Ten Days in New York for Christmas with Two Children and a Working-Actor Husband: Part the First

On December 19th I arrived with the children at Newark Airport around ten in the evening, got to the hotel about eleven, reunited with Michael and the four of us took our first walk to Times Square close to midnight. At one point, Maxwell, who'd never seen such hustle and bustle, slowed down to a halt and asked in a small voice filled with apprehension and wonder, "Can we just stay here?"

Ah, yes. I remember that fresh off the turnip truck feeling only too well.

The Big Apple is very special to me. It was my home for twelve years, not to mention it was also where Michael and I met and professed our undying love, so I couldn't wait to visit my old stomping grounds, walk the streets, ride the subway, see shows on the way identified as Broad, and chow down eats that are in direct conflict with my diet: pastrami on rye, late-night slices of Ray's, street-vendor falafel, and an honest to gawd toasted New York bagel with a schmear. One significant difference from my fancy-pants bachelor days was this time around I was going to spend most of my time single parenting two children under the age of ten. My husband had two shows daily (Peter Pan for those who forgot), leaving me with the (possibly?) arduous task of being dresser, personal assistant, tour guide and concierge all wrapped up in the faux-perky guise of an varsity cheerleader. Needless to say, my apprehensions matched Maxwell's as she took in Times Square and looked up at those LED screens flashing those oh-so-many ads from Army Recruiting to the M & M's store to Bernadette Peters in Follies. But when she verbalized can we just stay here there was a shift and things felt as if they just might work out. I also must admit to an immense surge of pride as I thought of my little girl some day creating her own fancy-pants adventures in the Big Apple. Pride, that is, quickly followed by a rush of dread.

Day 1: The Metropolitan Museum

The next day it rained, so I bit the bullet and took the kids to the first place I remember going in NYC those many decades ago. But first, a little back story...

At the tender age of two, my Type A mother, Sally, a woman driven by first-time motherhood, perfectionism, and a fierce need to defeat boredom, would prop me in my high chair and with the aid of a twenty-four portfolio set of Metropolitan Seminars in Art  forced/slash/encouraged me to memorize prominent works of art. Each portfolio had twelve removable full-color plates and Mother would reward me with two penciled X's in the corner of each page when I successfully memorized and then recited the painting's stats: one X for the title of the piece and one for the artist's name. Being a good gay son in the making...anything to please mother dearest...I filled my little head and acquired graphite X's as fast as I could, oblivious to her (intentional?) brainwashing, and at two was able to differentiate Picasso from Pissarro, Monet from Manet. I was a savant freak show of the toddler set mouthing off, "The Toilet of Venus by François Boucher," while making a stinky in Mr. Diaper.

Madame Jacques-Louis LeBlanc (1823)
by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres
I finally made it to New York when I was a wee lad of five, and Sally took me where I most wanted to go, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I remember uttering with a reverence I now hear my kids use when they say Chuck E. Cheese's. I packed only my favorite pictures (two of which, the Ingres and the Renoir, are represented here) and meticulously pored over them in the hotel room the night before. I was a petit Napoleon perusing schematics before going into battle. I about writhed in ecstasy...well, as much as a five-year-old is able to writhe...when I thought of beholding these spectacular specimens in their natural habitat.

By the time we got to the Metropolitan the next day, I had whipped myself into such a frenzy that I ran from gallery to gallery like a rabid kookaburra, clutching my blue hat to my head while my little-boy trench coat flapped impatiently behind me, frantically searching for my paintings.

In the Meadow - Picking Flowers (1892)
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
I have been incredibly naive in my life. What kind of five-year-old boy bursts at the seams to go to a museum? Seriously, look at the art I coveted. Are they of fighting Trojans, or smokey card games, or haunches of beef? No. Even back then I fancied fancy ladies. How on earth did it take me so long to determine I was of the homo variety?

I felt utterly despondent when I couldn't find some of my favorites, Gauguin's Ia Orana Maria for instance, or one of Vermeer's ladies swathed in ethereal light, Aphrodite born of the surf, or Eve being banished from Eden (fancy ladies all, come to think). In my distress I turned to my mother, tears brimming in my eyes, lower lip aquiver, and in a flash of improvisation (probably setting me on my career path) she said, "I think they must be out getting cleaned."

Oddly, that worked. My vexation was quelled by the curious image of these immense, irreplaceable paintings being scrubbed like a Mazda. And to this day, even though I know better, I imagine a Seuss-like contraption, very much like a car wash, conveyor-belting masterpieces from soap to sponge to blow dry.

My choice to go to the Met with my children, however, had nothing to do with reliving childhood memories. A week before we left LA, my good buddies Carol and Milo gave me a comprehensive New York to-do list, most of which I don't remember (I blame vodka), but what stood out was their impassioned description of the annual Christmas tree in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Met. I'm not sure why, but seeing that tree became the key to having a successful New York vacation. All I had to do was get my kids to that hall and I would hear angles sing heavenly on high and all would be right with the world.

My children do not hide their emotions. At all! Their faces are a pair of crystal portals to happiness, fear, melancholia, tedium, or downright indignation. As we left the hotel, a bit jet lagged, a lot sleep deprived, their visages displayed restlessness leaving me unsure if the Met was going to be an adventure they'd love. And I couldn't help but blame myself, because although my mother was really quite wonderful introducing culture into our lives, I have been remiss with my children. Oh, sure, they can sing the soundtrack to Wicked and color coordinate like Martha Stewart, but our museum going has been sparse...okay, nonexistent...and I was afraid the whole day could backfire miserably.

