Johannesburg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday’s post poked around a bit at some of my underlying thoughts about heading off to South Africa for a week of work around the Joy of Jazz festival. My internal resistance to the trip pointed to something more than the inconvenient travel. Nonetheless, I hopped on a plane for upwards of 15 hours, and only after only a bit of intermittent sleep I found myself on the other side of the planet where I stumbled off the plane and began my adventure. While I usually write more about myself when traveling Johannesburg was surprising enough as place that I am taking a departure to do a bit of an overview in this post today.

Those of you who are Pictorama readers already know I have traveled a fair amount with two trips to Tibet under my belt, Bhutan and a bit of Nepal along the way. (I had reason to examine those trips in a recent post about a trip to California which was somewhat disastrous in August. That post can be found here.) I did a brief turn in South America (Peru, Buenos Aires, Santiago) many years ago on my first trip representing the Metropolitan Museum. Shortly after taking the job with Jazz at Lincoln Center I had traveled to Shanghai. (That adventure was memorialized in my post which can be found here.) Mostly I note this because I have traveled a fair amount for comparison. To my surprise, Johannesburg is not the Third World, but neither is it the First and I will write more about that below.

I had not really considered what I would find when I got to Johannesburg and frankly there were things that surprised me. On a very basic level, I had not realized that Johannesburg is at an altitude of almost 6000 feet. While that wasn’t really high enough for altitude sickness (Lhasa for example is almost 12,000) the first time I went to run up a flight of stairs I couldn’t catch my breath. It is indeed high enough to get winded with exertion and perhaps to make me a bit dumber than usual – not good when you are trying to work in a foreign country!

It is extremely dry which I had considered (no umbrella in my suitcase, lots of moisturizer), but I was surprised that instead of desert vegetation there were deciduous trees (leafy) and even some evergreens, although also the occasional cactus. It was spring there (the seasons are opposite from ours) and we saw an abundance of beautiful flowering trees at the height of their bloom. It was one of the nicest aspects of the trip, the smells of these flowering trees (beautiful purple jacarandas) and other plants as well as seeing them in flower. At unexpected times I would wonder at what I was smelling and ask what it was. Generally people just looked at me like I was nuts – clearly enough of their day to day that they don’t think about it and no one could ever tell me what plant I was smelling. Giant aloe plants also seem to grow wild and at one point I am fairly sure I was enjoying wild jasmine when outside taking a break at the Apartheid Museum.

The food was simply amazing everywhere we went – much of it South African, but with an especially memorable Portuguese meal tucked in there. While, by nature of my business, many of my meals were in fine restaurants, even the more modest meals were notable. I was concerned that as a pescatarian my options would be limited, but there was a remarkable profundity of excellent fish and vegetables while meat of all kinds was indeed in abundance. The extreme spiciness which I experienced that time in London was evident – although the hot spices were full bodied and nuanced, not just a matter of blowing your head off. Many of the upscale restaurants based their menus on either traditional South African or pan African cuisine. Several meals will live in food memory.

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Lunch at a cafe in Soweto.

 

The extreme dryness however surprised me by making me cough and, perhaps along with the altitude, caused my nose to ooze bloody congestion endlessly throughout the trip – which I gather is not unusual for visitors and tormented me, waking me occasionally despite exhausted sleep. I battled these issues by drinking what must have been gallons of water. Although some of my colleagues drank the tap water I never do in foreign countries (it may be safe, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the time for my stomach to adjust to it) so I felt responsible for a vast number of plastic bottles which will need to be recycled. (I did spy a staff person at the hotel carrying out those bottles in a bag almost as large as himself.)

As I mentioned above Johannesburg defied category of First or Third World so I Googled it out of curiosity and discovered that it is indeed in a somewhat new category of Second World. We drove to Soweto for a Jazz for Young People concert and on that drive there was poverty not unlike what you see in Nepal or India – shanty towns, vast areas of trash. There are people begging, although my experience was that it was mostly at traffic intersections and of course you see that (to a lesser degree) when you enter Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. I was told that these were largely immigrants from the neighboring Zimbabwe who came to South Africa starving and looking for work. (Their immigration is controversial there.) Much of where we spent our time was like any cosmopolitan city however. We could have been any number of generic urban places. Joburg was a strange mix of things and in the end not quite like any place I have been.

 

It is no secret that parts of Johannesburg are dangerous and women in particular are told to be very careful. Night travel in particular seems to be considered carefully. As a result, and because I worked almost every waking hour I was there, I did not attempt to go anywhere alone which was unusual for me as well.  We saw some wealthy enclaves with walls around them which reminded me of Lima, although I didn’t see many individual homes this way – mostly sort of gated communities. When being driven to the north and the Apartheid Museum on the one morning we had to ourselves, our driver gave us a most interesting impromptu tour. He began by discussing the immigration issue – in his opinion the people from Zimbabwe had a right to come looking for a better life as had generations who had migrated to Johannesburg in prior decades. This is clearly a controversial issue there.

As we drove down a highway that could have been I-95 in Connecticut, I was fascinated when he pointed out a developed area of high rise buildings (could have been Stamford) and said that it had once been the heart of Johannesburg, but as the commerce moved to Sandton (the area we were staying in) this area had become desolate, deserted and ultimately unsafe. All the buildings we saw were now in disuse and inhabited by the aforementioned immigrant population. He pointed out a brick building that had been the stock exchange, a high rise hotel and said they were empty now and had been for years despite periodic attempts at urban renewal. (As Kim said, it begs to be the beginning to a story.) Further out he motioned to mountains covered in yellow sand that contained the famous (infamous) gold mines which were responsible for the creation of Johannesburg and said the mines of platinum and diamonds were further to the north.

Later that day we found ourselves at what was called a craft market which appeared to be the prescribed place to buy our tourist bits and pieces in a sort of one-stop shopping. Despite (or perhaps due to) my travels in Asia I have never been good at bartering. I might occasionally offer someone less for something, but that sort of expected to and fro has never been my strong suit. Therefore I was hesitant to even begin the game.

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Eventually I put my toe in the water with this cat figure which I gather is a leopard (their version of the king of the forest) and based on Benin bronzes. The seller had a few versions that were larger than my real life kits Cookie and Blackie and weighed five times what they do. He tried to tempt me with one of these, assuring me that he could ship it. (I didn’t think I could make him understand that I lived in one room in New York City with a husband, two cats and a heck of a lot of stuff already which made the size undesirable. I was the only person visiting the Mandela three room house in Soweto and thinking that the space was pretty good and about a third larger than our apartment.)

