October 14, 2008

I should be asleep by now. In fact, I should have been deep in slumber an hour ago, ideally two. Instead, I lie here in bed, my mind spinning, my head full of conversations that may or may not have occurred, in a language I barely understand, but, tonight the cadence of which stresses and unstresses in the recesses of my imagination. I could blame the sugar I consumed earlier for this bout of insomnia, sleeplessness. The cans of cane sugar-sweetened soda, the snack-size candy bars, the still-warm from-a-box-mix brownies served with two scoops of French vanilla ice cream. No. All that glucose, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup has already metabolized.  Instead I just find myself thinking. Thinking too much.

The past couple of weeks have been filled with a string of unknowns. Some of those unknowns have been answered. Others have yet to be settled. Still others have reached a point where due to their intangibility they must just be accepted, reckoned with, made peace with, allowed to remain a question mark.

And so began a blog entry that I did not finish at the time. But I will finish it now. At the very least append it. -And apologize for “stresses and unstresses in the recesses”.

Those opening and closing paragraphs were written during a very dark hour, literally and figuratively. It was around 3:40 in the morning, just hours before my mom was about to go in for heart surgery. I will gloss over the details for the sake of the privacy and out of respect for my family, but I will say that at that moment I was scared.

Dealing with the “concept”(?) of someone dying – even just possibly dying – is daunting enough, but when it comes to the mortality of one’s parents, there really are no words to fully describe that feeling, that fear, that possible, tangible and intangible loneliness. Otherwise flowery language gains weight, credence, even solemnity. I was scared. And I never imagined that I could feel that so deeply.

Fast forward a few weeks later:

November 30, 2008

I’m having lunch across the table from my Mom, deciphering the Vietnamese lunch she just ordered, and talking about her upcoming trip to New York City in a few weeks.

One question answered – along with a litany of prayers. One unknown now resolved.


October 24, 2008

Dona nobis, nobis pacem,
Pacem dona, dona nobis,
Nobis pacem,  pacem dona,
Dona nobis, nobis pacem,
Pacem dona, dona nobis…

Each time the refrain of the “Agnus Dei” would repeat, it would not only increase in volume and texture, but in passion, despair, anger, resignation and retaliation. I just sat there and let the waves of sound and instruments and voices wash over me and surround me. I could feel my pulse quickening along with my breathing, as if I was trying to stifle an eruptive bout of sobbing.

It had been almost 30 years – 27 to be exact – since I first experienced Bernstein’s “Mass”.  I still have the VHS tape that I used to record the PBS broadcast of the 10th Anniversary presentation at the Kennedy Center.  At that time and at that age, I was more intrigued by the scale of the project, the seemingly disparate musical and theatrical elements, and, of course, being a “good, Catholic boy”, the controversy surrounding the treatment of the Eucharist at the climax of the piece.  I remember wondering how the boy soloists got chosen to sing on TV, let alone at the Kennedy Center. I was singing in my church’s Children’s Choir, and had never been approached about possibly singing elsewhere, and I didn’t know anyone else who had either.  Even my knowledge of Bernstein at that time was basically limited to “A Great Musical Figure”, “Someone Important”, the composer of West Side Story.  But something caught my eyes and ears in the promos for that initial PBS broadcast, enough to make me tune in and tape it, and watch it repeatedly until no amount of tracking could ever clear up the picture.  27 years later in Carnegie Hall it would all become clear again.

From the opening tape loops going into “A Simple Song,” to the final “The Mass is ended: go in Peace,” it was a most special evening. There was definitely a Sense of Occasion.  Not only was I there with a good friend, but I also happened to know a couple of the performers, and had cursorily worked with the conductor, Marin Alsop, years before she was chosen to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (which she was conducting that evening). Admittedly, there are moments in Bernstein’s “Mass” that mark it as a product of its time, but, like all great pieces of Music, there is just so much there that transcends musical categories and compositional languages.  There were passages that made me feel like a wide-eyed, open-eared 13-year old again that night, but I was also reminded of the education and experience that my Life has brought me during the intervening 27 years.

We’re fed up with your heavenly silence,
And we only get action with violence,
So if we can’t have the world we desire,
Lord, we’ll have to set this one on fire!
Dona nobis, Dona nobis.


November 2, 2008

Last year, there were 39,265 runners in the ING NYC Marathon, and my youngest brother, Jay, was among them.  He had wanted to don his running shoes again for the course through all five boroughs, but due to his work schedule, he was not able to apply for this year’s race.  However, he was able to head to New York City to cheer on and support his girlfriend, Maria, who was one of the lucky 38,832 runners selected to run in this year’s race.  And just like I did last year with Jay, I was able to track Maria’s progress via SMS alerts and on the marathon’s website – from the comfortable warmth of my apartment – before heading to down to the Finisher’s Area along Central Park West.

I remember being struck by the scope and variety of everyone gathered along Central Park West last year, and this year was no different.  With 38,800+ finishers, that meant that there were at least that many people trying to meet and greet them as they made their way out of Central Park. Family members, friends, co-workers, spectators, fans, fellow running enthusiasts, police, guards, medical technicians, tourists who just happened to be in town the same weekend as the race. My eye was repeatedly drawn to the finishers who were making their way through the Crowd, wrapped in their silver-blue-orange-white mylar blankets.

Some people had obviously had a much tougher race than they had planned, or ever thought they would, but their limp and hunched backs were happily betrayed by the finisher medals around their necks and the smiles on their faces.  A “DNF” was not an option. Then there were all the people who just kept looking and looking for their friends and family.  They would catch my glance, I would catch theirs, smile hopefully for a moment, and then once they realized that I was not whom they were looking for, they would move on to the next cluster of people holding up flowers and homemade signs of “Congratulations” and “You Did It!”.  And then there were those who walked along Central Park West with their heads up, their eyes down.  Not looking for anyone, no one meeting them at the finish line.  Perhaps they had not even told anyone of their plans for that first Sunday afternoon in November.  They had just ran the 26.2 miles for themselves. I Did It!


November 4, 2008

A very different sort of race.  A very different sort of finish line.

Seconds after the race was called that night, I started to hear car horns and people cheering outside, fireworks. I ran to my front door… People were leaning out of their windows continuing to spread the news at the top of their lungs… Waving American flags as they drove by in their cabs… Hugging their neighbors and strangers alike on the sidewalk. I stepped into the street, and let out my own joyful noise…



November 11, 2008

I’m back at Carnegie Hall:

Zankel Hall

Jeremy Denk, Piano

IVES – Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840–60”
BEETHOVEN – Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”

As I said before: “Monster program!”

I’m not even going to attempt to explain the musical importance of these two works, especially since Mr. Denk has already done so quite beautifully and intelligently: Program Notes.

As for my opinion of the evening’s musical proceedings, there’s really not so much more that I could add to my previous “Bravo, Jeremy Denk!  Bravo!” Suffice it say, it was one of those rare times when I was able to sit back in my seat and just Listen.  Insightful, intelligent, thought-provoking, dazzling, coloristic piano playing, music making. A few weeks later, I still want to Listen.

*And for a very interesting and entertaining discourse on the “Hammerklavier” and “Reaganian Counterpoint” – as well as to tie this entry into the previous one –  I highly recommend:  The Interview.


November 16, 2008

I had not really heard much about “Slumdog Millionaire” before I decided to see the movie.  I knew that it was set in India. I knew that Danny Boyle was the director, and I had read the headlines of a couple of reviews, but none of their content. After being very pleasantly surprised by Boyle’s previous “fairy tale”, “Millions”, I decided to take a chance on it. In a way, I guess I followed some sort of self-created “buzz”. I’m so glad I did. It’s been a while since I’ve cheered and cried tears of joy(!) at the end of a movie.


