Category New York

Carnies built this country–the carnival part of it, anyway: A visit to Coney Island

Amusement parks could be found in all major cities: at Boston’s Paragon Park and Revere Beach, Philadelphia’s Willow Grove and Atlantic City, Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon Park, Cleveland’s Euclid Beach, Chicago’s Cheltenham Beach, St. Louis’ Forest Park Highlands, Denver’s Manhattan Beach, and San Francisco’s The Chutes. Yet although many of these parks could boast of their size and splendor, none could compare on any dimension to the famed New York City mecca, Coney Island.

-Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit

coney island pay toilet

coney island wonder wheel

coney island boardwalk

If you have any interest in the history of carnivals, theme parks, freak shows, and competitive eating in the United States, there is no ignoring Coney Island. It is their beginning, their epicenter. Even today, when the corporate chain park rules and smaller amusement parks are shuttering left and right, Coney Island still survives, and that speaks to its ability to give visitors an experience they can’t get anywhere else, its ability to evolve as times change. What makes Coney Island different? It’s connected to the community instead of set apart from the community; it’s far enough from the other boroughs to feel like a vacation destination, but it’s also easily accessible. Because it’s a set of independent amusement parks and stores, there is no admission fee, which keeps people moving in and around when they otherwise might not. It’s a draw as much for its beach as it is for its boardwalk. It has a little something for everyone, and even its grittier parts are in a spirit of fun. They have the annual Mermaid Parade, which anyone can join, and is a celebration of art in New York. They offer sideshow classes. They have burlesque at the beach. They have a fourth of July celebration that has elevated gluttony into a sporting event. They put on shows. They create art. Everything is done with a wink and a nod to give the attendees the feel of being in on the joke, a consumer of pop culture and a reflection of pop culture at the same time. Nowhere is this summed up better than in the description of Coney Island’s 2013 Creepshow at the Freakshow presentation, which states that the show includes: cigar smoking, blank gun fire, profanity, anachronism, ethnic stereotypes, sexual situations, dramatic license, and ballistic pasta. coney island scream zone

brooklyn beach shop

To a great extent, traveling sideshows were as dangerous, dirty, degenerate, and exciting as Disneyland is safe, clean, wholesome, and bland.

-Hammer, Carl & Bosker, Gideon. Freak Show: Sideshow Banner Art

bump your ass off

coney island thrills

The first structures in Coney Island were erected in the 1840s; many people protested development of the land and wanted it preserved as a natural park, as one of the features of the land’s orientation is that the beach is never shaded. Eventually a compromise was reached where development beyond 1,000 feet south of Surf Avenue was prohibited. For eleven years between 1885 and 1896, the Coney Island Elephant was the first manmade structure immigrants to the United States would see, not the Statue of Liberty: a beacon of our commitment to leisure and fun. However, it wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that Coney Island reached its zenith.  

Coney Island saw its first freak show in 1880. A circus man who had brought his unemployed troupe to the beach for a holiday was struck by the business potential. Setting up banners, he began a practice that would prosper at Coney Island for at least sixty years. From these small beginnings, Coney Island became a center for freak shows. During the period of 1910-1940, no single place in the world had more human oddities on exhibit.

-Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit

It was the unique combination of beach, freak shows, and three competing amusement parks that made Coney Island insanely popular. People would flock to Lilliputia or “Midget City”, a miniature city built to look like a half-scale Nuremberg, Germany that housed 300 little people who lived and worked there. They’d line up to ride the Cannon Coaster, which had been designed for the car to leap a gap in the track (and redesigned when it didn’t work as planned), and whispered to one another about the rumors they’d heard about the deaths that happened during the initial test phase. They’d stand in outer space in the Trip to the Moon cyclorama. It was an exciting, dangerous, sexy place to be, and Coney Island thrived.

