The weather has been so delightful lately, that I realized it was time to invite people to visit Southern California before it’s too late and we are either roasting alive or dying of thirst, LOL! These are my insider’s tips on visiting La-La land: the only five places you will need to know to party like a native. 😉
New York is the place to visit in autumn, as I wrote last year. Spring is the time to visit LA. When I was reflecting on Los Angeles, and trying to summarize what it is about LA that is so attractive to people — apart from endless sunshine, that is, natch — the word seductive came to mind.
A few years ago, I read this book about France and the French character. It is worth reading just to see how differently the French look at everyday life, relationships, food, tourists, Americans etc. Not to say that they are right or wrong, necessarily but truly it is a culture apart. France is seductive.
Los Angeles is like that. Someone should write a book about it (note to self). Unlike NYC that instantly triggers love or hate, Los Angeles sidles up to you and lures you in with that sultry come hither environment that allows everyone to be utterly, nakedly themselves. And that is no mere metaphor. You have permission to be as uninhibited and as outrageously ‘you’, as you want here — and that is what I love most about this city, its welcoming diversity.
There are three urban hubs that you need to hit if you want to understand California. In some ways it should be two or three states. San Francisco and San Diego are distinctive megalopolises with their own sphere of influence and mindsets. You won’t get to know or understand all three, by just visiting one of them.
People everywhere are drawn to Los Angeles, but not for the beaches, because, honestly, there are others far more beautiful. If you are looking for the ideal beach environment, go to Cape Cod, Monterey, the Northeastern coast of Brazil or the Caribbean. Don’t come to LA for that.
People love Los Angeles because of its gigantic entertainment industry and the allure of being close to the stars. If you are a wannabe, the magnetism of LA is powerful and rightly so. But, I think the true main attraction of LA is that, you can park philosophies and ideologies at the threshold when you land at LAX and step into a completely welcoming, accepting culture that signals immediately: anything goes. Relax, have a great time. Not a Hawaii-lie-around-the-pool great time. A get-out-there-and-have-a-ball. Mingle, go to barbecues, hit the club scene, do a night on the town. Be free to enjoy yourself, however you like. Angelenos are incredibly outgoing and friendly, right away. They don’t need time to warm up to you. For a transplanted NYer it was palpable immediately. Smiles and welcomes, sincere ones, not papier-mâché politeness, characterizes the citizenry.
Last week, my cousin was in Los Angeles on an assignment. She always stays at the London West Hollywood. Claire and I chatted in her sleek ultra-modern suite and then went up to the roof patio for dinner. It was a beautiful clear day looking out over LA on the top floor of the hotel in late afternoon. As we were sitting there gabbing, afloat over the city, evening fell, draping everything with its violet shawl. All around us was a crystal view of the sprawl that is the LA metropolis, its lights flickering on and the stars popping out overhead. Some miles to the east, Downtown appeared as a cluster of glittering stacks that huddled together like intimate giants sharing a secret. Farther along Wilshire, Century City was gazing across the concourse toward Westwood. It was pure magic.
Come to Los Angeles between April and July. Summers here are too brutal now, the autumn is unremarkable and the winters, well, they can be misty and dull.
Here is where I would start. Stay at one of the newly restored more affordable hotels Downtown or on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. There is a lot to do at night on this stretch of the Strip. If you like off-off-off Broadway entertainment, lol, the Strip is the place to go. Start at the Whiskey. You can walk to it from the London WH, and frankly, that is where I would stay. Rooms average about US$350, reasonable by LA standards. The other advantage you would have is being able to get to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, the Melrose restaurant row very easily, even using LA’s notoriously limited public transportation. I have ridden the Metro bus and train system locally and they are clean, air conditioned, safe and comfortable. Not like London, Paris or NY, not efficient, fast and ubitquitous, but good. You can even get to Downtown and Pasadena using public transportation, from a central hub of West Hollywood. Hollywood itself is also east on Sunset, so you couldn’t ask for a better place as home base.
Not to oversell this location, you can also take Sunset to Santa Monica, Brentwood and Venice Beach. Although, as I will explain in a minute, I would suggest the South Bay or Beach Cities instead. They are far more exemplary of what Angelenos consider beach living, while Santa Monica and Venice are for tourists.
From the hub you choose, I would visit the following places, depending on how much time you have:
- Downtown, LA
- West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose
- South Bay beach cities: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach
- Beverly Hills/Westwood
As you plan your visit, just remember the LA Golden rule:
Everything is always 45 minutes away from everything else …
Downtown, as I have said previously somewhere on this blog, is really hopping now. If there is a happening place in LA, DT is it. It is packed with restaurants, clubs, bars, loft-hotels and entertainment. The Disney Concert Hall, the Chandler Pavillion complex and other similar venues for traditional theater- and concert-going are at the north end. There are museums and cathedrals as well as the very trendy and cool Grand Central Market that is worth an afternoon of eating and coffee in itself.
There is also a fab Art Walk that takes you around to galleries and the hidden creative underground/grunge that makes LA appealing for millennials right now, from burning men to urban hipsters. The Natural History Museum and the Staples Center are at the bottom of DT LA and both are worth the trip. Just walk up and down the north/south artery of Figueroa and you will see a history of architecture from the 18th through the 21st centuries, rising on either side of you. While you are doing that, make sure to stop at Fig&7th to have a snack or a drink and get in a bit of shopping. Just a block or two north and you can eat at the famous, original Pantry, continuously open since 1924. Or take Wilshire from DT, via the Metros, all the way West to the beach, and watch the progress of the city the automobile built, materialize as you go.
And while you are there, make sure you have afternoon English tea at the Biltmore Hotel. It is an LA institution and I guarantee you will gape at the world’s glitterati parading around you as they stream into DT in droves, snapping up refurbished buildings to re-rent out or install start-ups. It is very reasonably priced at about $200 per night for old world luxury.
When we are DT, we eat at various places. You can always grab a bite at the Grand Central Market, with all its many food stalls. If you are deep in the dough, try the Water Grill for perfect food in a flawless upscale environment. If, like us, you are on a budget, head to the Fisherman’s Outlet. An LA legend is Philippe’s for sandwiches.