December 6, 2008


I’m back at MoMA, and, yes, I’m making way through the Van Gogh exhibit for the umpteenth time.  I basically race through the rooms, except for a brief stop in front of “The Stevedores in Arles”, a truly fascinating painting, all yellows, ochres and greens. I make my way to the final room of the exhibit, the display of books, Van Gogh’s literary inspirations, and find myself drawn to the excerpt from Victor Hugo’s “L’Année Terrible”.

He does not complain. Proud before the filthy mob,
He laughs, since heaven is given to those who lose the world,
And since he has this hospitality for shelter,
And since –O joy! O infinity! O liberty!
Conquering fate, facing evil, piercing the veils,
Driven out by men — he can lose himself in the stars!


“Milk” at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square (in theatre 25).  I basically start to cry as soon as the Coming Attractions finish, and the movie proper begins.  Two hours and eight minutes later and after crying a few more times, I’m once again reminded of Everyone who has gone before me.  Thank you.


It’s snowing! I’m in Times Square. I’ve stopped crying, and the smile has returned to my face. I can’t stop giggling as I walk up Broadway from 42nd Street to Columbus Circle.

First Snow 2008/9 in Times Square

*And, as an added bonus, an express train pulls into the station as soon as I get down to the platform. Yes!


Do I want to blog about my Mom’s health, surgery?   12:48 AM Oct 10th

Can’t sleep tonight. Too many things.  Mind is racing.   3:40 AM Oct 14th

Doctor just gave us the good news! First time I’ve seen my Dad cry in years.   12:28 PM Oct 14th

Just saw Mom in CICU    1:21 PM Oct 14th

Had lunch with Kirsten. So good seeing her again.  Asks if I Twitter?   2:19 PM Oct 16th

Mom finally moved to her recovery room.  Time for me to breathe again.   12:34 PM Oct 17th

Heading back to NYC, but will be back in another week.  12:28 AM Oct 20th

Auditions, auditions, auditions.  If I have to play “Part Of Your World” one more time…   1:20 PM Oct 21st

Has it really been a month since my last blog entry?   2:43 PM Oct 22nd

Just “re-lived” the Bernstein “Mass” at Carnegie Hall. So proud of my friends. So moved by the music. 10:22 PM Oct 24th

Well, I guess DST is next weekend after all.   11:52 AM Oct 26th

Carnegie Hall: Pollini playing Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin. How classic(al).   2:34 PM Oct 26th

Hint #2: Last row of CH = leg room and behind-the-seat storage.   3:01 PM Oct 26th

Four encores! Including the G-minor Ballade! Grazie!   5:39 PM Oct 26th

Walking through Central Park.. Guess it has been a few weeks, there’s color on the trees and on the ground.   6:06 PM Oct 26th

Little girl, age 9 – “It smells like popcorn and horses.”   6:34 PM Oct 26th

Thank You, Matthew Weiner! -Can’t wait for Season 3!   10:55 PM Oct 26th

Pack-a-little, Post-a-little… Getting to head back down to Richmond for the week.   11:24 AM Oct 27th

The wheels on the bus keep going round and round. 100 miles to go.   8:37 PM Oct 27th

Being a ‘rent to the ‘rents today.   1:36 PM Oct 28th

Over at Steve’s right now taking a break from the parents. Soup’s On!   6:28 PM Oct 29th

Heard about this ( http://tinyurl.com/68y572 ) on NPR yesterday, downloaded the free(?) album today ( http://tinyurl.com/6hgqpz ) Mash-Up!   1:17 PM Oct 30th

Pumpkin & Coconut Brownie Ice Cream from Bev’s Ice Cream http://snipurl.com/4uzsi 8:07 PM Oct 30th

Happiness is a non-sold-out Bolt Bus. Two seats for the price of one.   7:31 PM Oct 31st

Off to MoMA for the last Member Preview Day of the new Miró exhibit.   2:06 PM Nov 1st

This exhibit keeps going and going and going… “Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement”   4:50 PM Nov 1st

Tracking a couple of friends in today’s marathon, and wondering how delayed the online results are.   11:58 AM Nov 2nd

Standing amid a sea of Silver, Blue, White and splashes of Orange! Inspiring!!   4:05 PM Nov 2nd

About to head out for some post-Marathon sushi with my brother and Maria.   5:58 PM Nov 2nd

Off to meet some friends for a morning-after-the-marathon breakfast. Could be interesting.   10:01 AM Nov 3rd

Times Square at 2:28pm EST – CNN Central http://snipurl.com/53wod 2:29 PM Nov 4th

Overwhelmed, but in a good way. The sense of Purpose and Hope was palpable in the midtown air (regardless of who you voted for).   6:14 PM Nov 4th

Just listening to the Cheering and Car Horns outside my apartment in Harlem!!!!!!!!!!   11:11 PM Nov 4th

OOPS! HA!!! ABC (in NYC at least) just interrupted their coverage for a Flomax commercial?!?!?!?!?   12:26 AM Nov 5th

Magnolia, Levain and Shake Shack all within seven blocks of each other… Is that a good or bad thing to know?   1:56 PM Nov 5th

At Lincoln Center about to experience Doctor Atomic.. And watching a lot of people trying to sell their tickets on the plaza…   7:30 PM Nov 5th

Intermission at The Met: People eating,drinking, chatting… leaving…   9:43 PM Nov 5th

Back at MoMA to catch the Kirchner once again before it closes… And the Van Gogh and Miró, of course   3:33 PM Nov 6th

Back at The Met tonight for the Berlioz. Technology and Art striving for their potential. I hope.   7:15 PM Nov 7th

Ah… The (Bittersweet) Hot Chocolate – with Marshmallow – from ‘wichcraft in Bryant Park http://snipurl.com/59hf1 3:52 PM Nov 9th

At Zankel Hall tonight for Jeremy Denk playing Ives Concord & Beethoven Hammerklavier. Monster program!   7:13 PM Nov 11th

Bravo, Jeremy Denk! Bravo!   9:52 PM Nov 11th

I was looking for an excuse to be lazy today: Thank You, Rain.   1:26 PM Nov 13th

Coolness in progress at MoMA http://twitpic.com/lrk1 3:43 PM Nov 14th

I wonder if they’ll have the Basil Hot Chocolate in Bryant Park today…   1:34 PM Nov 16th

More cupcakes coming to midtown Bway & 53rd… (Magnolia recently opened in Rock Center) http://snipurl.com/5n42q 2:45 PM Nov 16th

Thank you, Mr. Carfizzi and Mr. & Mrs. (Grant) Murphy for a wonderful recital. http://snipurl.com/5nlok 6:27 PM Nov 16th

Well, I thought I got here early enough to get in line for the movie. Probably #100ish, and still 30 minutes till they open   7:54 PM Nov 16th

“Slumdog Millionaire” – SEE THIS MOVIE! Thank You, Danny Boyle   10:35 PM Nov 16th

Everyone seems to be seeing snow this morning except for me – and I like snow!?!?   9:31 AM Nov 18th

ReTweet: @BravoTopChef Get ready! Spike is back and so are his shenanigans. Make sure to follow our boy tomorrow during the show   2:12 AM Nov 19th

Best lunch deal in Chinatown – 5 dumplings for $1 http://twitpic.com/mqr2 4:39 PM Nov 19th

