On the Trail of the City’s Sweet Side

Cheesecake at Junior's is one of the stops on Sugartooth Tours.ENLARGE
Cheesecake at Junior’s is one of the stops on Sugartooth Tours. STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

After years of searching, I recently found a gemütlich, affordable place for lunch in the Theater District. Which is probably why Café Edison, in the Edison Hotel at 228 W. 47th St., recently announced that it’s going out of business.

Credit where credit’s due, I didn’t discover the place on my own, but as the final stop on a dessert walking tour with Sarah Rolleston, an actor who runs Sugartooth Tours, a company that leads two-hour expeditions of the Theater District’s sweetest spots.

“We timed it so you can catch a matinee right afterwards,” Ms. Rolleston explained as we sat outside Junior’s, the first stop on our tour. She launched into her cheesecake riff. “This is the original cheesecake. It’s New York style. It doesn’t have a crust or any toppings. We will be serving the cheesecake plain.”

I didn’t realize that absence of crust is what distinguishes a slice of New York cheesecake—I was already learning new stuff—though I prefer mine with a crumbly graham cracker foundation.

I was drawn to the tour for a couple of reasons. The Theater District doesn’t automatically come to mind as a dessert destination. In fact, I think of it more as a dessert desert.

Also, I used to lead dessert tours myself, though free-of-charge (Sugartooth’s cost $50, including treats) shortly after college for out-of-town friends. My own tour was restricted to Madison Avenue. But in those days the avenue formed a veritable charm bracelet of high-quality bakeries—among them Rigo, a Viennese pastry shop; G&M, where the Florentines were almost the size of dinner plates; and William Greenburg Desserts, the lone survivor.

As we left Junior’s and headed west, Ms. Rolleston told me that her two-year-old company—which has six different dessert tours and 50 fellow actors leading them—started as a matter of necessity. She wanted to take her friend—fellow actor, and Sugartooth co-founder Allyson Tolbert —on an ice cream tour for her birthday.

The women had met on the national touring company of “Beauty and the Beast.” “I understudied Belle, and Allyson understudied Babette, the feather duster, and we both danced in the ensemble,” Ms. Rolleston recalled.

“They didn’t have any ice cream tours, which I thought was crazy,” she went on.

A business opportunity was divined. “It’s different from waiting tables or baby sitting,” said Ms. Rolleston, 29 years old, and from Ohio. “We’ve been able to support our theater careers this way.”

She said that when they started they didn’t realize that being actors was a selling point for clients. “They had questions like, ‘What’s it like to be an actor?’ ‘Where should I send my kids to dance class?’ ”

Amy's Bread on Ninth Avenue makes handmade breads, pastries and cookies.ENLARGE
Amy’s Bread on Ninth Avenue makes handmade breads, pastries and cookies.STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The tours—in addition to the Theater District, they include a cupcake crawl through Greenwich Village and a dessert tour of the Union Square Holiday Market—are themed for out-of-towners. Or locals who have managed to remain star-struck by the city.

I can’t quite count myself among them. So my mind started to wander (in the director of Amy’s Bread, where we were headed next, and where Ms. Rolleston said they make excellent black-and-white cookies) when she started to explain how best to buttonhole your favorite Broadway stars after performances. “Find out where the stage door is before the show, or when the show ends,” she instructed. “You don’t even have to see the show.”

We arrived at Amy’s, whose black and white’s indeed tasted as good as they looked—the vanilla section not too sweet; the chocolate half just sweet enough; and the cake fluffy and moist.

Black-and-white cookies from Amy's Bread.ENLARGE
Black-and-white cookies from Amy’s Bread.STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We give a bit of history about black-and-white cookies,” Ms. Rolleston said as I dug in, the dopamine rush causing me to miss the cookie’s history.

We stopped to window-shop at LaDuca Shoes—“This is the shoe maker that does all the shoes on Broadway,” the actor stated—before arriving at Café Edison, where I immediately felt at home and rued the gap in my education that I hadn’t found the place earlier in both my own and the restaurant’s careers.

“We audition in this neighborhood,” Ms. Rolleston explained. “I’ve been coming here since before I moved to New York. You can get a great matzo ball soup.”

However, the item on the dessert tour was Café Edison’s egg cream, Ms. Rolleston launching into competing theories about how it earned its name, since it contains neither eggs nor cream.

Café Edison, on 47th Street, a good place to get an egg cream.ENLARGE
Café Edison, on 47th Street, a good place to get an egg cream. STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Café Edison was featured in the season five opener of ‘Sex and the City,’ ” she added.

I was interested in the hallowed corner—or was it the counter—where Carrie Bradshaw had once dined. But not quite interested enough to look up from my egg cream.


Name Game Is Still Same—All About Money

Avery Fisher, center, as the former philharmonic hall at Lincoln Center was renamed in his honor in 1973.
Avery Fisher, center, as the former philharmonic hall at Lincoln Center was renamed in his honor in 1973. ASSOCIATED PRESS

I know what I won’t be doing with my fort une–once I figure out how to make my fortune. I won’t be endowing a major concert hall, expecting them to tack my name over the front door. Or if they do, that it will remain there as long as the pyramids.

You may have heard that Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall will be changing its name. I don’t think we yet know to what. But in honor of the donor who manages to cough up a good chunk of the estimated $500 million that it’s expected to cost to renovate the home of the New York Philharmonic.

