Of Subways and Unicorns

by | Jun 2, 2019 | Lisa Black, The Writer's Life | 3 comments

            Last month I traveled to Manhattan for the Edgar Symposium and awards, and once again got to experience the vibrancy and variety that is New York City. The weather couldn’t have cooperated more fully, the seventy-degree sunniness drawing out the first tourists of the season as well as locals delirious on vitamin D, so that the sidewalks teemed like a busy day at Disneyworld every. single. minute. Streetside urns burst with red tulips everywhere I walked and Central Park overflowed with life.

            Determined to soak in some culture, I first stopped at Tavern on the Green. I had seen it in a movie decades before and always wanted to go. Despite being seated in the modern, glass-enclosed section instead of near the traditional parquet floor and wood-beamed ceiling, I soaked in the triumph of checking an item off the bucket list. The restaurant, the second highest-grossing in the country after one in Las Vegas’ Venetian, has been there since 1870 and originally housed the sheep that would graze in the meadow. In 1934 the sheep were evicted and the parks department turned the building to a restaurant, contracting out its management. I wonder if convincing patrons to eat in the old sheep barn might have been a bit of a hard sell, but whatever they did, it worked.

            Another day I visited The Cloisters museum, part of the Met, which is perched on a hill northeast of midtown. You must take the A train, and yes, the song ran through my head the whole time.

            Subways will always amaze me, riding on a train under the ground. If the ground caved in, we’d be crushed and probably die. This is similar to an airplane, of course–if it falls we would probably die, but if I can get to Cleveland in two hours instead of two days, then I will suck it up, stick my buds in my ears and think happy thoughts. And if I can pay $2.75 for the A train instead of $50 for a cab, then I will push through the turnstile, not look too closely up the dark tunnels, and appreciate the mosaic motifs found throughout the system.

            Exiting the A train, I found the Fort Tryon park immediately opposite through the entrance named after Margaret Corbin, the first woman to fight in the Revolutionary War, wounded in the battle of nearby Fort Washington.  Things don’t always work out and we lost that battle, the British renamed Fort Washington as Fort Tryon, and for reasons lost to time we didn’t change the name back. The park provides a leisurely stroll to the museum along a magnificent view of the Hudson, up rolling walkways and through flower gardens. When John D. Rockefeller purchased the land to create a park for the city, he also purchased the land on the other side of the river for another park, guaranteeing that the view would remain magnificent. Expensive, but forward-thinking.
            Despite its name, The Cloisters had never been a convent or monastery but contains stones from several European ones, collected along with many other things by a man named George Barnard. He loved art enough to impoverish himself for it, which prompted a sale to Rockefeller. The museum was completed and opened in 1938.

            Unlike many museums it’s not crammed to the rafters with stuff; the art is there to enhance the architecture instead of the other way around. As you can tell from my photos I am slightly more enamored of architecture than the artworks themselves, but I was taken aback when I wandered into a room and came face to face with the Unicorn Tapestries. If the name isn’t familiar, trust me, you’ve seen the pictures a million times. No one really knows exactly when they were created, or where, or by whom, for whom, or why the unicorn is slain in one and apparently resurrected (though fenced in) in another. (Educated guesses: around 1700, probably Brussels, maybe for the French queen Anne or maybe they or a similar series were owned by Scottish king James IV.) We do know they first officially turn up as owned by a wealthy family in France, then looted during the 1789 Revolution, found later in a barn (having been used to cover potatoes) and bought by Rockefeller in 1922 for a cool million. Which would be over 15 million today. It’s good to be rich.

            I didn’t know any of that when I stood and gazed at them. All I knew was, there’s a piece of three hundred year old pop culture, and it’s—here. The originals. Like, for real, right here, just hanging on the wall, something I did not expect to find.   

            It’s so cool when that happens.  

            Tell me when that last happened to you.

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  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a great "tour guide" you are, Lisa….these descriptions of places to visit in New York are all terrific suggestions of jaunts I will try to take when visiting New York in July for our "Thrillerfest" conference. Thanks for this post!….Karna Bodman

  2. Robin Burcell

    I love that unicorn painting! I'm not sure I really knew where it came from, but first saw it on postcards. What a delightful trip. Glad you had a good time!

  3. Chris Goff

    Love walking in your shoes! Thanks for the ideas on what to do next time in New York!