90 Years Young

Sept. 28, 2014 9:27 p.m. ET

Rob Shepperson

My mother’s birthday snuck up on me. It isn’t as if I’d forgotten the milestone. It just seems strange that she’s turning 90 Monday.

There are several reasons I hadn’t considered it a big deal.

For starters, she doesn’t seem 90. She has trouble walking, but that hasn’t markedly affected her lifestyle because she never did that much walking anyway.

Wildly unathletic, she has spent much of her life on her bed, and on her telephone, taking calls from friends and relatives.

In that regard, the quality of her life continues to improve as she enters her 10th decade. She’s also enjoyed the company of her Boston terrier Skippy for 50 years. (Skippy isn’t the longest living canine in human, or dog, history. My mother is on Skippy #5. She just gives them all the same name to foster a sense of continuity.)

Several years ago my brother brought home a cat. After Skippy #4 passed, the idea was to replace the dog with a lower maintenance animal as my mother entered her dotage. And also because my brother prefers cats and owns a couple himself.

Except that my mother wasn’t entering her dotage. Far from it. She loved the cat, who she called Cookie, but still missed having a Boston terrier.

So now Cookie and Skippy #5 spend the entire day in her bedroom playing and sleeping. I’m relieved to report they’re also best friends.

Another reason my mother doesn’t seem old is because 90 qualifies as middle-aged in our family. My mother’s mother lived to be almost 105. My mother’s aunt was 102. A favorite uncle died at 104.

More remarkable than my grandmother’s age, my wife always thought, was that my mother continued to live next door to her mother—in adjoining apartment buildings—when my mother was past 80.

My mother is as engaged in the world as she ever was—to the extent that someone who spends most of the day in bed can be.

For instance, she called yesterday in consternation because “Entertainment Tonight” had been pre-empted by an Arkansas Razorbacks–Texas A&M football game.

Why was she upset? She was desperate to see coverage of George Clooney’s wedding in Venice.

I didn’t even realize she had a thing for George Clooney. Or maybe it was for Venice, where she’s spent many summers. But it didn’t surprise me, and not just because she’s always been a sucker for good-looking men.

She reads both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, cover to cover, every day.

When I take a day off and don’t tell her, I can expect a call by 10 a.m. demanding to know why I wasn’t in the paper.

Within the last few years she has read both James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” the latter in French. (She speaks six languages fluently.) She’s currently on a Gabriel García Márquez kick.

She also has a Netflix account; my daughter Lucy replenishes her queue every few days, even though my mother complains about Lucy’s movie choices. She doesn’t get Wes Anderson, one of my daughter’s favorite directors. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have much patience for movies made since the 1960s.

However, she loves “Two and a Half Men”—the original with Charlie Sheen. Her affection for the franchise doesn’t extend to his replacement, Ashton Kutcher.

Despite the fact that my mother is mostly housebound, she’s not without companionship.

Wong, her housekeeper, has been with her a quarter century. Indeed, he drove Lucy, who is celebrating her 26th birthday Tuesday, home from the hospital during his first day on the job.

Also, her cousin Lily calls her several times a day, and often at night, from Paris.

And Lucy, who works at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks from my mother’s apartment, frequently drops by after work for cocktails.

Undoubtedly, the free booze is part of the allure. (A guest once described the apartment’s walk-in bar, with mirrors and mood lighting, as stepping into a “Mad Men” episode.) But most of all, it’s because my mother remains excellent company, and more than a little vicariously engaged in the lives, especially the love lives, of her six grandchildren.

We’ll be celebrating my mother’s birthday at Cipriani. While crowded, noisy, and not inexpensive, it’s her favorite restaurant because it reminds her of Venice.

It’s testimony to my mother’s lively state-of-mind that she plans to return there next summer. She plans to return to Venice every summer, though she hasn’t for several.

But I wouldn’t put more trips past her. She’s got time.

Meanwhile, we’ll be raising a Bellini, or two, to her health Monday night.

Write to Ralph Gardner at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

The Majesty of the Motorcade

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Sept. 24, 2014 9:59 p.m. ET

As a jaded, lifelong New Yorker, I have a civic obligation to rail against the world leaders descending on the city this week and the gridlock caused by their motorcades.

But I have a dirty little secret: I love motorcades.

Of course, I’d prefer to be included—perhaps seated in the back seat of “The Beast,” as the president’s armored limousine is affectionately known, offering advice on fighting ISIL, or obesity, or whatever.

Rob Shepperson

But since that’s unlikely to happen in this lifetime, I’m content to stand behind police barricades and gawk as his entourage—escorted by motorcycle officers—passes by with lights flashing and sirens wailing.

There’s something stirring, patriotic and majestic about the sight.

And it almost doesn’t matter which party is in office. I’ve often suspected that some of the holders of the presidency, and many of those who failed to achieve it, ran mostly to rate the motorcade.

I certainly wouldn’t hold it against them. The rest of the job seems primarily headaches.

But I suspect that the spirits of even those of us with rock bottom self-esteem would rally at the sight of Park Avenue turned into a frozen zone, as it was Tuesday evening, when I spent a good half-hour waiting for the president.

He was on his way to a private fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he apologized for the traffic, according to remarks released by the White House.

I killed time by trying to remember every presidential motorcade I’ve ever seen.