West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose I probably don’t need to tell you too much about this part of LA, West of Downtown. This is the hub of the night scene. There is shopping, of course, with a robust array of boutiques and galleries. But clubs and restaurants are the main draw. The Viper Room, Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy Theatre and all sorts of sky bars are strung along Sunset. Just drop your stuff at the hotel and head out in either direction on the Boulevard and you will stumble on them. Whenever I am in this area and I have time, I make my way over to Little Ethiopia for lunch. Not only is it affordable, it is exotic and exquisite food made and served by natives. Try Messob, my fave.
Pasadena may be a bit more staid but for my money, skip the Getty and the LACMA and head straight to the Norton Simon Museum, Gamble House, Asia Pacific Museum and Huntington Library and gardens that stretch from one end of Old Pasadena to the other. There is more shopping and eating in Pasadena, with every kind of food from all over the world, than in any place outside of DT LA. It is a beautiful, pristine, elegant old city that has been updated and now boasts an influx of condo dwellers at an unprecedented rate. Every possible kind of entertainment is available and you can walk to it, from the Metro which has several stations in Old Town. Definitely check out The Pasadena Playhouse for live theater, as well as various cinema complexes up and down the main east-west thoroughfare — especially at The Paseo –, Colorado Boulevard. You can attend free concerts all summer at the Levitt Pavilion or the symphony at the stunning, world class Ambassador Auditorium.
Make sure you stop by the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, Vromans and have a homemade sundae at the 100 year old Fairoaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena. Eat dinner at the incomparable El Cholo, for Mexican food, SoCal style.
Southbay/The Beach Cities This may be a bit out of the way, unless you have a car. If so, head west on Sunset to the 405/San Diego Freeway and points south. Get off at Rosecrans and go west to Pacific Coast Highway, turning south again. You will be in Manhattan Beach, the largest of the three. Turn right on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and take it down to the Ocean. There you will find yourself amid the real coupon-clipping laid back millionaires that teem all over this part of LA. These are the Angelenos who never work. Everywhere around you will be bronzed blonds zipping along in Italian convertibles. There are literally dozens of places to eat, in every price range, as well as boutiques and bars. But, of course, as you rise over the crest of the hill on MB Blvd., you will see the Pacific gleaming and winking ahead of you. Bring a towel and beach wear. This is the place to watch the roller-bladers gliding along The Strand in front of the multi-million dollar manses that perch at the sand’s edge. Take your margarita down there and imagine what life would be like if you had nothing to do every day but gaze out at the ocean liners and Catalina, while your help kept you supplied with refreshments.
MBch is the best kept secret in the Southland. Try the ancient Kettle for lunch and Love&Salt for dinner. Farther down PCH pointing south is Hermosa Beach. Like Manhattan, it is for play not work, but trendier, younger, hipper and more bohemian. Finally, a bit farther down is Redondo Beach. It has the Pier and attracts an older, quieter crowd. You can’t go wrong with any of the three. Hermosa has a comedy club that is actually fabulous. You never know who is going to do a gig there, often well known comics, so check before you go and reserve a seat.
Beverly Hills/ Bel Air/ Westwood I typically avoid the first two. By the way, Century City is in this area but it is largely businesses and residential. There is not much there to recommend you spend time in CC when you could be Downtown, in Manhattan Beach, or Pasadena. Beverly Hills needs little introduction. If mansion-crawling is your thing, just go west on Sunset from West Hollywood, and you will be in Bel Air in ten minutes. It is self-explanatory once you see the sign (you can’t miss it). If you find yourself in Bel Air, visit the North side of the UCLA campus, the old part of this 419 acre magnificat. You shouldn’t waste time looking at houses in BH, the main attraction of which is that Sultanic mecca known as Rodeo Drive. By the way, if you want to stay in this part of LA and actually go to the LACMA anyway, you can stay at the iconic Beverly Wilshire (Pretty Woman). But, it’s pricey.
Don’t bother eating in BH either. Overpriced, overhyped, mediocre food. No celebs will be eating there, just tourists. Eat instead in Westwood, the home village of UCLA, SoCal’s other premiere University (beside CalTech). There are so many fantastic places to eat in Westwood, I would need another post for them. Our favorite is Native Foods.
Ok, ok, I hear you saying, but what if I absolutely must tell people I ate in Beverly Hills and money is no object? Then absolutely, you have to go to Crustacean, if for nothing else, the experience of the place. You won’t be sorry — broke, but happy. If you just need to use a restroom and grab a snack so you won’t faint while shopping, go to Neiman Marcus, located on Wilshire.
Then head over to Westwood, gape at billionaire’s row on Wilshire as you approach the Westwood Village, and rest on the UCLA south campus after all this activity.
By the way, there are three more items you might want to consider: LAX, Burbank Airport and Union Station. If you want to start in the South Bay and see these three beautiful and entertaining beach cities, by all means fly into LAX. They are just 15 minutes south on the 405 Freeway. If you want to start in Pasadena or West Hollywood? Use the very nice, easy, safe Burbank Airport, you will be just minutes away from both. If you plan to start Downtown, consider taking Amtrak to Union Station and see a classic with one of the best restaurants anywhere, Traxx.
That’s it. If you just hit those five key spots, you will be immersed in LA and totally ‘get it’ ever after.
Images: Beth Byrnes, The London West Hollywood and The Examiner
It took a visit from Charlotte to remind me that I owe you all the conclusion to this story, so, finally, here it is.
The drive near the wedding destination was lovely. The entire road is flanked by magnificent estates, some with buildings that have been in place for a century or more, others newly built to the same level of grandeur. All hovering around 100 acres. If you aren’t a billionaire, you don’t even house hunt here.
We dropped the bags at the hotel (I had a bed added to my room for Anna, who would get dressed with me), threw ourselves into the shower and then jumped back into the behemoth to race to the outdoor dinner.
The bride and groom thoughtfully put two bottles of champagne, slippers and robes in every guest room at the inn.
The roads are very small, old and winding. And, of course, just when we got there, the skies opened and poured rain. I didn’t even try to get any pictures of the festivities that night, but it was all a joy. Good food, great family and friends, the best atmosphere right on the water. It was perfect.
The next day we decided to take advantage of nearby shops and grab lunch in town. What a charming village! I purposely left my wallet in the room and took cash to protect myself from what I knew could be a feast of riches to which I am all to prone to indulge. It was a good thing too. All I managed to do was snag a pair of Donald Pliner shoes (he is one of my favorite designers along with Sesto Meucci and Jon Josef.) Naturally I signed up for the mailing list at the store and so now I can walk leisurely through the inventory from home. Sort of defeated my initial admirable discipline, lol.