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Side entrance Mandela house museum in Soweto.

 

The seller then set his sights on selling me a pair of leopards – how lonely one cat would be without the other! I assured him that it was going to a destination with many, many more cat friends than he could imagine. We finally arrived at a price for the single cat and I dashed away while he shouted after me that the other cat would be waiting. I found a quiet corner where I purchased some fabrics made in traditional patterns and with vegetable dyes that would become gifts.

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Craft market from my bench perch, resting!

 

I chose one among a myriad of beaded elephants for Kim who spent several months drawing elephants earlier this year – trunk up for good luck. Lastly I added these few birds below and a couple of beaded bowls and then found a bench to rest on while my colleagues finished their shopping. Several members of the orchestra were also there and we compared acquisitions as we planned a route back to the hotel. Whew!

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We were to travel home on Sunday and the orchestra had been invited on a tour of a lion park early in the day so my colleagues and I joined the group. While it turned out to be a glorified zoo (which reminded me remarkably of my childhood trip to a then spanking new Great Adventure park in South Jersey which ran more to baboons than lions) it was interesting to finally get out of the city and see the non-urban landscape.

 

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Petting zoo where this cub uses a tree as a scratching post.

 

Working in another country (even out of state domestically) is always hard – event planning is most easily and successfully done when you can eliminate the unknowns and nothing is known to you in a foreign place. Therefore, this was a long and difficult trip (two seated dinners, welcome packages, a reception, a lunch, a lecture, four concerts – two which didn’t start until midnight – all tucked into five days) from a work perspective. Suffice it to say I had no trouble sleeping on the plane coming home.

However, when I consider what I actually thought of the country I am torn. South Africa, and perhaps especially Johannesburg, is earnest in its self-examination and forth coming about the issues and history they wrestle with which are real and difficult. The politics of their situation is well beyond my capacity to comment on in an intelligent way. However, I found the people of Johannesburg to generally be lovely and welcoming of us as visitors, but also well informed and involved in the continuing evolution of their city and their country.

Below is a few moments from our Jazz for Young People’s concert in Soweto which was so well received it ran over by more than half an hour as Wynton and the orchestra improvised for the appreciative audience of students. In the end I believe our music brought joy to all those who encountered it and in that way was indeed successful.

 

South Africa

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.

While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.

 

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While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.

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The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

 

In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.

Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.

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King Sunny Ade – I did meet him and loved his music, although he was too famous to join our gatherings in Putney.

 

On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!

To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!

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I lived in the basement of the building on the far right and on the right side of the entry. It was much more run down back then!

 

During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.

I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.

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The Troubadour Coffee House pretty much as I remember it from the endless hours spent drinking coffee there. It is still in business although the owner, Bruce Rogerson who I knew well, died a number of years ago.

 

Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.

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Enlargement of an early pass carried by all individuals in South Africa under Apartheid – this is from the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

 

However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.

Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.

We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.

In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.

My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.

Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.

All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.

Smooth

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am writing this today, drafting it a few weeks in advance, with the intention of sharing it with you all as I sit endlessly idle on a plane heading for a stint with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa. While that 15 or so hour flight might provide me with some blog scribbling time, posting from an airplane is more than my experience with shoddy internet leads me to believe I should endeavor to do. So instead, I write in late August, knowing that the few short weeks until my departure will dissolve before my eyes as soon as I am back to work after Labor Day.

The specter of long distance travel and time away from home has me pondering, among other things, the interruption of my daily intake of green smoothies. Upwards of five or six years ago my mother became a green smoothie enthusiast. She began extolling their virtues and since she is a vegan this was not especially surprising. I took note but did not feel compelled to follow her down this path – that is until she sent me a book about them and a blender. I did feel that if someone goes to the trouble of sending you a blender (and a book) the least you can do is give something like green smoothies a try. So I did.

To my surprise I not only liked them, but attributed some things like a boost in energy and better sleep to a daily dose of them almost immediately. In turn, I quickly converted Kim. (Kim is never one to ignore a health improving opportunity – he is extremely open to these self-improvement paths I head down and has, most notably, followed me into yoga and more recently working out with my trainer, Harris. One day Harris will get his own post.)

My smoothie recipe contains mostly greens (bok choy, salad greens, chard, sometimes broccoli but excluding kale – which makes my tummy hurt – skirting all the heavy greens like spinach which Kim’s body takes exception with) and in my case topped off with a half a banana, a couple of strawberries. At some point I added gogi berries (as someone who is always looking for a shot in the arm for my liver which is inclined to be sad about some mediation I take) and there the recipe, give or take, stands to date.

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Kim is all-green for his, eschewing fruit entirely and being very virtuous. At some point, after several years, my place at the helm of smoothie making was handed over to Kim who makes them on a more dependable schedule than I do – two, made every other day and providing a daily dose. He does a splendid job.

I have illustrated today’s post with a photo from a site call cookingclassy.com and chose it for its shade of green, a good approximation of the one I drink. The lurid color is, for me, part of the appeal.

Until my vacation this year I had avoided fruit smoothies entirely. I found myself with a meagre handful of strawberries and two very small and over-ripe nectarines that needed a plan however. I whipped out a container of yogurt, added a touch of milk and the fruit and wowza! I was in love! I have subsequently replaced that bit of milk with water to much the same effect. While it can be a pow-o sort of amount of fruit one can keep it to a reasonable amount and still have a lovely treat. (It is, I should note, a rather electric pink which is quite cheerful as well.)

Our devotion to smoothies has turned us into blender experts. We generally burn the motor out on a blender in the 18-24 month (on average) period. For a very long time I had Oster blenders and was able to acquire replacement parts for everything but the motor. Therefore, with replacement carafes, blades, etc. I was able to extend the life of one or two blenders across several years. After that came a series of Cuisinart ones – meh. Bad designs that made leaking possible and ended with a recent catastrophe of smoothie spillage. (It should be noted that green smoothie is hard to clean up and stains tenaciously. Rinse glasses and carafe from blender immediately. This goes for teeth too – my dentist does not love them.) So committed am I that we generally keep a spare blender in anticipation of breakage. We try never to be without.