Perhaps it won’t be an individual. Maybe it will be a corporation, now that corporations are people, too. Is there any reason it can’t be called Trader Joe’s Hall or Starbucks Hall? Even though they may already have a Starbucks there. And the music certainly won’t sound any worse, perhaps even slightly better, because of the anticipated improvement to acoustics, and knowing our addiction to frappuccinos helped underwrite the cause.

But an agreement has been reached, with Lincoln Center paying the Fisher family $15 million to drop the name, as well as other incentives, including a Philharmonic concert next year honoring Mr. Fisher, the founder of an electronics company who, in 1973, gave $10.5 million toward the renovation of the hall, originally built in 1962.

Does anybody remember what or whom, if anything, it was named for before Mr. Fisher’s largess?

Perhaps that’s the point. Naming rights matter most of all to the person being named and to his or her immediate family, and their descendants.

The rest of us don’t really care. Indeed, New Yorkers have a genius for ignoring extraneous information. I knew the place was called Avery Fisher Hall. But I still always referred to it as the “Philharmonic.” Not even the “New York Philharmonic.” Just the Philharmonic, as in “I’m going to the Philharmonic.”

David A. Koch has plowed a lot of money into New York City recently, but if public recognition is his purpose it’s probably a fool’s game. He gave $100 million to renovate the New York State Theater, subsequently re-christened the David H. Koch Theater. But I doubt I’m alone in continuing to refer to it as the New York State Theater.

And even though he also bankrolled the spiffy new plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I can’t believe anybody–even ladies who lunch–are going to say, “I’ll meet you at the David H. Koch Plaza at noon.”

And I’m a big fan of the new dancing fountains.

They’ll still say, “I’ll meet you in front of the museum.” Or, “You know the fountain on the left?”

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln CenterENLARGE

I can certainly understand Lincoln Center’s point of view and that of other arts organizations. Money isn’t exactly falling from trees. And Avery Fisher Hall is the performing arts center’s last significant element that hasn’t undergone an intelligent and visually appealing revitalization by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

On the other hand, a deal’s a deal. Forever doesn’t mean until a bigger fish comes along.

I’m already starting to feel sorry for Stephen A. Schwarzman, who donated $100 million to the New York Public Library to have his name put on the Beaux-Arts main branch. He’s only a billionaire and it’s probably only a matter of time until we mint our first trillionaire—his trillions trumping Mr. Schwarzman’s billions to give lions Patience and Fortitude an even cushier home.

If Mr. Fisher had the perspicacity to invest his money in his own perpetuity the rules shouldn’t be any different than if he’d invested in IBM or Xerox or Google or Facebook, in their infancy. Good for him. And he provided a public service to boot.

I suppose the larger problem is that we’re loath to confront our own impermanence. We’ve duped ourselves into believing that money can buy a measure of immortality; that if we manage to get our name chiseled in stone, we’ll live beyond our due date, neglecting to recall that old stone can be replaced by new stone, and old money by new.

On the other hand, in the here and now (the only thing we can be certain of) plutocrats do provide various forms of philanthropy—including in the realm of entertainment.

I suspect I’m not alone, during Lincoln Center intermissions, in perusing the program for the names of generous contributors, by dollar denomination, to American Ballet Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.

If the programs only listed the plots of operas or the movements of symphonies and the bios of performers, I’d be more than a little disappointed.

Climbing Eiffel Tower Is Piece of Cake

A visitor gets a feel for the Eiffel Tower’s new glass floor, during its October opening.. ENLARGE
A visitor gets a feel for the Eiffel Tower’s new glass floor, during its October opening.. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Unlike the Empire State Building, which has started to fade into the skyline as taller rivals vie for the spotlight, the Eiffel Tower continues to dominate Paris.

My wife and I spent last week there doing what I think one should do on vacation, but can probably achieve better in Paris than anywhere else—taking long aesthetically pleasing walks, visiting museums and eating well. (While it isn’t New York City’s brand, there’s something to be said for immutable views of the Seine that you can enjoy live moments after you’ve seen them in paintings by Monet or Pissarro at Musée d’Orsay.)

I’ve read that France is in the financial and psychological doldrums. But you’d never know it based on the number of patisseries in the Left Bank neighborhood where our modest but well-run hotel, Le Saint-Gregoire, was located.

I have no idea how all the shops manage to survive—even if every man, woman and child in Paris had pastry for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I would have done my part, but for a tactical pastry-eating error I made early in the trip—letting my heart, rather than my palate, call the shots.

We stopped at Ladurée on the Rue Royale, where I spotted a mocha cake I’ve been pining for ever since it played a central role in our daughter Gracie’s 7th birthday in Paris. That was 14 years ago, and a long time to covet a piece of cake.

(They don’t sell it at Ladurée in New York City. I’ve asked—patiently waiting in line to pop the question as customers in front of me deliberated over the seemingly infinite variety of macarons, for which the confectioner is better known.)

I knew I was being reckless as I joined the equally glacial line at the Parisian store to purchase an entire cake. (It wasn’t available by the slice.) My wife abandoned me at that point. But I well remembered that 7th birthday, the Razor scooter we surprised our daughter with and how she propelled herself down the Champs-Élysées.

A mocha cake from Ladurée in Paris.ENLARGE
A mocha cake from Ladurée in Paris. RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

This vacation may have been the first time I truly felt myself an empty nester, because we usually travel with our children. And returning to Paris, a place we’ve taken them, brought back fond memories.

Obviously, a piece of pastry wasn’t going to fill the emotional void. But it was a start. And as I may have said, this was excellent cake.

Visiting the Eiffel Tower with our children was among those recollections. But my relationship with the structure (my second favorite skyscraper after the Empire State) well predates them.

