The New York-Berlin Express, Vol 1

One of my patrons mentioned she’d love to see drawings of the marathon culture in Berlin. I had no idea that there was marathon culture here until recently…

A couple weeks ago I was taking a taxi because I had to rush to get to an interview at a startup.

My cab driver was a friendly guy in his 70s. Like many people do, he asked where I was from- to my great surprise, older Berliners often don’t see much difference between an English accent and an American accent.

I explained that I was from San Francisco recently but that I grew up in NY.

He told me that he had been to New York, once, in 1991. To run the New York marathon! In under four hours.

I was very impressed and asked a lot of questions.

He described the difficulty of the conditions compared to Berlin: almost the entire Berlin Marathon run is flat, while the NY course has several significant hills.

He had obviously studied the route extensively before his run, and still remembered the names of the neighborhoods and the streets he had run down clearly. Then he told me about the hotel he stayed in.

262px-Calvary-baptist-churchHe stayed at the Hotel Salisbury, which is the only hotel in America wholly owned by a church.

It’s owned by the Calvary Baptist Church, which occupies the first five floors, with a sanctuary and a practising choir. “Then the hotel is just stuck on top of him! like brot in a sandwich!”, my cabdriver said delightedly.

He went on to imagine a situation where a fellow might go on a business trip, with his secretary very nice, and have to make his peace with God over his indiscretion on the spot!

To a secular Berliner, the idea of a hotel in a church was just such a good joke he had been enjoying it for 25 years.

Despite living the first 22 years of my life in New York, I had never heard of this hotel, and I’m so incredibly glad I did. I looked up its history and found it absolutely fascinating.

It was built as a 16-story “skyscraper church” in 1931, and has two Steinway Grand pianos, and its own radio station, with over 200 hotel rooms.

Nowadays it has a charming blog, where you can meet Bell Captain Al, who has served at the hotel for 32 years, and Dixie the bedbug-sniffing dog! The blog has some really good tips on things to do in the city, including an excellent list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants!*

New York mag‘s site notes that visitors arriving back at the hotel after 1am must show id at the front desk- so no unregistered guests can join your revels.

It’s across the street from Carnegie Hall, and next to the Russian Tea Room.  The hotel is also very close to The Art Students League, the classical atelier where I first started studying drawing at 10 (I used to take the subway there myself, can you imagine) and returned when I dropped out of Stuyvesant with my parents’ consent at 16.

“Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practise!”

9andahalfIt’s near Coliseum Books, a large midtown bookstore. Paperbacks I shoplifted from there as a teenager include all the James Bond novels, one at a time, one per day, and the original 9½ Weeks, which is actually quite a disturbing little book.

As I was typing this and thinking about 57th st., someone walked by outside our ground-floor Berlin apartment playing the harmonica. Playing the harmonica intro to “Piano Man”, in fact. “Was that– ” my husband said. “Yep.”

During most of the 80s, my mom worked for Billy Joel. More precisely, she worked for his manager, Frank, whose trial and FBI investigation she was later deposed for.

Billy, however, was a sweetheart of a boss, who kept a bottle of high-end bourbon in the supply closet for the cleaning lady (“She needs to take a break too!”). And their office was just a block from Coliseum Books and the League; I must have passed the Salisbury Hotel a hundred times.

One time I’d stopped by my mom’s work after class. I was in her office, drinking Grand Marnier out of the bottle at her desk, and Billy stuck his head in looking for her. He saw me and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up.

In the 80s, nobody cared if a sixteen-year-old was day drinking in your corporate HQ.billyandchristie

Although the trip wasn’t in my mom’s wheelhouse I remember a lot of the details of Billy’s historic trip to Russia in 1987, including the food supplies- Christie was terrified of baby Alexa being exposed to irradiated milk, as it was not long after Chernobyl.

“The tour was controversial at the time because Joel was really the first American rock ‘n roll act to play in Russia after the Berlin Wall went up. It is largely credited as bringing rock ‘n roll to the young people of the communist country.

It was also seen as an enormous goodwill gesture. Joel lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the trip, but he thought it was an important thing to do. Joel says that his whole point was to “make friends.” “Have them know what kind of people we are, make some people happy with my music and get something that can be continued more and more, maybe it’ll grow,” says the singer.”

If you’ve never seen any footage of Billy in Russia, it’s worth seeing. The goodwill shown to him had a huge impact on my ability to understand the humanity of the people behind the Wall of Communism. In the 80s, when a crack of thunder would wake me and I’d think for a disoriented minute that it was the first bomb, it was impossible to imagine an end to the Cold War.

I never imagined I’d be typing this just a kilometer from the Berlin Wall Memorial, and my cab driver never imagined he’d travel to New York in 1991. Or that he’d finish in under four hours!

*Sadly, the veggie restaurant I loved best, Arnold’s Turtle in the West VIllage, is long gone, as is Dojo on St. Mark’s where the veggie burger was so good. But macrobiotic Souen where friends of mine worked is still around, and so is Angelica, where hairy, scary hippies used to bully us Stuyvesant students to eat every single bite of our food because, the planet.

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