But they all sort of blur together. Perhaps because, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the president, it’s only for a split second.

Once, I got to kick the tires of LBJ’s limo, which just goes to show how times have changed.

The year was 1968 and Johnson dropped by the Pierre Hotel to visit with Richard Nixon, the newly elected president, whose transition headquarters was at the Pierre.

Playing hooky from my dancing school, which met at the hotel, I went out the 61st Street entrance to discover the presidential limo parked by the curb—unattended.

I didn’t actually kick the tires, but I tapped the windows to see what bulletproof glass felt like.

The closest I ever came to being part of a motorcade occurred in 1977 when Vice President Walter Mondale came to New York to campaign for mayoral candidate Ed Koch.

As a young campaign aide, I was dispatched to the airport to meet Air Force Two; I assumed, in a fit of grandiosity, that I was supposed to escort the veep back to the city, perhaps briefing him on the NYC political landscape.

Thus, it came as a crashing disappointment when a Secret Service agent took me aside and said, “Ralph, you have the most important job in this operation.”

He paused for dramatic effect.

“You’re going to take the luggage back to the hotel.”

Needless to say, not by limo.

Part of the thrill of a presidential motorcade is the anticipation.

A holiday atmosphere takes hold because everything is frozen in place—not just traffic but also pedestrians—and there’s nothing to do but wait.

“You can’t cross east and west,” the officer manning our barricade told a woman who claimed she was on her way to a crosstown dentist appointment.

“So what am I supposed to do?” the woman growled. “Get there by next month?”

You also make new friends. I happened to be standing beside Charlie, a first-grader; his younger sister, Lexi; and their baby sitter.

The baby sitter explained that President Obama was on his way.

“I asked who’s the president,” Charlie reported, referring to a conversation over breakfast that morning with his parents, “and they told me somebody else.”

The baby sitter assured Charlie that he must have misunderstood, rather than perhaps being the offspring of GOP parents engaged in wishful thinking—all the while a dozen police cars up and down the avenue scrambled to block off the intersections.

A few cars and an ambulance passed, but that was a false alarm.

More minutes passed, and from a distance came the faint roar of police motorcycles and the yelp of sirens.

This time, it was for real: A band of vehicles, stretching several blocks long, traveled up the east side of Park Avenue, center lane, at relatively high speed, NYPD officers riding shotgun.

There were actually two presidential limousines.

Perhaps the first one was a decoy.

In any case, I managed to spot President Obama, or at least the back of his head.

He appeared to be chatting with the person seated beside him.

And then the president was gone, the avenue reopened, and pedestrians flooded the crosswalks as far as the eye could see.

Probably not everyone would agree, but I think it was worth the wait.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Relishing a Piano Peace

The Wall Street Journal 

By RALPH GARDNER JR. 

Sept. 23, 2014 9:21 p.m. ET

Nancy M. Williams in the Midtown offices of Sing for Hope, a nonprofit where she volunteers. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

If you’ve gone to the best schools, and become a success in the eyes of the world, yet still feel a nagging void in your soul, there are valuable lessons to learn from Nancy M. Williams.

“I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled,” she remembers of her 30s when she worked as a marketing executive for companies such as Virgin Mobile USA and AT&T Inc. “I had a big office and a secretary and a staff of product managers. When I talked, people listened. But I felt something was missing. When I’d get to the office, I’d push the revolving door and it sucked the energy out of me.”

Ms. Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in quantitative economics from Stanford and an M.B.A. from Harvard.

That may sound impressive. Except that her education didn’t really prepare her for what she decided, during an early midlife crisis, she really wanted to do: play the piano again.

Such a midcourse correction would sound like a heavy lift for anyone—no matter how talented they were previously in the working world.

But Ms. Williams faced an added obstacle: She has significant hearing loss.

“When I was diagnosed at 6, I had a mild high frequency loss,” she said. “Mild is a misnomer. It’s heartbreaking. Over the years, my hearing loss has slowly worsened.

‘I feel very peaceful,’ Ms. Williams said of playing the piano. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

“It can be frustrating for family members,” she added, referring to her husband, David Theobald, and their children—a 14-year-old son and a daughter, 12. “I can’t hear somebody speaking from the other room. Either I have to find you, or you have to find me.”

However, her disability didn’t stop her from taking piano lessons as an adolescent.

It probably also improved her study skills. Staying focused—the Rubicon of the average teenager—didn’t apply.

“I’m a very attentive listener,” she said. “I pay a lot of attention to other forms of communication: facial expressions, hand motions. There’s a difference between listening and hearing.”

However, she stopped taking lessons when she was 16. Family financial pressures were part of the reason.

And then there was the hearing loss, even though she’d been fitted with a hearing aid when she was 12.

Being realistic, how far could she really go?

Certainly she’d never become a professional caliber pianist.

And then there was the social stigma associated with her hearing loss. Even though she’d become expert at hiding it.

Well, almost: She was banished from the cool girl clique in middle school because she couldn’t hear her friends’ whispered confidences.

“I let it go for 25 years,” she said of the piano, as we sat in the Midtown offices of Sing for Hope, a nonprofit that brings the arts to underserved communities, and where she works as a volunteer artist.

Her reunion with the keyboard began when her husband and son signed up for piano lessons together a few years ago.

“When I went back I couldn’t remember any of the notes. I pushed this way, way down. I could only remember middle C.

