The Clouds Inside Me Parted; All That Light Came Shining Through

I try not to set myself up for disappointment by getting too excited about things. The idealist in me tends toward great expectations, and the realist in me likes to say “I told you so” when something goes wrong. Even so, I consider it some measure of personal triumph that my pendulum still swings faithfully back to the hopeful side of life. So, I filled my carry-on bag with years of hopeful expectations and hauled them all up to New York City to soak up the Big Apple’s much ballyhooed holiday cheer. And true to form, my city did not let me down.

A lot of my friends seem to be lacking in the Christmas spirit this year, but I’m prepared to share. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s still better than a cheap souvenir, right?

I saw at least five Christmas trees before I even got out of the airport. They provided the encouragement I needed for my long trip into the city. I was trying to be as frugal as possible, so instead of grabbing a $50 cab into Manhattan, I took the AirTrain from the airport to the subway station ($5), and rode the subway from the far reaches of Queens, transferred trains in downtown Manhattan, on to the Upper East Side ($2.25). By the time I reached my friends’ place, I was feeling both triumphant and exhausted. I was blessed with the most gracious hosts, so I was promptly furnished with a glass of ice water and pointed to the couch to relax and look out at the view, which included Ralph Lauren’s apartment, the Guggenheim, and the Empire State Building.

After the photo at the airport, I put my camera away and forgot to take it back out again for the rest of the day. So, there are no other photos for Saturday, but basically, I went down to the theater district, lingered for a solid 15 minutes outside the stage door at Alan Rickman’s show, just on the off chance that he would appear (he did not – I would have remembered to take a picture of that!), and then I walked down the block to another stage door to wait for my friend Michael to emerge after his matinee performance. We simply walked and talked until he had to return to the theater, but made a stop by Playwrights’ Horizons to see our mutual friend Trent, who was also between performances. I returned to Playwrights’ Horizons Saturday night to see Trent take the stage in a fascinating quasi-period piece called Maple & Vine.

Sunday morning brought another reunion as I trekked out to Brooklyn to have breakfast with another friend. We dined at an Israeli diner in Park Slope and the food was wonderful – outshined only by the company. I also had the fun of being stopped by a tourist on the street, desperate for directions, and I obliged him. It was fun to be presumed a New Yorker and to have the knowledge to pull it off.

I finally remembered to use my camera again when I arrived at the beautiful Lincoln Center, where I saw the New York Ballet perform The Nutcracker. The outside of the theater was decorated for the occasion…

…and the inside of the theater was beautiful. I managed to snap a few pictures before I heard the ushers telling other people that there were to be no pictures:

I had never seen The Nutcracker before, though I was (of course) familiar with the music that brings it to life. I had also never attended a ballet before, and while I have a far-reaching appreciation for the arts in many forms, I thought ballet may push the envelope a bit. Still, I was going for the whole Christmas experience in New York, so there seemed no better time to give it a try. Plus, it is hard to go wrong with Tchaikovsky.

I did enjoy the show, and though I will probably not rush back to the ballet anytime soon, I was happy to have had this experience. I loved it when the tree “grew” out of the stage and the visuals by and large were fantastic. One of my favorite moments is when it began to snow and the dancers twirled about, making patterns on the stage floor. I couldn’t photograph it, of course, but Google came through with this photo for your viewing pleasure:

After the show, I walked out on the second-floor balcony to enjoy the view around Lincoln Center. I could see that there was something going on down below, but wasn’t sure exactly what.

When I walked down to street level, I discovered what the fuss was about. The red carpet had been prepared and the world premiere of War Horse was about to begin. Perhaps I should have stuck around to get a glimpse of Steven Spielberg, but I wasn’t interested enough to delay my day.

The weather was perfect, so I walked up to the American Museum of Natural History, taking in some uncharted territory in the Upper West Side as I moved along. I had read that the Origami Christmas Tree at AMNH was not to be missed, and since I was trying to see all of NYC’s most celebrated trees, I decided to stop in for a look.

