, as always, starving to death.
I glanced at my watch, smirked, and hurried down Fifth Avenue to grab lunch at a place that I have been dreaming of for a year, the Café Sabarsky. This Austrian restaurant is in the Neue Galerie, where the beautiful Portrait of Adele Bloch–Bauer I hangs. Fabulous place and one of my favorite spots in the city, by the way. After a short wait and being invited in before other ruder patrons, I was reveling in elegance.
Everything was covered with marble and dark wood. The menu was just long enough, and everything was absurdly expensive. It veritably reeked of Old World opulence and I was living for it and the Fifth Avenue ladies there for lunch in their furs and sunglasses.
I ordered a $16 glass of wine! This is, admittedly, not the most I’ve ever spent on wine, but still. That’s like five bottles of my ALDI wine. I ordered a dish that didn’t sound terribly fabulous on the menu, but intrigued me enough to try. I made the right choice.
On a bed of creamy puréed spinach sat a pile of barely cooked fingerling potatoes topped with two perfectly soft boiled eggs. This was accented with dill and served with an assortment of crusty, nut encrusted breads. I could absolutely not get over it. The staff, the food, the wine, the dessert (lemon poppyseed cake) and the espresso were all absurdly good. I was so happy. It’s become one of MY places in New York. I don’t ever want to live there, but I want to go to the Café Sabarsky every day for the rest of my life. That was such a treat.
The Metropolitan Museum was just across the street, so I hurried over for a short trip to see the Egyptian items. That’s really all I lust after anymore. Other art is fine and good, but I’d rather look at one Egyptian item than an entire gallery of Grecian urns. I grabbed my ticket and made my way into the massive exhibit hall. The people were particularly unpleasant today, and I struggled to take an adequate selfie at the Temple of Dendur (a major issue for a vain person), so I was somewhat testy. I got over this by looking at Amarna art and linens and diadems and scarabs and rings and statues of Sekhmet and coffins and everything. It was fabulous. Nothing had changed, and I had seen every item for the third time now.
So, I was brave and daring and explored more of the museum. The collection of Islamic art was particularly nice and the Sultan’s receiving room was very impressive. I wish I could have seen the splendors of the Ottoman Empire with my own eyes. I wish that about a lot of things, but I suppose it’s no good to wish you lived in the past. I wasted many years of my life with the delusion that the past was a decadent and glorious time. And it certainly was for an elite crowd. I wouldn’t likely have been amongst them no matter what the era. And so I must make THE WORLD as decadent and glorious as I can for myself whilst I’m a part of it. Here are some of the pieces I enjoyed:
The museum was about to close, so I scurried through the Asian galleries, admired Shiva and Shinto shrines, vases, the camel sculpture above, and then I was back on the street.
The Explorer’s Club wasn’t far away, just a couple blocks off of Fifth Avenue, and I stared up at the building with wonder for considerable time. I was completely unaware that places like this still exist. One always hears of the Royal Geographical Society and the salons where the wealthy and eccentric coame together to sip brandy, smoke cigars, and plan safaris to draw maps of the missing parts of the world. I thought we were done with all of that, and yet here was a place with remarkably similar goals.
I crossed the street and stepped inside, and reader, it was everything I have been looking for in my life. I felt as if I were entering a different time, as if I had slipped into London at the turn of the century, as if all the nonsense outside the front doors had never happened. The walls were covered in intricate wood paneling, the floors in delicious rugs, a stuffed polar bear stood menacingly in one corner, old flags hung from every surface, thick leaded windows let the remaining sunlight filter into the dark rooms, books upon books upon books, photographs of expeditions and paintings of explorers. It was just tremendous.
After leaving my coat behind, I hurried upstairs to the reception. For some reason they were giving out lots of free cheese, which was excellent, and all the good red wine you could drink. I was shook. Reader…I paid five dollars for my ticket. I ate probably fifteen dollars worth of cheese and god only knows how much delicious wine. The reception room was sparsely populated. I was particularly drawn to a woman wearing a purple jacket because she looked like Judge Judy and sounded like her too. It wasn’t, but there was something distinctive about her. I never know when it will happen or why, but I’m psychic about these things, and I introduced myself to her. As I knew would happen, Lenor and I became the oldest friends.
We chortled richly over cheese, and she introduced me to the president of the Explorer’s Society, who is a friend of hers. We chatted about Photoshop, rolled our eyes in unison at a guy who tried to join our posse, I gave her the background on Bob, and we talked about life. Some people just get you instantly and we got each other. We went out onto the most beautiful rooftop to sip our wine and talk with the other guests. They were hardly as interesting as her. I found her captivating. She told me that she was the daughter of a doctor and so I made mention about my having multiple sclerosis.