With the rain, a kerfuffle on the subway, and then that long walk from Lexington to Fifth...just one more block, c'mon!...my little ones, accustomed to sunny skies and unlimited chauffeuring in securely buckled seats, were already teetering on cranky. But when we came upon the museum's facade, with it's audacious austerity, I believed I could feel a bubble of anticipation emanating from both Sebastian and Maxwell...it was either anticipation or gas.

Sebastian and Maxwell (in the bottom right) approaching the Metropolitan.
Admission to the museum is $25 for adults (the kids are free), but thankfully that's a recommended ticket price. If you're making plans to go to the Met anytime soon, I suggest you do as I did and throw the guy in the booth a couple of fives and keep on walking.

The Information Lady drew directional arrows on our fold-out museum map, first to medieval sculptures where the Christmas tree held court, and then...heart skip...to European masters. As an aside, she recommended the Egyptian wing for the children. Yeah, we'll see about that.

Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche
The tree was lovely. It's decorated with cherubs and at least fifty graceful angels. At it's base is an eighteenth-century Neapolitan Baroque Crèche, which you have to admit sounds impressive even if you're not sure what that means. The piped-in Christmas music was beautiful, the lighting exquisite, making a display that was indeed breathtaking. But when I turned with anticipation to my adopted spawn and asked what they thought I immediately saw whatever bubble had been there had long since burst. Instead I was met with a discordant chorus of "I'm hungry" with an irritating recitative of "I gotta go to the bathroom." I tried to distract them with a game of Who sees the wise man with the camel? but that lasted about all of thirteen seconds before the familiar whiny refrain started anew.

What followed was exercise in self control: traverse the foyer, cross some lobbies, grumble grumble, no bathroom, turn around, back the way we came, grumble grouse, staircase down, wrong staircase, turn around, back up, grumble gripe grouse, back towards Medieval Sculpture, there's the Christmas tree again, it really is quite lovely, grumble gripe bellyache bitch, descend the correct staircase, bathroom at last, give me your coats, give me your hats, give me your scarves, give me your gloves, (motherfuckers!), wash hands, on to cafeteria, grab a tray, grab some food, grab a much needed cawfee, fork over twenty-six dollars eighty-nine cents, must be karmic retribution for paying ten dollars at the door, balance winter clothes, balance brimming tray, balance fraying patience, plop down at a table in desperate need of a good sponging, take a deep breath, take much-needed a sip of cawfee, and feed like the undead.

Once bladders were emptied and bellies filled we were off were off to the Renaissance. But after a few galleries of  beatific annunciations and gruesome crucifixions (how are we supposed to explain why people nailed the sad man to a cross?), even I was in need of lighter, less religious, fare.

It was time to move on from the meat and potatoes and go straight to dessert. I mean, who doesn't like Impressionists? The saturated color, the saucy brush strokes... One dappled sunset or speckled haystack will set these whiny heathens right as rain.

But the kids weren't having it. One refrain of I wanna go and I knew what had to be done. I allowed myself an indulgent, slo-mo glance-around, taking mental snapshots of tropical Gauguins, watery Monets, earthy Cezannes, faery-world Renoirs, cursing the fact I didn't have me as a kid, and prepared to leave. But on the way down the main staircase I found some backbone and decided to play the Egypt card. Heckle and Jeckle squawked and balked until they saw this fellow in the Great Hall...

Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1885 B.C.) 
...And their entire tune changed.

People love giving presents to Sebastian because his reaction is very much like Macaulay Culkin's in Home Alone, mouth agape, filled with wonderment. And that was my son when his eyes fell upon the impressive Amenemhat II. "That's... That's... That's the thing, you know... That's Egypt!" he announced to anyone who would listen. I was forced to admit it, Information Lady was right. Kids do like this Egypt stuff.

And their collection is amazing. To be able to touch and walk in and around Perneb's tomb is thrilling. But I don't think anything compares to the sun-drenched (odd that, since it was raining) room which held the Temple of Dendur. This time it wasn't just Sebastian's mouth that slack-jawed open, but mine as well. I felt like Indiana Jones stumbling upon an important discovery.

Temple of Dendur (ca. 15 B.C.)
More Dendur
Heckle and Jeckle and the Temple of Doom
Okay, so maybe the tree in the rotunda and the grand masters weren't yabba-dabba-doos, but I shouldn't have underestimated the wonders of ancient Egypt. My children's eyes lit up as they took in the temple, the tomb, various sarcophagi and an aging mummy. I remember thinking, "I don't want to jinx it, but perhaps all bodes well and we will enjoy a wonderful New York Christmas after all."

Stay tuned...

I must leave you with one last image of Metropolitan yumminess.

The Toilet of Venus (1751) 
 by François Boucher   
Unlike what my two-year-old mind thought at the time, neither the reference to toilet, nor the unfortunate sounding Boucher was a command for me to do a doody in my di-di. 

Take a good long drink of Dame Venus amid rococo extravagance. She's frickin luscious, she's insouciantly devil-may-care, she's peaches n' cream with a shot of Jägermeister. At two I loved this painting. And wouldn't you know it...another fancy lady! 

How could I not have known sooner?


Bill Dameron said…
I love the Met, and like your kids, think the Temple of Dendur is one of the coolest things on earth. The thing that struck me the most was the ancient graffiti on the temple. People never change.
Tara said…
Good to know I'm not the only one who had the but-it's-not-Christmas-unless-we-see/do-this problem. My expectations shall be much lower next Christmas...maybe.
This just made my morning... along with my cawfee...:) I can't wait to hear the rest of the story
prepare your speech darling... You have been awarded the Liebster award from me... Go to my page to read more about it... http://prescottbellyfish.blogspot.com/

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