After World War II, public sensibilities changed. Not only had the general area declined due to neglect and the proliferation of crime, but it also became less socially acceptable to gawk at the disabled. The virtual elimination of the freak show in the United States was both a positive and a negative thing: negative because performers who had spent their lives giving performances and being on display found themselves without work almost overnight and made their already difficult situations even moreso. Positive because at that period in history, xenophobia ruled the day, and, appallingly, people of different races were exhibited as oddities–Filipinos as “dog-eating missing links” and blacks as “savages of Darkest Africa”. While freak shows can be said to have given certain disadvantaged people access to a community they would not have had otherwise, freak shows as they were can only be a relic of a less-educated past, a historical curiosity, as they have no place in a civilized society.

coney island freak show

 Nonetheless, Coney Island showman Todd Robbins has continued to keep the magic of sideshows before the public. He has worked at the last ten-in-one, Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island, and he is dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School, which continues to teach fire eating and other essential arts and secrets of the the ten-in-one era….Perhaps it is not yet time to fold the last tent. In the meantime, we ask you to please step this way. The egress is just ahead.

-Nickell, Joe. Secrets of the Sideshows

However, the revitalization of the freak show is a wonder. Groups of self-identified freaks around the country and particularly in Coney Island have turned the old shows on their heads. The performers today, both natural-born and self-made, choose to perform. They have agency and their own reasons for participating; the show is about who they are as people and what they can do, not what they look like. 100 years ago, Erik Paluszak, stage name The Velvet Crayon, a man born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, may have had no option in life but to be put on display for his anatomy. Today, he chooses to be part of the 10-in-One on Coney Island and while he invites you to look at him and ask questions if you’d like, his act is about his buzzy psychadelic rock music: songs about legos, songs about being a freak, ruminations on monsters, and responses to The Flaming Lips. In the modern freak show, audience members are invited to participate, to be an exhibit themselves. In the modern freak show, we’re all freaks.  

spook o rama coney island dragon

spook o rama coney island

luna park coney island

Coney Island, as Gersh Kuntzman says, is a dump. He means it as a compliment. Its grittiness is refreshing…The stage has been set up in front of a giant Nathan’s billboard that runs along Stillwell Avenue on the side wall of the hot-dog stand. The left side of the wall is home to what the Sheas call the ‘two-dimensional Mount Rushmore of competitive eating”: a giant photo montage of past contest winners, incorporating a digital clock that counts down the days, hours, and minutes until the next contest…Coney Island is still surprisingly dirty, for all the talk of revitalization. Right across the street from Nathan’s is a line of frumpy stores spilling trash into the sidewalk gutters.

-Fagone, Jason. Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream*

days until nathans famous hot dog contest countdown clock

Another modern sideshow comes in the guise of competitive eating. Nathan’s Famous has held a hot dog eating contest on the 4th of July annually since they first opened, but in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the event began to attract national attention. Today, competitive eating is both legitimized and reviled,  a celebration of excess and uniquely American, the gurgitators celebrated and pointed at for being what’s wrong with America, all reaching inside themselves to find their limits and push for something greater: a transcendence in their spectacle. And that, too, is Coney Island. It grows and shrinks. It recovers from economic and natural disasters. It rolls with the punches. It reinvents itself for the future while being utterly of the moment. Long live Coney Island.

“No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.”

-Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and Vice President of the United States

coney island mayor mellzah

coney island mayor jason   *All of the books cited are excellent resources on their respective topics, but Horsemen of the Esophagus is a particular favorite of mine. Fagone looks beyond the spectacle during the time period when competitive eating was experiencing its largest recognition on a nationwide scale and paints an intimate portrait of a few of the gurgitators : their motivations, their struggles, their humanity, while maintaining his objectivity about what the popularity of the sport means in terms of American culture, and the very real dangers that the competitors face. It’s in turns charming, concerning, and deeply moving. I bought it because I thought the title was funny. I never expected that it would resonate as it has, and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they may have even a vague interest in the subject matter or American culture as a whole.

“Oh Homer, of course you’ll have a bad impression of New York if you only focus on the pimps and the chuds!”

