taking the silver meteor to new york city

Dec. 24, 2017

Savannah Morning News

Talk about feeling like a country bumpkin, a hayseed, a yokel. I was taking Amtrak’s Palmetto (train No. 90) from Savannah to New York City with reservations at Hotel Pennsylvania, a handsome, stately, mysterious building I’d always passed but never entered. It sits directly across Penn Station on 7th Avenue, maybe 100 steps away, and was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad back when trains were all the rage.  When I realized the Palmetto was pulling in an hour later than our expected time of arrival I tried calling and texting not knowing if they closed the desk or would consider giving my room away. At 1 a.m., I didn’t want to be locked out.

I detrained, rode the up escalator (several stories down from Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks, the Rangers and in the next week concerts by Billy Joel and Phish), squeezed between the line of cabs outside the station, looked up at a giant screen advertising “The Crown,” navigated the heavy front doors of the hotel and entered the massive lobby. Under 20-foot ceilings and an open space that could fit six lanes of traffic, I felt dwarfed. I was Eloise at the Plaza without a nanny. I was six years old.

Then I remembered I was an adult. I took my place in line behind 25 other travelers also snaking their way toward the front desk. At that moment, it felt as if there were more people in the lobby and the sidewalk than live in Denmark or Yemassee, two South Carolina towns I passed through hours earlier, speaking more languages than I had names for.

And that was before I asked a sleepy-eyed bellman the number of rooms in this 17-story hotel: 1,770. Toto, we are not in the Lowcountry anymore. Or the Pee Dee either. If riding the train can sometimes feel like living in a dormitory, this was feeling like another country. Later I would learn the hotel, which opened in 1919, still carried the same phone number – the familiar Pennsylvania-six-five-thousand – a phrase most people know as a lyric from the Glenn Miller band – and, some say, the New York phone number in the longest continuous use. Oh, to have been at the old Café Rouge in the back of the lobby where Glenn Miller played – or Count Basie, Duke Ellington and The Andrews Sisters, where Doris Day first sang “Sentimental Journey.”

Part of me wanted to spend my whole three days in New York sitting on the walnut banquette in the humongous lobby, especially after I met Gladys the Gladiator, a terrier type from Boston. She was wrapped from head to toe in a onesie, a ruck sack and a thermal blanket. Her owner had taken the train and was checking out the city craft fairs.

But this was New York City. Even if you arrive with an empty dance card – and mine was empty – it’s not hard to find ways to fill it up and I’m not just talking about Korean spicy udon soup, potato knishes or anything from the Halal trucks.  I agree with the man I sat next to at a Wednesday afternoon matinee (“20th Century Blues”). He’s a venture capitalist, he told me. Whatever that is, I replied. “Every Wednesday I sneak out to a matinee. I just pick one at random. What’s the point of living in New York if you don’t do this? I had a good day today, too.”

My excuse for a visit was to surprise June Millington, a killer guitarist (one of the first women to rock it), songwriter, producer and member of Fanny, a ground-breaking all-women band I helped on an early tour around the country. (It wasn’t my best gig – I’m not mechanical, I have a terrible sense of direction, but I was trustworthy and a fan of the music). Now June and partner Ann Hackler run Institute for the Musical Arts, an all-girls rock and roll camp outside Amherst, Mass. The gig at The Cutting Room on East 32nd Street was a fundraiser for the camp. It was a romp and a half.

The next day, walking south to a film at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, still thinking of June, I saw a large van with a muffled sound system and a giant Menorah on top. What pray tell is this? I said to someone in line. “You’ve never seen that before?” she said. “It’s some kind of Jewish thing. They’re passing out Chanukah candles.” Alas, I was too slow to get any.

After leaving New York on Amtrak’s Carolinian for a stop in Durham before heading back to Savannah, I sat next to a lanky young man who was taking his first long distance train ride.  Under the weak December light, we started talking. His mother is a white supremacist in Arkansas who he hasn’t seen in years, his father an accountant. He has one more semester left of college and just finished applying to five graduate programs. He has a double major – physics and applied mathematics.