“I’m still not back to where I was at 16,” she admitted, “but I’m close.”

Close enough, apparently, that she made her debut in a master-class recital at Carnegie Hall in 2012.

And she’s appearing in a concert on Saturday at the New York Public Library’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library. The event is a prequel to the New York City Walk4Hearing, which will take place Sunday morning in Riverside Park.

But more important than whether she regains her adolescent prowess is the way the piano makes her feel.

“I feel very peaceful,” she said. “That’s where I can hear my inner voice.”

And what her inner voice was telling her was to quit her job in marketing, which she did—two years after taking up the instrument again. It also allowed her to accept her hearing loss in a way she hadn’t before.

“People with hearing loss are notorious fakers,” she said, though she added she was speaking only for herself. “We laugh even when we didn’t hear the joke.”

Ms. Williams became a motivational speaker on “Reclaiming Your Passion”; the founding editor and publisher of Grand Piano Passion, an online magazine; and the recipient of the 2009 Lamar York prize for nonfiction for her essay “Deserting the Piano.”

“When I do my talks, I play Schubert, Chopin, Debussy,” she said.

Ms. Williams also started writing about hearing loss.

“I’m on the cover of Hearing Loss magazine, this month,” she reported. “And I’m standing in front of a piano.”

But is she any good?

Ms. Williams took a seat at Sing for Hope’s piano and started playing Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude, her eyes closed.

“That’s the way I deal with performance anxiety,” she confided. “I have a narrative for each piece of music I play. I will not focus on the fact that I’m performing.”

And she sounded great.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Round and Round They Go

Sept. 22, 2014 9:19 p.m. ET

Carousel aficionados visited Prospect Park’s 1912 Carmel-Murphy Carousel last week; they were greeted by the merry-go-round’s band organ, playing the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.’ Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

If you’ve been feeling electricity in the air lately, it’s not just because fall is finally here, or the climate change march, or even all the heads of state on their way to and from the U.N.

It’s because the National Carousel Association was in town last week.

The group’s members meet every year—typically somewhere with one or more noteworthy carousels—to share news and information about their favorite merry-go-rounds, dole out money for carousel preservation and, perhaps most important of all, take lots of carousel rides.

“We’ve had a great turnout,” said Don Largent, who traveled from Spokane, Wash., with his wife, Bette, the organization’s president and a carousel restorer. “Everybody in the carousel world knows Jane’s Carousel and is very excited about coming to see this one. It is a great story because they saved an antique carousel.”

Mr. Largent was referring to the carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, housed in a gleaming pavilion designed by Jean Nouvel. It is a classic three-row machine with 48 exquisitely carved horses and two superb chariots.

(I apologize for reading from the carousel’s website, but after spending the afternoon with more than 200 carousel aficionados, I don’t want to make any errors.)

The “Jane” after whom the carousel is named is Jane Walentas who bought the carousel in 1984 with her husband, David, the Brooklyn real-estate developer, and spent years meticulously restoring it.

Made in 1922 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the ride was at an amusement park in Youngstown, Ohio, before making its way to New York.

The association’s gathering lasted from Wednesday through Sunday and the members stayed at a hotel on Long Island. They had a hectic day planned for Thursday, visiting Jane’s and two other carousels: Prospect Park’s 1912 Carmel-Murphy Carousel and Coney Island’s historic B&B Carousell.

The evening called for a presentation by Ms. Walentas, who also kindly provided lunch, not to mention free rides on her carousel.

“We saved the carousel,” Ms. Walentas said matter-of-factly. “That is why we’re heroes to all these people.”

To be honest, I was less interested in the carousels than in middle-aged men and woman who can still muster excitement for merry-go-rounds.

I can’t recall the last time I contemplated carousels, let alone begged my parents for a ride on one. The carousels of my youth have all blended together in one pleasant, hazy memory.

“Some of these people have never grown up,” Mr. Largent said. “If you hang around this group long enough you’ll find out.”

After a group photo in front of Jane’s Carousel, we boarded buses for the trip to Prospect Park.

On the way we discussed carousels, when they were invented—I was told they come from early jousting traditions—and compared their speeds.

The carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park is housed in a gleaming pavilion designed by Jean Nouvel. It is a classic three-row machine with 48 exquisitely carved horses and two superb chariots. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

At about 3 rpms, Jane’s is relatively lethargic compared to some that travel at 7½ rpms, such as Spokane’s.

“It was a thrill ride,” Bette Largent said. “They positioned it as the first ride on the midway.”

I asked Rita Sharkey, a member who lives in Hicksville, Long Island, what she thought of the Central Park merry-go-round—my default childhood carousel.

“It is a New York treasure,” she said. “I’d like it to be less costly. It is $3 a ride.”

We arrived at Prospect Park, greeted by the carousel’s Wurlitzer Band Organ, piping the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as the organ launched into “Georgy Girl.” The sound must have triggered some synapse connected to childhood.

I was reminded of the mad dash to mount the biggest, best horse—and definitely one of the outside horses—before any other ticketgoer, and especially one of my younger brothers, did.

But it was going to be a while until I scored a ride.

As I discovered, the members of the National Carousel Association follow a particular protocol when they arrive at a carousel. (They would ride at least nine before the weekend was through.)

Rather than clamber aboard, as any self-respecting kid would do, they crowd around the carousel with cameras poised to take both photographs and movies.