We still couldn’t decide what shoes Anna was going to wear, being the fussy little fashionista she is. We had to get back and drop her off for the rehearsal and photographers at my soon-to-be nephew’s home.
When in doubt, have several choices, so Anna and her retinue arrived to great applause with a trail of people carrying her outfits. We had to keep reminding her that my niece was the real star of the weekend.
It is hard to know what to expect when invited to a series of events like this one. None of us could anticipate it. Now, I did grow up with people who ran in these circles. I was no stranger to the country club, winter in NYC, summer at the summer beach estate crowd. But nothing prepared us for the scale and imagination that went into this weekend. Suffice to say, we spent a small fortune to go — we could have had a brand new car or trip to Europe for the same money — but we all came away feeling like we were royalty and every penny was worth it.
Why? Not just the sumptuous nature of each element of celebrations, but the warmth, welcome, tender and thoughtful care my new nephew’s family put into the entire occasion. They truly are the epitome of kindness and generosity. I like to think that this is the soul of the progressive movement: sharing one’s success with others, unselfishly. My niece is an only child and she just joined a large, effusive, enveloping family who treat her (and us) as if they have known us all our lives and are meant to look out for us as well. She and we couldn’t be luckier and Deanna, Al and I are so grateful that we decided to go and bask in it all.
As is typical in the summer in the Northeast, it rained off and on that Saturday. I had come prepared with fancy umbrellas and sparkling party shoes that were water-resistant. I nervously asked my niece if they were prepared for rain. Hah! The minute the words escaped my mouth, I knew the answer. She said, calmly, with a twinkle, “Aunt Beth, not one drop of rain will touch you, unless you want it to …”. Hmm. How’s that possible, I thought, as I imagined the long driveway and looked out at the deluge during the party the night before. But, when we pulled up, no less than six attendants rushed to the Murano, each opening a door and over head were the most enormous umbrellas I have ever seen. They looked like mobile canopies. I daintily stepped out, bravely leaving my own coverings behind, donned my original shoes — white and glittering — and was ushered to a long, covered path, festooned with lush flowers and sparkling lights, covered in rich white velvet.
In front of me was a long white line of guests, all of us (save one — more on that later) obediently attired in satins, silks, organzas, linens of every shade of neutral you could conceive. There were hundreds of us and the effect against the white mansion and white foam of the sea beyond the lawns was magical. On those lawns were giant decorative bins equipped with individual oversized silk flowered parasols in white, just in case we wanted to wander around the estate, rainless! Amid the lavish seating areas with — presumably — water proof couches, lounge chairs and oversized cushions — were attendants bearing white and gold platters of food and drinks. Also were flower-twined swings and entertainers. Some on stilts, some with animals, others juggling attired in top hats and bedazzled satin costumes in white, black, and deep blood red. It was a visual thunderclap as we rounded each curve to a new and more astonishing scene.
The family constructed an entire raised building on their rear lawn abutting the Atlantic, just for this one party. It had soaring ceilings, was entirely made of glass walls on all sides, held together by a slender steel frame. The floor was carpet and wood. There were dressing rooms with water closets attached, for ladies and gentlemen and inside were gleaming black and white tables interspersed with full sized game animals from Africa.
It looked like a safari soiree, exotic, mysterious, and celebratory. You couldn’t see one end from the other. And on one side stretched the glittering Atlantic, a calm steel gray but dotted with white foam that made it seem as if the ocean was dancing to the live music all afternoon, as it melted into evening, then a black velvet night when the stars appeared somehow right on cue, the clouds having long swept past.
All afternoon and evening, attendants circulated with beverages and delicacies. It seemed impossible to imagine eating dinner, but when the time finally came to sit down, we were treated to the meal one would expect. Sometimes it is hard to envision how food can be elevated to such a new height as to be memorable, but they achieved it this night. Honestly, despite all the places I have eaten, all over the globe, this might have been the tastiest yet.
People milled around, going in and out, all evening long. As the sun set, there was entertainment everywhere you wandered, on the estate. Of course the bar was open, but beverages appeared at your wrist just as you were thinking about them, no matter where you went. Every need was anticipated and beyond this, there was the clear intention of creating joy and delighting the guests. There was not one mishap through the two weeks over which the events stretched, right up to the time we boarded our plane again, filled with memories of the East Coast and our good fortune to have been invited to what has to be the most lavish and imaginative wedding ever held on this continent.
I can’t even begin to describe the live (of course!) music. To start the evening off there was a full classical orchestra. That was followed by blues singers with appropriate instrumental accompaniment, including two grand pianos. Next up: jazz, hip hop, rap, oldies, rock, pop — the stage changed continuously, and if you slipped outside and made your way back along the covered path, you would be privy to acts lining up and ready to file in and perform. We got to see a lot of them up close and personal this way. Everyone was moving, hopping, snapping their fingers, dancing — the entire place was alive with activity and fun, all evening and into the early hours of Sunday morning. Some people never left.
There were guests of honor, celebrities (some of whom you may recognize in these frames), lots of family and friends. The bride and groom had an enormous retinue with 22 bridesmaids and grooms who had all been treated to a day of pampering in preparation for the multiple events. Most of them in their 20s, it must have seemed like a dream.
At some point during the evening, after the dinner plates (including divine desserts) were cleared away, long tables appeared with a variety of stations serving cheeses, cotton candy of all flavors, ice creams with a wild array of toppings, chocolate truffles circulated on gleaming trays, and there was a coffee and tea bar, along with the ever present aperitif bar. No one seemed to notice the time. Everyone was up and dancing or outside enjoying all the entertainment.
It seems that dancing and celebrating burn off calories effortlessly. I didn’t think I could consume another bite but I did and so all this bounty was welcome. Our hosts thought of everything. There was even a design your own candy area.
When I say there was entertainment, I am vastly understating what took place. After multiple musical groups, Cirque du Soleil appeared and performed a private show, customized to the Safari theme. Everyone stood in a circle and gaped.