Warming up with a Café Mocha at Abraço http://twitpic.com/mr4z 5:35 PM Nov 19th

Hmmm… No line… very tempting… http://twitpic.com/mra7 5:55 PM Nov 19th

What I’m playing this afternoon.. http://twitpic.com/mxqr 5:14 PM Nov 20th

Dinner at El Toro Partido – Torta! http://twitpic.com/ne8e 4:54 PM Nov 22nd

O Christmas Tree Stand, O Christmas Tree Stand… (145th & Broadway) http://twitpic.com/nvns 9:15 PM Nov 24th

On the Acela down to DC for the holiday weekend http://twitpic.com/o4xg 7:13 AM Nov 26th

@BravoTopChef Thanks, Andrew!   11:02 PM Nov 26th

Eat Well. Stay Safe. Happy Thanksgiving!   11:31 AM Nov 27th

Horse-Drawn Carriage rides in Carytown this weekend http://twitpic.com/osvq 5:21 PM Nov 28th

Then down to Cafe Gutenberg for dessert http://twitpic.com/ouyl    9:05 PM Nov 28th

My dessert: Oatmeal Stout Chocolate Float http://twitpic.com/ouz6 Yes! Beer (stout) and Ice Cream (chocolate gelato)   9:08 PM Nov 28th

Back at Bev’s Ice Cream – http://twitpic.com/p3kx Chocolate Chai with…   7:30 PM Nov 29th

With a Cranberry chaser – http://twitpic.com/p3lk 7:31 PM Nov 29th

My parents’ church actually has TWO late seating breaks during the mass.   12:22 PM Nov 30th

Who knew that my parents liked Vietnamese food? http://twitpic.com/p928 12:49 PM Nov 30th

Anderson Cooper swimming against Michael Phelps on “60 Minutes” tonight.   7:44 PM Nov 30th

Back on the bus back to NYC. Thankfully no one got trampled once the driver opened the doors, but there was definitely a throng.   7:29 AM Dec 1st

Take a Moment to Remember – World AIDS Day 2008.   9:44 AM Dec 1st

Happiness is a D (or A) Train across the platform.   3:49 PM Dec 1st

Anyone else going to the World AIDS Day “Bacharach to the Future” Benefit at New World Stages tonight? http://tinyurl.com/5jrv2j 3:54 PM Dec 1st

Condee Rice playing Brahms? I knew she was a good pianist, but… The Quintet is a LOT of notes! http://tinyurl.com/5q96px about 16 hours ago

Just saw a cop tie an elderly man’s shoes – I love New York City!   about 11 hours ago

It’s beginning to look a lot… http://twitpic.com/ps3q about 8 hours ago

I really should be asleep by now, but just came up with an idea for a new – and long overdue – blog entry.   about two hours ago

Well, I guess I am going to finish this blog entry tonight, well, this morning. -Who needs sleep?  27 minutes ago

Done! Publish. less than 5 seconds ago


At the end of last week, I managed to view the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art three times: Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon. In other words, I decided to put my membership to MoMA to good use and take advantage of the Member Preview Days in order to avoid the inevitable crowds that will descend upon the museum once the exhibition opens to non-MoMA-Members. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I started drafting this entry that I realized there was a certain poetic coincidence in having the exhibit open on the First Day of Fall, or at least Fall Eve. Van Gogh’s brush strokes in various shades of yellow, brown and red, reflecting and complementing Mother Nature’s own autumnal palette change starting to take place a few blocks north in Central Park.

The exhibit, itself, is quite small in comparison to the usual retrospectives and blockbuster shows. However, it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish with a relative handful of canvases (just under 30 paintings), and a couple of drawings and lithographs. Although there were many masterpieces hanging on the walls of the galleries, I found myself drawn to the contents of some of the vitrines, the display cases in each room of the exhibition. And, so, on this First Day of Autumn, I would like to present the following “excerpts” from the current exhibit.

The first is an actual excerpt from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, which is on display in the first room of the exhibit. Like the early works that surround it, the contents of this letter already begin to hint at Van Gogh’s later, trademark style.

The second excerpt is from the last room of the exhibit. Nothing hangs on the walls in this room, instead, contained in two vitrines (I just really like that word right now) are various books, both poetry and prose (in French, German and English), that were a source of inspiration for Van Gogh. While some of the books on display are “merely” original editions from various libraries and collections, some of them are the actual copies that belonged to Theo — which, more than likely, were given to him by his brother. When Van Gogh would come across a passage or a poem that piqued his interest, he would copy them into his journals, as well as in letters to his family, friends and colleagues. This particular poem happened to pique my interest too.


November 2, 1883
. . .
When dusk fell — imagine the silence, the peace of that moment! Imagine, right then, an avenue of tall poplars with the autumn leaves, imagine a broad muddy road, all black mud with the endless heath on the right, the endless heath on the left, a few black, triangular silhouettes of sod huts, with the red glow of the fire shining through the tiny windows, with a few pools of dirty, yellowish water that reflect the sky, where bogwood trunks lie rotting… The day was over, and from dawn to dusk, or rather from one night to the other night, I had forgotten myself in that symphony.
. . .


Pensée d’Automne (Reflections on Autumn)
Jardin du Luxembourg, November

. . .
Before the end of the day there is a time
When the sun, a weary pilgrim nearing home,
Turns around and looks back
And despite the toils of the day, is sorry it is evening.
Under its long gaze, mixed with a tear,
Muddled nature takes on a new charm
And pauses a moment, as in a goodbye.
The surrounding horizon turns fire red;
The quivering flower receives the dew;
The butterfly flies back to the rose it kissed,
And the bird in the wood sings in bright birdsong,
“Isn’t it morning? Isn’t that the East?”

Oh! If for us too, in this human life,
There were an evening hour, one moment that reignites
The loves of morning and their fickle flight,
And the fresh dew, the golden clouds;
Oh! if the heart, returned to thoughts of youth
(as if hoping — alas! — that it could be reborn),
Could stop, rise up, before faltering,
And give itself over, for a single day, to dreaming without growing old.
Let us take pleasure in the sweet day;
And let us not disturb this fortunate hour.
For the fields, winter is but a good short sleep;
Each morning the sky brings sun.
But who knows if the grave will have its spring,
And if the night will be relit for us by the dawn?

-Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)
Translation by Jeanine Hermann and TransPerfect Translations


I still remember that morning. I think we all do.

Even though I had just returned from an out of town trip the night before, I was actually up and out of bed before 9:00am. I headed to the living room, watching “The Today Show” while eating my breakfast. They were about to end their broadcast for that morning – and I was about to head back to bed for a few more hours of sleep – when the first plane flew into the Tower…

The rest of that day was filled with panic, tears and confusion. I tried calling my parents, but the phone lines were jammed; however, I did eventually get through to one of my aunts and my mother. My father was still in his office in DC, but he was out of harm’s way. I called my brothers. Don had just left his daughter with the baby-sitter, and was getting ready to head back to pick her up. Mike had not heard of that morning’s news until I had called him. Jay had already been told to stay home since his office building in L.A. was a “possible target”. Thankfully, most of my friends in New York City had already contacted me via e-mail, or were chatting with me online. Don’t you think you should get off your computer to free up the phone lines up there?

Eventually, I made my way out of the apartment – away from the TV – and headed over to the hospital to meet Steve for lunch, and some hugs.

I had expected a bit more angst at the hospital regarding what had happened that morning in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, but things were strangely calm. In fact, it almost seemed like some people there – patients and staff – had not heard of that morning’s events yet. It was both calming and confusing at the same time.