This brings me back, alas, to travel. On my longer trips I find myself missing my daily smoothie. Some upscale hotels, especially in Los Angeles although one memorable hotel with a spa in Florida, have come through with credible replacements for my smoothie. They tend to use apple instead of banana (I like the texture of banana as well as the taste, but nothing against apples – my mother’s go-to fruit for them.) Generally speaking however, my trips are smoothie droughts. Like many other daily aspects of home which I will miss (Kim, cat petting) smoothies are generally a casualty of my business travel. I have no particular reason to think South Africa will prove differently, although you never know.

The One Year Mark and the Uber Adventures

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This rambling and personal post was written last week while in Los Gatos and San Jose for a business trip. I was there over the anniversary of my father’s death, but since I would be sad about that wherever I was I decided there was no reason not to go. (I wrote about Dad at some length last summer in a post here.) The reason for the trip was an unexpected opportunity for a dinner on the west coast. I work for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis, and his schedule is generally so tight that opportunities for him to host something on the west coast are rare. Anyway, what follows is the tale of the unexpected things that happened on that trip.

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I didn’t think I wanted to post today, the one year anniversary of my father’s death. Like Father’s Day I sort of felt like what of interest could come of it. However, the universe conspired today and as it has been a rather extraordinary day which has triggered much reflection which I will share.

I find myself on the west coast as I write. I flew out for a dinner held in Los Gatos last night – it used to make my sister Loren laugh, that her little sister would be flown across the country for a single dinner. (It isn’t that it happens so often, but it happens often enough.) Having come out here I also inquired about a meeting with a foundation in Los Angeles which agreed to see me, and so as I write this I am on a smallish plane speeding to that destination. However, in every sense that puts me ahead of my story.

When I left the house Thursday afternoon in a yellow cab, I immediately hit a wall of traffic and had time to contemplate the trip ahead, sitting in the parking lot that the road to JFK airport had become. No matter how often I do it, every time I leave home to travel I am somehow surprised to be reminded over again that I exists fully outside of the daily bubble that is my life – joyfully, Kim and the cats; my minor daily commute to and from work; my own punch list of things that need doing, errands that need running and work that needs to be done. Somehow it is always a shock to realize that I am a being apart from that comfortable day-to-day, and here I am, on my way to the other side of the country and I will still be me. Sounds simple but this is what I remember thinking while stuck in traffic, listening to my gym music on my phone for a distraction which, for someone who otherwise generally doesn’t listen to music made after 1939, is a surprising mix of rock ‘n roll from the ’70’s, Bruce Springsteen and even a bit of Motown.

Everything about the kind of dinner one travels across the country for requires someone like me and my team of people to create it, people whose job in part is to assemble an evening that seems perfect yet effortless. We all know that effortless requires forethought and elbow grease. While this dinner was no exception, it did not present any truly unique challenges. By the end of Friday night a lovely meal had been executed with some Bay Area elite and all of whom seemed lovely. A colleague and I jumped in an Uber to head back to the hotel.

While checking my email I saw one from a college friend. I don’t hear from her that often so her emails in my box always cause a thrill of anticipatory pleasure when I see them. Sadly I rapidly realized that it was not the case tonight. On this evening she was writing because her husband, a man of our own newly minted middle age, had mysteriously died in his sleep on Tuesday.

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Jack Kennedy who sadly and unexpectedly died last week.

 

I rarely make a visit to this part of the country without routing myself through their town, but this fast and furious trip was an exception. I had reached out to her in the weeks leading up to it and said it wasn’t likely but giving her a heads up in case my plans changed and I found myself able to swing through. On this evening my post-dinner, champagne infused brain raced. It was so sudden and so unbearably sad. I emailed her when I got back to my hotel, almost midnight by then, told her I could push LA off and come see her if my showing up wouldn’t increase the chaos she was already experiencing. The suddeness was overwhelming and knocked me sideways. I had last seen them on a trip with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra last fall and I had stayed with them. They had come to the concert.

When I woke this morning it was as if someone had pulled loose thread of stoicism I had carefully constructed for the purpose of getting through this weekend, the anniversary of Dad dying a year ago. My calm started to disintegrate and a wall of sad began to ooze around me with memories of last summer. However, despite realizing this nothing to do but attempt to button it up, pack my bags and headed out for a meeting in Santa Cruz which was to be followed by going directly to the airport.

I live on the east coast and my geographical knowledge of this part of the world is not, to say the very least, deep. Therefore, foolishly, I had planned an in person early morning breakfast meeting with Wynton in Santa Cruz when I was staying in Los Gatos as it was the last time I would see him before September, back in New York. Somehow, although the time for travel had been dutifully been plugged in by the extraordinarily capable colleague who had put the trip together, I managed to miss the mountain that sat between where he was staying and where I was.

The view was stunning, mist hanging in the valleys like a Japanese print and the winding highway reminded me distinctly of travel in Bhutan years ago, but the sheer folly of the trip across a mountain for a meeting rather than a call struck me as especially idiotic on my part. However, as it turns out the driver, Gajend, was from Nepal and we had a long conversation about how pollution has changed Kathmandu for the worse and how this was a baby mountain compared to those that made up the foothills of the Himalayas. He had been back recently and I have not been since 2000.

As I described my trekking on a sacred path on Mt. Kalish in Tibet, I realized I hadn’t really thought about that life changing trip in years. I told him about the various sacred caves I had climbed to – sometimes crawling into tiny ones on my belly as instructed, and he was interested, but it cheered me to think about as well. I remember tying prayer flags to the top mountain pass and saying a prayer for my sister, who was dying from cancer. And I remember leaving something on a mountainside full of bits of clothing and items with the idea that it would help draw you back to that sacred spot when you at the moment of death. I also laid on the ground among the detritus left by others and meditated for a few minutes on that sacred ground – imaging that I would return to that spot at the moment of my death and therefore have a more auspicious rebirth.

The restaurant in Santa Cruz turned out to be right on the beach and it reminded me of the seaside New Jersey town near where I grew up, where I waited tables and was short order cook to beach going visitors in my high school and college years. Santa Cruz seemed a bit more affluent than Sea Bright. The sight and smell of the ocean was cheering.

I had my suitcase as I was to head directly to the San Jose airport after my meeting although I was still torn – should I just bag everything planned and head instead to my friend’s home in Santa Barbara? So frustrating to be so close and not see her. Yet, I sensed too that I was a tad too raw and this news had ripped the scab right off the wound that was the anniversary of dad’s death; I really was not at my best. The lack of coffee probably didn’t help.