Aerial acts dropped from the ceiling noiselessly. On the stage we were treated to snake charmers and contortionists. Out on the lawn were people tossing fire balls into the air and juggling them amid self-illuminated gigantic glass globes that glowed and created an other-worldly environment that is hard to describe in mere words. There were also flaming swords that performers dipped in and out of their mouths, making all of us swallow hard! At least, I know I did.
In the midst of all this excitement, we met with some amazing close friends of the family and got a chance to chat with them. They are such lovely people.
It was a rare opportunity to thank two Presidents (one who served eight years and one who won but was denied the chance to move this country forward, by an unfortunate vestige of colonial political atrophy) for their lifelong service to this country and humanity. Here is the one person (apart from the bride and groom) not attired all in white (above). This was likely so the secret service could identify his whereabouts at all times.
Anna was one of the stars of the evening. She not only led the wedding ceremony, she danced her heart out and the groom announced her to be the evening’s winner. That is just how generous he and my niece are. At one point during the evening, Anna showed off her break dancing skills as a circle formed around her, everyone clapping and laughing uproariously.
I left just before midnight and the party went on until Sunday morning. At some point during the evening, before I left, I watched as three enormous barges appeared on the water. Within fifteen minutes, the most spectacular display of fireworks I have ever witnessed, began. All custom to the symbols the bride and groom designed for the event.
I only had my cell phone camera and could barely do justice to what unfolded. In hindsight, I could have brought my camera — other people did. But, the family’s photographers later shared over 1500 stunning photographs with us. I printed and framed a number of them so Anna would have them for the future when she realizes how fortunate she was to be a part of this blowout revelry.
It was hard to drag ourselves away. Deanna and I left “early”. Al and Anna stayed all night and were up and at it the next morning. Everyone was invited back to the estate for a sumptuous breakfast, laid out on spotless white linens with all the offerings one could imagine. Omelets to order, of course, crepes, pancakes, meats, all sorts of cheeses, fruits, potatoes, breads and pastries. You name it, it was there. We got a chance to tell the groom how touched we were by all of it, but most of all, the vows he wrote to my niece. If I were to identify the most moving and eloquent tribute to a woman ever written, his speech would have to be in the top ten. It was poetry and magic. I hope he will always view her this way. She deserves it.
We had to be at Newark Airport by 3 pm, so we grabbed a quick bite (delicious!), said our goodbyes and rushed back down that tortuous Route 95, again stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. I thought LA was bad! Before we left, we took some last pictures of the spectacular home that my niece will be enjoying for the rest of her life. I cannot tell you how happy I am for her that she will share the long and unpredictable life’s journey ahead of her with these supportive and caring people. The way they embraced all of us, and especially Anna, shows you who they really are. Money does not mean selfishness. Selfish people choose to behave that way. Generous people choose the opposite in all respects. If we learned nothing else, we saw that in real time, vividly illustrated.
As we boarded the plane, exhausted and yet exhilarated, we chattered about the events of the past two weeks. No trip we have planned (one upcoming to France) could possibly match this one. We all got to return home where we feel the most like ourselves. We met people who embodied all the best values in the world (kindness, love, welcome, generosity, compassion, joy, positivity, inclusiveness) and even got a chance to thank people we admired from afar. It was an opportunity to see what the imagination can do when the budget is unlimited — that was just for fun. We all agreed we can take pleasure in simple things. But it’s nice to indulge our fantasies, every once in a while, or once in a lifetime.
I thought I would get back to this set much earlier, but honestly the last few months have been frantic. Just being away during the summer for two weeks made everything else late and I was squeezed for time. I apologize!
Where were we? Ah, at Breads, snagging pastries and sandwiches to go on what was probably the most hectic day of the whole trip. We had planned a series of stops to visit old haunts and eat, of course. After Breads, we were headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right around the corner from where Deanna and I went to school decades ago. Anna wanted to see the Egyptian exhibit. I was anxious to fit in a stop at Zabars, but Breads essentially took the oxygen out of that idea (though they are very, very different).
We snaked through Central Park, trying to eat as we drove (always a bad idea). Whenever I was at a stop sign, I whipped out the cell cameras to take whatever shots I could. For us, it was all very familiar and I am happy to say, little has changed on either the Upper West or East Sides.
Deanna estimated they would be at the Met for about 45 minutes. Hah! It turned into almost two hours, because there were long lines for everything. But, to avoid having to pay $25 for the privilege of one-hour parking up there, I thought I would just double park on 81st Street and eat my sandwich in peace while they whipped around the Museum.
Double parking is not for the faint hearted. You should have obscure license plates (check! New Jersey plates on my chariot) and a small, non-descript, nimble little car. Uh. Not so much. The black Murano looked like a Mafia limo. Wherever I tried to put it, it stuck out into the old, small, patrician street like a German tank. I kept moving it around, trying to be unobtrusive and finally found what I thought was the perfect camouflage by a hydrant, in front of a large “cleaning” company van at the front door of an exquisitely appointed greystone manse.
It would have been perfect, had it not been for a diplomatic skirmish that brought a fleet of black-and-whites to that very spot, not fifteen minutes after I had spread my lunch out daintily all over my very upscale travelling duds — all in black and white silk and linen which enjoyed a suction action for crumbs like I have never known before. I was not only in a darkly tinted suspect-looking armorium, but I was covered in detritus and looking rather wild to boot. For almost 40 minutes, I was hemmed in by police, while trying to crane my neck non-chalantly to see what the fuss was about. I detail it on my Flickr pages for this same series, if you are interested.
Since I had nothing to do but wait for all this to subside, I tried to entertain myself by listening to talk radio. Always a mistake. By the end of it, my blood pressure was circling the cloud-cover over the city, I had mild indigestion for wolfing down a complex combo of Maghrebi delicacies, and I was teetering at all times on the brink of a $300 ticket for doubling parking in a foreign mission zone.
By the time Deanna and Anna came bubbling and bouncing down 81st, brimming with extolations for the exhibit, I was a virtual rag. No time for Serendipity and that vaunted ice cream sundae I had been bribing Anna with all week. We had to hit the road for the 50 drive north to the next hotel and be crisp, rested, and festive for that night’s party. Yes, 50 miles/50 minutes give or take. What could go wrong, right? It was only 2 pm when we hit the FDR Drive for what I assured Anna would be a scenic drive up into New England.
Never promise anything, especially to a precocious and high-demand 7 year old!