Thus, it came as a surprise when, on the taxi ride from the airport into the city, Debbie informed me she’d read that the Eiffel Tower has a new attraction: a glass floor similar to those at Chicago’s Willis Tower and at the Grand Canyon. It’s part of a $38 million renovation to the landmark’s first floor. (Is it too late to suggest the World Trade Center add one to its observation deck, scheduled to open in the spring?)

My admittedly pretentious attitude toward the Eiffel Tower is similar to that regarding the Statue of Liberty: it’s for tourists. (As if I’m not one of them in Paris.)

But as soon as I heard about the glass floor, I knew I had to go.

The first time we attempted a visit was in midafternoon. But after a morning at the also brand new Fondation Louis Vuitton—a contemporary art museum in the Bois du Boulogne designed by Frank Gehry (a gentleman as talented with rivets as Gustave Eiffel)—I didn’t have the stamina to suffer what appeared an hour-and-a-half line for those who hadn’t reserved tickets in advance.

I had reserved by our next visit a couple of days later. But this time we arrived to discover the elevator out of service. We were told it would take 45 minutes to repair.

Our decision was either to wait, skip it or take the stairs.

We weren’t going to wait—a nap beckoned for me and shopping for my wife. But on visits over the years I’d always been too concerned about my longevity to attempt the stairs. not this time. I felt the need to prove, if only to myself, that I still had the legs and the lung capacity. perhaps it was the flip side of empty-nesterdom.

Was experiencing the glass floor worth risking a triple bypass? The short answer was—duh, obviously! Even though it turned out that the floor merely constitutes a border around the inside edge of the first floor—187 feet above the ground—rather than the equivalent of a giant transparent dance floor stretching between all four pillars, as I’d romanticized it would.

But who knew when I’d again be in Paris? Or in Chicago or at the Grand Canyon with their glass floors?

The ascent was less grueling than I’d have guessed. And allowed one to commune along the way with the Eiffel Tower’s 19th-century latticework of beams (not to mention stunning views of Paris on an unseasonably sunny autumn day.)

Peering between my feet through the glass floor at the pedestrians far below was slightly nauseating. But I faced my fears knowing a piece of mocha cake was waiting when I returned to our hotel.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Dishing With the Zagats

Tim and Nina Zagat.ENLARGE

Tim Zagat wanted to show me some of the perks of working forGoogle , which bought the restaurant guidebook empire that he built with his wife, Nina.

Not that the Zagats need freebies. They sold the business in 2011 for a reported $125 million.

But it quickly became apparent that when Mr. Zagat wants to share, the path of least resistance is to go along.

We started with the glassed-in conference rooms, each decorated with images of favorite Zagat haunts: Le Bristol Paris, a five-star hotel on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré—“The general manager is a friend of ours,” Mr. Zagat said; elBulli, a three-star restaurant in Spain associated with molecular gastronomy; Hassler Roma, a grand hotel in Rome; and Minetta Tavern here in New York, on Macdougal Street, a storied dining room that the Zagats rank as serving the city’s third best burger in their 2015 New York City restaurants guide. (Peter Luger gets the top spot.)

Mr. Zagat also proudly showed me the Google gym and the snack bar.

“The things that are supposed to be good for you they put at eye-level,” he explained.

Mustering the majority of my courage, I gently informed him that I was familiar with the freebies since I’d visited Google recently, and even done a column on the company’s charmed kingdom.

Mr. Zagat seemed only mildly deflated and we pressed on, the tour culminating at what my host described as “the Museum of Zagat stuff.”

It consisted of a vitrine that held, among other souvenirs, a photo that accompanied a 1985 New York magazine of dozens of “Food Spooks”—Zagat raters dressed up like spies—and that helped put the Zagats on the map; a 1992 testimonial letter from the New York Times legendary restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, who called the Zagats’ guide “A marvelous, incorruptible—and to my mind—indispensable compendium”; and perhaps most important of all, a 1975 crib sheet—the genesis of their idea—rating their favorite Paris restaurants for friends.

“We were sent over there as young lawyers,” Mr. Zagat explained. “It changed our view of life.”

Tim Zagat grew up in Connecticut and Central Park West; Nina on Long Island.

The couple met at Yale Law School, married and discovered the joys of French cuisine when their white-shoe law firms sent them to Paris.

When the Zagats returned to New York, they solicited friends’ opinions about their favorite local restaurants. That humble mimeographed 1980 sheet—many of the eateries, such as Lüchow’s and Lutèce, are long gone—is also behind glass.

Their first sleek eggplant-colored guide was published in 1982.

“When we started doing the survey, we were doing something we felt seemed obvious,” Nina Zagat remembered. “Nobody else was doing what today is called user generated content.”

The concept didn’t seem obvious to publishers.

“Nobody would publish our guide,” Ms. Zagat said. “They didn’t see why anyone would want to know what other people thought.”

A cartoon from an issue of The New Yorker on display at Zagat in New York.ENLARGE
A cartoon from an issue of The New Yorker on display at Zagat in New York. RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

So they decided to publish themselves: Their law training proved useful—especially the knowledge, from pounding out late night legal briefs, that there were places that would publish at all hours.

When the Zagats started their survey there were 19 types of cuisine in New York, Mr. Zagat said. Today, there are 90.

“When I grew up, Japanese food was thought to be a fraternity prank,” he said, referring to sushi.

“Being a chef was a hot, dirty job done by foreigners,” he went on. “Now, they’re celebrities.”