I was the first to arrive at the restaurant and within minutes I realized that I did not have my eyeglasses! Now my sister was blind like couldn’t see her hand in front of face unable to see without her glasses and I am not that bad, but I’m pretty bad. My prescription sunglasses (in addition to being sunglasses) are only for distance only (I wear progressive lenses and mostly they are geared to mid-range) not to mention impractical inside. Alas those were perched on my nose and my regular glasses nowhere to be found and were presumably in the Uber I had just exited.

 

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View from the restaurant in Santa Cruz.

 

By the time Wynton arrived I had reached out to Uber (yes, the app has a place for left something in my driver’s car) but hadn’t heard back. We talked over breakfast for about an hour (throughout which I continued trying to contact the Uber driver with no luck), and after making sure I was okay to get back to San Jose he left for a film shoot. I sat outside near a large ukulele band setting up to play. Normally that would have cheered me immensely but not at this point. Frankly I didn’t know what to do next and I was melting down. I pulled out my phone and I called Kim in New York. I felt better hearing his voice but then he suddenly immensely far away and I was missing him. The dam broke and I found myself sobbing –  yep, just sitting on a curb in Santa Cruz and weeping.

A few weeks ago in my first post about Frances Hodgson Burnett (which can be found here) I said you want to marry someone smart enough to give you good book suggestions when you are whining about having nothing to read (and I still maintain there are worse ways to chose a mate), but really one of the very best thing about Kim is he remains very calm in emergencies and times of extreme stress. Although I am generally the more rational of the two of us and I rarely lose it, but when I do he is one of the few people who can get me off the ledge.

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Bad photo of the uke band tuning up from where I sat on the curb talking to Kim.

 

He spoke very calmly to me even though in retrospect, never having experienced me in quite that state before, let alone on the other side of the country), he probably was a bit worried.  We agreed that I would get another car and head back to the hotel where I started in San Jose and hopefully be able to meet up with the first driver there. I pulled myself together and called yet another car and a woman Uber driver named Guadalope picked me up. (I am sorry to say the uke band had not started before I left – I was very curious.) The first driver, Gajend, eventually called he had my glasses! We established that he would meet me at the hotel where he’d picked me up, but he was in another area and it would take him two hours to get there.

I was probably screwed for the flight to LA and I became confused all over again about maybe changing my plans and heading to Santa Barbara. I called Kim again to update him. I was still weepy and by the end of that call Guadalupe pretty much knew the whole story. Kim took charge and told me I was definitively not going to Santa Barbara and just get my eyeglasses, we’d figure out things out from there. He was right of course, you cannot drop your hot mess self with your own problems onto someone who truly is in the midst of dealing with their own, more significant crisis.

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The very capable Guadalupe driving us through the mountains.

 

About the time we hung up, Guadalupe and I were slowing down in traffic to a stop – yes, because there was an accident somewhere ahead. However, Guadalupe turned out to be a resourceful woman and she softly said something about how there are not many back road options and she turned the car (just, um, briefly off-road) and she took us up exactly that sort of back road.

Once again I was brought back to memories of traveling in Bhutan and the endlessly winding roads in order to go over the mountains – constant switchbacks with nausea induing constant turns and twists. Oddly the roads were populated with many people on bikes (it was so steep I can’t imagine how the muscles in their calves must bulge) who braved the cars emerging from each blind turn. I have a strong inner ear and rarely experience car or sea sickness, but I was turning a tad green by the time we finally emerged on the other side and went bombing off toward the hotel.

As I plunked myself down to wait on a bench outside the Holiday Inn where I had spent the past two nights I reflected that for me today was clearly going to be about learning patience and slowing myself down a bit. This Holiday Inn wasn’t bad, but it was in the midst of a very poor area. The day before a colleague and I had walked about two blocks away and eaten rather splendid Mexican food for lunch (an enormous bean burrito in my case), but encountered several people who appeared to be homeless, their possessions in the shopping carts they pushed.

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Snapped this photo of this souped up motorcycle by the front entrance of the Holiday Inn while parked on a nearby bench.

 

Across from where I sat waiting, there was a stop for the local light rail line which I had no time to figure out during my stay and I watched people come and go on that. I read part of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novella Theo: A Sprightly Love Story, on my phone. I fought with a cash machine in the hotel – and lost. After counting all my cash to figure out what I could tip Gajend – who at this point had now driven me across a mountain where he probably didn’t get a return trip and now was making his way to me, wasting his work day, gas and time I found I had $100. Somewhere in the back of my head was my mother’s voice asking me why I had traveled across the country with so little cash – and she was right of course. She taught me one should have cash in case of emergencies. Anyway, I would give him the $100 and figure out cash in LA.

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Eventually a heavy-set man, probably a bit older than me, decorated with monotone tattoos and walking a tiny, bulging eyed dog came and sat on the bench with me. We passed the time, discussed the dog – the pup tired easily with such short legs working hard when they took a walk. My cat Cookie could have taken this dog on with one paw behind her back, but I kept that thought to myself as it seemed like it could be considered unkind. I was just about to ask if I could take their photo when Gajend pulled up! Yay! He jumped out of his car with my eyeglasses in hand. I thanked him profusely and gave him the hundred dollars. He offered to take me to the airport. I ended up making the flight, where I started this post, with enough time to be a lousy slice of pizza for lunch.

******

I write now, a day later and tucked into my airplane seat heading home after my last round of meetings in Los Angeles. I am very anxious to get home and see Kim and the cats. All will likely be asleep when I slip in around midnight, we are early to bed folks when left to our own devices.

I just watched Dumbo on my tiny airplane screen, which was about the level of emotional intensity I felt like I could manage at this point. After my usual tomato juice (don’t know why but I always have a glass of tomato juice when I fly) I had a stiff drink, which I generally never do when I fly – afraid of jet lag. It wasn’t a martini, dad’s favorite drink, but I think he would approve. So at last here’s to him!

******

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A blurry photo of Cookie claiming my suitcase for her own purposes upon my return.

 

 

 

 

Train tracking

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I wrote yesterday of my reluctance to leave home (hearth, Kim and kitties) to commence travel in general. Now, as I write, I sit on an Amtrak en route to Boston, parked in New Haven. It brings to mind a trip several years ago, also on business, when a derailment somewhere in the Northeast had delayed a trip, I had commenced at 5:30 in the morning, by hours and hours in effect killing a day of business entirely and reminding me of why I always pack too much reading and food.