As the name implies, all the decorations on the tree were origami, and they were all shaped like animals (such as you see throughout the halls of the museum), except for some glittering stars that stuck out from the tree (perhaps as an ode to the Planetarium which is also on site). I thought the tree was fantastic:

When I left the museum, I hopped a bus that was crossing the park (the subway doesn’t run under Central Park, of course), and made my way back to my friends’ place. I wanted to make the trip back out to Brooklyn to see the audacious Christmas lights in the Dyker Heights neighborhood. My friend Lana had never seen those, either, so she agreed to join me for the journey and added a stop at a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant she had heard of in Bay Ridge. We ordered up 5 different dishes to try: Falafel, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Brussel Sprouts in Yogurt Pomegranate Sauce, Succotash, and of course I can’t remember the name of the dish that was my favorite, but it was a pita with incredibly seasoned jerk chicken and slivers of almonds on top. Oh wow. Behold the spread of food:

After dinner, we had a bit of a hike over to Dyker Heights, but I was amused along the way as we passed some houses where the inhabitants of Bay Ridge were clearly trying to spur their neighborhood into action. I appreciated their spirit:

Once we reached Dyker Heights, it was a feast of tacky and overbearing Christmas lights and I loved every bit of it. A few houses tried to class things up, but my favorites were the ones that assaulted our eyes with colored lights covering EVERYTHING. Clearly, this decorating extravaganza was a labor of love for many of the folks in the neighborhood, whereas others, not wanting to be outdone, had hired professional decorators to handle their lawns, as evidenced by company signs staked in the yards. A few houses had even hired folks to dress up and hang around outside the houses, taking photos with children. We encountered one Elmo and one Rudolph. I sensed that they were part entertainment, part security, and part fundraisers for the charity of that house’s choosing. Spectators had poured onto the sidewalks or were driving along the streets at a snail’s pace. No one seemed to be in any hurry, though. The fun of it all was infectious!

A Christmas display that features Eeyore? YES, PLEASE!

This is the proper way to hang lights on a tree, y’all:

After all of that walking, and the long subway ride back, Lana and I were both exhausted. However, I knew that Monday I had planned to walk down 5th Avenue, peering in shop windows, and that my route would take me past Rockefeller Center. I was determined that my first viewing of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree should be at night, so I bid Lana adieu and detoured to another train and got off at Rockefeller Center. I even walked a few blocks out of the way so that I could circle back around and get my first glance of the tree from the 5th Avenue side, which affords the most majestic view.

I stayed there, staring at the tree from all angles for nearly an hour. I didn’t want to part with it, but I finally convinced myself to meander to the bus stop and come back to visit the tree the next day.

Monday morning, I set out for David Letterman’s studio, hoping to get tickets to that day’s taping. I filled out the paperwork, spoke to the producer, and met some fellow Ryan Adams fans, but I didn’t rate a seat in the studio audience. I knew the odds were not particularly in my favor, so I was content with having tried and went on my way.

I had mapped out the must-see shop windows along 5th Avenue, which included Bloomingdale’s, Barneys, Bergdorf-Goodman, Saks, Lord & Taylor, and Macy’s (which is actually at Broadway & 34th, in case you’re looking). But first, I stopped by FAO Schwarz to gander at all the toys and see the big piano:

And then I dropped by The Plaza Hotel…

…to see their very pink Eloise-inspired Christmas tree:

Each of the major stores had multiple windows for viewing, and portions of the sidewalk along 5th Avenue were adorned with velvet ropes to separate the window-gazers from the passers-by. Of course, taking pictures of windows as people and cars pass by doesn’t create ideal photography conditions, but if you’ll forgive the glare, I’ll share some of my favorite windows with you.

Bergdorf Goodman’s windows were decorated in a “Carnival of the Animals” theme, done in taxidermy style. You can see professional photos of some of the windows on the Bergdorf Goodman blog here, but these are a few of the pictures I took:

And whaddaya know? I just happened to be walking past Rockefeller Center again…

I took a guess that the beautiful New York Public Library would have a nice Christmas tree inside, and they did…

After which, I rounded the building to walk through Bryant Park. I’m sure their tree was a prettier sight at night, but it was neat to see the ice skaters on the rink and the vendors throughout the park selling their wares to Christmas shoppers looking for unique gifts.