“And then everybody waves,” from atop a horse, one member said.

Actually, there is one more a step.

After photographing the carousel in motion—”Everybody step back,” someone shouted—the visitors dutifully filed out and lined up like well-mannered children.

And when the first group was allowed back in—according to Lucio Schiavone, who has managed the ride for the last quarter-century, there are 53 horses, a lion, a reindeer, a giraffe and two dragon-pulled chariots—they rushed to their desired horses, just like children; a few, though, required a little extra time and effort to mount their steeds.

And then the music started, the carousel began to turn and everybody’s face lighted up with virtually identical rapturous expressions. And they waved.

It was fun to be 6 again.

A woman climbs on a wooden horse at the Prospect Park carousel as she and other fans ride the carousel in Brooklyn. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Ralph Gardner at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Sticky Competition

Sept. 21, 2014 10:20 p.m. ET

The honeys that competed in the Waldorf Astoria’s ‘Battle of the Bees.’ Romina Hendlin

I take a back seat to no one when it comes to my appreciation for honey.

In my cupboard, there are a half-dozen varieties, including lavender, biodynamic and generic—even though there’s nothing generic about honey.

I even own a $25 jar of honey from Sting and Trudie Styler’s farm, Il Palagio, in Tuscany.

Nonetheless, I was slightly skeptical when I heard that the Waldorf Astoria was holding its second annual “Battle of the Bees”—all the contestants having garnered their honey from apiaries located on their Manhattan premises.

They included the Waldorf, the Durst Organization at One Bryant Park, the New York City Beekeepers Association’s High Line Honey, Brooks Brothers, and York Prep School’s Bee Club.

I mean, how different can New York City honey taste from one address to the next? Also, what is it that the bees are pollinating? I hate to think. Concrete? Chewing gum? Sidewalk trash?

I assumed if there was a recurring flavor profile it must be soot.

From left, the Waldorf’s catering director Jim Blauvelt, Tim Gunn and David Garcelon, the Waldorf culinary director. Casandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

The battle’s celebrity judges were “Project Runway’s” Tim Gunn, Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert, and James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur.

I was eager to talk to Mr. Gunn, but not about honey. I didn’t buy his story, recently told on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” about how his dad ushered him into J. Edgar Hoover’s office as a 9-year-old to meet Vivian Vance, who played Ethel on “I Love Lucy.” (Mr. Gunn’s father worked as an assistant to Mr. Hoover.)

Only many decades later did Mr. Gunn, while fact-checking his book “Gunn’s Golden Rules,” discover that Vivian Vance had never visited FBI headquarters; the assumption being that “Vivian Vance” was actually the FBI director in drag.

I had no problem with the story, only that Mr. Gunn—no matter how impressionable his age—couldn’t tell the difference between the reasonably svelte actress and the moon-faced Mr. Hoover?

Mr. Gunn’s explanation is that his father, who he trusted, told him he was going to be meeting Ms. Vance. Also, that she was in living color, as opposed to TV where she appeared in black and white, so he assumed that accounted for any discrepancies in appearance.

“What’s more alarming to me,” Mr. Gunn confided, “is that my father was a great enabler.”

In any case: honey. Mr. Gunn, whose expertise lies in fashion, made no claims to similar connoisseurship when it came to bees.

“I definitely don’t have a cultivated palate,” he admitted, wondering aloud whether the condiment still came in those squeeze bear bottles from his childhood.

I informed him they do. Indeed, I believe there’s one hibernating in my fridge.

Eric Ripert, being a three-star Michelin chef and French to boot, obviously knows his honey and has strong opinions about it. He told me he starts his day with a breakfast of Greek yogurt, honey, almonds and decaf coffee.

And the chef takes a daily Royal jelly pill, which is made from the secretions of bees to feed their larvae. His grandfather did the same when he was diagnosed with what was thought to be terminal cancer in his 50s and lived to be 87.

Mr. Ripert claimed variations in the taste, color and consistency of honey, including New York City honey, might be a function of the circumstances under which the bees produce it.

“It can be a huge difference,” he explained. “Some bees may have to travel a lot and not have access to so many flowers, and the bees would be weaker. It is definitely not a joke.”

Bee hive pollen collector trays on display. Melissa Howard

The Waldorf provided glass containers filled with the competitors’ honey, so that guests could blind test them; and honey-themed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, such as a Top of the Waldorf Honey & Bacon Wrapped Scallop, which I’m sad to say I missed.

I was told bees can travel an astonishing 5-mile radius in search of honey; though Mr. Ripert thought the Waldorf’s bees might enjoy an advantage over the competition because of their ready access to Park Avenue’s plantings.

I’m not so sure.

York Prep is steps away from Central Park. The Durst Organization has Bryant Park. And the High Line boasts all those textural plants, shrubs and trees.

But I’m forced to concede the five honeys tasted surprisingly different from one another; the judges described them variously as floral, woodsy, minty; one entry even aroused associations with the color purple.

In the end, the Waldorf’s honey won, with Mr. Ripert crediting its “complexity.” The Durst Organization came in second and vowed revenge next year.

“We believe they go up Park Avenue to Central Park,” the Waldorf’s director of culinary operations, David Garcelon, said of his bees.