That day we inched our way up the east coast and I spent more than an hour on the train in this particular spot, looking at this same view. It was fall instead of spring. I think if you work in the Northeast and do any business travel this corridor (and perhaps this story) is familiar, although perhaps others have more tales of airports. Other than one occasion when it was late April and my flight in Boston was prevented from taking off in New York due to a snow storm in New York, most of the stories of travel are Amtrak ones.

I can almost remember being young and naïve enough to think that travel by train in this country might remotely resemble what I had seen depicted in early films. (Think noir, compartments, dining cars with service and china.) It most certainly does not and I had this drummed into my head on my very first trip to Washington DC from my New Jersey home, back when I was in high school. There was a problem, I want to say something fell across the tracks which is sort of fatal to train travel, and our trip home became a thing of family legend, involving total abandonment by Amtrak at a station off the beaten path (think woods) somewhere in the general area between Philadelphia and the New Jersey border, as night was falling, requiring several non-train methods of transportation and many, many hours beyond the requisite four or so before we arrived home.

Still, one can’t fly everywhere and I have put in my time on America’s trains. Coming home from college in New London, Connecticut – standing a long part of the way on a crowded train from New London to New York at Thanksgiving, before changing to a NJ Transit train there. (Today when the New London stop is announced in about forty minutes I will twitch with memory of getting on and off there. As above – entering New London and the video of leaving below – it looks pretty much as it always has.)

Young adulthood found me with a boyfriend in upstate New York which resulted in many Amtrak hours logged – delays, electrical failures and the like becoming part of the routine. Hard to believe, but there were things about that relationship that were worse than the train time and after Andrew I said adieu to my weekend warrior status on the train. However, I can’t be on one, chugging toward Boston or DC, or perhaps the lesser route to Albany, or even up to Toronto, without flickering memories of trips past, successful and otherwise.

In college I had found my way to Europe and those trains, in Britain, Scotland, France and Italy, carried a whiff of the old world rail charm old films had teased me with. They also carried a level of efficiency the heights of which Amtrak would never, at least in my experience, reach. Dependable, generally clean, the rail system is the primary travel artery for most of Europe and Asia in a coherent way that I fear ours is not.

In my thirties a friend found a cheap tour to Russia – flying into Moscow and then the train down to St. Petersburg. It was February, but reasonable warm for a Russian winter. Our tour group consisted of about six people in addition to my friend, her mother and myself. Suzanne’s mother, Jean, had been my painting teacher and was in her early eighties when we made the trip.

Jean and I shared an ancient compartment on the train overnight. It was exactly as I would have expected and hoped such a train would be – down to watching snow out the window overnight as we dashed through the countryside, wolves baying – really! We had been warned by our guide to lock our doors however, and to refuse to open them to anyone overnight which we did – I have no memory of anyone attempting to enter however.

Meanwhile, the Russians seemed to have great respect for older people and took a genuine interest in Jean wherever we went. They would always take the time to help her from the bus or over a step and to say a few words to her in one language or another. Sadly Jean is gone now, although she lived well into her nineties. She was a good traveler and made international trips, albeit gradually easier ones, for another several years after that trip to Russia.

My trips are no longer romantic or liaisons, and are mostly driven by conferences and these days concerts. Much of the travel time is now devoted to work. Despite that and the issues above, I generally find my time on a long train ride calming. Watching the world go by and eventually hopping off at my destination, mildly changed, hopefully for the better, by the process of getting there.

 

 

Travel

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This little kid clutching (his?) toys is my jumping off point for a brief post before grabbing my roller bag and hitting Amtrak for a business trip this morning. This photo was part of the birthday loot from the great Antique Toy Shop (I like to promote my friends and a link can be found here!) in Chelsea. This little fellow in his winter togs has his toys so he’s ready to go wherever.

As a child who had to travel with a certain retinue of toys, I can remember that decision making process even now. There were, to some degree, toys which had to go with as I remember. Squeaky the dog was probably the primary one and there was a koala bear (and a successor one) that also did some road time. There were toys of the moment and toys to entertain (Colorforms anyone?) but those two toys were the mainstays of maintaining happiness abroad. Of course travel when I was small was rarely more than a trip to my grandmother’s house. The Butlers were not a traveling family for the most part. It is, however, all relative and leaving the house was travel when I was a tot.

I am a mix of contradiction about travel. There is an adventurous side of me that gets a gleam in my eye at the thought of a trip to a remote Buddhist enclave hidden in the Himalayas and only accessible via three days hike with our bags strapped to yaks. (I have been to Tibet twice and would love to go another time; Patagonia and Machu Picchu via a trip with the Met Museum, Russia and Europe. The Buddhist kingdom of Mustang has long been on my list.) And yet I am always conflicted about actually leaving home and routine – Kim! Kitties! Morning coffee at the computer with Kim and them. I am both the daughter of my father, who happily traveled world-wide in his job as a cameraman for ABC News, and my mom who has rarely left New Jersey and has only flown, to my knowledge, twice in her life.

I guess as a child I mitigated that travel anxiety to some degree by having my toys with me. As an adult you instead run through the plethora of bits you don’t want to forget – a myriad of charger cables, shoes for the event on Sunday, socks, a plethora of appropriate ID if flying, instructions for the hotel and restaurants. (I once showed up in Boston for a conference with only the name of my hotel, sadly a generic one like Hilton, and no address. The cab driver made a lucky right guess with the first try as there were several in town. Since then I always check that I have that.) It is a pity that there really is no adult substitute for toys.

I travel for business with some frequency, although as Pictorama readers know these days I sometimes also travel with the orchestra. (I have written about my orchestra adventures from Florida to Shanghai and samples can be found here and here.) There is comfort in being of that well oiled machine, and once I am under the purview of the great road manager Ray Murphy I am secure in the knowledge that I will get where I am going on time, will be well fed, and in general all will be good and run with military precision.

However often, like today, I will travel on my own and only meet up with them briefly for a concert. I am, of course, all competency and capableness once started – not to mention that these days I am blessed with an extraordinarily efficient assistant in the form of a human dynamo named Sandra. She has organized me almost in spite of myself for this particular trip which I paid almost no attention to in the fray of other work needing to be tied up. Thank you Sandra!