The drive had to be diverted off the river-hugging FDR and rerouted up through Harlem. Oh. Dear. No.
Now, I have no real problem driving through Harlem from time to time. But, it can be a bit dicey. Three small women in an enormously obtrusive black monster stopped at lights and trying not to stare nor avert a stare is a challenge. Just saying. We made it through, but my nails were digging into the pillows on the steering wheel.
That was the least of our problems. The I-95 is one of the oldest, narrowest, most residential, and least vehicle-friendly roads on earth. There are no shoulders, no extra lanes, no meridien, nothing. Just two skinny asphalt ribbons (for most of it) in each direction for miles and miles and miles out of NYC, to the Canadian border. Add to this any accident and all vehicles come to a complete stop. There is no place to push the car off to. If there are two cars or hades forbid, a truck, and they stop in both lanes — well, you get the picture.
That’s what happened on this particular Friday at what was now the middle of Manhattan exodus hour. Our GPS stewardess took us off the freeway and onto local roads. That was a double-edged sword. It was the only way around what was apparently a five-vehicle pile-up on the northbound side (ours) that had happened a full two hours before we approached the spot itself. That is apparently how long it takes for emergency vehicles to access and clear the problem. We got to see the breathtakingly beautiful residential neighborhoods that flank the freeway north of the City and into Connecticut. Many of them had names with which I was endearingly familiar from my days headed up to school in Upstate New York. On any other day, I would have relished seeing these places again. But, the 50 minute trip took 3 hours.
We dragged ourselves to the hotel at the last minute and of course, the sky opened up in the process, as we took all our “fancy” bags, one by one, from the very distant spot where we had to park, up the perilously steep stone steps of the historic Inn where we were staying that night. Checking in, we had exactly 30 minutes to transform ourselves into New England socialites and get to the party venue on the water, on the other side of town.
That’s when Anna announced that she could not wear the shoes her mother chose for her dress. Just absolutely could not be caught dead in them. So, on the way, we had to find a store with children’s party shoes that would go with her outfit, fit, and satisfy her princessian tastes.
Are you nervous yet?
Well, from one glorious city to another. Here we are in my hometown, New York City. I grew up in Manhattan on Sutton Place and my parents had a house at the Jersey Shore. So, this trip was a homecoming. I plan to cover this epic celebration in three parts. By the way, I didn’t take a camera (high security events) instead bringing two new cell phones, each with amazing cameras, and took the pictures you will see here and in the next two installments.
As you may recall, my niece invited us to her wedding to the son of a prominent billionaire. It was a hard decision to make at first, whether to go or skip it, but we decided to go after all. And all of us are so glad we did. Deanna, Anna, Al, and I went. Geoffrey stayed home with Kevin and the animals. It worked out well for all of us.
The four of us who went are all Northeasteners (well, Anna is a Tarheel, technically). It was old home week. We flew to Newark Airport (my fave), rented an enormous black 2018 Murano (fantastic SUV), piled a freakish amount of luggage into the back, and headed to the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street at Central Park in the city.
I have already mentioned (and it is in my Fall sticky post) that I love The Wales on Madison and 92nd Street, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for its European boutique hotel qualities and the gorgeous, elegant Carnegie Hill neighborhood where it is located.
But, the many parties scheduled as part of this two-week extravaganza were being held all over the city and parts beyond, so we picked the Plaza for its central location.
One is never disappointed with the Plaza. We had a luxurious suite on a high floor and enjoyed the sybaritic pampering a great hotel provides. They weren’t nonplussed by the bags either. We all made sure to take the best ones we had, dressed for comfort and glam (well, Deanna and I, anyway), and felt right back at home.
Deanna grew up in Tribeca, so she did the hipster end of things; I made sure I looked very Upper East Side. It was fun. Al was Al, wearing the same sloppy clothes he wore in prep school and like all comfortable professionals who enjoyed the proverbial silver spoon, paid no attention to what he wore whatsoever. Now that’s self-confidence!
The week in Manhattan and environs was a crazy chaotic mix of rushing from one event to another, finding parking, battling traffic, sightseeing, nostalgia treks, and eating. How we did it I don’t know, but we were motivated.
If I were to tell you I had no idea what a billionaire’s wedding could be like, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. Nothing I could have dreamed up could possibly come close to the way they did this, which I will probably elaborate on a bit more in the next post.
Meanwhile, we ate our way through Manhattan.
We went to some old standbys but also to a few new ones like Breads, an Israeli bakery chain with three shops in Manhattan. In addition to having the most incredible breads, including all the usual specialties like Challah and Babka, there are sandwiches, spreads, pastries, cookies, soups and salads — all delicious and unique.
I was dying to try their Tunisian Sandwich and so we all went there and stuffed ourselves, bringing back bags of baked goods jammed into our suitcases.
As we rushed from the tip to the top of the city, we were all struck by how much new building was going on, particularly the stunning new neighborhood that has replaced the run down “meat market” of the Chelsea district of Manhattan on the West Side. It’s now filled with beautiful futuristic architecture and an elevated pedestrian play ground called the High Line that runs on for about a mile and a half.
The High Line is flanked by new co-op and rental luxury apartments, office buildings, and upscale shops and restaurants. All are one story above ground level and spreading. There are views of the Hudson River to the West and proximity to some of the newest urban richster watering holes with all the latest cafes, design-your-own juice bars, sky clubs, rocking music hideaways — the works — that any 21st century sensibility could want. We all agreed, if we were to move back to the City, we would live in Hudson Yards.
And to make matters even more fun, while we were idling waiting for our iced frappucinos to be ready, Michael Avenatti walked right past us! Deanna wanted me to talk to him, but I am not star struck and figured he wouldn’t necessarily like to be way-laid on his brisk walk to some chill destination. It would be just like Avenatti to live in Hudson yards. Dressed in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt, he looked exactly as he does on television but larger than life, somehow.
We sped down to Ground Zero to see the Freedom Tower, then to Battery Park Conservancy so Anna could ride on the SeaGlass Carousel there. Then we visited the Maiden Lane building on Wall Street that Geoff’s father had bought, with his 70th floor penthouse office, so Anna could see that too. Then we raced up Broadway to hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art so Deanna could take Anna to the Egyptian Room there.
And this was just the first few days! I will try not to wear you out all at once. More coming up in Parts Two and Three, so stay with me.