Then I got distracted with photos of the skyline as I made my way over to Grand Central Station…

I had read that Grand Central Station was bringing back their kaleidoscope light show this year, but when I arrived and asked around, I learned that it had been canceled (probably budget cuts). Luckily, Grand Central Station is pretty all on its own, so all was not lost.

Back to window-gazing, I had to take a picture of the Brooks Brothers display – mostly because I was entertaining the notion of going inside to look for my very own Peter Burke. (I decided that walking around the store asking suit-shopping men whether they worked for the FBI was probably ill-advised, so I just kept moving.)

I don’t even remember what store this was, but I thought the porthole windows were snazzy:

En route to Macy’s, I walked down 34th past the Empire State Building. I took this from across the street. If you look carefully at the top of the building, you can see the very tip top peeking out above the larger portion of the building.

Macy’s had some fairly impressive steampunk-inspired windows with tie-in from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. You can see some great shots of the windows here, or you can just be satisfied with this one of mine:

I actually decided to peek inside Macy’s, making it the first and only store I entered as I walked around. And when I say “entered,” I mean that I walked through the revolving door, stepped out long enough to snap a photo, and then revolved my way right back out onto the street. That is the extent of my shopping prowess.

The Macy’s entrance on the 34th Street side was decorated as well, and probably would have been better to view at night when you could see “Believe” lit up more prominently across the building.

While Saks gets bonus points for their Christmas projection show (more on that later), I have to declare Lord & Taylor the winner of best Christmas window displays. They took drawings and stories from the imagination of children and brought them to life in their shop windows. You can watch a video from the unveiling here.

Monday night, I decided to venture downtown to the financial district, as I’d read about the Chorus Tree at South Street Seaport. I hadn’t had time to go downtown over the weekend when there is an actual choir singing at intervals in front of the tree, but I understood that the tree put on its own singing light show every hour throughout the evening.

The Seaport was also decked out with vendors in a row of Santa’s Workshop-inspired kiosks, and there are shops, restaurants, and museums all around the Seaport area. But first, the tree!

I bought myself a bag of kettle corn because it smelled AMAZING, and took a seat and looked around waiting for whatever was going to happen at the stroke of 6:00. When the music started and the lights started flickering, I alternated between staring in delight and trying to snap pictures of the different light formations. They were moving too quickly for me, but you can get the idea:

Or, you can take a gander at the quick video I eventually thought to capture of a few seconds of the show…Oh, the gloriously tacky wonder of it all!

Having been delighted by the Chorus Tree, I crept toward the water to check out Pier 17, which was basically a multi-layer mall with a deck on each level that afforded lovely views of the Brooklyn Bridge (and at the end of that… Brooklyn).

I really enjoyed walking around while there were not a lot of people around and the air had a slight nip in it, but I’m sure this area is bustling in the summer months. I’ve already made a mental note to return there on a future visit.

Before walking back to the subway, I decided I could use a snack, so I settled on a very healthy choice at Johnny Rockets:

On my way back uptown, I stopped off near NYU to go check out the tree in Washington Square Park. When I arrived, however, it seemed that they hadn’t quite finished preparing it yet, since it was just a bare tree. I imagine they had a lighting ceremony scheduled for later. I was mildly disappointed, but I still took a seat on a nearby park bench and admired the beautiful Washington arch.

This was another area of NYC I had never explored before, so I decided to go back a different way via Union Square, so I could walk the streets a little bit. It’s funny how the “college” part of town can have the same feel in most any city, but I enjoyed the people-watching along my way.

When I got to Union Square, I found a Winter Market in full force all around the subway entrance. In fact, if I had gotten off at Union Square, I would have mistaken it for the North Pole. The vendors there had some really cool-looking things for sale. I may have even looked a bit closer at some of them, but the thought of trying to transport anything home kept me at bay.