New York looms so large in our collective cultural consciousness. What can I possibly say about this city that hasn’t already been said by more talented people? That doesn’t sound hopelessly country mouse lost in the big city? Probably nothing. It would be impossible (and unfair) for me to make sweeping generalizations about a city so large and diverse after spending only a few days there, but I can at least sketch some impressions. Before we arrived, I made maps pinpointed with the places I wanted to visit, annotated with hours of operation, the actual address, and other bits and pieces of info I felt I’d need. I was aware that the territory I wanted to cover was large, but I really could not fathom the vastness of the city while I was planning. Trying to picture all of New York City for me is like trying to envision the universe: its enormity is boggling. I could live out my life there and not see, do, and try everything, and in this, I can understand what makes it so fiercely beloved by its citizens.

And its citizens! Its tourists! At all hours, on all days, the streets are jam packed with humanity; at least, everywhere I went. Potentially the slowest-moving on the planet, rivaled only by Costco on the weekends, the place where people fistfight over parking spots to buy butter in bulk. Just like Costco, people block the entire walkway, walking as slowly as possible, gawking at everything around them. There were so many times I wanted to take a photo of something, but didn’t want to be that guy blocking the sidewalk for everyone else. I’m used to not being around people most of the time, and to be among so many people almost constantly was overwhelming to me, with the only available retreat being the hotel room. I like people, I’m interested in people, I want to hear people’s stories…but even I have my limits.

We tried pizza everywhere we went. Cheap slices, expensive slices, slices on par with the cost of a subway ride. Honestly, we weren’t that impressed by any of it. Jason likened one of his slices to Little Caesar’s, which I think is the sort of opinion that can get you pushed into traffic in NYC. Pizza is pizza and even the bad stuff is usually pretty good, and I was thrilled with the general availability of pizza. In NYC, any time can be pizza time.

I was often surprised at the amount of garbage piled up on the street. Even when you can’t see it, sometimes the wind would shift and the air would be redolent of hot garbage. What surprised me more were the food carts that were parked next to heaps of trash. We stayed at The Row NYC and I was impressed at how well it kept out city noise. When we booked, we paid for an upgraded room with a ‘premium view’ of Times Square, previously referred to as The Worst. We got a tiny snippet of it, and I’m actually glad we didn’t get more because it is, again The Worst and I actually wouldn’t want advertisements flashing at me through my windows. In the short bit of time we spent there, Jason and I both agreed that it felt eerily like New York: the theme park. I understand completely why no locals go there, and even given my love of both tourist traps and theme parks, I still have no desire to return.

I don’t know how a city of over eight million people manages with so few public restrooms. On our way home from Coney Island, I was struck by an urgent need to use a restroom. Any restroom. A subway restroom. My guts were fighting with Nathan’s Famous and they were losing. My forehead prickled with sweat. I cannot confirm this, but I believe that I took on the look of a desperate animal caught in a trap. We got off at the next stop and there were no subway restrooms, so we ended up wandering around somewhere in Brooklyn where I could fall upon the mercy of a business owner. We finally found an oil change place/gas station and I begged to use their restroom. That I would buy something. Anything. They looked at each other, looked at my ashen face, and led me around the building to a terrifying half-bathroom half-shanty. I paid them $10, and I would have paid them more.

Their public transportation is top-notch. I downloaded the Embark NYC app and it was a snap to figure out multiple routes to get me where I wanted to go. More than once we had a group of Showtime kids on our train. One handed me a full-color glossy postcard with his headshots and social media information. His credits include: recording artist, producer, actor, dancer, model. He could not have been older than twelve. Every dollar I gave a Showtime kid felt like my volley in a war between NYC tourists and the NYC citizens who hate them. On the train, I heard someone talking about the rent for his one bedroom apartment: twice our mortgage payment. I don’t know how anyone affords to live there, especially people working lower-income jobs, but I’m impressed that millions of people are making it work. The city is fascinating. Its citizens are fascinating. I think I finally understand why Hollywood, why America, why the world looks to New York, the place where everything is happening, all the time.