Images: Chez BeBe Assets: New York City
All summer long I have been thinking of all of you and meaning to add a new post. I hope you have all been well.
One of the things that has prompted this post is the fact that our best friends in the neighborhood, who arrived on our street when we did years back, are moving to a fancier, cooler part of Los Angeles. It was funny when I found out, as I saw them bustling around the front yard and trucks pulling up to haul away boxes, that I felt a strange sense of being abandoned.
Probably some of the reason is they are the only other openly progressive people on our block. Another reason is they did so many thoughtful things for us over the years, and we tried to reciprocate. They aren’t selling, but renting the house out for an obscene amount of money — which is a good thing, because where they are going, it will take an equally obscene amount of money.
We had been thinking about moving too. Not to somewhere else in LA (I do plan to move to the Channel Islands neighborhood of Oxnard some day, just to get closer to the water and more temperate climes) but completely out of the country. You probably know why.
One place high on our list has always been Canada, especially Vancouver Island. Another was Denmark, but I have decided being too close to Putinville is not smart. Deanna just got back from a trip to Ireland, screaming its praises. Since we are all Irish (well, half, anyway), that sounded good to me. Our problem is the business that sustains us, Geoffrey and me, is not portable. Deanna and Al can go anywhere. Sigh.
So, then I thought about the places I love in this country (except for the people who apparently think it is a good idea to take children away from their parents and then terrorize them. Why would I want to be around Americans like these?).
Everyone knows how I feel about New York, both Upstate and down. I really like San Diego — truly a hidden gem. North Carolina is gorgeous, but, well, we won’t discuss it right now. Vermont? Used to love it, but can’t stand guns and that is a big gun state. Massachusetts — meh, too expensive. Love Boston but can’t afford it. Washington State’s a possibility, but if I go that far, I might as well keep right on going to Vancouver.
Back to California, the lone state that has its head screwed on straight. Where else do I love in California? San Francisco. Yup, Oakland is where I would live, but there is something special about Rice-a-Roni town that nowhere else can match.
We took a trip this past winter because I had to attend a professional conference. Geoffrey, Deanna, Al, their kids and I piled into my new Volvo and drove up. That was grueling — six hours of flat land and fog.
We were wrung out by the time we arrived, but it is amazing how the sight of the Bay Bridge revived us and we stayed up all that night, eating!
If you are going to travel between Los Angeles and the Bay area, try to take the coastal, not the inland, route. Far more interesting. It adds hours and you will want to stop overnight. I would do that in Big Sur. Stay at the Ventana Inn — treat yourself to a hot tub under the stars and fabulous food.
Just a suggestion. If you are in a super hurry, take the 5 Freeway north all the way, stopping halfway at Harris Ranch for food and fuel.
Clean, lovely (when the wind is in the right direction — it’s a working cattle farm) and comfortable. When we were there, we saw eleven Teslas lined up, charging, as there is a free station there and a lounge just for Tesla owners. It was cool. None of us were smart enough to take a picture, so you will have to use your imagination.
A trip to San Francisco in the winter immerses one in a panoply of atmospheres. It was variably foggy, mizzly (misty drizzle), sunny, hot, cool, dry and soft. Luckily the temperature doesn’t drop or rise too much, so a light sweater and water-resistant shoes will do the trick. No one uses umbrellas in California. Remember that or you will scream turista.
Typically, we stay in the East Bay (Oakland-Berkeley). But, the conference was in Embarcadero, so I chose the Marriott Marquis on Mission Street. Such a fabulous hotel — really a mini-city on about three square blocks above and below ground. All the lectures and meetings were subterranean in a labyrinth of corridors and rooms that the hotel smartly planned so they could maximize their footprint.
There was a fire drill at one point (false alarm, actually) and we were rushed out of our lecture, down winding halls and up a short flight of stairs, emerging at a park blocks and blocks away from the front entrance to the hotel.
What I love about the Marriotts is how customer-oriented they are. You simply drive up and attendants rush out to take care of your every need. We had an embarrassing number of bags and other paraphernalia. It took three of those enormous rolling brass carts to take all our things up to the rooms. We actually got a suite. What luxury (but so reasonably priced, we were sure they made a mistake). If you can, go when your have some affiliation with a group.
The other behavioral specialists who organized the convention/conference, ordered a huge block of accommodations that made it all so affordable that the suite came out to be the price of a regular room. We didn’t have a great view, but we had a full kitchen, huge marble bathroom, and beds galore. Enormous closets, icemaker in the room. It was almost sybaritic, despite being ordinary.
The location in Embarcadero couldn’t have been more ideal. We were surrounded by museums and shops, restaurants, stores, interesting sights, the list was almost endless. There was the usual eclectic architecture, iconic cable cars, China Town, Little Italy, the wharf — all within walking distance.
The hotel itself had three or four places to eat, including a skybar and restaurant with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city that everyone crowds into at sunset.
If you travel to San Francisco, you won’t need guide books or my recommendations. Your phone has it all and no one can compete with the updates. Just ask for, let’s say, Indian food near you or great coffee (Peets is it!) and you will be within a few feet of all the best places, I assure you. Luckily, if you choose this part of town, there will be many excellent possibilities in every category.
What else do I love about this town? Friendly animal-loving people, open-minded, fun-loving, tolerant, helpful, unfazed by anything. No one judges you, just like NYC. What a cultural mecca loaded with libraries and the arts. I cannot think of a single thing it is missing — maybe snow. How’s that for a deal?
Building is in progress everywhere, the old and the new blending seamlessly. Yes, there are homeless people and everyone seems to accept them and not make them feel like freaks. Yes, there are people with blue hair and elbow rings, practically naked, or adorned in haute couture.
You will hear every language imaginable and smell exotic fragrances from perfumed maryjane to frangipani blossom desserts. I’ll stop raving and let the photographs do my talking.
Love you all! More in the fall.
Images: Chez BeBe assets/San Francisco
Here are the links to previous chapters in this series:
After a wonderful whirl-wind trip with the usual share of mishaps, some hilarious, others unnerving, we grabbed a taxi to the airport. We thought we were early and in fact, by Asian standards, we were.
So, imagine our dismay when we arrived at the Lufthansa seating area and saw at least several hundred people for what was supposed to be a 200-seater, through Frankfurt, to New York. Nevertheless, ever the optimists, we sat patiently until the the agent called for boarding. Or so we expected.
