Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Three New York Museums

Millions of people were cursing American Airlines last week for grounding their MD-80s to inspect and repair wire bundles so they wouldn't catch fire. I was one of those caught in the wave of some 3,000 canceled flights. After four re-bookings, I managed to fly to and from New York City.

When it comes to safety, I'm the last one to gripe. Safety is the most important detail in flying. I don't mind being inconvenienced by it. Although I had to spend an extra few hours in New York Friday night, it was an entirely pleasurable experience.

Usually when I come to New York, I'm booked solid with meetings and other social engagements. I could literally spend weeks there checking in with people I know. My friends Dave Tainer and Mary Butler, for example, recommended an excellent restaurant on Wall Street called "Bobby Van's," which was set in JP Morgan's old vault, complete with Fort Knox-like doors and safety deposit boxes. Even though there was a special event going on, the maitre'd put us in the wine room, which is a soundproof glass box with climate control. It was delightful and we had an ample choice of wines, of course.

It's experiences like these that make New York a city of constant serendipity. Like any place else in the world, if you're willing to be patient and meet the natives half way, they will treat you with courtesy, respect and unrivaled hospitality. I've found this to be the case whether I'm in San Francisco, Madrid, Chicago or even Paris.

The weather was gorgeous while Chicago still shivered during its theoretical spring. Walking is one of my favorite pastimes in the Apple. I've walked from downtown to midtown countless times, which routes me through FiDi, SoHo, the Village, Union Square, Murray Hill and Times Square. I never see the same things twice. It's like a living, dynamic sculpture. I even saw a random act of kindess. An elderly woman had fallen in the street and a man rushed out from a bodega to help her up and offer her a glass of water.

I've never quite understood why people pay hundreds of dollars for Broadway shows when all they have to do is walk down the street. Every block is different. Different faces, clothes, nationalities. It is the vibrant success of America that it all somehow works on a second-by-second basis.

That brings me to my Ferris Bueler experience. I was tired and wanted to get home Friday night. I never sleep in hotels, even quiet ones like the Wall Street Inn on William Street. So when I learned that my flight was canceled (for the third time), I called my friends in Dallas, who had already booked me on a flight Saturday morning. Fortunately, I got the last seat on a flight leaving at 9pm out of LaGuardia. That's when my odyssey began. Instead of fulminating about the FAA or the world's largest airline, I planned to see three museums that I'd always wanted to see: The Museum of American Finance, The Morgan Library and the American Museum of Natural History.

The finance museum was a chirpy one-room operation off of Wall Street. Nestled in the lobby of an old bank, it's perfectly situated in an early-20th century marble hall. Monitors and displays told you all about bonds, stocks, commodities, money and the various market meltdowns. There was even my old friend the Bloomberg terminal, the conduit through which I make my living. I chatted with the gift shop manager and a few other staff folks. I even mentioned my book "Merchant of Power," which was even stocked at one time. It was a stellar find that I recommend to anyone who wants to know about finance. I even found a stock certificate signed by Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull, the subject of my Merchant book.

After lunch at the Fraunces Tavern, which hosted George Washington and many patriots of his day, I headed to midtown to the Morgan Library, which had been closed for a major renovation the last two times I visited.

The Morgan, featuring a grand public reception area designed by Renzo Piano, was somewhat disappointing. I expected to see some Mark Twain or Beethoven manuscripts, but that kind of material is only open to scholars doing research. So I settled on drawings by Michelangelo, Vasari, Pontormo and Bronzino, all of which had sketched some projects for the Medici's Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Morgan, who must have seen himself as a Medici prince (he certainly had more money and power), decorated his library and study in the Italian style. The fireplaces were so large you could fit a half-dozen people in them.

Yet the drawings were a revelation. So much talent coalescing in that period of time. What would these great draftsmen, painters and sculptors had done if the wealth and patronage of the Medici was not bestowed upon them? Why did that period produce so much great art, architecture and the genius of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Brunelleschi? The time was rare combination of commercial prowess and some political stability (when the Medici weren't warring with other city states).

I had some time on my hands, so I headed up to the Natural History Museum, spending most of my time in the Rose Center. I heard Maya Angelou narrate the Big Bang and then walked down a spiral stairway to the present (starting with 13 billion years ago). The rest of the Rose Center is rather disorganized and I didn't have time to see the older stuffed animal sections, so I headed off to dinner at Oceans on Columbus and 79th. I found the place by stopping the first man who came by. "Jim" gave me a list of places, including a Chicago Uno pizza place. Been there, done that.

Having thoroughly enjoyed a piece of bigeye tuna lightly seared and a carrot cake with ginger, I flagged down a cab. The driver was Dr. Om Dutt Sharma, who also runs a charity in India called the Pt. Sita Ram Balkishan charitable trust (www.mission-humanity.org). He provides schools and programs for girls' education in India. But I didn't discover this until he dropped me off at LaGuardia. The 45 minutes we spent talking (me mostly listening) ranged from George Bush and the trillions in American debt to the Iraq War to whether Gandhi was a saint (he was). The conversation went like this:

"What do you think most Christians don't know about Jesus?"
"That he was Jewish?"
"No, that he went to India. Yes, He visited there."
"I didn't know that."
"Yes, he stayed there for some time."

Well, this led into a discourse on Islam, arms control, the meaning of Satyagraha and American aggression the world. I refused to apologize for George W. Bush (I didn't vote for him), but the concept of Satyagraha intrigued me, so Dr. Sharma told the story on how the Mahatma marched hundreds of miles to the sea on barefoot to protest the British salt tax, which the Indian leader said should not be taxed because it was freely given by the ocean.

"The best charity in the universe is not food or medicine, Dr. Sharma's motto goes. "It is the light to the mind, through education."

I didn't know quite what to think of Dr. Sharma or his charity. Yet something was compelling about him. Like many New Yorkers, he was unafraid to offer his opinions or remedies for the world. And I love the idea that someone is practicing Satyagraha in the world. It's figurative meaning is nonviolent resistance, although Dr. Sharma says part of the Sanskrit word means "truth." We could all use more of that from our leaders. And I once again thank American Airlines for giving me the opportunity to find it in one of the most truth-seeking places on the planet.

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