Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chalet Suzzanne, Lake Wales, Florida

Nonnie's Poetry Trip: Part 1

Last night was my first with a home oxygen delivery system. I have an apparatus, that looks like a gas mask, which straps around my head and covers my face, a CPAP machine that takes up most of my night table, and a big blue square thing that supplies additional oxygen and makes soft factory noises. Blue does not go with the color scheme of my bedroom. Neither dog nor cat stayed in the room, let alone got on the bed, once I started my machines, and my brother wouldn't even look at me while I was wearing it. Maybe he has to get his courage up a little more. Maybe it's hard seeing someone you love needing help to breathe through the night?

Before starting this life-prolonging indignity, though, I went on a road trip. Two days driving and staying at historic hotels, six days and nights at a poetry festival, then a night with Yvette Managan,  a kindred spirit and fellow editor (The Linnet's Wings), and a morning with Cormac Tully, who I first met when I was three and he was four (and a half!) Ten days away from Drago, my brother and housemate, Blossom, our dog  and Sam, our cat. I missed them and they missed me, but jeez louise, what a time I had!

On the way to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Delray Beach, I drove along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Panama City to Panacea (I know, right?) with sparkling blue water (well, it was sparkling and it was blue) on my right, tooling gently through small towns or no towns with minimal traffic and Paul Simon, The Band, and Amadeus Mozart to keep me company. I lost the shore for awhile after the Big Bend, but recovered it, on three sides (!), when I arrived in Cedar Key. I spent the night in the Richard Boone room at The Isand Hotel. The building dates from 1859, has survived 150 hurricanes and is said to be haunted by several of the dead, including a prostitute from the days when the place was a Speakeasy.  I took a long walk around the docks then had fresh clams and pasta for dinner. Outside my room was a second-story veranda with a view of the tiny town and the Gulf. There was no TV or phone in my room and I had an Alan Furst novel to start.  Just right.

Cedar Key, Florida
The only time I got lost on this trip was exactly where I thought I might lose my way. Now that I don't have a husband I can stay off Interstates and my route from Cedar Key to Lake Wales looked a little complicated when I studied my many maps. I love maps. Things went fine, however, until a road lost it's mind and instead of going south and east switched to south and west. I ended up in Tampa sprawl land. Not for so very long in real time it turned out, but, you know, when you're in the middle of being lost your perspective gets muddled.

Chalet Suzanne
Then, suddenly, farms, cows, orchards and, tired but once again peaceful, I found Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales. Before booking the room I'd argued with myself, briefly, about staying there. Expensive. But, I discovered, why not? Unlike much of what we get for our money, this was worth every penny. To me, mind you. Who is, after all, the one who counts. (Was that a pun? I can never do those and rarely even get them without some puzzling.) I had a huge, elegant, yet cosy and old-fashioned room! Maple-glazed duck (sorry Doctor Stokes) for dinner at a table with a lake view in a restaurant that was a magic palace of 1930's Mexican-influenced Turner Classic Movies Hollywood decor. The tables were laid with antique glass and china that didn't match in the classiest way possible. I had the best bath I've ever had! Whirlpool, of course! I could have, but didn't, go sky-diving from the little airplane parked on the tiny airstrip behind the hotel which was built for movie stars, astronauts and such! Susan Hayward stayed there!

I lingered at Chalet Suzanne in the morning. Oh, yes. But it wasn't all that hard to get back in my excellent 2005 Buick, because I only had a few hours to drive before I could check into The Colony Hotel and Cabana Club for a week of top-shelf poetry. That will be Part Two, though. At least.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Grant's Tomb?

Oh, look at this. They're planning to put Grant's Tomb on a Manhattan ghost tour.  It's worth a visit, I suppose-lovely location. It's up in Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson, in Morningside Heights. But there's nary a ghost. Across the street, now, in the original (1905) Juilliard building, and for that matter, further downtown in the "new" school, the one that opened in Lincoln Center in 1970, spirits abound.     

