Lessons in Humility

Saturday, 10 December 2022

Up at as near to dawn as I could manage, out into the coldest I’d yet experienced. According to the weather app it was zero degrees but felt like minus five. It felt like zero to me. The temperatures don’t have the bite the raw numbers suggest, perhaps because of the lack of wind in what is, after all, among the most built up areas on the planet. New Yorkers plod around dressed as if for a Siberian winter in temperatures that would make most most English people reach, reluctantly, for a jumper and to which most Tasmanians would react by taking one off, assuming they owned such a thing in the first place and could remember how it worked.

My destination was Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art therein contained. My chief tactical error was not to stick to Lexington Avenue and thus avail myself of the same café as yesterday. Instead it was northwards on Fifth, the road not previously taken. Closed luxury retailers holding no interest, there was nothing to catch my attention until I found myself at Trump Tower, and hastily crossed the road. Doing so put me squarely on collision course with the first panhandler of the day, a gentleman of about my own age, and I use the term deliberately as in exchange for $10, he courteously responded to my request for advice.

I am slow in the mornings before caffeine, I know, and can add jetlag to my plea in mitigation, but the grotesqueness of asking for coffee recommendations from a man who keeps body and mind functioning by asking strangers for handouts on the freezing streets did not occur to me until much, much too late. In any event, my courteous companion tried to assist, pointing out a food stand across the road but advising that if I wanted a good coffee, I should return to, and enter, Trump Tower. My dismay will have been obvious and I suspect it was noted without censure, but I am as yet inexpert at reading the non-verbal communications of New Yorkers, especially those with such dramatically different life experiences to my own. The fraction of destitute Black citizens who count themselves among the former Grifter-in-Chief’s supporters is surely small, but even a one in a hundred chance comes up every hundred or so chances.

Whatever his politics, he remained as polite and solicitous of my wellbeing – mine! – as I have come to expect in my 48 hours or so here. In that time, the only discourtesies I have witnessed have been, on each occasion, the act of an obvious visitor to these shores – obvious by virtue of language. In today’s example that language was French, since you ask, but we’ll get to that. It turned out to be a day for being annoyed by French speakers. Americans, in my experience so far, whether native English or Spanish speakers, have mostly been taught their manners by parents who made them stick.

It being obvious by now that I was not going to take either coffee suggestion, a woman passing by informed me that there was a Starbucks around the corner. I tried to conceal the fact that the information was about as useful to me, and as welcome, as news that I might obtain a walk in vasectomy on the next block.

Still, caffeine is but a drug, and I refuse to be a slave to an addiction, knowing too well the feel of that lash. A walk in the park on a crisp winter’s morning would provide me with nourishing sustenance, fresh air, youthful vigour, a glow to my cheeks, etc, etc. And it did, temporarily.

Central Park was green, pretty and only lightly populated by people, all of whom gave precisely no fucks about the requirement to leash their dogs after 9am. It undulates. The trees were green despite the season and the raw rocks broke the soil in attractive masses. I got asked for directions again.

“An Athenian, a Spartan and a Theban walk into a taverna…”

The park also contained a coffee shop, regrettably another chain, in which I placed an order. They need a better system. I watched one Quebecker (best guess) pinch someone else’s brew, tell off another tourist (Chinese by grandparentage, certainly, but whether mainland or diaspora I couldn’t say) for accidentally claiming the wrong cup, get confused and then bugger off leaving chaos in his wake. What I think happened next is that I ceded my coffee to the woman whose order had been nicked and ended up with the café au lait ordered by Monsieur Dickhead. It was horrible, but I’ve no reason to assume that the latte I’d ordered would have been any better. It had, at least, the virtue of warmth.

But now, the Met. It’s a striking building with an impressive collection, of course. First to the antiquities, the development of sculptural style over the thousand years from the earliest Greeks to the late Romans clearly explained and easy to see. The Egyptians as fascinating as ever. To meet a man, no king but a civil servant, of the middle third millennium! Nobody, we may safely say, will know my name 4,500 years hence. The only disappointment was the lack (at least on my circuit) of anything of comparable antiquity from Mesopotamia. But then, I have the British Museum still to come. My greatest delights came from the smallest pieces. One little fellow, no bigger than my thumb, grinned cheekily at me from the Attica of 500 years before Christ. A ring seal, only millimetres across, exquisitely captured the figure of a woman, the fidelity and skill in the carving astonishing to behold. My first Benin bronzes, full of life and humour, at least to these alien eyes.

The European collection is grand – more Monets, Cezannes and Gaugins than I’ve ever seen in one place. Rousseau’s Forest in Winter at Sunset heavy with hinted at horrors. Kuindzhi’s Red Sunset on the Dnieper a wash of blood granted new poignancy by this year’s events, hard not to a see a hint of mushroom in that menacing cloud. Only one Turner, one of the Venice cityscapes. The American works equally impressive. Washington Crossing the Delaware would dominate any room, the general looking there and elsewhere like a middle-aged bank manager called temporarily to other duties, and irritated at the distraction. And finally, my first ever Sargents in the flesh, and what flesh, every bit as characterful and photographic as I expected.

No chance to see all I wanted to, of course, and foolish to try, especially when there was a World Cup quarter final to watch. But where to do so? The first couple of bars I peered into were too crowded and so I kept plodding towards the one I’d found last night (the Triple Crown, for the record, on Seventh Avenue) but about two blocks short I found a pizza place with multiple screens, bought a couple of slices and made them last ninety minutes. I joined a small but growing, and increasingly noisy, bunch as we watched twelve Frenchmen, one carrying a whistle, just edge out eleven English lads of undoubted nobility and equally undoubted lack of composure from the penalty spot, Seb and I chatting via text from half a world apart. I left, too quickly, in disgust at the close of play.

On the videophone to Anna as I made my way to the design store attached to the Museum of Modern Art (the museum itself not yet visited) and then, tired of battling the crowds, back to the hotel to pen these lines in the hotel cocktail bar, rolling the dice on what I’m drinking. A Clover Club, it turns out, is gin, raspberry and egg whites and captures, very strangely, some of the taste of the city air. A White Cosmopolitan contains Cointreau, vodka, lime and white cranberry juice plus some whole cranberries, making it by some distance the most healthy and vitamin filled thing I’ve consumed since I arrived. Too sweet, but then what isn’t, here?


2 responses to “Lessons in Humility”

  1. Lovely surprise to get an email with your new diary entries attached…. Loving exploring NYC with you 🙂

    1. Nick Fryer Avatar
      Nick Fryer

      Lovely to have you with me, Seals.

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