I did really want that art display of the Brooklyn Bridge, though. On sale, even! Only $290!

I had stayed pretty busy thus far on my trip, and covered a lot of ground, so I was happy to retire back to the apartment at an early hour Monday night. When I arrived, Colin made me the best turkey burger I have ever had. It went very well with the fries I had eaten earlier. In fact, my mouth is watering just thinking about it now.

Tuesday morning, I let myself take it very easy. I was still awake before 8:00, but I continued to lay in bed with my feet propped up, listening to my iPod and eating the remnants of my kettle corn from the night before. I didn’t have anywhere specific to be until 2:00pm, so I had time to dilly-dally.

The forecast called for light rain, so I borrowed an umbrella before I set out on my way, though the weather was perfect outside. I wore a short-sleeved sweater over a tank top and didn’t even bother with a jacket. I had taken note of a spa in the neighborhood, so that was my first stop for a chair massage to relax some of my muscles. I was in and out in 15 minutes, but that woman worked wonders on my neck and shoulders. She was unconvinced, though. She handed me my things and said, “You come back again later. You tight.” I actually felt marvelous, so I continued on my way.

Another famed New York City Christmas Tree is located at The Met, so that was my next stop. The photo Nazis were buzzing around that tree, but I took a photo as I entered the room and then I managed to get in one more of the bottom of the tree.

My 2:00 show was at Radio City Music Hall, and I still had plenty of time until then, but I went ahead and made my way down to that neighborhood. Do you know what is just down the block from Radio City? No? You can’t guess? Wellll….

I didn’t linger so long this time, opting instead to head below Rockefeller Center and find some lunch. When I walked back up to street level and headed toward Radio City, I just happened to pass by Magnolia Bakery, so it seemed only right that I should stop in for dessert. I splurged and got a few different treats to taste, and when I started to cross the street, some very light rain began to sprinkle down. So, I pulled out my camera and took a picture of some fantastic decorations on the street, and then sat down on the edge of the fountain, opened my umbrella, and sat happily underneath it, eating the best cupcake I have ever had in my life. Rarely have I felt so pleased with myself.

As 2:00 approached, I finished my cupcake and went inside to see the Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular, a holiday tradition in New York since 1933.

In the lobby, they had a different kind of Christmas tree, suspended from the ceiling:

Photography was OK during the show, so I snapped a few shots along the way. It was definitely a fun-filled, high-energy Christmas program.

They did a miniature version of The Nutcracker:

And here are the toy soldiers, falling down in a domino effect, which was quite impressive to watch:

They had a great segment about Christmas in New York, which, given the focus of my trip, delighted me greatly.

The next portion of the show was about a mother who was out searching for the big ticket item she thought her daughter wanted for Christmas. Santa knew better, though (cue a cute number about how Santa can be everywhere at once), and took both the mother and daughter on a trip to the North Pole to teach them that the best gift of Christmas was the time they spent together.

The final segment of the show was the living nativity, which has also been part of the show since the very beginning. The narrator read Luke 2 and took us on a journey with the wise men to the manger in Bethlehem, where the whole cast bowed down to sing “Glory to God in the Highest.” It was beautifully done. (I missed getting a good photo of the camels walking across the stage, because I didn’t realize at first that they were real!)

When I left Radio City, I had a few hours before I was supposed to meet Lana for dinner near Carnegie Hall, and the rain had picked up a bit since I had gone into the show. The mist had upgraded to a drizzle, but it was fairly steady. I contemplated heading back to the apartment, but then I decided that the rainy conditions would mean a less populated Times Square, and I thought it would be cool to get some pictures of the neon lights rising up against a dreary sky.

I think that is the most I have enjoyed being in Times Square for a long time. I still had another hour to kill, so I decided to head back over to Rockefeller Center to catch the projection show on the Saks building (and of course, to stare at that tree some more). Along my way, I took advantage of the weather for some more photos.