A few months later, Steve and I drove up to New York City with some friends for a weekend of fun in the Big Apple. It was their first trip to New York City. As we neared the end of the New Jersey Turnpike, I turned to my right, and noticed What Was No Longer There. If I hadn’t been the one driving the car, I probably would have broken down in tears right then and there.

-Did you guys ever go to the top of the World Trade Center?
-Actually, we did go into the Towers, but since it was cloudy that day, we didn’t go up to the Observation Deck. I guess we should have.
-Well, at least you got to see them.


In the spring of 2006, my friend, Andy, came up to New York City for a visit. Somehow, during the course of our wandering around the city, we ended up around the World Trade Center site. We decided to walk over. I think that was only my second or third time down there.

I could already sense the anxiety building up inside of me when I was just a few blocks away, and as I approached the sidewalk… The tourists having their pictures taken in front of What Used To Be There, smiling and waving and laughing… The streets vendors selling framed pictures of the Twin Towers before, during and after the Event… I walked over to Engine Co. 10… I started to read the Names…

I grabbed Andy’s hand, “I need to get out of here.”



I did sleep in this morning, and when I turned on the TV and saw and heard the reading of the Names… Yes, I cried again.


A few months ago, I found myself heading back from a friend’s place during the early morning hours. He happens to live just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. I guess I decided to test myself, so I walked over the fencing and barricades. I started looking around. I even read the Names. No tears this time, just Acceptance. There were no vendors, no tourists – although, I guess I was a tourist at the overnight hour. There were a few security guards, construction workers and policemen walking around, but, for the most part, it was just me and What Used To Be There. And my camera.

It was comforting and encouraging to know that there could still be moments of Calm and Peace and Respect amongst all that steel, concrete, machinery and scaffolding. Nothing will ever be able to replace what We lost seven years ago, but it’s good to know that Life has gone on since then. And still does.

Always Remember, Never Forget.

This post is, more or less, a follow-up to my previous post. More or less.

First of all, I am 40! So far, so good. Very good. It seems like I’ve been celebrating almost every day for the past two weeks. My Birthday proper was filled with friends, food and ice cream, of course. More precisely, the Blueberry Crumble Frozen Custard from Shake Shack.

Shake Shack's Blueberry Crumble Frozen Custard

Shake Shack's Blueberry Crumble Frozen Custard

However, during the rest of my Birthday Week – Hey! I turned 40, I deserved a Full Week! – I also happened to make a couple of return visits to that yellow truck parked on Broadway between 74th and 76th Streets. So, without further ado… And in order of appearance, consumption and enjoyment… (all flavors listed from the cup/cone on up)

Pistachio, Strawberry

Pistachio, Strawberry

Ginger, Vanilla

Ginger, Vanilla

Mint Chip, Espresso

Mint Chip, Espresso

Giandujia, Hazelnut

Giandujia, Hazelnut

And just to bring some “humanity” to these proceedings…

To be continued next Summer. More or less.

I had spotted the truck a few weeks ago.  There it was parked quietly and unassumingly on Broadway in the middle of the Upper West Side.  I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but as I got closer and could start to make out the white script lettering against the antique yellow paint job: Van Leeuwen, Artisan Ice Cream.  I would have sampled a bit of their Ginger or Giandujia ice cream right then and there, but since I was approaching the truck with a small cup of Grom’s Caramel gelato already in hand, I would have to postpone my maiden tasting until a later date.

This whole summer seems to have been filled with some very happy, happenstance discoveries – and not all of them culinary (believe it or not).  While paying a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, I not only gained a further appreciation of architecture through "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling," and continued to be wondered by "Dali: Painting and Film," but I happened to stumble upon "Kirchner and the Berlin Street."

I don’t think I had ever noticed any of Leon Kirchner’s work before at MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, or any other museum; and if I had, they had never caught my eye and brain in the way they do know.  The main focus of the exhibition is Kirchner’s representation of some of the seedier elements of street life of Berlin right before World War I. Cocottes. Prostitutes. The paintings and subject matter are both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Vibrant and veiled.  Exciting and dangerous.  There is one pastel – "The Red Cocotte" – where the artist’s hand, his strokes are so deliberate, almost violent, yet they do nothing but bring life to a patch of pavement on which his figures stand.

It surprised me just how intrigued I was by the exhibit as a whole, but in particular the larger canvases.  The colors, the sense of motion, even a palpable sense of desperation coupled with cautionary discretion. It was all new to me.  New to my eyes.  New to my mind.

So, as I left MoMA earlier today after paying another visit to the Kirchner exhibit, I began to walk back towards Columbus Circle in order to hop on the A or D Train back uptown.  I stopped into Petrossian, but once inside, I decided that a pain au chocolat was not what I was really in the mood for. Once I was at Columbus Circle, I then stopped into The Shops, and checked to see what Bouchon was offering today.  Again, I passed on selecting anything from their assortment of cookies, tarts and pastries.  As I left the glass-enclosed air conditioning and stepped back onto the late-August, summer sidewalk… Ice cream! Where was that yellow truck again?

What followed was a personal, technologically-hindered comedy of errors. I tried to search for "van leeuwen ice cream truck" via Google on my iPhone, but the connection kept timing out.  I called directory assistance, carefully spelling out the name of the company, and was automatically connected to a company that sells "natural casings" for sausages.  -Didn’t I say "ice cream company"?  I tried Google again: "van leeuwen ice cream phone number".  The connection timed out again. And again. Well, if I’m going to treat myself to ice cream, I might as well keep walking up Broadway.  And if the truck is not there, then I can just go to Grom again.

61st… 62nd… 63rd… As I reach each intersection, I try my best to peer ahead to the next one and beyond, looking – hoping – for a glimpse of that yellow truck.  I walk past Lincoln Center… 67th… 68th… 69th… The only ice cream trucks I spy are Mister Softee and his imposters.  72nd… 73rd… My heart begins to sink…  Grom it is.

But as I finish crossing 73rd Street, I catch a glimpse of yellow just beyond the next corner, partially obscured by some pay phones and a news stand.  Even though a smile had crept back on my face, I had not yet breathed a sigh of relief.  There’s no line.  Is it closed?  I exhaled as I saw a vanilla cone being handed over to a mother, who then passed it down to her stroller-bound daughter.  I quickened my pace.

As the gentleman in front of me ordered a scoop of "John-duh-doo-gee-ya", I finalized my order.  A medium – two scoops: one of Red Currant and Cream, one of Chocolate.  -Although, the "John-duh-doo-gee-ya" was also still a possibility.  However, I would opt for a sugar cone instead my usual cup.  I did stick to my original order – and the cone – but I also asked for a sample of the Ginger too (for future reference).

Before finally sampling my first – and formerly postponed – taste of this "artisan ice cream", I had to document the occasion with my camera.  -Another new development cum requisite whenever I come across a new food, treat, indulgence.  Since I had a slowly melting ice cream cone in one hand, and a camera with room for only three more pictures, I had to work fast and efficiently.  Click. Click. I was not happy with the first two pictures.  I thought the truck would "read" in the background, but it didn’t seem to frame the two scoops properly.  Then I took a few steps to the right, and realized that the front part of the truck would provide the perfect backdrop – the yellow of the truck, the windshield, the headlights, even the white script lettering. And if I turned the ice cream cone just a quarter to the left… Click. Perfect!

After that final delay, I took my first taste.  The Chocolate was indeed chocolate-y: cold, creamy, sweet, smooth.  Then came the Red Currant and Cream.  At first, I thought I was tasting ice, like the bits of water from the ice cream scoop that refreeze after scooping, but then I realized that I was tasting the red currants.  Fresh red currants.  Each now-frozen, little red berry providing a cold crunch, a brief hint of acid, sour, and a bit of texture in direct – but complementary – contrast to the not-at-all vanilla vanilla ice cream.  Ruby red polka dots in a field of white.  -Well, off-white.