I will drag my heels about getting out of the house to some degree although not enough to endanger my actual schedule; I am too compulsive for that. The suitcase is half packed on the floor causing some distress among the cats already. Kim is off to the MoCCA comics con shortly and I am left with a nagging desire to be in two places at once. I am always good once I begin. Travel efficiency will kick in and I have people I am looking forward to seeing in Boston, as well as those I will enjoy meeting. A few days in Boston is largely an enjoyable outing.

Traveling with Kim is of course entirely different, although we don’t do it very often. For me in many ways, having Kim with me and going somewhere is sort of like taking my toys with me. I will have to write about that as well. Now if only we could figure out bringing the cats.

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Not my bear but one like it via the internet.

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Squeaky the dog. He’s clearly worse for all that travel!

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Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: This card also from the El Dorado of the postcard show last week. It is a bit more curious than good, although I think it is compelling. I don’t know for sure what it depicts, although my first thought was that it was some sort of traveling show, I have changed my mind. The tents are sizable, but appear more for living and sleeping-in than for come hither attractions. They are somewhat complicated, as I think tents mostly were at that time, set up by a series of ropes and poles. (I am glad I wasn’t charged with figuring that out. I don’t think I would have been good at it.) The one to our right shows an accumulation of grime near the flap from much use. I guess it is a roadside camp, Crown being the name, the brick building perhaps bathrooms and an office? Or a gas station? There is the pile of wood in front of these folks, and a fair amount of trash scattered about. It is weedy and they have set the tents up in the only clear space.

I like this group, family of some kind I assume or family and friends, with their two dogs – one wriggling into a blur here. The one woman and young girl are in neat, but comfortable cotton house dresses, the other woman a bit more dressed up. While this appears to be a somewhat down at the heels locale, they seem chipper enough having their photo taken this way. The card was never mailed and there is nothing written on it so we don’t know anything about them, which I regret.

I do not hail from a camping family and in my life I have only ever done it on a few occasions. As I remember, I was unremarkable at best as a girl scout camper for a single trip at approximately age 12. (I recall a messy experiment with making pancakes in a skillet over a fire – pancakes are actually a tad tricky even at home I find in retrospect. An even more dismal attempt at using a compass and map to find our way back to camp in a test of sorts. I seem to remember finding the road and using it to return.)

Subsequently, many years later and on the other end of the spectrum, I camped while hiking around Mt. Kailash, a sacred mountain in Tibet. I don’t fool myself – the success of this venture was entirely due to some extremely capable sherpas who set up our tents and cooked our food. I only credit myself with having been smart enough to have engaged them. It was July, but we woke up to several inches of snow one morning which was a shock, (it was cold and we slept in layers of clothing, coats and sleeping bags) and another evening heard something skulking, scratching and growling outside our tent which we chose not to investigate. Otherwise, it was in every way preferable to staying in awful, mostly empty and decaying hotels in the small enclaves of Tibet which I had done on a previous trip. All appeared to have been built in 1970 and with an eye to a tourist industry that the Chinese government imagined, but never materialized.

Therefore, for the most part I have decided that for me camping is more of a means to an end than something I do for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. I would happily camp again in Tibet if it meant seeing things I couldn’t see otherwise, but am unlikely to pitch a tent in the wilds of upstate New York any time soon. Meanwhile, these folks may have take a broader view of camping – or they may have been doing it out of necessity as well, to get from here to there – but stopping to have their photo taken along the way.

 

 

Traveling with the Big Band

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As Pictorama readers and other online followers already know, I am currently on the road, although wrapping up my week’s sojourn with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band on their Holiday Big Band tour. Since it is hard for me to do any other kind of post on the road you all have been treated (or subjected) to a clutch of personal posts over the last few weeks.

It is Saturday afternoon, the second week of December beginning as I start this, I posted The Other Pam Butler a few hours ago. I cannot seem to find a position comfortable enough to nap in in my seat (some of the guys have perfected sleeping on these bus seats, but it is a skill acquired with time clearly) so it is as good a time as any to take stock. As someone pointed out yesterday, this job wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye a year ago as I went through my year-end rituals in fundraising, checking in with folks, gathering up last minute contributions at the Metropolitan Museum. I think I would have laughed (hard) if someone had told me I’d be on this bus with 18 or so guys, jazz musicians and road staff, crawling through North Carolina in a snow storm for 9 hours on our way to a gig in Chapel Hill. (The photo above is from our breakfast stop at Cracker Barrel, clearly a group favorite and after eating those biscuits I know why. The institutional precise consistency of these shop ‘n restaurants is a bit dizzying to experience, but clearly a stop of great comfort for road warriors through the greater American south and east.)

The band is moved with incredible efficiency. Time is truly money when you are feeding and lodging almost two dozen people and the team at Jazz is a very well oiled machine. The military precision of the early morning departures reminds me of my travel days through Europe with the Met – I guess the experienced moving of large groups is always done the same way, but it seems ironic to me that busing a jazz band across the American South as economically as possible is ultimately similar to toting well-heeled tourists through the cultural highlights of Europe on a luxury tour, but it is. Predawn departures on buses to airplanes, or to be driven to destinations and fed with hotel breakfasts of weird eggs, fruit and coffee. (The coffee was better than it mostly was in Europe and the South has those biscuits going for it too, not to mention the fact that we could drink the water.) The rest stops, complete with machines chock-a-block full of junk food are distinctly American, however I admit to being glad to see them, and I admit to eating food on this trip that I have not eaten since college. Unlike the Met trips however, the destinations are not luxury hotels and ships, nor cultural highlights, but business hotels of unromantic economy and maximum efficiency, located just off highways. Since I was most happy to see a bed and fall into it for four or five hours of sleep at a go, these hotels with their breakfast buffets and endless cups of coffee were always quite welcome.

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Predawn view out my hotel window in Atlanta, a view of the pool.

 

The band members are deeply experienced travelers and on this trip they have already been on the road for a week when I join them. (I had a prelude in Arkansas on other business.) They know how best to arrange themselves within the limitations of the bus seats to sleep a bit and as a rule no one is late for the various departures. It is generally quiet, although a soft spoken phone call or conversation drifts over the group occasionally. The travel is executed uncomplainingly by the band, and there is a real genius to the calculus of the number and length of stops to be made along the longer passages – such as this nine hours from Atlanta to Chapel Hill. Ray Murphy who manages the logistics has an gift for this – whether it is just years of experience or an innate talent I do not know. Somehow he keeps it all moving as painlessly as possible.