US customs house

st patricks cathedralMan, I bet this would be so beautiful if I could see it.

private clubI watched the entrance of the private club to divine its purpose but the only thing I learned is that only old white people go in and out.

private club elephantAlso, they have an elephant head on their building.

nyseIf you savagely beat a hedge fund manager, does money pop out like candy from a pinata?

george washington statueNo photos, please.

nyc view from the rowHotel view

nyc view from the row hotelHotel view

a peek of times squareHotel view

stalked by guy fieriSTOP STALKING ME, GUY FIERI

grand central stationI want the Grand Central Station ceilings in my house.

grand central station ceiling    

The American Museum of Natural History in NY, NY

museum-of-natural-history

One could easily spend an entire day seeing everything there is to see in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (or longer, hence their overnight visits!), which is why, of course, we only spent about two hours there and bemoaned the fact that we couldn’t see more. Since my energy levels were low due to the plague, I had to carefully choose which things were most important for me to see, and thus we had visited The Cloisters earlier in the day which didn’t leave much time for AMNH. But I’d rather see part of a museum than none of it!

Since we knew right off the bat we wouldn’t be able to see everything, we narrowed it down to the halls that would have the least overlap with museum visits we’d done recently: The Hall of Biodiversity, The Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, The Hall of North American Forests, the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites, the Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals. We also took a peek at the Gardner D. Stout Hall of Asian Peoples on our way out, and passed through the Akeley Hall of African Mammals on our way in. Mainly, we skipped out on fossils and the center for Earth and Space even though planetariums and dinosaurs are my jam.

hall-of-biodiversity

hall-of-biodiversity-amphibians

hall-of-biodiversity-crustaceans

hall-of-biodiversity-sharks

The Hall of Biodiversity was insanely awesome. It features more than 1,500 specimens and models, showcasing both the diversity of life on Earth and the threats to that life, including a timeline of the five previous mass extinctions. More than any museum exhibit I’ve ever seen, it serves as a call to action to guests to do what they can to preserve the variety of life teeming around them as each creature plays a important role.

milstein family hall of ocean life

eww some ocean creatures are not cute

hall of ocean life seals

hall of ocean life sharks

hall of ocean life

The Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life features, in addition to a 10.5 ton model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling from a relatively small anchor point, some of the diversity of life in the sea, from the shores to the deep oceans. The quality of these displays are top-notch: if you can close your ears to the people around you, it’s almost like you’re underwater with these creatures. They also feature a squid vs whale sea battle, though it’s far from being the largest in the world.

a bugs life

The Life of the Forest Floor exhibit shows how terrifying it would be to be insect size. “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” doesn’t even begin to touch on the nightmare world beneath our feet. I don’t even like centipedes at centipede size. Centipedes the size of a horse? Kill me now.

tibetan-lamaistan-masks

Indian-rearing-wooden-horse

canadian ammonite

Up until The Hall of Meteorites, I was really impressed with the attention to detail and the care given to the museum’s subjects: to display them in a way that’s interesting and relevant to the modern viewer. However, some of the latter exhibits we visited have begun to show their age, the Earth and Planetary Sciences Halls in particular. The Hall of Meteorites is the only one that appears to have been touched since the 1970s; everything else has a display quality on par with the mineral exhibit we saw in some guy’s backyard near House on the Rock. Stained carpet everywhere, dusty exhibits, exhibits falling apart that haven’t been tended to, and a “wet paint” sign for paint that’s so old that the wall has since been scraped and chipped again. I know that minerals aren’t the most exciting subject, but there’s got to be a better way to display them than ringed in carpet. azurite-and-malachite-block radioactive minerals

realgar dust

wet paint

Overall, we enjoyed our visit to AMNH, and I think it would definitely warrant a repeat visit should we find ourselves in New York again. I just hope that some of our admission fee was earmarked toward updating some of the lesser-loved exhibits so that the museum can be truly distinguished in every way.