The ice cream consumed – enjoyed, savored – the napkin crumpled and thrown into a trash can, my thoughts turned to tomorrow.  My birthday.  My 40th Birthday.  What everyone else seems to be calling, "The Big 4-0!"  "You should plan a big party."  -No, I’ve never been one for big parties.  "You should do something really special for yourself".  -Possibly.

So there I was on the corner of 82nd and Broadway.  My thirties coming to a close in a matter of hours.  No party planned.  Something special still just a possibility.  Then as I noticed the small dribble of vanilla ice cream on my t-shirt, I took stock of what had happened so far today.  Not only had I just revisited a few pieces of Art, but I had also discovered, tasted and experienced something new.  But couldn’t that new discovery have taken place a few weeks ago when I had first caught sight of that yellow truck?  Could I have not wandered almost accidentally into the Kirchner exhibit earlier this afternoon instead of during the Member Preview Days?

Today, I am 39.  Tomorrow, I was 39. Today is and was a day just like any other day. Tomorrow will be too.   It just happens to be My Birthday.  However, I will not only be turning 40, but I will also have another chance to try the Ginger.  Or the "John-duh-doo-gee-ya".

The mezzo-soprano was in the middle of spinning the second phrase of "La flûte de Pan"…

Pour le jour de Hyacinthies,
Il m’a donné une…

…when the gentleman turned to his female companion and whispered something along the lines of "Oh, she sings well, no?  And in French too!"  The requisite head nods of agreement and self-confirmation soon followed.  I was seated in the second row of the small hall, and this couple was seated in front of me… In the front row.  During the pause before "La chevelure", the woman picked up her program, then pointed out where the next sets of texts and translations started…

Il m’a dit: "Cette nui, j’ai rêve."

Another set of head nods accompanied by some still-audible murmurings of the English translations, which I then realize were colored with a Germanic accent.

The whispering, the head nodding and program shuffling continued throughout Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, and I eventually realized that I was not alone in my irritation at the apparent lack of manners on display.  Other audience members in the immediate vicinity started to look over at them too.  At one point, I was about to put my hand on the shoulder of the gentleman as a way of silently saying, "Please, could you be more respectful of the Artists… Who just happen to be performing just six feet away from you!?"  However, I was afraid any sort of gentle physical contact would have prompted an ever more audible and demonstrative response, so I refrained.

After "Le tombeau des naïades" came to a close, there were a few moments of silence followed by a well-deserved and freely offered round of applause. As the applause died down, I was able to confirm that the couple sitting in front of me were indeed German – well, perhaps even Austrian.  The woman then turned around looking for some friends who were seated a couple of rows back, motioning them to come join her in the front row since the seats next to her remained unoccupied.  Apparently, her friends wished to stay put for the time being which resulted in the woman making even larger gestures in exasperation.  All I could think to myself was, "Good. They’re not to join her. That would just give her more people to talk to during the recital."

The house lights dimmed once again, the door stage left opened, and the Artists walked back onto the stage.  Of course, this only prompted the couple in front of me to re-shuffle and re-open their programs to the texts of the Schumann, followed by more audible whispering and head-nodding.  As the pianist played those first two pensive quarter notes chords, they were still whispering, talking to each other.  I just had to take action.  While gently placing my hand on the man’s right shoulder, I whispered….

"Silence, s’il vous plait."

Why I suddenly started uttering in French is beyond me, and I even ended up laughing at myself, to myself – inaudibly! – for a split second.  However, my very gentle protestation seemed to do the trick. Silence.

Seit ich ihn gesehen, glaub’ ich blind zu sein;
Wo ich hin nur blicke, seh’ ich ihn allein;
Wie im wachen Traume schwebt sein Bild mir vor,
Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel heller, heller nur empor.

Sadly, halfway through "Du Ring am meinem Finger", the women raised her program up to eye level, pointed to something, and then nudged her companion to look at what she was looking at: the pianist’s program biography.  And, yes, during the brief piano postlude that completes Frauenliebe und -Leben, they started conferring with each other again, long before the pianist extinguished the ringing of the final notes by releasing the damper pedal.  Intermission.

As I re-setttled myself in my seat, I noticed that the woman’s friends had gone ahead and joined her in the front row for the second half of the program.  What is the German for "Please, be quiet"? Fortunately, the other couple seemed to be on their better behavior. Truth be told, it seemed that the husband did not really want to be there, and he remained slouched – and silent! – in his seat throughout the Harbison and de Falla song cycles.  The woman and her companion also seemed to be a bit more settled during the second half, although, I could tell they were questioning exactly what an "aerial" was during "Ballad for Billie I" – more finger-pointing and whispering.  Then there was the rhythmic head-nodding and hair-bouncing during the more dance-inspired selections of the Siete canciones populares Españolas, "Jota" seemed particularly motion-inducing.  Even I will admit to air-playing along with the right and left hand patterns of the guitar-invoking accompaniments from time to time, but at least the pressing of my fingers against my jeans produced no sound unlike the slight jangle of the woman’s earrings or the scuffing of her blond curls against her companion’s nylon jacket…

Dicen que no nos queremos
Porque no nos ven hablar;
A tu corazón y al mio
Se lo pueden preguntar.

This was my second vocal recital in as many days.  The night before, I had attended Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital in the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall.  This night’s recital was being held in the more intimate(!) Weill Recital Hall, and featured the mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, filling in for an indisposed Joseph Kaiser.  Song recitals hold a special place in my heart.  While I was in college, I discovered the true Joy and Beauty of the Human Voice, and I subsequently devoted a good chunk of my studies to Classical Art Song Literature as both an Accompanist and a Singer.  I accompanied voraciously.  There were a few times when I had up to 15 voice majors to play for during the end of semester juries.  -I still have the three-ring binders filled with all the Xerox copies of all of that repertoire! I even sang a few juries myself.  I was also blessed with a wonderful Song Literature teacher and departmental Vocal Coach who was more than happy to let me sit in on other singer’s coachings from time to time.

When I saw the program for Sasha Cooke’s recital, it was like seeing a couple of old friends.  I had studied the Debussy, Schumann and de Falla songs while I was in college.  (The Harbison cycle, "North and South" was written a couple of years after I had graduated.)  Although I was looking forward to hearing Liszt’s "Petrarcan Sonnets", and the selection of Rachmaninov songs on Joseph Kaiser’s originally scheduled program, I had heard the Liszt earlier this season, and the Siberian baritone had more than satisfied my Russian romance requirements for the time being. Being familiar with Ms. Cooke’s program allowed me to put my program and translations in my bag, and just sit back and enjoy the recital.  Just Watch and Listen. Alas, I found myself watching and listening to other things during the course of the recital.  -Thankfully, there were no errant cell-phone rings during Ms. Cooke’s recital, unlike the night before during Mr. Hvorostovsky’s concert – at least four times! – and always during the quieter sections!!!

Being a somewhat-former somewhat-performer myself, I really do try my best to be the Perfect Audience Member (PAM, for short).  I arrive at the hall early enough to get seated, and if I know I am sitting in the middle of the row, I will make sure to take my place early enough in order not to inconvenience the others in my row sitting to the side of me.  I dress appropriately.  -Although due to an oversight on my part – "Oh, the recital starts at 7:30, not 8:00!" – I was not able to run home in time to put on more presentable clothing, and I ended up feeling a bit self-conscious as I sat there in the second row in my half-zip fleece pullover.  I turn my cell-phone off – even "vibrations" can be heard. If needed, I keep my paper-wrapped Ricola’s in my hand ready to go at a moment’s notice. And if I’m not that familiar with the repertoire, I read the program notes and translations beforehand so that I can devote my full attention to the stage, and not have my head buried in the program reading along and cross-referencing the song text with the translations.