On most days late afternoon is the witching hour for the instruments, equipment, suits and shoes to be loaded in and taken to the venue, followed by sound check which can also function as a rehearsal. Then it is likely there is a Q&A with a school or other group who were invited to sound check, lead by one of the band members – a role which switches daily. Family style dinner is up after, usually around 5:30 or 6:00, and served in a backstage area catered by the venue. In this way we experience a range of food from a memorable homemade apple pie to an unremarkable attempt at tofu.

Schedule allowing, Wynton or another member might squeeze teaching a master class at a university in during the day, or the whole group might show up at a school as they did for an elementary school in Palm Beach. Usually there is some time to kill between dinner and concert and I use this time to call Kim at home. Concerts on the road seem to start between 7:00-7:30 and run for about 90 minutes with a brief intermission. After backstage meet and greet (or grip and grin as someone called it) and the reloading of the equipment it is usually close to 11:00 before we are back on the bus and at the hotel. By now our early dinner is a distant memory and we wrestle with the calculus of sleep against locating a late night snack. Sometimes there is drinking and eating at a hotel bar, or someone figures out rides to a Waffle House spotted on the way, but mostly exhaustion and the early morning start means bed calls.

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Wynton and band at an elementary school in Florida.

 

Several nights of these nights our schedule necessitated that Wynton and I hop in a car after the show and drive to the next location getting in around 3AM so we could have early meetings. That leads to some really bad late night eating of pure junk food. Our driver, Dregg (not sure how he spells this) is an old hand at this kind of driving and we relax into his capable hands although sleep mostly eludes us. A long conversation which ranges from the role of human sacrifice in ancient Greece to childhood memories snakes through those drives and, in part, probably helps keep Dregg from drifting off as well.

As I finish this post up, it is one week later and I am happily perched back at our computer at home. It is a snowy gray morning here so the scenery is strikingly similar to the one I saw out the bus last week. My seat on the bus, it seemed an unspoken assignment, was a rotating shotgun one in front, for the random person who comes and goes I assume, similar to where I sat in Shanghai. I continue to mull over what I learned on this trip in terms of what it means to fundraise for this very special ensemble and maybe I will have more to say about that later. For now though, whether they realize it or not, I have in heart and mind adopted each and every one of the members of the band. They are my guys and I am their unstinting cheerleader.

Shanghai Pam and the Toy Store Adventure

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Travel Post: With apologies to Pictorama readers for the lack of a Saturday post yesterday while I made my way back from China, today’s post while it does cover toys, is a bit of a rambling travelogue. Fair warning to those who are looking for shorter fare.

Travel has been an increasingly frequent part of my work life and promises to be more so in the new gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A mere two months into the job and I find myself in the Shanghai Podung airport with a company laptop and a tummy full of mediocre pizza drafting this post. This after a fast and furious four plus days in Shanghai with Wynton Marsalis and the 15 member Jazz at Lincoln Center band and assorted other colleagues who keep things running on the road. Everyone has been unfailingly lovely to me since my arrival at JALC, more than ever while in China this week, but there’s no two ways around the learning curve of being about 11 weeks into a new and in many ways very different job. I was smacked with that reality repeatedly on this trip, and frankly I missed Kim and the kitties.

So when I realized that I had a rare afternoon off between rehearsal and evening concert on Wednesday, instead of sensibly finding a tailor and having a new winter coat made like my colleagues, I decided to take off in search of a store that sells antique toys in another part of town. Before leaving NY I had (of course) Googled antique toy store Shanghai and an article from a few years ago appeared. (I did something similar last fall when visiting Lyon for the Met, as told in my earlier post found here called Pepper Felix and Mickey Souris.) Out of the three described, one shop appeared to be my style. I mapped it online and while it wasn’t around the corner, it didn’t really appear to be substantially further than anywhere else I had gone in this sprawling city, although albeit in a different direction and distance can be tricky on Google maps in a foreign city. Although it seemed difficult, somehow seeing antique toys seemed like the shot in the arm I needed to bring me around to myself so off I went.

Meanwhile, please know that for me at least Shanghai rapidly dissolved into never-ending challenges of transportation, communication and culture. The Shanghai cab is where these elements combined into a triple threat. Whether it is a disinclination to deal with tourists and our self-evident communication issues, or if perhaps they are equally abusive to their own folks I am unsure, but since it didn’t take me long to figure out that the many cabs with their green lights happily lit could be (should be) picking me up. Meanwhile, if one had a Chinese-speaking companion with a phone app who could call a car you might find that your destination was too short to be desirable and they would also refuse you. It was frustrating to say the least.

After such a phone rejection, a colleague from Asia suggested an assertive approach which I adopted – essentially chasing cabs down and hopping in. Now here I do feel I need to apologize because I may have done real damage to the reputation of Americans in Asia single-handedly on this trip putting this into action. Ugly American to the extreme.

Before I continue with my story please allow me to supply two other key elements of my visit to Shanghai, everyday it was well into the 90’s and so sultry I could barely stand to wash my hair knowing that despite blow drying it would remain a damp frizz for the remainder of the day. (Natives repeatedly remarked on how the weather really wasn’t bad for this time of the year – a warning to self for scheduling future travel.) Next, please understand that traffic in this city can compete with some of the worst traffic I have ever seen – on a par with Los Angeles and London, and even topping midtown NYC during the worst of the Trump protesting and closures. Because of this the population, which is considerable as this is after all China, has turned to a fascinating array of two wheeled vehicles, pedaled and motored. (There is a subway, but no one seemed to encourage tourists to take it. Hmmm.)

On the streets, the variation on the Vespa and moped were topped in numbers only by the bright yellow free bicycles which are merely picked up, used and left as needed. (While I love this idea, I did wonder what happens if you ride somewhere and come out to find the bike taken by another needy citizen and no one else has left one?) And in this age of cell phones it was not at all unusual to find someone riding one of the above, on the sidewalk, while looking at their phone. Some even did all of this AND had headphones on – so they couldn’t be bothered by the screeching of pedestrians or fellow riders I assume. This means that, in addition to essentially running into the street in an attempt to force my way into a cab, I had to avoid being mowed down by a two-wheeled vehicle at the same time.

