Report of the Country Mouse
By Marvin Payne

This month’s column is all journal (with only a few parenthetical elaborations like, well, this one). My son John, 8, has been learning creative dance with the children’s program run by Brigham Young University. His impassioned and courageous teacher, Becky Ellis, was invited to bring some of her boys to the convention of the National Dance Educators’ Organization in the Big Apple, to share her notion that boys and girls have different creative energies, and that the best dancing for boys springs from movement that arises from their masculine energy. The guys sold pizza, washed cars, and held yard sales. Families got to go, too. My first time.

21 June 2009

Just after first light Laurie took me to the airport. She’s sent me to New York a day early because she thought the red-eye everybody else is taking would kill me.

Interesting train ride through Queens-pointy narrow houses with lots of trees. I got on the subway at Jamaica Station and before I emerged in Manhattan I made a friend. In the station on 44th Street, a South American Indian was passionately playing wooden flutes. He reminded me of someone my son Joshua had told me about, so I asked his name. It was Manny (Manuel), who split his solo income to give Joshua his first gig in New York a few years back. I can’t even imagine what it may have sounded like-Andes flute and ragtime banjo. When I told Manny who I was, he said “Bless Joshua! Bless Joshua!”

Then, like a groundhog, I popped my head up into the heart of the theatre district, Angela Lansbury’s picture on the nearest marquee, and on the next, Will Swenson’s-Utah kid I’ve acted with who’s now starring in “Hair.” He and I were on Kauai together, hunting pirate treasure (and, I seem to recall, sword fighting a bit).

Laurie’s kindness left me needing a place to crash the first night. The Hoffmans (they are Roger and Melanie, long-time collaborators of mine-I once suggested to him that he might have success with a song that went something like “Consider the Nasturtiums.” Might even become one of the prophet’s favorites, might even become the title song on a Tabernacle Choir album and appear on the sides of busses in Salt Lake City. He went with something else-so much for collaboration) had gone to BYU with a lady whose sister and husband live in New York, she an actress and he a busy Broadway music director (they met in “Cats.” She was a cat). Alice Lynn and Larry Goldberg.

Alice made us a wonderful salmon and salad dinner. (Salmon is one of my favorite things. She didn’t know that ((this will become, as you will see, something of a pattern)). She had asked on the phone if there was anything I couldn’t or wouldn’t eat, and I just answered that I was averse to anything Klingons might relish. She assured me that there was no worry, there, because there wasn’t a single Klingon market in her part of Manhattan-pretty much every other kind, but not Klingon. Yet.) During dinner I discovered that in high school she had been a community theatre actress in Castro Valley, California. She kind of mumbled the name, sure that I wouldn’t have heard of the place. But that’s where my first wife grew up, and it turns out that they’d worked together, Alice on stage and Niki in the orchestra. Alice asked if I’d met my wife through the church, and I said, “No, she went to whatever church would hire her mom and dad as organist and minister of music, respectively. It was the Castro Valley Baptist Church.” She said, “On Redwood and Seven Hills Road?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said “Reverend Radcliff.” It was nuts.

Larry mentioned that during the week he’d be overseeing the New York auditions for “A Chorus Line” at Pioneer Theatre Company (Salt Lake City, where my son is resident sound designer), not Larry’s first gig there. When I told him that I was Joe Payne’s dad, he jumped up and down with delight. I immediately called Joe to tell him I was in Larry Goldberg’s living room, and Joe was thoroughly astounded and told me Larry is his favorite music director of all time. (Earlier I had called Joshua from the same living room to tell him about Manny, and I’d asked Joshua where he’d lived in New York while he was here. The last place he mentioned was Hell’s Kitchen. Within the following hour, I found out that Hell’s Kitchen was where I was calling from.)

After dinner, fearing a “Magical Unexpected Familiarity with New York” overload, I took a walk by myself. I even left the dog, Gunther, behind. (This is the Rottweiler mix who was so excited to see me initially that he lost control of his bladder right on the couch I was to sleep on ((there was a removable cover)).) A couple of turns on the sidewalk (I was struck by all the restaurants on the street, then I looked up at the street sign that said “Restaurant Street”) and I ran into Pat and Kathy Debenham, each of whom has had the dubious pleasure of choreographing me at one time or another.

I walked through Times Square-very colorful and silly-southward into the garment district (wearing some, I felt right at home), then back home in a pelting rain.

22 June 2009

In the morning took a subway to find my sleepless family and the rest of the company in the shadow of the Rockefeller Center. From the “top of the rock” we looked southward toward the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and who-knows-what else, then northward over Central Park and lots of America (New Yorkers would say “most of America.” Bless their hearts).

Like a tiny thing below us lay Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, its cross-shaped roof clear and sharp. We descended and wandered through. Big, transported me to Europe and similar structures-same blend of the breathless sublime and the inexplicably grotesque. The building dates from 1879, the lovely “Lady’s Chapel” added beyond the nave in 1906.