About an hour after our scheduled departure time (yes), a plane taxied past our window, way, way out on the tarmac somewhere. Could that be our transportation back to civilization, we wondered? It looked so tiny. No sooner had it come into clear view, than a rush of people stormed the door to the maintenance area and sped toward the aircraft, as if propelled by some subliminal message. Geoff and I exchanged puzzled glances and stayed obediently in our seats.
No, the agents didn’t announce boarding. No they didn’t restrain the crowd. No they didn’t rein them back in or broadcast a warning. Literally within five minutes, the plane was full. Wait, what? We have tickets! We have boarding passes! We have seat assignments! Geoffrey approached the agents’ station and got on a line of mostly Europeans who were buzzing among themselves in confusion that mirrored ours.
Then we saw our plane taxi toward what we assumed was the runway. And with that, it was gone.
We looked at each other in astonishment and then the panic set in. Ah! But, not to fear. This was Lufthansa, after all. Germans are nothing if not sticklers for law and order. We felt some relief when the agent announced — in German, which neither of us speak — what we gathered was the imminent arrival of another plane for the rest of us, who now numbered about 300. All around us people began sitting on the floor and opening cloth parcels containing — food, … ohhh … nooooooooooo. We noticed that they were largely Indians. OK, ok, ok. No worries, calm down, let’s just trust and await our new aircraft.
At long last we were ushered, wordlessly, in a line of weary and willing humanity down a long corridor to … wait for it … the Air India terminal! Our tickets, boarding passes and seat assignments, we were now made to understand somehow, were being transferred to another carrier. When the plane itself lumbered into view and shuddered to a stop out on the pavement about 100 yards from the window we were staring from, it was clear that this was part of AI’s backup fleet. There are no civil words to express the string of expletives that came out of my new husband’s mouth and that even the most parochial of Hindi speakers must have known were not encomiums to that machine.
After another hour of waiting, we were allowed to traipse across the asphalt, dodging potholes, and climb steep rickety open metal stairs to our seats, which bore no resemblance to the ones we had paid for. The plane did not stop in Germany, but made the entire 26 hour flight to New York — oh yes — in one long grueling marathon, with only a quick refueling touchdown. Guess whether the food and lavatories held up?
Our return to NYC was bittersweet. Geoffrey had been offered an amazing opportunity in San Francisco and I got a preliminary invitation to teach at Stanford. But, as luck would have it, at the last minute my mother-in-law lamented that she needed him nearby in Los Angeles because her younger boys were giving her problems and her executive husband was rarely around. So, dutifully, Geoffrey agreed to move back to LA, leaving me to fend for myself work-wise, to make his never satisfied family happy. He also had to look for a job and now both of us would be doing that with less then stellar track records.
We packed up my Mercedes, which though virtually a block long (or so it seems in hindsight today), was still too small for all the stuff I felt I couldn’t send in a moving van (which literally was a block long). As I looked at that truck, I realized that I was hauling around so much materialia, a virtual albatross, that I could never just pick up and move again. And that was decades ago! Among the occupants of my car, was my blind, elderly, female Cockatiel, Fulana. That is another long story, but suffice to say, driving across country with a large bird and cage would prove to be one of the great challenges of my life. How many nights we had to sneak her into the motel room or sleep in the car with her, I will leave you to imagine. The trip took almost two weeks and we got to stop along the way to admire parts of this country I had never seen like Missouri and New Mexico — both two of my favorite places now. The Ozarks and the night skies of Albuquerque are matchless anywhere else.
After what seemed like the longest ordeal of the century, we crawled down from Barstow into Los Angeles and arrived at my in-laws beach house, dusty and weary. I was nervous already, so intimidating were Emily (my MIL) and her retinue. One thing I learned living with wealthy, gregarious bi-coastal people like Geoff’s parents, was that they always had a crowd of people coming, going, staying, visiting or calling them out to events somewhere. There was never a quiet moment when they were in town. And, when they were at one of their other four homes, some of the hangers-on they accumulated would invite themselves to stay at the rambling multilevel beach-front home anyway. It was a circus. The night we arrived Heidi was there with her husband and children. As we came in the door, she brushed past me as if I were invisible, on her way out to a party. I was to discover that Heidi, territorial and insular, was feeling that I was what I now realize is her idea of an elite, Ivy League, snobbish, threatening East Coaster. Had I only understood that this was a cultural phenomenon of the fly-over Staters, I might not have taken it so personally.
That same night, barely had we caught our breaths, when Emily sent us out to the store as their favorite delivery service was unavailable, and she had invited people for dinner (not in our honor, mind you). Geoffrey thought he was more than clever by making a quick run to what was Stan’s Liquor, a place that carried the kinds of upscale provisions the coupon-clipping beach aristocracy in the South Bay liked to have on hand for the impromptu champagne-and-caviar fete. At Stan’s, as I was nervously tooling up and down the aisles, feeling like the frumpy slum cousin in an oversized boyfriend shirt and pinwale cords, I bumped into an exquisitely architected tower of giant imported plum tomato cans, the topmost of which promptly fell and hit my foot, smashing a sandal-nude toe.
Laid up for the remainder of the night with an eggplant throbbing at the end of my right foot, we were then treated to — oh yes, why not? — an earthquake. Geoffrey was on the other side of the room and he and his family observed my reaction to the enormous house swaying back and forth with considerable interest. Not rushing to reassure me where I was marooned, they simply went on with their conversation as if nothing was amiss. I was devastated. This was not the idyllic introduction to SoCal that I had envisioned. It was little comfort either that when I finally hobbled to the balcony, I was to be blinded by the sight of scantily clad Amazons, perched high atop roller blades, tanned like Fabio, zipping past rows of celebrating beach nobility, some of these goddesses with drinks in hand. I was crestfallen. Now I really was feeling like the buttoned up college professor, handicapped, exhausted to tears, cold-shouldered by my new “family”, and feeling 40, while only in my twenties.