Evil Is Not A Scientific Word: The Jekyll & Hyde Club

  jekyll and hyde nyc lobby

When I talked about my upcoming trip to New York, my polite friends would inevitably inquire what sights were on the docket, and were generally perplexed when the first words that came out of my mouth were “I’m going to the horror Chuck E. Cheese!”  The look of confusion in their eyes would say everything. “Isn’t that just the regular Chuck E. Cheese?” “You’re going to a city with the best restaurants in the world and you’d choose Chuck E. Cheese?” “I bet the horror is what you find in the ball pit.” “What’s wrong with you?”

In some ways, The Jekyll & Hyde Club is the horror Chuck E. Cheese, but it’s also so much more: if Chuck E. Cheese and an English library and freak show shared a magical evening and somehow split their DNA three ways and had a baby, The Jekyll & Hyde Club would be that baby. Unlike Chuck E. Cheese, the animatronic parts of the restaurant were created much more recently than the 1970s, and they’re creepy in an enjoyable way, not a “I can’t believe they’d let that dusty half-rotted material jerk around near food intended for human consumption” way. No detail was neglected: the servers dressed like Victorian-era butlers, complete with bowler hats, every seat in the house was near something interesting to look at (unlike the sequestered mine area in Casa Bonita), there was even a secret entrance to the restrooms through the fireplace and down a book-lined corridor, AND in said restrooms sometimes a face would pop out at you in the mirror like the Bloody Mary nightmares of your childhood sleepovers….good thing you’d already let go of your bowels just minutes earlier! The eyes in some portraits would move. Other portraits would morph over time–sometimes it would look like a standard portrait, sometimes the subject would blink, slowly erupt in boils, his face would twist in pain, or the shadow of a tarantula would start crawling across. It was excellent. Truth be told, this place looks exactly how I’d decorate my house if I had infinite money and no one to tell me no. Except I’d also have a dinosaur room.

jekyll and hyde specimens

elephant head mountI was seated opposite this, so I had a lot of time to watch these most-excellent moving portraits.

king tut wall of skullsSometimes the pharoah would talk!

disco skeletons

Jekyll and hyde bar

shrunken head bar

jekyll and hyde mummy

fireplace werewolf mount

fireplace restroom entrance

hidden restroom doors

shark head mount

skeleton ventriloquist

wall of masks

zeus is pissed

drusilla dreadfulFrankly, I’ve seen a few dolls that are scarier than this.

jekyll and hyde conjoined dolls

jekyll and hyde mermaid tank

jekyll and hyde haunted house

What I didn’t know was that the Jekyll & Hyde Club also contained its own haunted house: The Chamber of Horrors. If I hadn’t already decided to visit, this would have sealed the deal for me. Objectively, it’s not the best haunted house I’ve ever been to–it was fairly evident that there were only a few employees working inside and they relied overly much on the room being pitch black for scares. However, just having the place to ourselves was enough to make it better than our experience at Halloween Horror Nights Orlando : it’s hard to be scared with a line of bros penguin walking with their arms around their girlfriends in front of you. I don’t know how the experience would change when the restaurant is full. The night that we went was relatively dead and we were some of the last people through the maze before it closed for the night.

mad science experiment

frankenstein lives

They also put on combination live/animatronic show every so often (Every hour? Two hours? We only saw one while we were there, so it’s not often enough to be obnoxious) that was definitely Frankensteinian in nature, not Jekyll and Hyde. Not that I’m complaining! The show was entertaining, the actors looked like they were having fun, and the audience was definitely into it, which are all important elements to keep it from from feeling sad and awkward.

It’s weird to talk about a restaurant and not mention the food, right? I went in with really low expectations, because restaurants in this category rarely make food that you feel enthusiastic about eating, and I ended up being more than pleasantly surprised, as was Jason. Granted, the things that we ordered were hard to mess up (a Memphis burger and a margherita pizza, respectively), neither one of us have food critic tendencies, and we were both quite hungry, so a boiled shoe probably would have been acceptable at that point in time as long as it was a large one. Still, I would say that it outclasses many of its theme restaurant peers. As far as prices go, I didn’t find it shockingly expensive save for the stupid-expensive drink I ordered ($20!!! In USD! For a drink that didn’t get me drunk!)–in general, the prices seem in line with other theme restaurants. They do tack on a $3 “entertainment fee” per person which is a little annoying, but seems reasonable by comparison to Casa Bonita‘s insistence that no one may enter without purchasing an entire meal. Neither would be preferable, but ultimately $3 is negligible. The Chamber of Horrors isn’t included in that $3 fee, it comes at an additional charge which varies depending on whether or not you’re dining at the restaurant.