In goading the Zagats to wax nostalgic—Ms. Zagat and I bonded over Schrafft’s hot fudge sundaes—I probably bear some responsibility for an extended tangent that Mr. Zagat went on, regarding negotiating a $375,000 deal with the makers of the movie “Ghostbusters.”

They wanted to use the Central Park West building where the couple lived and still do, and on whose board Mr. Zagat served, as the epicenter of paranormal activity.

“It’s the only time of all my years on the board that anybody said thank you,” he said.

The Zagats were reluctant to name their favorite restaurants—their 2015 guide, based on votes cast by more than 30,000 diners, lists Le Bernardin tops in food and service and Gramercy Tavern as most popular.

“If you’re going to run an election, you shouldn’t have a candidate in the race,” Mr. Zagat explained.

It’s anybody’s guess how Google plans to protect its investment in Zagat, in an online world where ratings are ubiquitous—“I had originally thought that guidebooks would be history,” Mr. Zagat confessed—but the couple seems to be having all the fun, with half the responsibility.

The afternoon we met they were flying to California and “going down to Mountain View” for meetings at Googleplex headquarters and then to launch their “2014 San Francisco 30 Under 30” list of fledgling food stars.

And upon their return to New York, of course, there was all the free, healthy eye-level dried fruit and coconut water anybody could want.

“It’s like going to college again,” Mr. Zagat said.


From Italy, Found in Translation

Italian translator Gioia Guerzoni on the streets of Queens. ‘For me, listening to different languages is the most beautiful thing in the world.’ENLARGE
Italian translator Gioia Guerzoni on the streets of Queens. ‘For me, listening to different languages is the most beautiful thing in the world.’ CRAIG WARGA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Among the world’s most impressive professions—brain surgeon, astronaut, symphony conductor, string theorist, rock star—few rank higher in my personal pantheon than literary translator.

Perhaps because I’m terrible at languages. I get winded after a hundred words trying to read a French or Italian newspaper.

Thus my respect for Gioia Guerzoni. She is an Italian translator I met recently at a writers and translators residency program I visited run by Omi International Arts Center, an upstate arts organization. Ms. Guerzoni takes joy in a craft that would make every day feel like fifth grade, if it were me.

She specializes in translating the work of contemporary American and other English-speaking authors—among them Ben Marcus, Paula Fox, Jonathan Lethem , Siri Hustvedt, Teju Cole and Colm Toibin —for top Italian publishing houses, such as Einaudi and Mondadori. She has also translated the work of the late Iris Murdoch.

“In Italy we translate a lot,” she explained when we met on a recent afternoon, estimating that as many as a quarter of the books published in Italy are translations. She’s spending two months in New York, staying at a poet friend’s apartment in Jackson Heights. “You’re in the region of three to four percent,” she added, of American books translated from other languages.

She lives in Milan, but spends much of the year traveling to literary festivals and participating in translating and publishing workshops from the U.K. to Pakistan to Indonesia. She’s also always on the hunt for new authors to translate, and serves as a fiction scout for the Italian publishing house Saggiatore.

She has become friends with some of her writers—she was hoping to see Ms. Hustvedt, the author of international best sellers “What I Loved” and “The Summer Without Men” while in New York—though she admits it’s hard for them to tell how competent a job she does since most don’t speak Italian.

“It’s an act of trust,” she said. “They usually have friends who read the book. And the reviews sometimes mention the translation.”

Ms. Guerzoni, who speaks Italian, French and English fluently, told me something I found reassuring: that translators aren’t always great linguists. “The strength of a translator lies in his or her own language,” she said over the phone Monday morning as she took a break from translating David James Poissant ’s debut short-story collection, “The Heaven of Animals.” “Sometimes you meet translators who don’t speak the other language very well. But the mother tongue is more important for literary translation.”

She shared a translator’s joke, a comeback to those who think a translator’s job is easy: “The publishers asked us to give them an identical book. All the words were changed.”

“This one I read beforehand,” she went on, of “The Heaven of Animals.” “Sometimes I read the book; sometimes I don’t read the book. If the prose is very poetic, I have to read it beforehand to capture the nuance of the writing.”

Ms. Guerzoni was first exposed to English as a child while attending a school in Sardinia with foreign students. “Because I was a shy kid, when I started using a different language I discovered I wasn’t shy any more. I became a chatterbox.

“I realized how language changes your personality,” she added. “If I speak Italian I’m one person. If I speak French I’m a slightly different person. It’s kind of scientifically proven—you do think and act in slightly different ways.”

Forty-five years old and single, she considers the freedom to travel the world a major part of her compensation package. Even though she translates top works of literary American and British fiction for some of Italy’s most prestigious publishing houses, at midcareer she makes only €16 ($20) for 2,000 characters, which takes approximately one hour. The most senior translators make only a couple of euros more, she said.

“There’s probably only two people in Italy who have royalties,” she explained.

While she believes translators ought to be better compensated, she doesn’t consider herself a co-author, as she says some of her colleagues do. “Because I’m not there at the process of creation of the original,” she said. “I don’t have a blank page. For us it’s a different act of creation. We don’t have the ‘horror vacui’ ” or fear of the blank page. “We have another type of horror—finding the right voice.”

When she’s not working while here she strolls the culturally diverse aisles of Queens supermarkets. “For me, listening to different languages is the most beautiful thing in the world,” she said. “I discovered that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. There are something like 120 different ethnicities and they speak 135 different languages.”

“I was thinking I could live here,” she said.

Out on a Ledge for Fashion


Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. hangs on for dear life during a climb at the Shawangunks, a couple of hours north of the city. ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When North Face offered to take me on an “adventure” to an undisclosed location, I didn’t exactly jump at the idea. These days, I find being left alone adventure enough. If I really feel like pushing the envelope, I’ll take a walk in the woods.