However, he noted the hotel’s rooftop garden has so many varieties of flowers, that they may have provided the winning margin.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

The Great Library Way

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Sept. 17, 2014 9:18 p.m. ET

A stretch of Library Way on East 41st Street. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

I bet you didn’t know that the New York Public Library is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Library Way this month. You may have no idea where it’s even located.

Library Way extends from Park to Fifth avenues along 41st Street. And it’s distinguished by 44 bronze sidewalk plaques featuring quotes from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Julia Alvarez, Mark Twain and Tom Stoppard.

There are actually 98 plaques, according to library spokeswoman Amy Geduldig—an equal number on both sides of 41st Street that are identical to each other. I have to take her word for it, because when we strolled the street Monday afternoon with library officials Ann Thornton and Christopher Platt, we stuck to the north side.

The quotes were selected during the 1990s by a panel that included representatives from the library; the Grand Central Partnership, which manages the Grand Central Business Improvement District; and the New Yorker magazine. And the plaques, which are graphically intriguing in their own right, were designed by Gregg LeFevre.

A plaque dedicated to William Styron. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

It’s not as though this was the first time I was walking Library Way, though I can’t remember when I noticed that there were quotes from some of my literary heroes decorating the sidewalk.

The challenge is slowing down long enough to read them.

I would assume someone like me would be the library’s target audience. I get a lump in my throat when I think of my literary role models. And I love quotes. I feel somehow educated, elevated, even anointed when I read them, without having to do the heavy lifting of actually reading the book.

And, of course, they’re vastly more edifying than what passes for pedestrian reading material in this city—ads on the sides of kiosks or subway billboards whose greatest contribution to civic life may have been made by those who deface them.

But New York isn’t a city that invites you to slow down and stop. If anything, it encourages you to speed up.

And I didn’t notice anyone else hitting the brakes to smell the literary roses.

“We might cause other people to stop if we’re looking,” Ms. Thornton said with a sound of hope in her voice as we set out from the library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and crossed the street.

As a matter of fact, I wonder whether the project, as noble as it is, would have been undertaken if it had been proposed today rather than during the 1990s. Or if so, there might have been video screens embedded in the sidewalk to better enthrall passersby.

Mr. Platt thought such a project is even more pressing today.

“In an era when our attention is being fragmented,” he observed, “pausing and reading and thinking about it is for many people increasingly a luxury and a challenge.”

We lingered over one plaque dedicated to the painter George Braque. I liked it because it was short and sweet—one of those that puts things in universal perspective in 10 words or less. And makes you realize it isn’t the end of the world if you’re 15 minutes late for your next appointment.

“Truth exists,” it stated. “Only falsehood has to be invented.”

A number of the plaques relate to materials in the library. For example, Ms. Thornton told me the library owns a first edition of Rene Descartes’s “Discourse on the Method.”

“…the reading of good books is like a conversation with the best men of past centuries,” his contribution states.

The library also boasts important original Mark Twain material.

“We have the manuscript of ‘A Connecticut Yankee,’ as well as the box to contain the manuscript,” Ms. Thornton explained. “He had made the box.”

“…at the end of an hour we saw a faraway town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond it on a hill, a vast fortress, with towers and turrets, the first I had ever seen out of a picture,” starts the excerpt from “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.”

“Bridgeport?” said I, pointing.

“Camelot,” he said.

As we stood on the street, pedestrians rushing by, we mused on the books that awoke us to literature.

For Mr. Platt it was “The Three Musketeers,” for Ms. Thornton “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and for me, probably, Herman Wouk’s “City Boy,” a semi-autobiographical work about the author’s summer camp experiences.

But on the way back to the library, you could see what literature is up against today: on the corner of Fifth Avenue, we encountered a double-decker bus advertising an Eva Mendes clothing collection—the side of the bus turned into a mega-screen TV and models parading on the bus’s open deck.

Captivated walkers broke stride to photograph the spectacle, not realizing they were trampling William Styron’s plaque: “A great book should leave you with many experiences,” he wrote in “Writers at Work, “and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Being a Big Baby About a Little Rain

Being a Big Baby About a Little Rain

Ralph Gardner Jr. Endures Some Precipitation in Austin

By RALPH GARDNER JR.

Sept. 16, 2014 10:29 p.m. ET

There’s lots of work yet to be done on my personality, specifically regarding my attitude toward the weather. I know it’s incredibly juvenile, but I take it personally when the weather doesn’t cooperate with my plans.

I still hold it against Los Angeles that it suffered a cold snap when we visited in the spring of 2012. We’ve always considered ourselves a lucky family—among other reasons because the weather seems to break in our favor on vacations.

So what does it say about us when it doesn’t?

Rob Shepperson

My understanding is that by the time you reach a certain age you’ve come to peace with the fact that there are some things you can’t do anything about. You’re supposed to be a grown-up and take life with grace and equanimity.

I find my disposition heading in the opposite direction.

It’s not that I find existence unremittingly bleak and hopeless.

For example, I can’t understand why everybody doesn’t fight for the window seats on airplanes.

Or why some of those who score windows inevitably lower the shades.

This is the best planet so far. Interstellar space is cold, dark and hostile.

Yet, matter has managed to arrange itself in our neighborhood so that we have blue skies and puffy clouds, at least when it’s not cool and drizzling, as it was over the weekend in Austin where we traveled to my nephew Evan’s wedding.