Got everybody to bed at about 7-8 o’clock. We’re in the Comfort Inn on 35th, between Fifth Avenue and Herald Square. Initially, it was the Gregorian Hotel. We’re on the 11th floor. The building has mail chutes.

23 June 2009

9:00 AM rehearsal at LaGuardia High School for the Arts, kind of part of the Lincoln Center (enough a part that we never hesitated in telling everyone back home that we were going to New York because our son has a gig at Lincoln Center).

We briefly visited the building that contains the Manhattan Temple, across the street from Lincoln Center. The missionaries there gave our whole group a room in which we could consider the significance of the place and have a prayer together.

We left John with the others and the Payne ladies and I hoofed it up the east side of Central Part to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We greatly underestimated how long it would take to get there and, because we’d promised Caitlin (eleven-year-old memorizer of all the songs and most of the script of “Wicked,” a play infinitely beyond our family budget) that we’d try the lottery for last-minute cheap “Wicked” tickets we had about seven minutes at the Met. In that seven minutes we saw enough beauty, notably the Greek grave stone of a young girl kissing her pet doves goodbye, that we resolved to return.

We caught the M1 bus down Fifth Avenue to the top of the theatre district and wrote our names on cards for the “Wicked” lottery, along with maybe a hundred others, but we weren’t among fourteen chosen to receive two tickets each at $26  per ticket. But two of the senior missionaries we’d met earlier at the temple were winners, so we were assured that there is good in the world.

In the evening we tried to find food that Caitlin can eat. It’s hard, because of her severe allergies to soy and to milk protein. A fun pizza place on Broadway at about 37th Street worked very kindly with Laurie to come up with a pasta dish, totally custom, that would fill the bill. Virtually every soul we’ve interacted with here has been kind, helpful, and pleasant.

John and I had enormous hamburgers at the little dive next to the hotel. Like many places we’ve been, it was obvious that a fairly recent business had appropriated a very much older environment, with embossed tin sectioned ceilings, dark hardwood counters, and tiled floors. In Utah, we’d gut the building and redo the interior.

There’s a lot of nice tile work in the Subway stations, too. Ours is Penn Station, after a historic rail station that’s no longer around. Nice tile.

24 June 2009

Statue of Liberty. The statue is glorious. The copper of which it’s made is about as thick as a nickel. I hooked my umbrella on the back of a bench that faced Manhattan out over the water and walked away without it. That’s probably what I deserved for insisting on being alone for a few minutes. I could see the Brooklyn Bridge at a great distance up the East River. I wish I had seen it up close. It’s seemed mythical to me since college days, when I read a Hart Crane poem about it. (“How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!”)It was as magical, though, to look the other way at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Atlantic beyond.

Back to the hotel for a nap, then off to see “The Lion King.” Amazing puppetry, passion, and dance, weakened only by its resemblance to the movie. I wish the Pioneer Theatre Company guy had done the sound mix.

25 June 2009

There was no space afforded for the boys to rehearse between Tuesday morning and their Saturday gig, so before we left Utah Laurie suggested to Becky that they rehearse in Central Park. That was this morning. They all wound up covered in mud, but it was a great rehearsal. People stopped and watched and applauded.

Oh, before that, John went with the group to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, while Laurie, Cait, and I returned to the Met. We went back to the dying girl with her doves, then drank in as much as we could over the next couple of hours. Laurie could hardly leave the Dutch Masters-Rembrandt was fully captivating. Rubens about made me quiver, and Caravaggio’s painting of Peter denying Christ, with almost no light in it, was loaded. Caitlin was awakened by the Met.

On our way across the south boundary of Central Park, it was fun to look ahead at the top of a rocky outcrop and see our son happily exploring. This whole island seems to be solid rock. That’s apparent from the walls of the sunken railroad passages near the docks, but clearer still from the domes and hills in Central Park.

Central Park is the greatest genius of this city. You can almost forget there’s a city all around you when you walk the Mall, a wide walking avenue with giant oaks meeting and mingling overhead like a living Gothic ceiling. While the boys engaged an army of young New Yorkers in a lengthy water-battle near where they rehearsed, I took off northward through the park. I stopped and watched the final inning of a softball game between a couple of Broadway casts and crew. There were other leagues on other diamonds. I made it as far north as the water and boathouses before I had to come back. I didn’t hurry. Except for the beach volleyball game I passed, Central Park didn’t seem to be about “hurry.” Next time I’m in town, I’m spending a lot more time in Central Park.

I’ve really enjoyed talking to people-met a guy in the park with a unique ivory-appointed violin that he’d rescued from a red paint job and certain doom, a violin he couldn’t play all that well, but had been admired in the park by the likes of John McKuen from the Nitty-gritty Dirt Band and the first chair in the New York Philharmonic-but next time I want to talk to many more.