But I’d been meaning to contact the company for some time. They make the Nuptse, my favorite lightweight goose-down parka. With the possible exception of mink, nothing keeps you as warm in winter, and I don’t look good in mink.

The problem is that I don’t look especially attractive in the Nuptse either, at least according to my family. Somewhere in the mid-’90s, I walked into a freshly painted door. Fortunately, the paint was black and the parka navy blue so the accident is noticeable only in direct sunlight.

About a year ago I tore a gash in the back of the garment. I remedied the situation by gluing a Gore-Tex patch—the whole patch rather than just what was needed to cover the hole—so it now looks like I’m walking around with a bull’s-eye on my back.

It’s probably time to purchase a new Nuptse. The problem is that I’m not crazy about the color scheme.

But I figured if I accepted the company’s adventure offer, I could buttonhole an executive, either in person or on the phone, on the way to wherever we were going.

The whole thing was actually part of a promotion on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week: a taxicab would pull up to an unsuspecting pedestrian hailing a cab and whisk them away—with their permission, of course—to an experience at one of three secret locations, where they’d be joined by North Face professional athletes.

It was a joint initiative between North Face and the U.S. Department of the Interior to promote and protect public lands.

On the way there (all I was told was that our destination was a couple of hours north of the city) I got Aaron Carpenter, North Face’s vice president of global marketing, on the phone at company headquarters in Alameda, Calif.

I suggested North Face consider ditching their two-tone design for a solid color, such as a forest-green parka of theirs that I purchased in 1976 and still own. Unfortunately, I ditched it in the woods on a warm day and haven’t seen it since.

“You can buy a solid black,” Mr. Carpenter said.

As far as I’m concerned black isn’t a color.

“What about green?” I asked.

“Green is sometimes hard to sell,” Mr. Carpenter stated diplomatically.

If you need proof that civilization is in decline, look no further than the fact that green—the color of nature, of trees, of the great outdoors—no longer sells.

Hanging up the phone having apparently failed to persuade the executive to reimagine the company’s color palette, I grew concerned. What if my adventure was bungee jumping? Or hang gliding off a cliff? I’ve successfully avoided doing truly stupid things most of my adult life.

As it turned out, my escapade was rock climbing—a sport I’d never attempted except on a gym wall—in the fabled Shawangunks.

And just so I didn’t get too cocky, we got lost on the way there and by the time we arrived it was raining emphatically. I hoped the weather might encourage my hosts to abort the mission. But Joe Vitti, my instructor, managed to find an overhang beneath which was dry rock.

Also along was Nick Martini, a professional freestyle skier with the North Face team whose knees, I couldn’t help notice, were deeply scarred.

“I have better scars than that,” Mr. Martini boasted. He displayed a vivid one across his shoulder, acquired after “rag dolling” a thousand feet down a mountain; another from stomach to chest came about after he “got my spleen torn to pieces.”

I’m not sure this was the guy I wanted belaying me.

After my photographer Andrew Lamberson effortlessly accomplished the ascent—it felt like 29,000 feet but was probably closer to 29 feet—it was my turn.

I donned climbing shoes, helmet and harness. Mr. Vitti threaded a rope through the harness that was attached to an anchor at the summit, and I was good to go.

The problem was that the rope didn’t double as a hoist. It was meant only to prevent me from plummeting back to Earth. I was expected to accomplish the ascent solely using my own strength and questionable agility.

About half way up I found myself lying prone on a ledge about 4 inches wide (anything is possible when you think you’re going to die) in full recovery mode; everybody below shouting encouragement, while obviously biting their tongues.

I finally made it to the top, though not in style, and repelled my way down with even less grace. Upon arrival I accepted everyone’s kudos and experienced the well-being that accrues to those who have survived something terrifying and know they’ll never have to do it again.


The Brave Stand Together

Holocaust survivor Ted Schneider, above left, at a meeting of Holocaust survivors and visiting wounded Israeli soldiers.
Holocaust survivor Ted Schneider, above left, at a meeting of Holocaust survivors and visiting wounded Israeli soldiers.    ANDREW HINDERAKER 

No sooner had I buttonholed Arale Wattenstein on the staircase of the West 86th Street Jewish Center than Millie Jerushalmy joined the conversation.

Mr. Wattenstein is a 31-year-old wounded Israeli war veteran; Ms. Jerushalmy is a Holocaust survivor.

“You have to understand, for a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli soldier is the embodiment of a miracle,” she explained. “He represents a sovereign state born from the ashes of the Holocaust.”

Ms. Jerushalmy shared her story: She survived because she was smuggled from France to Switzerland as an infant. Her father was killed for spying for the French Resistance.

“He was shot by a firing squad,” she said.

As Ms. Jerushalmy walked away, Mr. Wattenstein said: “They look at us as heroes. But to us they’re the heroes. They survived hell.”

That’s the way it went Friday afternoon at a lunch sponsored by Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., the largest social service organization in North America caring for Holocaust survivors.

The goal was to bring together survivors—now in their 80s and 90s—with injured Israeli soldiers, who belong to Hope for Heroism, an organization established by the soldiers to help other wounded Israeli veterans put their lives back together. Some are still in their 20s.

It was never clear who was more grateful to whom.

Mr. Wattenstein, a paratrooper, told me he’d suffered his injuries when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a car in Nablus, on the West Bank, in 2005.

“I had grenades on me,” he remembered. “Explosives in my backpack. I decided to leave the car because of the fire.”