I would say that the biggest downsides to the Jekyll and Hyde club are that it’s in Times Square (which is all-around horrible unless you are a fundamentally different sort of person who enjoys massive crowds of people wandering aimlessly and excruciatingly slowly in a mall filled with stores you have at home and advertisements flashing at you on all sides…it’s like walking in a stinky, annoying, pop-up banner), the seats all have arms which make them difficult to climb into when you’re butted back to back with another customer, and your experience is wholly dependent on how much effort the employees are willing to put forth into their performances. None of these caveats would prevent me from going back, should I find myself in NYC at some point in the future. In fact, I think Casa Bonita has a serious contender for the title of “most exciting restaurant in the world.”

The Cloisters Museum of Art in NYC

One of my top priorities in New York was to visit The Cloisters Museum & Gardens: the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated solely to their extensive collection of medieval art and architecture. Instead of creating a copy of one specific building, The Cloisters combines religious and secular architecture in chronological order throughout the building. This makes each room a beautiful complement to the art as well as an immersive experience; it’s rare to see period art in context with its surroundings. Medieval art tends toward the highly religious, and while I’m not generally entranced with the subject matter, the craftsmanship is undeniable, and visiting The Cloisters was a unique opportunity that I refused to miss.  

Fuentiduena Chapel

LionLion relief tramples a dragon

Saint-Guilhem Cloister

archway

Bearded Men Fighting

Romanesque Hall

arch at the cloisters

Langon Chapel

ornate door handleDoor with ironwork

medieval chapel

Pontaut Chapter House

Monks from the Cistercian abbey at Pontaut in Aquitaine once gathered for daily meetings in this twelfth-century enclosure known as a chapter house. At the time of its purchase in the 1930s by a Parisian dealer, the column supports were being used to tether farm animals.

Archways

Cuxa Cloister & Garden

Both medieval and modern species of plants are grown in the garden, the pink stone of which was quarried in the twelfth century for the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.

Cloisters Garden

Early Gothic Hall

Stained glass

head perhaps of an angelThe title of this piece of artwork kills me: “Head, perhaps of an Angel”. It reminds me of nothing so much as the conclusions that the Ghost Adventures bros leap to. You could just call it “Head”? Or stick to your convictions and call it “Angel Head”?

Gothic Chapel

The Gothic Chapel contains stained glass windows from fourteenth century Austria and carved images from royal and noble tombs of Spain and France.

Chapel at the Cloisters

Glass Gallery

our lord's bongOur father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy bong

Dragon eating a manA water vessel of a dragon eating a man or a man escaping from a dragon’s mouth.

Brass unicorn water vesselUnicorn water vessel

brass water vesselsSelection of fanciful water vessels

 stained glass at cloisters

Seasonal Cafe in Trie Cloister

The cafe at the CloistersJason, refreshed after drinking a $6 bottle of medieval Sprite. My $6 medieval water was just ok.

Treasury

A room that illustrates the wealth of medieval churches, containing precious objects wrought in gold, silver, ivory, and silk.

Bishop's robesIn days of old when knights were bold, bishops dressed like wizards.

a chalice for serious drinkingThis chalice is legit. Even crappy booze would seem fancy when sipped out of this thing, which after you paid for it, would be the only type of booze you could afford.

illuminated bibleIlluminated bible

medieval playing cards15th century illuminated playing cards

golden handThis must be Jamie Lannister’s lesser-used gold hand reserved for fun times.

quatrefoil stained glassQuatrefoil roundel with arms and secular scenes

Silver mary and bishopBishop saint and female saint wrought in silver. I feel that it’s a missed opportunity to not have had reproductions in the gift shop as salt and pepper shakers.