After Central Park, Caitlin wanted one more shot at the “Wicked” lottery. We dutifully filled out our cards and waited in a crowd twice the size of the one on Tuesday night. John and one of his buddies sat on the pavement and played cards. I studied a subway map and Laurie talked to Jen, the buddy’s mom. Cait craned her head up from the lead edge of the crowd, hoping, hoping, hoping. About the fourth name read-“Caitlin Payne?” We went nuts. I gave her a hundred-dollar bill and she got a ticket for herself and one for me and gave me $48 change.

We floated to the Carnegie Deli (Bob Dylan likes it) where I ordered a bacon and turkey sandwich that turned out to be ten inches tall.

Then Cait and I returned to the Gershwin Theatre and sat down on the front row, only one seat away from the right end. Technically, bad seats. It was awesome. You could see into the wings, into the rigging, and under the makeup. I could have read the settings on the amp of the guitar player in the pit (he played a classical guitar, a six-string banjo, a telecaster, and a Gibson ES-335). I could have tripped the principle players and kept both my feet on the ground. But I didn’t want to, because they were terrific. I even forgave them for nearly losing character during a fight scene because of the fun they were having-nobody farther away than we were would have noticed, anyway. Being often in the spill of light and locking eyes with Alli Mauzey (Glinda the good witch) made me feel like I was in the cast. Ideal seat for an actor. A nearly perfect show, and Caitlin was in heaven. We walked the sixteen blocks home down Broadway, arm in arm.

26 June 2009

Up at 5:00 to get myself onto the E train and out of town. I have a gig this afternoon with the Gifted Seed (my sons-their idea for a name) at the Salt Lake Arts Festival. Everybody else comes home tomorrow night on the red-eye. Quiet streets. It was only “a coupla deals” after dawn (lyric lifted from “Guys and Dolls,” from the song I loved most to sing. Contrary to rumor, the city does sleep. Part of it sleeps all day on the sidewalk in front of our hotel).

On the surface train in Queens, I couldn’t even see Manhattan. It was if it had never been there. In Minneapolis I had breakfast. From JFK, the flights on the PA system were to Brussels and the United Arab Emirates. In Minneapolis, they were to Anchorage and Saskatoon.

Dropping into Salt Lake, through-passengers looked out the windows at the mountains.

(Played the gig.)

We cleared out as the most ominous black clouds I’ve ever seen slid in from the north. Before I’d gotten on the Interstate, rain was battering down and the metal beams of traffic signals were waving in the wind. The rain thinned a little in the south end of the valley. As I drove up over Traverse Ridge, the sun began to set under the storm. By the time I got home, the whole western sky was a solid sheet of wet yellow. It was raining mildly here, through the yellow glow. I walked through the thriving gardens and everything looked unreal and gorgeous. It was like the Lord saying, “Marvin, I’m not sure I entirely trust you to see your home in a different light after this trip, so I’ll do it for you. How about yellow?”

27 June 2009

Laurie called to report that Becky and the boys were triumphant. The convention made them encore their morning performance in a much larger venue, and it appears they danced their hearts out. I’m so grateful. (The concept Becky Ellis was teaching those folks is very near to her core. This may have been something of a capstone moment for her. I hope so. I love celebrations of the difference between masculine and feminine.)

This adventure was a great gift to all of us. I worried that Caitlin might feel like a mere hanger-on, but there was real magic for her. The surprise of the Met, the miracle of “Wicked,” and then yesterday after I left, when she and Laurie lost their way and wound up walking through the projects in Harlem, surviving the impassioned and bizarre response of that community to icon Michael Jackson’s death, focused around the Apollo Theater and my wife and daughter. They arrived at last, soaked and spent, at the object of their pilgrimage, the Madame Alexander doll factory and museum. One minute before closing.

But they’d called ahead for directions out of their difficulties, and the place simply stayed open for them. The manager personally guided them through wonders they would have seen earlier as part of a larger group. When Laurie marveled aloud at this treatment, and even tried to release the guy from inconveniencing himself any further, he just said, “No, this is how we do things at Madame Alexander.” I’m sure it meant every bit as much to Laurie and Cait as if Chris Martin IV was taking me after hours through his guitar factory in Nazareth, PA.

Unless I hear more of mercies and miracles, the last will be that this afternoon at Ground Zero, a guy with missing teeth, a totally unofficial volunteer, materialized with a notebook of photographs and gathered the boys around and eloquently taught them what happened there on September 11, 2001-how it looked and how it felt, how he, who worked there, and his son, who was in day care there, survived it. And how a whole lot more didn’t. I’m grateful to him for that. John will tell me more.

I need to get up to Logan to pick up our brave little Adwen, who’s been staying with Auntie Kristen. Then baby and I are going to the airport to meet the red-eye.

Visit marvinpayne.com!

“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)

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