As I sat there listening to and watching the Artists and my fellow Audience members, I began to wonder just why I was being distracted by the low murmurs and the shuffling of the programs? If I really was paying full attention to what was going on on stage, then I would not and should not have been distracted by anything else going on around me.  Right? Was I no longer the PAM I prided myself on being?  Had I suddenly become one of Them?

With vocal recitals, in particular, I find myself from time to time wanting to advise some of my fellow audience members to Look Up and Listen.  Stop reading along.  Stop trying to match up each German word with the corresponding English word.  The Singer is Singing.  Communicating.  Just let the Singer Communicate with You, to You.  A related annoyance occurs whenever I attend a piano recital where Ravel’s "Gaspard de la Nuit" is being played.  Inevitably, there will be people reading the texts and translations of the poems (if provided) that inspired the triptych, seemingly trying to match up the French and English(!) syllables with the piano figurations.  But again: Why do I notice such things?

After a bit of theorizing – and, boy, did I come up with some far-flung theories – the answer to that question suddenly became quite obvious.  If I was on that stage, I would want an audience filled with PAMs.  A bit narcissistic, yes, but not an unreasonable request.  Whether I was playing a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin ballade, or accompanying a singer or instrumentalist, I would want – and hope – the audience to Listen.  A Musician’s life has good a deal of isolation built into it.  A practice room can truly be the most "separate" place anyone can know, an inherent loneliness.  Before a piece of music – or even just a brief phrase of it – can be shared with others or just your teacher, it must be pored over, dissected and repeated many times over, and the only ears that ever hear it during that process are your own.  At times, it can seem like you are forcing yourself to listen to the music.  Or vice versa.  But then you reach that point where you want another set of ears to take in what you have been creating and re-creating.  Music is Sound, and Sound is meant to go through the air.  To borrow another analogy: If a pianist plays Chopin’s "Revolutionary" Etude, and there is no one in the audience to hear it…

I guess I should give my fellow audience members a break, or at least not allow myself to get so upset when such distractions occur.  I was already feeling slightly uncomfortable sitting in Weill Hall dressed in a more casual manner than I would have liked, but then to have them right in front of me – and right in front of the Artists – well…

As the encores started, something almost miraculous happened.   -I noticed this night before during Hvorostovsky’s recital too.  Yes, there were a few mutterings throughout the audience as the pianist began playing the introduction – "What piece is this?", "Ah, very nice!" – but once Ms. Cooke started singing…

Yeshjo f paljah beleyet snek,
A vody ush vesnoi shumjat,
Begut i budjat sonnyi brek,
Begut i bleshjut, i glasjat…

There was no translation to consult. There was no program to rustle. There were just two Artists on stage. Playing and Singing.  Sharing and Communicating. And for a few minutes – during Rachmaninov’s "Spring Waters" and the haunting aria from John Adams’ "Doctor Atomic" – the hall was filled with PAMs.  Listening. Receiving. Remembering. Smiling.

And, yes, she sang very well. And in Russian too!

*I would be sorely remiss if I did not mention the fine pianists who performed along side these fine singers:  Ivari Ilja did the honors for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Pei-Yao Wang was Sasha Cooke’s musical partner.

As I looked into the display case and noticed that the top shelf was quite noticeably empty, my heart sank.  And then I started to laugh at myself.  I had stopped into the newly re-located Madeleine Patisserie on 23rd Street; it had just moved two doors down from it’s original address.  I discovered Madeleine Patisserie for myself about a year ago after reading a blurb about the then newly opened shop a few weeks earlier in The New York Times.  I was just walking around during a lunch break… Oh, a bakery!  Needless to say, I just had to check it out as soon as I noticed it’s blue awning and semi-subterranean storefront.  Once I descended the small set of stars and entered the shop, my eyes were immediately drawn to the big display case.  On the bottom shelves was a colorful and enticing selection of fruit tarts, but what my eyes and taste buds were focusing on were the trays of French macaroons on the top shelf.  It was a veritable rainbow of colors and flavors – at least twenty different varieties.  Although macarons seemed to be the specialty of the house, this bakery/cafe does sell some fine examples of their namesake madeleines.  They also come in a variety of flavors, all of which seem to be perfectly concocted so that the natural muting qualities of butter don’t overwhelm the essences and flavorings that infuse those two- or three- (or one-) bite "little French cakes".  The espresso-walnut one I sampled today was… Oh, where was I?  Oh, yes – I was laughing at myself.

While I walking around Chelsea a few weeks ago, I had noticed that the original location of Madeleine Patisserie had shuttered.  As I looked into the windows, I took in the the absence of the comfy chairs, the tables, the shelving and that display case.  Thankfully, there was a sign taped to the door indicating that they were moving two doors down.  Well, I walked two doors down and found no sign of a nouvelle Madeleine Patisserie.  I walked two doors down the other way, no pastries there either.  I guessed that they were still in the process of moving.  Actually, I hoped that they were still in the process of moving.  With the ever volatile real estate market in New York City, Chelsea could very well have been deprived of yet another source of baked indulgences.

Since I ended up with a longer than usual lunch break today, I decided to go on a follow-up stroll.  I first came across the new occupants of 128 W. 23rd, an African Art Gallery from what I could tell.  Then I shifted my gaze east, two doors down, and, happily, my hopes were not dashed.  I noticed the familiar blue awning with it’s familiar lettering. I quickened my pace and found myself standing in front of their new storefront a few steps later. The new digs were a bit smaller, narrower than their previous location, and it appeared that the seating was reduced to a few perfunctory tables and chairs. I opened the door and entered with a bit of hesitancy.  Would their offerings be reduced too?

I first encountered the baskets and trivets filled with baguettes, batards, croissants, pains au chocolat, financiers, and various other puff pastry creations; the small, individual jars of jams and jellies, and the white, pink, yellow and blue packets of sweeteners for your coffee and tea.  A few feet away was the display case.  My eyes quickly scanned the shelves.  The familiar selection of impeccably assembled fruit tarts were on the bottom two shelves.  On top of the case was a row of jars filled with today’s selection of madeleines (six flavors), meringues (plain and coconut), and generous rounds of gallette bretonne (French shortbread). When I started concentrating on the top shelf, at first I thought my eyes were deceiving me.  All I saw was a span of mirrored steel.  It was empty.  Nothing.  That’s when my heart sank.  And that’s when I laughed at myself.

My heart sank because of a macaron!  Rather the lack of a macaron.  How foolish is that?  How stupid?  How third grade!  How wonderful!  But wait!  It gets better!

With a hopeful suspicion that the macarons were being kept in the back somewhere, I asked Maria if they had any today. She informed me that they did not have any today, but would, hopefully, have some by next week.  It turned out that they had just completed the move this past Sunday, and today (Tuesday) was only the second day they were re-opened for business. Of course, hearing "Yes, we have no macarons today," and that it would be at least another week before the top shelf of that display case would be filled again did nothing to raise my spirits.  I believe I even frowned.  And then I giggled.

Yes, there are more serious, more adult sources of disappointment – and joy! – but as I immediately assessed my reaction, I could not help but laugh at my own folly.  I’ve always known that I love food, but was it really possible for me to miss food?  I guess so. And at what point in my life had a craving become an object of my affection?