Lee Spiegel, a host for the soldiers, chats with Holocaust survivor Yona Berkovitz.
Lee Spiegel, a host for the soldiers, chats with Holocaust survivor Yona Berkovitz. ANDREW HINDERAKER 

And he left fast.

“I jumped out. As a result of the jump, I crushed my back and spine in three different spots. I did four years of rehab.”

Mr. Wattenstein’s work with Hope for Heroism has taken him from Johannesburg, to New York, to Los Angeles, where he recalls one Holocaust survivor who wanted to hug every soldier present.

“She started crying,” Mr. Wattenstein said. “She’d never touched or seen an Israeli soldier before. She’d never been to Israel.”

It would be easy to suspect that the soldiers, if only because of the vast age difference, considered themselves on a goodwill mission for the benefit of the Holocaust survivors. But the appreciation and respect felt mutual.

Mr. Wattenstein said he spends time with Holocaust survivors out of a sense of obligation to his family, especially his grandmother, herself a survivor.

But he also attends the events out of solidarity. He sees the survivors and the soldiers as fighters for the same cause.

“In 50 years they will not be alive,” he said. “The people who will tell the survivors’ stories are the survivors of Israel.”

At the lunch, I was seated next to Alan Fisher, a 92-year-old survivor. He didn’t feel like dwelling on his own story, at least before he reached Israel in 1947.

“I went through warm and cold,” he stated. “After I survived the Holocaust, I had no home, no parents.”

He’d been a tailor before the war, but there was little use for his trade in what was then Palestine. “I couldn’t find work,” he remembered. “No demand. It’s a hot climate. They wear shorts.”

Instead, he went to work building barracks and enlisted in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as a carpenter assigned to headquarters. But his tailoring skills were suddenly back in demand when a general had a uniform emergency.

“He’s trying to button the button and the button came off,” Mr. Fisher remembered. “I said, ‘Can I help you? I’m a tailor.’ I pull a needle from under my lapel and a thimble from my pocket.”

Mr. Fisher’s story was interrupted by the main event—Chaim Levine, an American rabbi and Hope for Heroism’s executive director, introduced some of the soldiers. But it was the survivors who told their stories, one or two overtaken by emotion. The soldiers hugged them, and then everyone sang songs together, among them “Am Yisrael Chai”—“The People of Israel are alive.”

“He goes to the head general,” Mr. Fisher said, resuming his narrative. He was referring to his commanding officer. “He said, ‘Have I got a tailor for you! Maybe you need something?’”

The general ordered a pair of pants. “They set me up in a room with a sewing machine,” Mr. Fisher said. “And I became the tailor of the headquarters, including Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.”

Mr. Fisher pulled a letter with a photograph of Ben-Gurion from a manila envelope.

“I have all his measurements to this day,” he said. “He can’t get a standard size. He was short and chubby. He had a larger head than usual.”

Oshri Azran and Dekel Darchani, two of the wounded vets, were listening to Mr. Fisher’s story, too. They assured him that the Israeli army and the Israeli people had his back. What happened to him during the Holocaust would never happen again. Not in a thousand years. They sounded pretty confident.

Shooting Stars—And Loving It

An Exhibit of Patrick McMullan’s Work Begins Wednesday

Patrick McMullan looks over images at the Hearst Building with publicist Randi Friedman before his exhibition at the offices.
Patrick McMullan looks over images at the Hearst Building with publicist Randi Friedman before his exhibition at the offices. CRAIG WARGA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Photographer Patrick McMullan qualifies as the Cartier-Bresson—or is it Weegee?—of the New York social scene.

Mr. McMullan and his staff of 16 shooters are out every night. They have hit 14 benefits, movie premieres and gallery openings on one evening alone.

And while it is mostly A- and B-list celebrities and socialites whose pictures make it into the publications and onto the websites that use his photos—including New York, Vanity Fair and, yes, The Wall Street Journal—no one seems too modest to catch his eye.

“We photograph everybody at the party,” said Anita Antonini, Mr. McMullan’s right hand. “Even the waiters.”

Search a party-going editorial assistant, publicist or real-estate broker, and chances are his or her thumbnail will pop up somewhere on Patrick McMullan.com.

“I’m an attention-giver in a world that has lots of attention-seekers,” Mr. McMullan said as he ate his first meal of the day—a brownie—at 5 p.m. He was sitting in the lobby of the Hearst Tower, where an exhibition of Hearst editors he photographed, as well as candids of the New York Fashion Week’s Spring 2015 collections, opens Wednesday night.

“We could have 10 events here,” he said with characteristic enthusiasm as he examined the building’s soaring atrium. “There’s a six-month window of doing stuff.”

Dianne Brill and Sting in a 1984 photograph by Mr. McMullan. ENLARGE
Dianne Brill and Sting in a 1984 photograph by Mr. McMullan. PATRICK MCMULLAN

Mr. McMullan was referring to the length of the show, a time frame that would hearten any artist who wants his or her work seen.

But the opportunity may be especially poignant in Mr. McMullan’s case: If there’s any photographer working in New York City today who traffics in the ephemeral, it is him.

If Mr. McMullan has a gift, beyond a capacity for hard work, an easygoing charm, and an eye for beauty, it is a working-class mien that cuts through the self-regard that seems an occupational hazard among members of New York’s photogenic class.

“The most elegant thing is people who are consistent,” he explained. “You treat people the same all the time.”

His current pet peeve is the selfie.

“The celebrities are annoyed by it, too,” he said—technology interfering with direct experience, life becoming an extended photo-op. “Nobody is living and going and doing.”