She said something profound right then, after tutting dismissively at me, “You just live, Ben! Don’t listen to anybody, and if they ask what’s wrong, say that you fell in a damn ditch and you hurt your knee. OH! And always talk to the bartender; he has all the right answers and you don’t have to take him home.”
“Queen!” I muttered, but I don’t think she understood.
“Is that him?”
I turned and looked into the rapidly filling reception room. It was. There was Dr. Bob Brier smiling and looking around the room. My heart was in my throat.
“Go talk to him!”
I muttered something that she didn’t like hearing because she dragged me right up to Bob, who I admit looked somewhat surprised at our sudden appearance, and said, “This is my friend Ben. He loves you.”
I feel I probably blushed a thousand shades of crimson, so I added that I worship him. He laughed with good humor, and reader, it was absolutely odd to hear his voice. I’ve heard it all my life. I can hear it in my head right now, but to hear it coming out of the living man looking into my eyes was just damned strange. He shook my hand as the president of the club came up to take him away. It was a moment.
“Go get us more wine. Wine won’t kill you. I’ll be over there.” She gestured conspiratorially toward the door to the lecture room, so I went and got us more wine.
As we waited, a woman was selling copies of Bob’s latest book, so I had to have one. It was cash only. I was heartbroken. I had spent all of my dollars the other day and I never carry cash. It’s a bad habit of mine. I must have looked devastated because the woman said that I could mail her a check. I gave a choked sob of thanks and discovered she was Bob’s wife. She gave me their private address to send the money to. Was this my invitation to dinner? Clearly not. But it was such a kind and trusting thing to do. I couldn’t get over it.
The doors opened and Lenor and I made a mad dash. The front row was reserved, so we got the best seats in the next row back. After a short introduction, Dr. Bob Brier took the podium and delivered a lecture that was very much like the book he was selling. Nothing new was revealed, nothing that I had never heard before, but dear and darling reader, it was such a glorious time in my life, so thrilling, so divine to be there in that room with him sharing in a common passion that gives meaning to both of our lives. I couldn’t quite get over that I was there. Here I was sitting with this wonderful woman listening to this fantastic scholar I have admired since I was a kid. I got those stupid tears I get in my face now that I’m old and emotional, and I sat there with the dopiest grin on my face watching this old man light up at the thought of obelisks. I saw myself so much in him.
He had a question and answer session after the lecture, so I of course had to ask questions. I hope he thought they were interesting enough. I didn’t want to ask pedestrian questions, you know? I’ve studied the ancient Egyptians for the majority of my life, to look a fool in front of an Egyptologist I respect would have ended me. He seemed intrigued by my questioning Middle Kingdom obelisks, so that was a great and good relief.
Outside, he stopped to talk for a bit, and I had to tell him exactly what he meant to me. I wasn’t so flustered as when Lenor shoved me into him, and I made a short story of his impact on my life. He truly has been a constant presence, and he was endlessly sweet. I asked if I could take a photograph with him.
“Is this a selfie?” Dr. Brier asked me, “I’ve never done one of these before!”
I laughed and took the picture and it was absolutely flawless.
He disappeared into the crowd, and I just stood there for a spell in that wonderful room surrounded by all these fascinating people. I don’t want to live in New York, but I want to do everything that a New Yorker does. I want to ride the train and grab a pizza and go to shows and look at art and listen to lectures and complain about rent and see the theater and laugh at standup. I want all of that…just not in New York. It doesn’t speak to me at all. But the Explorer’s Club fills a void that I have never known I was missing.
“I’m not done with you, yet,” Lenor croaked in her native New Yorker accent, and grabbed my elbow and led me downstairs. “I’m walking you to the train. You’re taking the 6.”
I nodded, there was no telling her no, and I was taking the 6. Not sure how she knew. I think Lenor is a bit magical. We chatted more about whatever was on our mind, it was that unexpected and simple conversation you have with strangers. Honest. There’s no character to hide behind, there’s no pretexts, there’s no false understandings. You’re just two people talking because you genuinely like each other. I genuinely like Lenor. She gave me her address to look her up the next time I’m in town. I thought that was sweet. I will, too.
Emerging from the train near my hotel, the snow had started to gently fall, blissfully melting the second it hit pavement, and I have to admit that it was almost pretty. Lenor told me the blizzard wouldn’t be that bad, and I believed her. She is wrong sometimes.
I flipped open the copy of my book and beamed deliriously at what he had written. I didn’t look earlier for some reason. I suppose I was too swept up.
It’s an ancient Egyptian saying that translates roughly to, “May you be given life, stability, and prosperity, like Ra, forever.”
I went to bed with the stupidest grin on my face. Life has been better to me than I have any reason to justify. I’ve been able to regularly see my heroes and idols. I have met the most sensational people. I have seen the most amazing spots. I might whine and complain, but I have truly been damned lucky. I fell asleep with thoughts of hieroglyphs in my head, and I’ve rarely been so happy outside of Egypt.