Since I was not able to enjoy a cassis or lemon-chocolate or lilac macaron today – and since I was not going to walk out of there empty-handed – I decided to sample a trio of today’s selection of madeleines: Chocolate, Espresso-Walnut and Rose.  Maria placed them in a small white paper bag, rang up my order at the register, and I headed back out on to 23rd Street.  It wasn’t too long before I opened the bag, stuck my hand in and selected the Espresso-Walnut one. As I took that first bite, in my mind’s eye I could see that simply satisfied smile coming over my face; and I knew that if a camera was on me, it would capture the glint in my eye, the slight filling out of my cheeks, and my buttery-crumb-coated goofy grin. If I had happened to be walking with a friend, I would have immediately broken off a small bit for him to sample, or least have exclaimed, "This is really good!  You should definitely try one the next time you go there!" But since I was walking by myself, I did not have to make that decision.

Next up was the Chocolate one which gently and sufficiently satisfied my daily chocolate quotient.  Finally, the Rose.  Many times, floral flavored and scented sweets can end up leaving me feel like I’ve just consumed a bit of furniture polish, dishwashing detergent or a votive candle instead of a lilac pastille, an orange blossom gelée or geranium sorbet.  I had not tried a Rose one before, but, frankly, I was in the mood to be slightly adventurous today.  I sniffed it before I placed it in my mouth.  It smelled like a Rose.  I then took a bite of it.  It tasted like a Rose.  Well, at least what I imagine what it would be like to bite into a long-stemmed American Beauty. Again, that goofy, can-it-really-be-this-good? smile came across my face, and, again I fully suspected someone to come up to me and capture my expression on camera.  There just had to be some sort of documentation of my glee!

I looked at the remaining half, and was sort of taken aback by the very pronounced pink-red color of the cake.  It wasn’t exactly unnatural, just unexpected. I nibbled slowly at what was left of that combination of butter, flour, sugar, rosewater(?) and a few drops of food coloring. I wanted to make it last as long as possible; at least until I had returned to the studio for the second half of my day. By the time I had reached the lobby of the building, I had indeed finished the madeleine.  I had consumed all three of them during the course of my walk down 23rd Street, up Seventh Avenue, and back across 26th Street. As I entered the lobby, I became aware of the chill in my fingers. It was a bit colder today than I had thought, and I had not included my gloves as part of my outerwear selection for the day.  Even though the end of meteorological Winter just a few days away, I had already experienced a harbinger of Spring.  In fact, I had just tasted it.

The Old LocationThe New Location

I ended up back at Madeleine Patisserie after my afternoon session of auditions had finished.  Alas, still no macarons gracing that top shelf of the display case – Hope springs eternal! – and it looked like they had done a pretty brisk business since my last visit a few hours earlier.  There were just a few plain croissants left in the baskets behind the counter, and the display next to the register was a fraction of what was there during my first visit of the day.  I also noticed a sign taped to a curtain that lined what I thought was the back wall of the new space: "Seating Area Coming Soon".  For today’s final selections, I chose a coconut meringue and two chocolate chip financiers the size of a truffle (or a chocolate covered cherry, whichever you prefer).  Since I had ordered two of them, I first sampled the financier.  Again, I was smiling uncontrollably as I took that first bite. A true perfect bite of the usual baker’s staples with the addition of ground almonds and a sprinkling of semi-sweet chocolate chips.  Then came the coconut meringue – all crunch, sugar, air and toasted coconut.  I imagined that this is what coconut-flavored cotton candy would taste like if it had a hard candy shell.  Once I had finished the meringue, there was no sense in saving the remaining financier for later.  And by that time, I had managed to walk all the way up to 44th Street where I proceeded underground to hop on the A Train for the rest of my trip home.  As I wondered if my fellow riders had any idea why I smiling so much, I made sure to check the front of my coat for any traces of meringue dust and cake crumbs.

Ah, yes, the Food!

One of the highlights of the most recent SETC Convention in Chattanooga, Tennesee, was discovering the rotating cake display at the City Cafe Diner.  Getting to Chattanooga the day before the auditions started was filled with various travel woes (delayed flights, missing pilots, and non-existent hotel reservations), so I felt that I was more than qualified and justified to treat myself to something sweet after I had finally gotten myself settled into my hotel room.  Besides, I needed something to snack on while I was watching "American Idol" that night.

I had been to Chattanooga once before when the SETC Convention was held there in 2004, but I had not ventured into the City Cafe Diner which is the house restaurant for the Days Inn by the convention center.  I had thought about splurging on some room service that first night, but after thinking about it, I realized that I was not in the mood for dinner, just dessert.  So, I headed out of my hotel, and across the street. I figured the Diner was bound to have some desserts, but little did I know that they would have quite the selection of cakes spinning around in a case by the front register.  Sadly, I did not take a picture of that diabetes-inducing display, but there were at least twelve different cakes available each night, in addition to a selection of pies, tarts, Greek pastries and cookies. I decided to stick to the cakes.

For that first night’s indulgence, I took a chance on their Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake.

It was a tall slice of alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate-peanut-butter frosting topped off with a miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.  It was good, not great.  Strangely enough, I thought the cake and frosting were not sweet enough, and both the chocolate and peanut butter flavors were somewhat muted.  I only ate half of the slice, if that. The cake itself had a great texture and crumb, but, overall, tasted sort of bland to me.  Maybe I should have tried the Butterfinger Cake instead? -Although, the almost-glowing neon-looking orange-brown coating of crushed Butterfinger bars kept me from exploring that option any further.

Well, after my first day of auditions – just under 280 people, I was definitely allowed to treat myself to another sweet indulgence that night.  So, I headed back to the City Cafe Diner, and checked out my other options.  I had noticed that they had just put something new in the display case.  "That’s our Baklava Cheesecake.  One slice and you’ll go into a sugar coma!" was the answer I got after I had pointed to the cinder-block slab of a dessert that was sitting in the bottom of the case.  Sure! Cut me a slice to go!  -And maybe a sugar coma would not be that bad a thing after watching the "American Idol" results show and "Lost" that night?

Once I was back in my hotel, I discovered that the Baklava Cheesecake was more of a layered affair.  The core of it was a plain cheesecake that was sandwiched between two thin layers of Carrot Cake, and the top and the bottom were composed of inch-thick layers of baklava (phyllo dough, walnuts, butter and honey-syrup).  Sadly, it ended up being too much of the sum of its parts.  I questioned the Carrot Cake layers at first, but then realized that they were probable there to shield the crunchy, flaky layers of phyllo dough from the moisture of the cheesecake layer.  However, the baklava portion of the dessert had not been protected from the moisture of the display case, and the flakiness of the phyllo dough ended up having a bit of a chew to it.  The cheesecake center was decent, but could have probably benefited from a few less minutes in the oven initially.  And just like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake from the night before, the whole concoction seemed somewhat on the not-so-sweet side, however, I’m guessing that whatever sugars were in the various components of the dessert may have cancelled each other out.  The Baklava Cheesecake was not a total waste of $4.95 (yes, all the cakes were just $4.95 a slice!), but I think it would have worked better if it were assembled á la minute rather than giving all the layers time to meld.  I finished maybe a third of it, so, alas, no sugar coma.

Day Two of the auditions came and went, and since I had managed to have quite a nice lunch at the Tallan Cellar restaurant (a good ole "meat & three") that day, I decided all I needed to eat during that "American Idol"-free night was another slice of cake.  I decided to pick something basic: Caramel Cake.

