Tag Archives: Manhattan

Home alone for the holidays

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They rolled over the central Maritimes, one after another, each a vast, white steamroller, each inevitable, inexorable, remorseless; and at some point on the day after my holiday haircut and before the last bag was packed, I knew the adventure was over before it had begun.

“We’re not going to make this happen, are we?” I quizzed my wife, already certain of her answer. She remained silent, but the look on her face said everything that needed to be said.

We had started planning the trip to New York City – a short, Christmastime sojourn in the Big Apple – last winter. It had made terrific sense. Our adult daughters would be gone with their families, enjoying the seasonal cheer this year with their husbands’ relations. We, in turn, would escape to Manhattan’s jazz clubs and Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art.

By early November we were ready: tickets bought, various admissions arranged, hotel reservations confirmed. Nothing would stop us. Nothing could go wrong. After all, we’d orchestrated a similar jaunt to London, England, only two Christmases ago, and it went off without a hitch.

Of course, December 2011 was not, as things transpired, December 2013.

The Canadian winter dominates the nation’s literary canon as Professor Moriarty did the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: capricious, diabolical, confounding. And so it was in the days before our scheduled great escape. Storm upon storm upon storm descended, bringing with them all the attending power outages and, more relevantly for us, flight delays and cancellations.

We had planned for every contingency except, naturally, the one for which there is none. Now, the battle turned indoors.

How exactly does one enjoy a merry Christmas when no halls had been decked, no mistletoe had been strung, no presents had been wrapped? Hell, no tree had been raised. Is any scene more pathetic than that of two 50-somethings huddled around the fireplace channel, crackling away on the tube? The packet of American bucks rested, inert, in the living room bureau drawer, feeling very sorry for itself, indeed.

Fortunately, my wife possesses a streak of resourcefulness wide enough to inspire a planeload of stranded passengers. With cheerful fortitude, she determined that if we could no longer go to New York then New York would come to us, and began to organize our leisure time accordingly.

Back issues of the New Yorker magazine were rescued from the recycle and placed prominently on the coffee table. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, and Bullets Over Broadway were stacked neatly beside the CD player, waiting only for the bagels and lox to be served.

In no time, quotes from the iconic New Yorker – Woody Allen, himself – danced through our heads. . .

This: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

And this: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

And this: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

And this: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

When we’d had our fill of that sort of wit, we turned to another, in form of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the City by William B. Helmreich. The book, a gift from our daughter, fairly brims with a native’s good-natured observations about his home town:

“The conclusions drawn. . .are based. . .on the more than six thousand miles I walked through the streets and parks of New York City over a four-year period,” he writes. “I hung out on street corners, attended community meetings, sat in parks, went to concerts, danced in nightclubs, and spoke with hundreds of people from every walk of life. In truth, I’ve actually been walking this city since I was a young child, having been raised here.”

Meanwhile, storms continued on their punishing course and the planes stayed grounded, as did we – but in a good way, as we gorged on the promise of spring.

“What about New York in May,” I quipped. “Winter should be over by then.”

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Footloose and fancy free in the undiscovered countries

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

I travel not to arrive, but to leave. To leave the familiar things and commonplace trinkets that litter my life is to become unhinged, like a boat that slips its mooring, unnoticed until dawn reveals that it is gone, off around the headland or beyond the horizon.

My wife and I agree that we have not travelled nearly frequently or widely enough during our three-plus decades of marriage. That’s what happens when two people get hitched at ridiculously tender ages and commence, immediately, to do their part for global population growth.

No branch of literature romanticizes the comings and goings of dutiful partners, raising and educating children, growing older, and becoming grandparents. But the bookshelves are full of odes to both the outward and inner travelers among us.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” the writer Henry Miller once said.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain penned.

As for St. Augustine, that reformed reprobate, he observed that “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

He was right, of course. He still is. That’s what bugs me, and always has.

How can I call myself a writer when I haven’t really been anywhere, when I haven’t inserted myself into another country, another culture, long enough to start missing my own bed?

That’s not strictly true. I’ve been to Europe and to the United States. I’ve travelled right across Canada, from coast to coast and back again. I’ve had a hot dog in Victoria and cod cheeks in St. John’s.

Still, somehow these excursions have seemed exceptional, like the odd Christmas present you honestly appreciate. To be in the wind as a way of life; this has always intrigued me.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going. . .You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back. . .The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.”

The musings are those of Paul Theroux, one of my favourite novelists and travel writers. His books, The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster, about his journeys in Asia, compelled me to consider quitting my job at the Globe and Mail in the mid-1980s and hop a slow boat to China, there presumably to find my ch’i.

Two decades later, I settled for a fairly elaborate (and, I thought, quite workable) scheme to live and work in the world via motor home – but not just any motor home.