Boppard Room

Stained glassStained glass from the fifteenth century Carmelite convent

Merode Roomceiling beamsEven the wood beams on the ceilings in the Merode Room were works of art!

Late Gothic Hall

st michael defeats the antichristThe archangel Michael defeats the antichrist. Possibly the inspiration for the “bitchin tattoo” an ex of mine expressed a desire to acquire. Frankly, this depiction of the antichrist only raises more questions for me, like, what the eff does he do with all of those mouths and why is he helping Michael to jab him through the uppermost mouth and if he has mouths all over and salamander arms and chicken feet, why are Christians worried that he walks among us unseen? He’s not exactly Waldo, I’m pretty sure I could pick him out of a crowd with no trouble.

Nine Heroes Tapestries Room

From a series of nine hangings created around 1400 for a member of the Valois court; they are among the earliest sets of surviving medieval tapestries.

medieval tapestry

Unicorn Tapestries Room

The Cloisters wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of  John D Rockefeller Jr–not only did he donate the land for the site of the museum, but he also donated a significant amount of land around the museum to preserve the view of the Hudson river, as well as donating works of art from his own collection, including the Unicorn Tapestries. In truth, the Unicorn Tapestries were the main impetus behind my visit. I’ve always had it bad for unicorns, and I recall first encountering the Unicorn Tapestries in an enormous book in the library filled with unicorn art throughout history. The book was incredible…and I never saw it in the library again, nor have been able to find its like. It was then that I realized that the introduction to The Last Unicorn cribbed heavily from the Unicorn Tapestries. Well, one of them, anyway.

Their origin and symbolism remain a mystery. The initials found in several of the tapestries point to two different potential owners/commissioners, as well as signs that they may be part of two separate sets. If not, there’s debate as to whether they were woven in Brussels or the Netherlands and as to whether their meaning is religious or secular. My uneducated belief is secular, if only because by this point in the museum, it was clear that people weren’t exactly afraid of putting Jesus on everything so there wasn’t exactly a need to couch it in hunt symbolism.

We didn’t enter the Unicorn Tapestries room until close to the end of our visit, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had. Here is this artwork that I’ve seen small, lesser versions of for over twenty five years, in person, large as life. Much larger than I’d imagined. Vivid, astoundingly detailed. Lush. I almost cried at their beauty.

Nothing compares with seeing them in person, but the Met has high quality scans so you can see more of the detail. They did offer Unicorn in Captivity tapestry decorative pillows in the gift shop, but they were pale shadows compared to the original, which is a shame. If they were even somewhat close to the beauty of the tapestries themselves, I’d have flung money at them for the opportunity to have a reminder in my home of how I felt standing in the Cloisters.

Unicorn Tapestries roomThe 7th, 2nd, and 3rd Unicorn Tapestries (l-r)

unicorn tapestries roomThe 4th, 5th, and 6th Unicorn Tapestries (l-r)

The unicorn purifies the waterThe 2nd tapestry, The Unicorn is Found. Also known as The Unicorn at the Fountain.

Bunny detailJason attempted to point out these bunny butts on the second tapestry to me, and apparently his finger crossed some sort of laser beam line because all of a sudden a siren was going off and a guard was furiously motioning at us to stay away from the tapestries. He didn’t touch anything! That bun is an instigator. Troublemaker. Tattler.

The unicorn leaps the streamDetail of the 3rd tapestry, The Unicorn is Attacked or The Unicorn Leaps the Stream

majestic fireplaceThe fireplace to end all fireplaces in the Unicorn Tapestries room!