I saw down on a bench in Rockefeller Center and people-watched while the countdown clock ticked down. The following pictures will give you an idea of what the projection show looked like (and you can just imagine that Christmas music is blaring):

Here are a few pictures of a replica of the Swarovski Star atop the Rockefeller Tree. They sell smaller versions for normal people trees, and I hope to get one eventually. First, the star to go on my tree, and then the angels with trumpets to stand in front of it in two lines.

Then, it was time for me to walk over to dinner, and I stopped a few times along the way for more pictures, of course.

At the restaurant, I saw a man wearing the signature Cardinals rose design on his t-shirt, so I looked at him and said, “Heyyy, Ryan Adams!” which made him stop and verify that I was going to the show. While we were talking, another guy walked past and heard our conversation, and chimed in, “You guys going to the show, too? I just saw Ryan Adams at the hotel and told him I was looking forward to the show, and he said, ‘Not as much as I am!’” I was both amazed and jealous of his encounter, but mostly really excited that it was almost time for the show… at CARNEGIE HALL.

Here was the view in front of me:

And the view behind me:

Shortly, the view in front of me improved significantly, and the perfect acoustics of Carnegie Hall were put to great use:

Ryan moved between sitting with his guitar at center stage, sitting at his piano at stage left, and standing with his guitar at stage right. The latter was closest to me, and conveniently where he spent the majority of the show. Now for the part where I tell you everything that he played…

He started with an old/new rotation, playing Oh My Sweet Carolina, followed by Ashes & Fire, then back to If I Am a Stranger, and then Dirty Rain. He played a good amount of the new album throughout the show, but indulged the fans with a wide range of songs from his earlier catalogue, too. He played My Winding Wheel, then sat at the piano for My Blue Manhattan. He returned to his guitar for Invisible Riverside, Everybody Knows, Firecracker, and then a ballad version of Let It Ride. One of my favorite performances during the show came when he did Dear Chicago. He continued through Chains of Love, Please Do Not Let Me Go, Lucky Now, Two, and Crossed Out Name.

Then, he blew my mind when he returned to the piano, and I considered what he might play, but he sat down and played New York, New York of all things, turning a fast-paced rock song into a quiet piano ballad. I love that song anyway, and it was obviously very apropos.

When he stood up to cross back to the other side of the stage, someone high up in the balcony yelled, “THAT WAS BEAUTIFUL!” So, Ryan, probably in part because I don’t think he enjoys being hollered at, pretended to misunderstand her as having said, “Howard is Beautiful.” He said he didn’t know any Howards, but then he started to strum his guitar and made up an entire song – multiple verses, bridge, the whole nine yards – about Howard and his beauty. It was hysterical, and the kind of moment that you can’t just get from any artist.

He got back on point with Do I Wait, and then delighted the audience by digging back in time to the Whiskeytown era, playing Jacksonville Skyline, Round and Round (Ratt cover), and 16 Days.

He did another improv incorporating many of the jokes and happenings from the evening into a song called Thank You for Coming to the Show.

He did the encore bit (a process he had joked about earlier in the show), but could only play one more song due to time constraints and contract issues with the theater. I’d have sat listening to him all night, of course, but he had already played a lengthy and fantastic set, so I had no complaints. Then, he began his last song, which to my sheer delight happened to be Blue Hotel.

I caught a bit of Blue Hotel on video, so you can appreciate the ambience of the moment, and get a vague idea of how beautifully his voice carried inside Carnegie Hall.

Wednesday morning, I hopped a bus to the subway to the AirTrain to the airport for a delayed flight, which left me little leeway time to drive home from Raleigh in a torrential downpour. I got to my apartment at 6:10, ran in, unpacked my suitcase, went to the restroom, and at 6:15 I was back in the car headed to Charlottesville with Jessica and Melissa for The Civil Wars concert. I had debated about going after an illness caused the date change, but I figured that since I was going to be exhausted the next day regardless, that I should not miss the concert.

As I waited for The Civil Wars to take the stage, I flipped through the photos on my camera and figured it was worth noting that The Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville is pretty snazzy, too, after taking pictures of the likes of Carnegie, Lincoln Center, and Radio City.

And, of course, The Civil Wars were great!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope New York helped get you in the spirit!