After an unseasonably moderate summer in New York, I was looking forward to several days of global warming, to basking by the hotel pool in temperatures in the low 100s. As it had been all summer in Austin.

In anticipation, I even read the second volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ—the one where a sweat-stained Lyndon Johnson barnstorms Texas during the sweltering summer of his 1948 U.S. Senate race.

I was looking forward to touring the LBJ library when I visited Austin, but as much for the air-conditioning as the American history, or for these neat phones you can pick up and hear recordings of the president cajoling, browbeating, flirting, and scheming with everyone from Harry Truman and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover.

My only other solid plans, as I may have stated, were to sit by the pool, tempt sun poisoning, eat lots of barbecue and attend my nephew’s wedding.

The night we arrived was suitably torrid and made me wonder why anyone would want to live there.

The following morning was equally equatorial. But that afternoon, the thermometer plummeted into the 60s and showers started. Locals told it hadn’t been that clement since the last Ice Age.

I was obviously elated for Austinites that their drought seemed to have broken.

I could almost hear the trees sobbing in gratitude.

But couldn’t the rain have held off until after I’d left?

I also visited the magnificent Texas statehouse and the Blanton Museum of Art, which houses the fine Suida-Manning Collection of old master paintings.

On the other hand, as magnificent as their Rubens, Claude Lorrains, and Guercinos, I don’t know how eager I’d have been to see art if the sun had been out.

Indeed, the only sun all weekend occurred Sunday evening during the wedding.

As the outdoor ceremony at the Salt Lick—not far from Austin, the barbecue joint is one of the more famous in Texas, if not the U.S.—was starting, the sun broke through the clouds as if to bless the union.

When all is said and done, that is what I’ll remember: the happiness of the young couple, the amount of tequila I managed to consume at the rehearsal dinner the previous evening without any trace of hangover, and the spirited toast my daughter, Lucy, offered.

Evan and his bride, Samantha, met in 2006 when he attended a play in which Sam and Lucy were performing at their high school.

Standing offstage between scenes, Sam asked Lucy who the handsome young man sitting with us was, and expressed a desire to be introduced.

The marriage last weekend was the result of that introduction.

The mind has a lovely way of enlarging some memories and minimizing others.

I’m confident that what I’ll best remember about the weekend is the maximum fun that everybody had, myself included.

And the entire experience will be bathed in sunlight, as it was Sunday evening as Evan awaited Sam at the chuppah, as her parents, Michael and Marita, led her down the aisle.

Lucy, booked on a later flight back to New York, told us the weather broke shortly after our plane took off. She and her boyfriend, John, even went swimming.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned. I just haven’t figured out what it is.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Italian Flair Meets NY Style

URBAN GARDNER

Italian Flair Meets New York Style

‘ITALIANY,’ a Photo Exhibit at NYU, Is Open Until Sept. 26

Sept. 14, 2014 10:32 p.m. ET

If you think Italian ex-pats in New York swagger a bit too much and behave as if we’re fortunate they’ve condescended to walk among us while sharing their superior fashion sense, then you probably want to miss “ITALIANY,” a photography portrait exhibition running at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo.

Structural engineer Manuela Stoetter in a photograph by Italian artist Alexo Wandael.Alexo Wandael

On the other hand, if you consider them endlessly charming and seductive, you should make your way to 24 W. 12th St. before the show—a collaboration between photo journalist Alexo Wandael and the Italian beer company Peroni Nastro Azzurro—closes on Sept. 26.

“I have this concept to take pictures of Italians who made this choice to leave everything behind and live and love and work in New York,” explained Mr. Wandael, himself an ex-pat Italian. He has lived in New York for 14 years. “I feel a New Yorker,” he said. “They say after 10 years you can consider yourself a New Yorker.”

Yet I have the impression, based purely on anecdotal evidence—such as sitting at the next table at restaurants and listening to their melodic language—that no matter how long Italians have lived in New York, their pride in their Italian-ness appears to make them impervious to American culture. They’ve come here not to learn, but to teach and serve as role models.

Mr. Wandael said that’s not true, though they seem to clean up much better than we do. “They look at New York as something particular.” He means a meritocratic society, at least more so than Italy. “They came for a reason. Italy you have the connection or it’s very difficult to arrange. In America you need connections as well. But there’s this sense you can get this connection.”

Among the show’s subjects who have scaled the heights is Xavier F. Salomon, the chief curator at the Frick Collection. He’s seated in one of the Frick’s galleries on a Monday when the museum was closed. And with his neatly trimmed beard, tailored suit, and confident gaze he looks no less intense and commanding than the El Greco portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi, one of the Knights of Malta, over Mr. Salomon’s right shoulder.

Then there’s the exquisite image of ballerina Alexandra Ferri, dancing on the roof of a building, enwreathed in a veil. Mr. Wandael said that each of the portraits was a collaboration, the subject deciding where and how he or she wanted to be portrayed.

“She wanted to do the dance,” the photographer recalled. “We went to her place. She has this beautiful terrace on the Upper West Side.”

Mr. Wandael said he tried to capture a cross-section of the Italian experience in New York—executives such as Brooks Brothers Chief Executive Claudio Del Vecchio, artists, actors, chefs. Even a structural engineer, Manuela Stoetter, who doesn’t look anything like my notion of a structural engineer.