The unicorn defends himselfDetail of the 4th tapestry, The Unicorn Defends Itself

The unicorn is captured by the maidenFragments of the 5th tapestry, The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn

the unicorn is killed and brought to the castleDetail of the 6th tapestry, The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle

The unicorn in captivityDetail of the 7th tapestry, The Unicorn in Captivity

 

NY State Museum in Albany

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ny-museum-steam

ny-museum-taxi

ny-museum-whale

america-full-of-unicorns

hooved-fox

ny-museum-opossumI want to get my hands on a reproduction copy of Icones animalum now.

bad-selfieI wanted to take a picture in front of this giant drawing of old-timey NY and then make it look like I was part of it, but then felt deep embarrassment over taking a selfie in a museum so I didn’t line it up properly and this is what we ended up with. I feel like I’m in the “Take On Me” video.

anit-fertility-symbol“Anti-Fertility Symbol” by Megan Cavanaugh. This would have been a delightful addition to my “Never Gonna Have a Baby” shower.

  Albany’s Cultural Education building is jam-packed with public services: the NY State Archives, the NY State Library (one of the largest libraries in the world!), and the NY State Museum. I only had time to check out the NY State Museum, and even that was very limited as I needed to hoof it back to the hotel and make myself a presentable wedding guest, so I was only able to see one of their (enormous) floors. I was able to learn a bit about the history of New York City as well as some of the history of Albany and New York State, see some of the creatures of the nearby Adirondack mountains, check out their impressive mineral collection, and see the “Best of SUNY” art exhibit. My only complaint is that it’s not laid out very well. Things seem to be jammed in where there’s physical space instead of where they belong: natural history is mixed in with urban history, their 9/11 stuff is split between the NYC area and the Adirondack Wilderness area, and it makes the museum even more difficult to navigate when it’s already a labyrinth. I’d also like for monitors placed so there’s easy access of information without obscuring the exhibit itself, but that’s just nitpicking. It’s free (donations accepted and recommended — at $5 per person, it’s still a bargain) and definitely worth checking out if you’re in Albany, but not necessarily worth going out of your way to visit.    

Spotted on the Roadside: A Colossal Clog in Albany, NY

Albany is proud of their Dutch heritage, and in 2012, installed ten huge clogs (six at a whopping seven feet long, four at three feet long) throughout the city as part of the “Stand in the Soles of Albany” program. This clog, however, might have gone rogue, as all of the clog installations were supposed to be removed in May 2013, and this bears out as I didn’t see any other clogs on my wanderings through the city, and I definitely visited some of the other  installation locations.  If they need ideas for future clog uses, I’d like to see them hollowed out and turned into clog cars for a clog parade where they could clog along, clogging traffic. Clog.

Spotted on Lodge St in Albany, NY

“Well, I’m from Utica and I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase ‘steamed hams’ before.” “Oh not in Utica, no! It’s more of an Albany expression.”

While Jason was off doing his groomsman duties over the course of the couple of days we were in Albany, I decided to take take the opportunity to wander around and see what there was to see. More than once I found myself thinking “Dude, where is everybody?” It’s not that peculiar that a state capitol is no longer a center of commerce, but aside from a few cars on the road and the occasional other pedestrian, it felt absolutely deserted. I’ve heard that when school is in session, it’s more lively, but I can’t speak to that: all I know is that when our cab arrived at midnight and everything was closed, it made me feel like I was in a suburb, not a city. In 2013, Conde Nast Traveler Magazine determined Albany was the 7th most unfriendly city in the country (the 13th most unfriendly in the world!). Aside from an unpleasant encounter with a cab driver (which was admittedly just as much my fault as his), I have to say that I just don’t see it. Everyone that I spoke with was perfectly nice, and I didn’t solely interact with people in hospitality–so either the title shook the natives to their core and they’ve made a strong effort to change how they’re perceived, or the list is mostly a bullshit excuse to put up a slide show for ad revenue. I’m thinking the latter is more likely. Continue reading

Spotted on the Roadside: Nipper the Giant Dog in Albany, NY

Unquestionably the cutest part of the Albany skyline, Nipper the RCA dog is perched on what used to be the tallest building in Albany, thus requiring him to have an aircraft beacon attached to his ear (now a light fixture). Weighing in at four tons, Nipper looms over the street, listening for the sound of his master’s voice. Let’s hope an ionic disturbance doesn’t bring him to life, though: the real Nipper was named after his tendency to nip the backs of visitors’ legs.

Spotted on Broadway in Albany, NY.