His passion for photography dates to the 1960s when he was growing up on Long Island.

“Nixon was coming to the mall,” he remembered of the 1968 Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon. “I decided I’d go and see if I could get a picture. They let me right up—‘Let the kid get a picture.’

“Nixon waved to me. There was no film. It was the greatest picture I didn’t take. It taught me one thing. Always be prepared.”

Mr. McMullan attended New York University and gained entree to Andy Warhol and the Studio 54 crowd. He said he learned important life lessons from the artist.

Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring at Elizabeth Saltzman's birthday party in June 1986.ENLARGE
Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring at Elizabeth Saltzman’s birthday party in June 1986. PATRICK MCMULLAN

“There was a kind of simplicity Andy had,” Mr. McMullan remembered. “He’d say I want to do something and do it. He wanted to have a magazine so he could go to more parties.”

The 59-year-old photographer has written a column for that magazine, “Interview,” every month for more than 30 years.

“He didn’t have limits,” Mr. McMullan added, referring to Mr. Warhol.

A couple of bouts with cancer, the first around 1980, also helped set Mr. McMullan’s priorities.

“I was 90 pounds,” he said, and running a 106-degree fever. “My mother said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to die but he’s going to give you the last rites,’ ” meaning the priest. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Even though Mr. McMullan runs a company with 50 employees, has published six books and has a website that gets hundreds of thousands of hits a month, he still lives in the same one-bedroom apartment on lower Fifth Avenue that he has rented since 1977.

“When I had my darkroom set up, I didn’t even have to close the windows,” he boasted. “It was dark. It is on the first floor. Even on 9/11 I just walked in.”

Mr. McMullan has worked for so many publications that some escape him; we bonded over the Soho Weekly News, which gave us both our first break.

But New York was a game changer.

“It was the big thing to be on my page in New York magazine,” he said. “Everybody wanted me to be at their events.”

Aspiring socialities trying to worm their way into photographs where they don’t belong is a perennial scourge.

“I’m a destination and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he explained. “But some people keep coming back to the destination.”

Nonetheless, his brownie finished, and a blueberry muffin as well, he picked up his camera and prepared to become a destination on yet another evening.

“I’ll go to this thing for Aperture,” he said, of one benefit. And then, “I should be at Alzheimer’s.”


The Ramen Renaissance

The last time I considered ramen was in the post-9/11 months and years when I stockpiled the noodles in my basement, alongside bottled water, honey and a cache of incandescent 100-watt light bulbs.

The light bulbs, of course, were a reaction to a different threat—the loss of cheap, pleasing light at the hands of government regulation. Even though I’m all for long-lasting, energy-saving CFLs, LEDs and halogens, I’ll buy them just as soon as they figure out how to manufacture them for 50 cents a bulb.

The ramen noodles, I was confident, would see me and the family through nuclear winter in style. I’ve always been impressed by how much fun and flavor—though I’m not sure about nutrition—could be packed into a cellophane bag filled with dried noodles and a packet of seasoning.

Add an egg, and maybe some chopped scallion, and eat like a king.

Thus, I was somewhat surprised when friends from Maine, visiting their college-age daughter in New York recently, told us she’d taken them to a ramen restaurant on the West Side. So popular was the place that if you arrived for dinner later than, say, 5 p.m. you’d have to wait an hour for a table, the line snaking out the door and down the block.

A patron enjoys a bite during the Ramen Slurpfest. RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When I hear such stories I’m reminded of my father and one of his mantras: If it’s that popular, he used to say, I’ll stay home and make it easier for everyone else to get a table.

I’m not sure what would make me wait in line except an exit visa. But I was mildly intrigued by this culinary trend: I assumed that whatever was generating all the excitement had to be different than the $1, five-minute, just-add-boiling-water-and-stir packages sitting in my basement.

So when an opportunity arose to participate in a “Ramen Slurpfest” Thursday night at the Astor Center on Lafayette Street, with four top ramen chefs pulling out all the stops, I felt an obligation to attend. I also brought along my daughter, a devotee of Chuko Ramen, a restaurant near her apartment in Brooklyn.

“You have to wait for, like, an hour,” she explained.

There’s only so much you can teach your children. Then you have to let them live their own lives.

The drill was that we’d have 13 minutes at each station—because that’s apparently how long it takes the average person in Japan to eat a bowl of ramen. Don’t ask me how Luckyrice, which hosts Asian culinary festivals around the country, including this event, knows that. But I was willing to take their word.

There was also a bar serving Bombay Sapphire East gin. I received a tall cocktail called a “Sapphire East 15 Minute Sunrise” (why this obsession with the clock I don’t know) when I requested the strongest drink they had as a hedge against any off-the-wall ramen.

Our first station was Hide-Chan Ramen, and their Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen—porkbone ramen paired with thin Hakata noodles. The bowl also included bean sprouts, green onions, a half-cooked egg, pork shoulder and spicy garlic oil.

I was told it was the most traditional ramen we’d be eating that night, and it was certainly delicious. If I had any issue with the Slurpfest, it was that ramen is intended to be filling. I could have happily have gone home to bed after my first bowl.

Hideto Kawahara of Hide-Chan, at the Ramen Slurpfest.ENLARGE
Hideto Kawahara of Hide-Chan, at the Ramen Slurpfest. RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Next up was Ivan Ramen’s Chicken Paitan Ramen. The restaurant is named after Ivan Orkin, who was born in Syosset, N.Y., but had the temerity to open one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen shops. He has two locations in Manhattan, and his lines said to be the longest of all.