‘When you grow up in Italy, you’re exposed to art, fashion, style, culture. It’s almost like DNA,’ says artist Alexo Wandael. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

Posed in the middle of a Chinatown street, she’s as beautiful and self-possessed as any fashion model, even in a simple blouse and slacks.

That’s the thing about Italian ex-pats in New York. They all seem to exude success. Surely some of them must lead desperate, miserable lives like the rest of us?

“As people we’re very individual,” Mr. Wandael stated, perhaps putting his finger on what’s so special about Italians, whether here or in their homeland. I’ve never met a generic Italian. Whatever their status, they exude their own style. “That part is inside you,” the photographer explained. “When you grow up in Italy, you’re exposed to art, fashion, style, culture. It’s almost like DNA.”

Nonetheless, the quality they have in common, that trumps all others, is their passion for New York and the U.S. “They have the courage to leave Italy and come here, leaving friends and family, trying to fill their dream,” Mr. Wandael said.

There’s a portrait, slightly rougher around the edges than some of the others, of Pasquale Cozzolino and Rosario Procino, partners in Ribalta, a pizza restaurant on East 12th Street. “They look like Camorra,” Mr. Wandael joked, referring to the Neapolitan Mafia.

I mention the duo as a public service. Mr. Wandael contends that Ribalta serves the best pizza in town. He says it’s better than in Italy. “The water in New York is pretty good to do the dough.”

I also like the restaurateurs in another portrait—Alberto Ghezzi, Michele Casadei Massari and Gianluca Capozzi, owners of the Piccolo Café restaurants. They’re posed beside the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the southwest corner of Union Square Park.

Mr. Wandael explained the composition: When the trio was just starting out Mr. Massari came up with a novel way to advertise. “Michele had this idea to put a sign on Gandhi,” the photographer explained. “The police arrived and asked who had the idea.”

A native New Yorker would have denied it up and down, or been long gone. “Michele was very proud. They almost arrested him.”

There you have the difference between a New Yorker and an Italian, perhaps no matter how long they’ve lived here. Their charming instinct for anarchy. Which is something we can all learn from.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Sailor-Turned-Doorman Finds Refuge in Art Collection

Sept. 10, 2014 9:24 p.m. ET

Ron Dominguez, an Upper East Side doorman, in front of a piece in his collection, ‘Do Ask, Do Tell.’Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

If you want to know what the life of a typical New York City doorman looks like after he sheds his uniform and goes home to his family at night, don’t ask Ron Dominguez, a doorman at a building on Fifth Avenue in the 80′s.

“I don’t happen to know any other doorman that happens to be a psychotic art collector,” Mr. Dominguez said as we sat in his art-laden Harlem apartment beside his newest acquisition: a 6-by-8-foot canvas of a black rhino that he commissioned from the artist Martin Wittfooth.

The work is called “Do Ask, Do Tell,” and it’s rippling with iconography, as I discovered when Mr. Dominguez launched into a lengthy discussion of its elements. These include, in no particular order, lovely tocororo birds, which are indigenous to Cuba. His family fled the island in 1971.

There’s also a mooring post with the letters “NMMI.” That refers to the New Mexico Military Institute, from which Mr. Dominguez graduated. And a number. “My military ID number,” from the days he served in the Navy aboard submarines and submarine tenders at a military base the U.S. shared with Italy off Sardinia.

Hence the sub bobbing just offshore in the painting.

And then there’s the rhino itself. “The rhino represents having an elephant in the room,” the elephant being the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy that took effect while Mr. Dominguez was stationed overseas.

“It was a double-edged sword,” the doorman remembers. “I wasn’t out yet. If you decided to come out, they sent you home.”

A sculpture David Cho is part of Ron Dominguez’s art collection. Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

But more than anything else, I suspect that the rhino represents Mr. Dominguez’s passion for art. It’s a statement piece, the statement apparently being that now that he owns the painting he is going cold turkey and spending his hard-earned salary and holiday season tips on something other than the Pop Surrealism he adores.

“I have to stop collecting art,” he insisted, as much to himself, describing the rhino as the apartment’s “piece de resistance.” “I think I’m done. In a good way. I promised Michael I was going to stop. I don’t want this place looking like a salon.”

Michael Millare, a registered nurse, is Mr. Dominguez’s husband. “We have this agreement,” the doorman explained. “I buy art. Michael deals with furniture.”

Handsome, unobtrusive midcentury modern, to be precise. Mr. Dominguez’s taste is somewhat more outré. Indeed, the rhino is staid compared with some of the apartment’s other objects.

For example, the cartoonlike work by the artist Gary Baseman, and a fantasy light fixture that more than holds its own beside the “Do Ask, Do Tell” rhino. Titled “Phaedra,” it’s by Adam Wallacavage—the bulbs extended on octopus tentacles.

To be honest, I didn’t ask Mr. Dominguez what about the Lowbrow movement, as it is also called, appealed in particular to him. Similar to other passionate collectors, he overwhelmed me with the names and dates of every piece, as well as stories about how he acquired them, and his friendships with artists and dealers that grew from his pursuit.

I suspect the art was also a reflection of the doorman’s personality and the style he brings each morning at his prewar building.

“I work with a wonderful staff and I’m blessed with wonderful residents,” said Mr. Dominguez, who asked not to reveal the building’s address, where he has worked since 1999, to protect his tenants’ privacy. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades. We do packages, deliver pharmacy. We deal with dry cleaning. We’re not a concierge building per se but we do concierge stuff.”