No problem with this slice of cake not being sweet enough!  Slathered between the layers of amazingly fresh and vanilla-infused layers of Yellow Cake were generous heapings of Caramel Buttercream. Caramel Cake is one of many Southern Classic Desserts, and this rendition was most certainly insuring that Classic status.  Yes, my teeth did ache a little bit as I took my first bite, but they were supposed to!  The Caramel Buttercream and Yellow Cake layers complemented each other perfectly, and, yes, the dessert was most definitely rich, but it was not at all heavy. I ate half of it. Then ate the other half about a half hour later.  I had to pace myself.

The third and final day of auditions came to a close, which also meant that the convention was also ending that night.  Of course, I had to celebrate that night with another piece of cake!  So, it was back to the City Cafe Diner for my final visit and my final selection of the trip.  There was a gentleman in front of me who was inquiring about the various cakes; he, too, was getting a slice to go.  The manager was answering all his questions, but then referred him to a young woman who had come out of the kitchen bearing a few just-made creations.  She was affectionately called "The Cake Guru". She explained what all the various layers were in the Chocolate Chip Cannoli Cake.  She showed him the California Cheesecake with it’s it’s layers of plain Cheesecake and Angel Food Cake, and fresh fruit topping.  Then there was the Key Lime Pie she had just made that afternoon.  The Devil’s Food Cake, the Red Velvet Cake, the Oreo Cake, the Checkerboard Chocolate Mousse Cake with it’s alternating blocks of White and Dark Chocolate Gooey-ness.  After he had walked away with a slice of the Strawberry Mousse Cake, I then turned to the Cake Guru and explained my situation, "It’s my last night in town.  I’ve come here every night for the past three nights, and I really want to have a great piece of cake tonight. What should I have?"  Without any hesitation, she proclaimed, "The Sampler Cake."

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-Flying out of Washington-National in the middle of a snow storm.  -The plane’s departure delayed due to de-icing.  Twice.  -Getting off the plane in Savannah, Georgia, and discovering that it felt like summer – it was only March.  -Buying pralines from various vendors along River Street, then discovering that they were giving them away for free at the convention hospitality booth.  -The mile walk between the hotels. That’s really all I remember about the 1994 Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention.  My first set of Spring SETC Professional Division Auditions.

The most recent SETC Convention was just held in Chattanooga, Tennessee; it was their 59th Annual Convention.  As I was preparing my opening remarks to the actors and actresses auditioning, I was all set to say that it was my 20th Anniversary year with SETC.  Well, after thinking it through, I realized it was more likely my 15th year.  Then after consulting the "Past Conventions" listing in the convention program, it turned out it was only my 12th.  I guess it only seemed like I’ve been playing the Spring SETCs for 20 years already.  *For anyone doing the math: I haven’t played for all of the Spring SETCs since 1994.  Due to work commitments, I’ve missed three of the annual conventions.  Strangely enough, the three years I missed (1997, 2001, 2006), the conventions were held in Florida (Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando). We’ll have to see if that pattern continues in the future.  (I also play for the smaller Fall Professional Auditions, so I’m guessing that may have contributed to my 20-year syndrome.)

My first SETC actually came about after I had lobbied for the job.  That year, a number of theatre students I played for at Virginia Commonwealth University had made it through the state screenings, and were passed on to the regional level.  I just wanted to see if I could play for them.  As it turned out, the pianist who had been playing for the auditions the previous couple of years was not available that year. After a few brief phone conversations, as well as some recommendations – including a particularly glowing, unsolicited one from the Theatre VCU secretary – I was hired for the gig.  It was basically a blind and deaf hiring.  No one in the central office had ever heard of me, let alone had heard me play. And, truth be told, I had no real idea what I was going to be in for once I got down to Savannah. I had heard tales of the "Big Convention", but I had never experienced one myself.

Besides the travel woes, the weather and the pralines, there really is not much more I remember about my first SETC Convention. Oh! I do remember that a group of students had gotten mugged while walking along the River Street Waterfront, and they took a collection up to help them with their food, clothing and other expenses.  But as for the specifics of the actual auditions themselves, well, there’s actually not a lot I remember about those.  I think I had a grand piano in the ballroom.  It was the usual three days of auditions, with about 250 people auditioning each day.  And I was asked to come back the following year – and the following years – so I guess I did a job.  What I tend to retain about my annual SETC adventures are the airports, the hotels, and, yes, the food.

There aren’t that many specific auditions or auditionees I remember from the past 14 years.  Yes, I can remember being generally entertained from time to time, but as for which song and monologue went with which number, name and face in a particular ballroom, hotel and city, well, all bets are off.  However, there is one young gentleman who totally caught me by surprise by actually including me in his audition…

(to the tune of the Gershwin’s "They Can’t That Away From Me")

The way you play my pitch
The way you hit those keys
I think you’ve found your niche
Oh, no, they can’t take Jose away from me.

…Or something very close to that – and he continued on through the bridge and final refrain.  It also turned out that the monologue he performed before the song was directed towards me, but since I was multi-tasking – getting the tempo and other info from the next person – I didn’t pick up on that until someone told me he had customized his whole audition package "towards" me.  His monologue, I believe, was one of Shakespeare’s Fools.  Alas, since everything had happened so fast – and since I was sort of in shock – I was not able to follow-up with him to thank him, nor to see how many callbacks he ended up getting.

Otherwise, what I tend to remember are "trends". The end of "Soliloquy" made a huge comeback in popularity the year the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel opened.  There was even one young gentleman who, as he was placing his music on the piano, asked me, "Do you know this? It’s from a new show."  After making sure I only rolled my eyes inside my head, I just responded that I did know it, and made a semi-obvious gesture towards the copyright date on the opening page. Then there was the year of the Damn Yankees revival where I believe "Goodbye, Old Girl" set the record for the most performed, most repeated song. There was at least one actor who sang that song in each group of 25 auditions, sometimes two; and in the final group of the day, of the convention, there were four renditions of that song, perhaps even five, with at least two back-to-back. I had blocked it out after a while, and had had the accompaniment memorized by rote by the middle of the second day of auditions. It had even become sort of a joke among the people auditioning. One guy didn’t even bother giving me a tempo indication as he put his book on the piano, "I guess you know this one by now."  The most recent trends seem to center around the Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster Songbooks: "Taylor, the Latte Boy", "The Girl in 14G", "Not for the Life of Me", "Astonishing", "Show Off", and, of course, "Gimme, Gimme".  And, yes, playwrights also seem to inspire trends from time to time.  If Christopher Durang, Jane Martin (the long suspected and speculated nom de plum of theatrical administrator, Jon Jory) and Neil Simon had a nickel for each time one of their monologues had been extracted, well, they’d have a lot of nickels.  -Too bad William Shakespeare’s benefactors and heirs(?) had not set up some sort of royalty agreement in place at the time of the Bard’s death.

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember more about the thousands of auditions I’ve played over the years at SETC and elsewhere. God knows, I kick myself enough during the process whenever I have a bad audition, I would go crazy trying to retain all the details of even just a fraction of the auditions I’ve played – the good, the bad, the ugly, the downright awful, the painfully oblivious, and the refreshingly brilliant ones.  Although, I have to wonder if somewhere down the line, something in my head will snap, and I will be found walking around Times Square re-enacting the audition packages I’ve experienced over the years.  So, if you happen to come to New York City, and run into a shaggy-haired Filipino with a sign around his neck reading, "Will sight read for food," and reciting the "Tuna Fish" monologue from Laughing Wild, and sprech-stimming "How Could I Ever Know?", well… Just remember: He likes the Monkey Cake from Amy’s Bread, and the Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies from Levain.

April 2021

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