My MIL, I thought at first to give her credit, planned a West Coast reception to announce to all their important friends that Geoffrey was married. As the heroine of DuMaurier’s Rebecca notes pitifully in one scene, “what a slap in the eye” I must have been. First off, I was not blonde and everyone in California is or tries to be. Secondly, I was not, err, how to put this delicately, top heavy. I could feel myself shrinking in stature with every day that passed that first month. We found a condo within walking distance of the family (ugh). Fulana was settled in. We had a balcony with a remote ocean view. We only fought over the placement of the furniture once. Geoffrey found a suitable job right away. Still, I cried every single night, after we returned from his parents’ house where we had to make a pilgrimage regularly so Geoff could “bond” again.
The day of the important party finally arrived. So did my things from NY and I pulled out a beautiful handmade dress I got at a trendy boutique on Madison Avenue. I wish I had kept it. It was of black polished cotton, with a shirred bodice, little delicate puffed sleeves, tiny buttons up the front, a flared out skirt with a tasteful ruffle at the hem. The material itself was stamped with tiny colored flowers. I loved it. I wore some strappy multicolored patent sandals I had bought in Florence, that picked up the colors in the dress and the black background. I added small diamond flower earrings and thought I looked perfect for a West Coast summer gathering.
My parents-in-law were well connected. My FIL was the genius behind an ultra successful investment firm with offices all over the world. He knew everyone that was anyone in Manhattan and Beverly Hills. So, they invited these people to our reception, held high atop Palos Verdes on a windy cliff overlooking the Pacific. Cocktails were timed to coincide with a glorious sunset. The food was all flawless, the tables glittered with gold and silver laid out elegantly on snow white linens. The flowers were flown in from Hawaii. It was all magical, except, of course, not a soul thought to ask me for any input at all or what I thought of the whole idea in the first place.
Over 250 people arrived in the usual gleaming black or white chariots of that day. I knew no one. Well, with the exception of two people: my mother-in-law’s maid’s niece and her maid’s daughter. The latter was hired to clean our modest starter apartment, a stone’s throw from the in-laws. Both of them eyed me warily with a fair amount of unvarnished jealousy.
Geoffrey knew everyone. There were heads of investment banks, politicians — including a former POTUS, who was on a Board with my father-in-law — lots of corporate CEOs, some chairmen of charities that Emily worked on, and a lot of Geoffrey’s family’s former neighbors and schoolmates. Including an ex-girlfriend of one brother. She and Geoff spent the night getting drunk and reminiscing. Since I don’t touch alcohol, I found little to console me.
An entire room was dedicated to the gifts people inevitably brought, even when told to refrain. A sleek van idled outside all night in anticipation of loading up the treasures and taking them somewhere (to the in-laws house, as it turned out, so Emily could make sure the proper thank yous were sent, I being a barbarian, apparently). I spent time glancing over the tables as they filled up and absently fingered the gift cards, with famous names that I recognized but who only knew me as “… and his bride”.
To make matters even worse, one of the two ladies that worked for my mother-in-law, a single mother about ten years older than I, wore a billowing white dress and tucked enormous roses in her very dark hair. All evening long, people congratulated her on her marriage to my new husband. Geoff’s family loved it and had quite a few laughs for years to come. It didn’t endear them to me, is all I have to say. And, Nuria, the white-clad Beth analogue, developed a haughty attitude toward me thereafter, turning her back dramatically or flouncing out of the room whenever we were in the same place. Did I hear you say “galling”?
As I write and think about this fitting final chapter to the Un-y-moon saga I have shared here by installment, it strikes me as an almost sad and angry tale. Somehow, we overcame all this and managed to eke out our own lives, especially by moving away from the force of this powerful galaxy in which we were supposed to orbit. My MIL slowly mellowed, never quite understanding or liking me, you understand, but coming to spend time with me without trying to dominate and criticize my very different approach to womanhood. Like many traditional wives, brought up in sheltered families where men provided everything except respect and emotional support, the women in my husband’s family knew no other type of role and were offended by what they saw as my superiority complex. Honestly, I never felt superior, just independent. I was an adult, an educated and I thought liberated East Coast professional. I didn’t see myself in the same light that Heidi, Geoffrey’s sister did. Heidi married a rich, strong man, whose money and stature in his own sphere enabled my SIL to glide carefreely from one jeweled abode to another. She took my candid opinions and frank comments to Geoffrey as an indicator that I thought I was better than she was and that has caused her to resent and reject me to this very day. I just no longer care.
Things went on like this for some years, no matter how I tried to change the atmosphere. Little slights that hurt and were meant to put me in my place were constant. Such as the time I asked for an apron to use while in the kitchen helping to prepare dinner and Emily turned to Heidi with a bemused smile and said, “I never needed an apron. Did you?” To which my SIL slowly shook her head in mock disgust. I wanted to tell them it was to keep the food prep area sanitary, not because I was such a clod. But, I was properly cowed. Or the time Emily gave everyone in a large group a dish to prepare, then looked at me quizzically and said, “Beth, I think you can handle the lettuce, can’t you?”, as if I had been raised by wolves. Or the many meals that were anchored by beef or lamb and only left me, the lone vegetarian at that juncture, with a roll and a potato, no apologies made.
You could argue that Geoff fell down on his responsibility to welcome me into his overwhelming family and lay down rules for them to treat me at least with some courtesy and politesse, but he was spoiled. He was used to his mother doting on him, her handsomest son, the one with the most promise in her mind. The one to take the place of her largely absentee spouse. It took years of arguments for my husband to see what was going on and reluctantly cut those apronless strings.
The rest of this blog has posts scattered throughout that shed light on the times and events that have followed. As we both turn 50 shortly (yikes!), we have come to a place of equilibrium. Heidi lost her husband and is now less of a presence in our lives. Emily is experiencing cognitive decline. My father-in-law died suddenly years ago. The other brothers are around but consumed with families of their own. And most importantly, we live nowhere near any of them and that has been a true lifesaver.
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I want to dedicate this “finale” post to the memory of my dear blogging friend, Susan Irene Fox, who passed away suddenly last August. She loved the Un-y-moon series, appreciated all my ironies and jokes and was one of my biggest supporters. As she did with so many people, she offered me her warm, kind, loving advice, and helped me to see a way to accept the adversities that come even into the most fortunate of lives, like mine. God Bless you, Susan. How I miss you and think of you often.
And to my loyal friend Bob, with whom I have had such lively discussions on all sorts of things, including places we share, as in New Jersey, New York and Southern California: You are the best, Bob.
Images: Chez BeBe assets and Creative Commons