“Are you worried about getting a job?” I asked as he brought out his computer and settled in (with headphones) to watch, “The Seventies Show,” something he hasn’t had a lot of time to do.  “I mean, in physics or math? Anything?”

“No,” he said. “I’ll just see where life takes me.”

You could say the same thing about New York City.












A winter garden break

Savannah Morning News

Dec. 17, 2017

When it comes to gardening, things don’t always turn out the way you expect. The tree you planted in the front of the garden, the one you gazed at for five years thinking it was a lime? Sometime around August you caught the scent. You looked up and saw the blossoms. Success.  Then, after Thanksgiving, high up in the tree, you spotted orange/green orbs that grew bigger. And bigger. The fruit you thought were limes turned out to be grapefruit. The last I checked there were no gin-and-tonics with grapefruit.

The tree you watched grow three stories high and made sure to stay clear of because the inch-long spikes could, if they wanted, rip you apart? The one you thought was a grapefruit? Wrong. That tree is birthing oranges, not the sweet, fragrant Sunkist variety but when squeezed and thinned with water – or some more adult beverage – close enough to the real deal.

The kumquat tree, usually so thick with fruit, so happy with so little attention? It’s started to look puny. Nothing lasts forever (without some TLC).

The collard seeds you broadcast in the lane last August? Call the garden police. It turns out there’s an interloper – one large, crunchy and tasty bok choy. No complaints there. Note to self: must plant more bok choy.

As the days turn gray and the sky dulls, there’s always the dark red (maybe even maroon) castor bean tree that returns year and year, each time a marvel. The large star-shaped leaves, the stalk the color of purple (or maybe garnet), the soft spiky seedpods, so beautiful – until you think of its poisonous qualities, so filled with ricin, so ready to do someone in, maybe some miscreant double-crossing Russian hiding in London. I hear there are people who wait for the castor bean seeds to harden before they take clip them off the tree, take them inside and reach for the handy extractor to squeeze out castor oil for some healthy potion. Not me. I’m content to just grow the beauty. It’s a member of the spurge family, like cassava and poinsettia. I like that family. But there’s no growing castor beans. There’s just stepping out of its way. At this point it doesn’t need any help from me to do its thing.

Even the Christmas cactus – carrying the ungainly name schlumbergera – doesn’t need anything from us humanoids. There it sat all summer, in a pot, neglected, covered with beach daisy, surrounded by Mexican sunflowers, smothered between Mexican petunias and alstromeria, blanketed with those noxious spiky sweetgum seedpods, quietly moving forward in its genetic quest for perfection as it prepares those thick blooms. And now it sits, ready to pop. By Christmas, maybe before.

Riding the wave of a few cold days and nights, the trusty, independent camellia – tucked away in the corner long before I moved next to them – have in their quiet way started beautifying the neighborhood. Put those in the category of independent, I’ll-do-it-myself plants.

Would that the deciduous Georgia-native sweetgum tree had that I’ll-do-it-myself attitude. Will you please pick up after yourself and rake your leaves? Didn’t think so.

Except for weeding garlic, cropping collard leaves, looking for signs of broccoli and picking some outside leaves of kale, there’s not that much to do. Unless you count waiting for some cold weather so the Jamaican sorrel seeds can harden. Then I can pick the pods, crack them open and have some seeds ready for next year’s crop. Then I can pull the sprawling red stems of the plant, nourish the soil and get it ready for something else – maybe snow peas in January.

Nope, nothing much to do but sit back, watch the acrobatic squirrels do their stunts and wait for the daily, dramatic round of swirling grackle overhead as they swoop from one treetop to another huddling for conference, breaking up into committees or socializing. They are busy.  We are not. Breaks are good.