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Bike rack in Shanghai

 

As I am a resourceful, and admittedly somewhat competitive, New York woman traveling on business which required my presence in numerous parts of this sprawling city, I developed the following method. After scoping out a location carefully for a) reasonable egress for me into the street b) no obvious impediments for legally picking me up (such as a yellow curb or metal fencing and c) in the best of all worlds no bike lane which could mean the end of me or the cyclist as I dashed into traffic. The last one was the hardest and not an option I could always hold out for. I would also try to find a street that was very busy, but not verging on highway-ness.

Once an acceptable location was selected I would watch for a lit cab. I would stand, in fine NY style, just below the curb in the street and try to make eye contact with the oncoming cabs with their jolly green lights as I would at home. When this failed, as it virtually always seemed to, I would begin to eye cabs I could just take on. Obviously the easiest prey were those cabs where someone was getting out, but I was almost never that lucky. Instead I would find one forced to slow or stop by traffic and jump in before the driver knew what to do. Sure enough, getting rid of me was more work than most were willing to commit. I would produce a slip of paper with the address printed out in Chinese characters. This was usually met with some form of muttering and/or cursing but generally they got down to business after that.

The day in question was the first I was applying this methodology. After spending a good twenty minutes trying to get a cab the regular way I literally took off running after one at a light and threw myself in. Success! That morning I had asked the concierge to translate the address of the toy store onto one of the hotel’s cards in case the opportunity arose. I now handed the card to the cab driver and off we went.

My destination turned out to be a somewhat anonymous looking block with an assortment of generic looking stores. The description of the store lead me to believe that it wasn’t going to be all that obvious so I wasn’t surprised. I paid the man and hopped out into the hot, humid day. It was broiling, and my straw hat and sunglasses provided scant coverage, as did the sunscreen I had applied earlier. I walked an alleyway to a mews with some private homes. A woman was picking up a pile of trash by her house, a man in an undershirt looked at me inquiringly. Then this pretty little kitty came out to welcome me. He didn’t come all the way over for pets, but we enjoyed a few words and I felt like he was a good sign.

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Shanghai kitty

 

I left the mews and followed the street down aways. The store was said to be across from a popular coffee house according to the article and I saw a coffee shop ahead, about a block away. I headed over, but no toy store and the numbers were wrong. At this point I remembered that the map had indicated that the design and fashion school was located here. I was on what was evidently the urban campus for this school, scattered among design buildings and studios. Then I also remembered that there had been an indication of a building K in the address. I traced the numbers and typed where is building K into my iphone and asked google to translate for a guard. He enjoyed my ingenuity, but just waved in a general direction, useless.

This time I crossed the street and went down and along an old building with a number of early advertising signs on the side; this seemed promising. I entered a covered entry and found myself in a cool dark café, decorated with antique toys! It was lovely, and cool and dark. I quietly took these photos and was shown to a table. At this point I had neither time nor desire for food but I ordered a (warm) beer and happily drank it down. I typed into Google translator – are the toys for sale? Even though I knew the answer, no. I drank and paid for my beer and wandered back out. Frustrated and knowing that with the time it would take to both get a cab and get back to my hotel in traffic I would have to head back shortly.

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Toy cafe

 

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Display room behind glass at toy cafe

 

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Second room of toy display at cafe – and nope, toys are not for sale!

 

As I left the building I got a bit more daring. This had been the coffee shop mentioned in the article I was quite sure, not the newer one across the street which I had spied originally. So the toy store was either gone, or I was just missing it. Then I walked into a dark, fairly modern looking building and yes! To my right there was a doorway into a massive space. I had found the toy store at last!

An elderly man sat, drinking tea and talking to some comrades in the middle of the store. He got up to see what I was about. I gestured around me and fluttered my hand on my heart – I am in love with your store! He smiled broadly and gestured to me to have at it and chattered at me. We were sorry not to be able to converse – I can tell he had stories he was itching to tell!

store 1

Toy store at last!

 

toy store 2

Mysterious automaton at toy store.

 

As is the case with such places, much of what he was selling I either owned, was too large to contemplate acquiring or was not necessarily of interest to me, but most of all it felt wonderful to be among all these wonderful old toys! I found a case which contained a wind-up mouse band like mine, and its cousin the Dog Patch wind up band. This was my mother’s favorite toy growing up and I have long been in the market for one for her. This one was actually a fair price, but more than I had in cash at that moment and the idea of either obtaining more cash or trying to negotiate a sale otherwise was beyond me. (Most Chinese establishments are prohibited from taking either American credit cards and it is hard, if not actually illegal, for regular citizens to change American dollars into Chinese RMB.) Therefore, I settled instead on this nice Steiff penguin puppet which caught my eye early on. A pleasant negotiation which took place on dueling cell phones took place. There was a break in the middle so he could show me a giant music machine in action!

The puppet was lovingly photographed by him as a record of the sale and then wrapped up for me. I felt good about having found my way and the nice café, the cat and the store had restored me in some essentially way. Now, I girded myself for my trip back to my hotel.

penguin puppet

Penguin puppet mugshot!

 

I went back to the place where the cab had left me earlier. It was by a Holiday Inn, but not one where cabs seemed to congregate or stop. I employed my earlier technique and found myself in a cab a mere few minutes later. However, this cabby was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I handed him the hotel card and asked me to take him there. Now, in all fairness, it may have been confusion about what I was asking him to do, or maybe he really didn’t want to go there. All I can say is he and I more less started a shouting match in our own languages. Clearly he wanted me out of the cab and so I left.

I found the doorman to the hotel and he spoke English. I explained I had been in a cab and he wouldn’t take me when I showed the address. Meanwhile, much to my surprise the cabby was there. A three-way conversation ensued and the cabby and I returned to the car, however I never understood the source of his displeasure.

Off we went, cabby continued to curse and shout. Soon we were in a rush hour traffic jam to end all traffic jams. We drove and drove and I began to worry about making it back to the hotel in time. Then I began to worry about whether or not I was going to the right Marriott hotel (there are several in the this sprawling city) – and then, more or less on cue, it began to rain in a deluge. You-can’t-see-out-the-window rain of biblical proportions. The cabby’s cursing and yelling is now like something out of a cartoon just as the area is finally starting to look familiar. He can’t find the street though and there’s no way I am getting out and walking in this rain! I gesture around the block as if I know what I am talking about. Finally, at long last, my hotel. I paid him with exact change and ran from the car while he yelled at the doorman who wanted him to take another fare!

And that, Pictorama readers, was my toy adventure in Shanghai!