“It tastes like a Jewish version of ramen,” my daughter observed, the ingredients including white chicken broth, chicken confit, schmaltz-fried onions, shio kombu (don’t ask me, I’m reading from a crib sheet) and rye noodle.

Gathering my chopsticks, ceramic spoon, gin cocktail and a beer chaser that I’d somehow acquired along the way, we moved on to Ramen Lab’s Miso Ramen. Layered with a foie gras espuma and alba truffle shavings, it delivered the equivalent of a TKO, with one station left to go.

Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle’s ramen was a blend of pork soup and fish stock with a twist. The noodles were served cold in a separate bowl and came with seaweed and a lime meant to be squirted on the noodles about halfway through the experience.

We were told the soup had taken 60 hours to make. So I guess I won’t be making it at home. On the other hand, the experience has forever spoiled me for $1 ramen noodles. Though I probably ought to pay a visit to the basement to see how they’re doing, given current events.


It’s All for the Birds, Happily

The lobby of the Cornell ornithology lab with seats overlooking Sapsucker Pond.ENLARGE
The lobby of the Cornell ornithology lab with seats overlooking Sapsucker Pond. RALPH GARDNER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I had a choice to make when I spent the night in
Ithaca recently: I could visit either the main campus of Cornell University or the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology several miles down the road, having time for only one.

The ornithology lab it was.

This isn’t because I believe that all Ivy League campuses look alike, or that, all these years later, I’m still suffering sour grapes because I got shot down at Princeton and Yale.

It had more to do with the kinship I feel with the ornithology lab. I subscribe to its Living Bird magazine. Though, come to think of it, I haven’t seen a copy lately. So perhaps my subscription has lapsed.

And I’m also a participant on eBird, an online database whose sponsors include the lab, where you can register your bird sightings and check out what your neighbors are spotting in their backyards.

I had no agenda in visiting the lab, though my expectations for the place—located, aptly enough, on Sapsucker Woods Road—were fairly high.

I suppose I was hoping for a facility where cutting-edge science got accomplished, but at the same time doubled as the world’s largest, most elegant feeder station.

Robyn Bailey, head of Cornell's NestWatch, with intern Melcolm Crutchfield.ENLARGE
Robyn Bailey, head of Cornell’s NestWatch, with intern Melcolm Crutchfield. RALPH GARDNER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I wasn’t disappointed. The lab’s modern Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity sits at the hub of 226-acre sanctuary with well-tended nature trails that snake through woods and over marshes.

The lobby overlooks Sapsucker Woods pond, actually a glorified swamp, where you can pull up a chair and watch great blue herons hunting for dinner outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, or frenetic chickadees, more relaxed American goldfinch and the occasional squirrel coming and going from their multiple feeders. High-powered spotting scopes are provided.

Indeed, the conference rooms were also equipped with scopes. And rare was the office that didn’t have a pair of binoculars sitting by the window. Their presence suggested that the scientists and administrators who worked there were birders first.

The lobby also boasted a well-equipped gift shop (in addition to being part of Cornell University, the lab is a member-supported nonprofit) and a soaring mural of 140 bird silhouettes that looked familiar—and not because I’ve ever exhibited any talent at identifying birds by their silhouettes.

Painted by artist and naturalist James Prosek, they are based on the endpapers of Roger Tory Peterson’s famous “A Field Guide to the Birds.”

While the lab is best known for birds, its Macaulay Library has the world’s largest archive of wildlife sounds and videos. And it is available online. (The library helped when the makers of the Harry Potter movies were looking for a screech for a mythical hippogriff, and Ken Burns consulted with lab experts on his national parks series.)

So the next time you feel like procrastinating, instead of disappearing down a YouTube click hole, visit their website—Macaulaylibrary.org—and listen to gorillas recorded in Gabon or watch blue whales surfacing off the coast of Chile.

Robyn Bailey, who heads the lab’s NestWatch program—thousands of “citizen scientists” watching their backyard nests and reporting back on developments—was taking advantage of the good weather to build nest boxes outdoors with Melcolm Crutchfield, an intern.

“These are kits meant to be shipped to schools,” Ms. Bailey explained. “We’re testing prototypes. If we can’t do them, kids won’t do them.”

I also visited Charles Eldermire, who manages Cornell’s birdcams. An appealing alternative to staring out your apartment window onto an air shaft and feeling sorry for yourself, check out the live-streaming activity at birdfeeders from Boise, Idaho, where American kestrels were holding court, to Ontario, where evening grosbeaks, which I spotted at my own feeder only once years ago, were chowing down on black oil sunflower seeds in Tammie and Ben Hache’s backyard.

“It’s a cool spot,” Mr. Eldermire, a biologist, explained speaking both figuratively and literally of the Canadian site. “As it starts to get colder, the birds that come to this feeder are boreal species.” Meaning that they are coming from way up north. “Evening grosbeaks have been disappearing from winter feeders in the Lower 48.”

We discussed common redpolls, a boreal species that visit my feeders, but only every few years. And I shared sightings about a month ago of a little blue heron, better known in the Gulf States, on my pond. Unfortunately, it was maddeningly elusive, always spotting me before I saw it, and making it impossible to positively identify as it took flight.

However, the joy of sharing your observations with fellow bird-watchers, even those far more experienced than you, is that passion is the common tongue.

“I had this epiphany in college,” Mr. Eldermire said. “Birds will do almost their entire behavioral repertoire in front of you and not care you’re there.

“As opposed to mammals,” he added. “Basically the only thing you can do is watch them eat and sleep.”