A sculpture by Adam Wallacavage Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Dominguez said that some residents know about his collecting. Others don’t. A few probably have impressive art collections of their own, given the neighborhood’s demographics. If so, Mr. Dominguez said he wouldn’t know, and certainly hasn’t asked to see them. It’s a line he’d never cross.

“I stay in the trenches,” he explained, referring to the front door. “Occasionally I go to their vestibule. The guys who work in the back, they go into the apartment.”

He doesn’t discuss, with his co-workers either, Picasso, whose Blue Period sparked his interest in collecting, or his travels to museums abroad. “Most are married men with children,” he explained. “They’re more sports guys.”

Mr. Dominguez said that much of his collection was amassed between 2000 and 2006.

“I worked three different buildings,” he recalled. “I was hustling a full-time job in one and a part-time in two others to support my art habit.”

When we met Tuesday evening, he’d done a day shift but was returning at midnight to pick up another shift. Supposedly, it wasn’t for the purpose of accumulating spending money.

However, in the next breath he mentioned a new artist whose work he’d love to acquire. “Please do not write that down because Michael would have a…” and he resorted to a lighthearted expletive. “With a doorman’s salary and a nurse’s salary this is it. But it’s been a wonderful journey.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Getting Smashed at the Open

Sept. 9, 2014 8:53 p.m. ET

Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr., right, with Texas A&M junior Harrison Adams at their meeting at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Open is over for another year. But I’m still recuperating—and from a first-round loss, no less.

It came in the pursuit of what I suspect is any tennis fan’s fantasy: to rally with Roger Federer, or someone of his caliber.

You wouldn’t demand much of Mr. Federer’s time. Say 10, 15 minutes. Preferably at Arthur Ashe stadium. One of the practice courts would certainly do, though.

You wouldn’t want too many spectators because, obviously, you’re going to be a little nervous and wouldn’t be bringing your “A” game, at least until you loosen up.

So last week I decided to share my fantasy with the U.S. Tennis Association.

I didn’t ask for Mr. Federer, of course. Besides, he was still in the tournament. And I was rooting for him to take the whole thing, as I’m sure millions of others were.

The last thing I’d want is for him to slip a disc while chasing one of my shanked balls.

A 16-year-old competing in the juniors tournament would do. We could hit some practice balls.

I still doubted the USTA officials would go for the idea. They had a lot on their plate. But they did. They offered Harrison Adams, one of the nation’s top-ranked college players, a junior at Texas A&M.

Mr. Adams was in town competing in the inaugural American Collegiate Invitational at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

As it turned out, Mr. Adams was an alternate and didn’t end up playing. Which doesn’t mean I could touch his serve. More about that in a moment.

My first consideration was my wardrobe. I didn’t want to look like one of those fans who parades around the Open in tennis attire, as if anybody is going to mistake you for a player when you’re 60.

On the other hand, I was actually going to be playing. I decided to take the classic route: a white Lacoste tennis shirt, khaki shorts and sneakers, of course.

Mr. Adams, 20, is ranked ninth among college players in the U.S. Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal

A word or two about my level of play. I’ve played only twice this summer. Both times with my younger daughter. We have a tennis court with giant fissures and plants growing out of them. But that keeps you on your toes.

My forehand is decent. My backhand deserted me in the late ’70s, never to return.

Mr. Adams made it to the third round of the U.S. Open junior tournament in 2012. He’s 20 now and ranked ninth among college players in the U.S.

His best win may have been against Sam Groth, an Australian, right before he went to college. Mr. Groth lost in straight sets to Mr. Federer in the second round of this year’s Open.

We started to rally and I did OK. But that’s only because Mr. Adams was hitting the ball to me. I also played net.

I don’t think I’m any worse than I was at 20. Problems generally only arise the next morning when I wake up with a limp.

Finished toying with him, I asked Mr. Adams to serve a few. As hard as he wanted.

It was an educational experience. I don’t generally play against people who can serve a ball at 130 mph, and place it wherever they want.

Having a ball land in the service box and then bounce over your head was novel for me.

To have returned it would have required me to stand farther behind the baseline. Say down the boardwalk by the entrance to the 7 train.

By the way, we weren’t playing in the tennis center, proper. But on a court I hadn’t previously known existed, before you enter the gates at the Open. Which was a good thing, because nobody was around to watch.

When I suggested we take a break—it was to be permanent—I shared a bit of my tennis history.

I told Mr. Adams about the time I tried out for the tennis team at Middlebury College my freshman year. I didn’t make it.

Mr. Adams, who comes from a tennis family—his father and older sisters played at Texas Tech—said it would be impossible for a generic freshman to make the tennis team at a Division 1 college, such as Texas A&M, Stanford or UCLA.

“There are top-100 in the world who aren’t even in the starting lineup for Division 1 schools,” he explained.

He’ll decide whether to pursue a pro career once he graduates.

“I’ll give it two years and see how I’m doing,” he said. “It’s hard to see how you’re going to do unless you play a full schedule.”

I discovered we had something in common, if not our serve.

Mr. Adams also fanaticizes about playing with Mr. Federer.

“If I got a wild card I’d want to play Roger first round,” he said. “A night match on Ashe.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com