Sweet Sylvia, dead since 1935, plays her cello in a practice room on the third floor of the old building. In life, she'd been blessed with white blond hair, a tiny waist, strong shoulders and long fingers, but not with the talent to go through to her sophomore year. One night, when the bell sounded at midnight for the music students to leave, Sylvia quietly let old Mr. Metz, the janitor, lock her in. She took her mother's sleeping pills and played Chopin until the barbiturates killed her. Charles, a senior-year violinist, (who did go on to a distinguished career, by the way,) found her sprawled on her back, her heavy cello still between her legs. She and the other ghosts who don't want to leave the place sing, play piano, blow into their woodwinds, and beat their drums late at night or early in the morning, just when the young musicians (it's still a music conservatory) feel most alone in their practice rooms.

The Lincoln Center building has a different brand of spirits-livelier, if you will. As you must realize, in Manhattan, when new buildings go up, existing buildings must come down. The buildings to be demolished become unimportant to almost everyone. These, in the upper west sixties, were hardly given a swan song. They were tenements built in the 19th century for European immigrants. The dingy walk-ups got electricity and hot water in the 20th, but the neighborhood continued to be rough, very rough. Eventually Puerto Ricans joined the ethnic mix, and Leonard Bernstein used the ferociously difficult lives of those who lived there to create "West Side Story" in 1957. They actually filmed the movie on the same streets the city planners tore up only a few years later. So, the ghosts of kids like Tony, Maria, Bernardo, and Riff hang out in the new Juilliard building. They like being around the students, especially the dancers and actors. At the grand opening of the new school, the floors of the dance studios were found scuffed with black heel marks, the mirrors were smeared, as if by lounging backs and shoulders, and the smell of cigarettes hung in the air. The horrified building manager swore he'd found everything in perfect condition when he'd made his final check and locked the doors the night before. Oh, he was telling the truth. The neighborhood ghosts didn't come calling until the construction crews, the finishers, the plumbers and electricians had left, their work completed, and all was ready for the big day. 

To this day no student of music, dance, or drama wants to be the last out of the Lincoln Center building or the first to enter. We ghosts don't care for the first floor, with its security desk, bright lights and soulless acres of empty indoor space,  but we love the second and third floor practice rooms, dance and drama studios, and the student cafeteria. Some of us lurk in the dressing rooms (there will always be those types, even well after death.) 

As for me-I've made my home away from life in Alice Tully Hall, the school's main theater. Sometimes I head uptown to the old school for a brief visit to the place where I was so young, passionate, and healthy-I attended Juilliard in both locations, you know. But I died while performing in Alice Tully. It happened in the spring of my senior year. I was doing my best to be brilliant in a new work, choreographed by a young Dutch genius. (I was crazy about him.) The dance ended with me running up a narrow staircase to my partner, who was to lift me even higher over his head. Have you guessed? The idiot dropped me and I broke my neck. Died instantly. I'm glad of that. I could have lived on, but paralyzed or in a coma. No, death is better. I hear the music, attend the plays, help the dancers lift their legs a bit higher, occasionally scare the bejeezus out of a teacher who's gone too far in his or her tirade. Once I got over my own rage at having been, literally, dropped, I've been fairly content and mostly kind. I've learned so much about all kinds of New Yorkers, too-not just the Ivory Tower crowd. 

No, Ulysses and Julia left their tomb right after the crowds dispersed. They were pleased by the turn-out, but had no wish to hang around. Who'd want to haunt their grave? They'd been all over the world, while they were alive, you know. They'd even met Queen Victoria! They've continued traveling and have a weakness for castles, which of course, are on plenty of ghost tours. So, they have fun. Yes, I think the Juilliard buildings would be good, good choices for visitors who like the ghoulish. They might hear music from an empty practice room, see a bright streak cross a dark stage, or smell a dancer's sweat- maybe even mine.