At that time, my wife and I decided to pool the resources we had accumulated over the years (by not letting a bank give us a mortgage on a house) and plow them into a state-of-the-art, mobile command and control centre, a sort of freelance writing, broadcasting and blogging factory on wheels.

In it, we would circle the world, reporting on what we saw and who met in an endless travelogue, earning a living from media markets – which, we were sure, would trip over themselves for our stuff – in every country we visited.

In the end, the plan proved unfeasible. For various reasons, the timing wasn’t right. Still, we never quite abandoned the basic principle of travelling as a way of life. And as the years passed, we began to formulate an alternate approach.

This Christmas, we will be heading to New York City. While there, we will do all of the classic touristy stuff – Empire State Building, Central Park. But we will also seek out the “other” Big Apple, the city that even many New Yorkers fail to notice in the less-trodden neighbourhoods.

Two years ago, again at Christmas, we did London, England, this way. Two years hence, with any luck, we’ll do Rome.

If we get good at this, the adventures will pay for themselves. Our dispatches from the front lines  of conviviality and culture will find their way into what remains of the world’s travel press.

Or not.

What’s important is the effort. How can you know when you’ve arrived, if you never leave?

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Kitting out for the Big Apple in the Hub City

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This Christmas, I shall head to Manhattan – also known as Mecca to the world’s fashionistas – with she who must be observed (occasionally obeyed), the love of my life, my wife. So, naturally, we must head first to a small, wood-lined men’s clothier situated amidst brickyards, farm equipment dealers and drive-through coffee purveyors on a stretch of Moncton’s industrial west end.

“You’re kidding, right?” I whine one recent August morning. “What’s wrong with the two jackets I bought last year from Value Village? Together, they cost me a grand total of 15 bucks. One of them even looks like a Harris Tweed.”

Undeterred, she retorts, “Nothing looks like a Harris Tweed, except a Harris Tweed. Trust me, this guy has a great reputation. He knows his stuff.”

The guy, as it turns out, is Jeff Garcia, a slim, elegantly dressed man in his 40s (I’d guess) and the proprietor of Zachary Samuels (named, he says, after his two university-ensconced kids). Over the years, he has worked for the biggest, high-end chains in the business. For the past few, though, he’s preferred to run his own shop, which is as bespoke as the apparel, services and advice he proffers. In short, this guy does, indeed, know his stuff.

Casting his critical, yet still kind, eye over my torso, he says, “That lavender shirt you’re wearing is a good colour on you. . .only. ..well, it’s obviously too large for your frame. You’ll have to hit the mashed potatoes if you want it to fit properly.”

I begin to explain that it is a medium size, before he whips out a couple of truly fine garments and escorts me to the changing room. I’m skeptical. For years, I’ve been wearing Marks. I own so many items of clothing from that venerable warehouse that, if they were fungible in dollar bills, I could buy a new mattress (to, you know, hold my money).

But, Mr. Garcia is right, after all. The shirts are marvelous and, in them, I look fabulous (my wife’s words). “What’s next?” I ask gleefully.

Grabbing a sport coat, he says, “Give this a try.” It’s a navy wool-cotten blend, short cut and tailored slim. “Oh,” my love enthuses. “I like that.” Mr. Garcia is not so sure. “Please stand over here,” he says as he directs me to a raised platform in front of a mirror. “I think I’ll take it in along the sides, and maybe raise the sleeves a bit.” He proceeds with his pins, and I catch my wife grinning at the spectacle of her husband playing dress-up. Willingly!

In the end, I walk out having spent less than I deserve. And this, I realize, is the essence of superior customer service. Nothing beats true quality. And quality is all about research, experience and attention to detail.

I think about this as we drive down the street to pick up a bag of loose charcoal for our backyard smoker. Walmart is reinventing its one-size-fits-all retailing model for Moncton, just as Target sets its sights on The Northwest Centre mall. Neither, it’s safe to say, gives a sweet bippy about the drape or wove or stitching of the shirts it sells. Nor do they care about the fact that their global supply chains and economies of scale routinely murder independent businesses in cities and towns across North America just like this one. They will discount sacks of BBQ fuel just to keep me coming back for vinyl shoes, imported from Malaysia, fitted for my grand kids.

But not today.

At Maritime Fireplaces, congenial havoc rules the showroom, where staff happily navigate between customers, pellet-stove distributors and Big Green Egg grill sellers. Plates of hot dogs, burgers and cakes fill the crannies and crevices between winter stoves. The mood is festive; the atmosphere, thick with merriment.

“Are you an ‘egg head’?” a salesman asks about my outdoor culinary technology. “I am, indeed, and ever since 2009,” I reply cheerily.

“Well, then take a couple of these,” he instructs as he stuffs some branded cup holders into my hands. “You can never have too many of these.”

No you can’t, I muse. You can never have too much of a good thing, whether it’s Manhattan or, more durably, Moncton.

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