Canada and the World

A NEW YORK LOVE-IN

In early December, Canadians descended on the Big Apple for a special weekend. Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes was our boy on the bus.

JOHN GEDDES December 17 2001
Canada and the World

A NEW YORK LOVE-IN

In early December, Canadians descended on the Big Apple for a special weekend. Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes was our boy on the bus.

JOHN GEDDES December 17 2001

A NEW YORK LOVE-IN

In early December, Canadians descended on the Big Apple for a special weekend. Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes was our boy on the bus.

JOHN GEDDES

The Greyhound is just pulling out of an Ottawa mall parking lot when someone in the middle of the bus croons, “I love New York in June, how about you . . . .” Nice voice. Its Jacques Mousseau, 73, a retired post-office supervisor. His wife, Margaret, 66, looks around with an apologetic smile that says “He’s always like this.” But nobody minds, even though its just after 7 a.m. We are part of the capitals bus brigade for the “Canada loves New York” weekend, organized to take Mayor Rudolph Giuliani up on his pitch for tourists to return to his wounded city as the shock of Sept. 11 fades.

Our bus, one of four leaving Ottawa on Nov. 30, is not quite full. Retired people experienced in the ways of weekend tours claim most of the front three-quarters of the seats. The back few rows are staked out by a foursome of single, mid-level government employees. They take two seats each. Michelle Gauthier, 28, chats enthusiastically about the Manhattan bars she checked out with a former boyfriend on a two-day visit eight years ago. Across the aisle is her friend Kent Johnston, 42, who completed the New York City Marathon in 1996. “When you run the marathon,” he says, “you feel like the city is yours.” Behind him is Gisella Cesario, 36, who has a girlfriend in New York she hopes to hook up with for drinks that evening. And sprawled across the seats at the extreme rear is Carol Burnett, 33, who says when asked that no, she was not named after the TV comedienne, and admits she has never been to New York. She falls asleep soon after the bus gets going, and her friends remark that she’ll be ready to party when they hit the big city.

There are “Canada loves New York” buses departing from Montreal and Toronto, too. The fare is $99 round-trip; inexpensive hotel rooms in Manhattan, or even cheaper ones in New Jersey, are available with the package. For those with more to spend, discount Air Canada flights are being offered, along with accommodation at pricier hotels. The whole thing was dreamed up by Liberal Senator Jerry Grafstein. The main event will be a rally at the historic Roseland Ballroom, with the promise of Canadian entertainment, an appearance by Mayor Giuliani, and free Roots baseball caps.

It doesn’t take much prompting to call up Sept. 11 in the minds of riders on our bus. “I was sitting outside my house on a beautiful day and my wife called out and said, A plane crashed into a building,’ Jacques recalls. “It changed our attitudes towards life, made us think about what

matters.” He means family, friends, living life to the fullest. Nearly everyone I talk to on the tour drew some variation of that lesson from Sept 11. The sort of people who found a carpe diem moral in the horror, I suppose, are the type to sign up for this kind of weekend.

Most want to go see the wreckage where the twin towers stood. But such grim thoughts are only an undercurrent on the bus. On the surface this feels like a spree, with an extra frisson from the hype that tells us were touching something bigger, maybe historic. The first glimpse of the famous skyline at dusk pulls everyone on the wrong side of the bus half out of their seats to peer out. There’s the Empire State Building, once again the tallest in New York City. Then we dip down under the huge new American flags that hang over the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, which will disgorge us finally in Manhattan.

Cruising into that grid of streets and avenues is a pulse-quickening experience, no matter how often you’ve done it. Accessible as New York is for Canadians living in Quebec and Southern Ontario, it remains an adventure destination—part Dorothy’s bright Oz, part Batman’s dark Gotham. The bus drops passengers at two centrally located Manhattan hotels. Jacques and Margaret jump out at the ThirtyThirty, where the rooms are tiny but well appointed. Kent, Michelle, Gisella and Carol are at Hotel Pennsylvania, where the lobby is impressive but the rooms are rundown.

No big deal. By 8:30 p.m., the quartet is showered, changed and striding with the Friday night crowds up Seventh Avenue. The girls are calling themselves Charlie’s Angels, relegating Kent to the supporting role of Bosley. A street musician gives them a funky sound track of wawa-heavy electric guitar. They walk out under the outrageous gleam and glitter of Times Square as if they own the place. Rather than intimidating newcomers, New York has a way of bringing out boldness. “Like, this is overwhelming, eh?” says Carol. But she doesn’t look overwhelmed. Just exhilarated.

Beneath the giant Britney Spears Pepsi billboard is a good place to think about the city. The Sept. 11 attacks redefined New York, at least temporarily, as a target—a place where unimaginable horror could happen. But at the end of Giuliani’s transforming run as mayor, the city is now, for the casual visitor, much less scary than just a few years ago. Here in Times Square, parents push toddlers in strollers through the throng. A decade ago, there was dirt, drug dealers. Now, there’s a big new Toys “R” Us and Disney’s The Lion King is play-

ing nearby on 42nd Street, where purveyors of porn used to rule the block. The garbage bags lining the trash receptacles are a designer shade of mauve. The famous Giuliani crackdown on crime shows in the way tourists walk comfortably where they once would have anxiously hailed yellow cabs. The four friends head off to rendezvous at a bar with Gisella’s New York friend.

There’s more to the notion of New York as an open-armed place than Giuliani’s good press. Before coming down, I called Renee Rosnes, the exceptional Canadian jazz pianist who is a fixture in the New York clubs. She told me about arriving here as a Vancouver kid in 1985 on a Canada Council grant. Within a year, she was the house piano player for late-night jam sessions at the storied Blue Note. Was there any resentment of a rank newcomer so quickly carving out a prime place in the world’s most competitive jazz scene? “The musicians were incredibly welcoming,” she recalls. In fact, she says the main thing she loves about New York is the way people

from all over the world can flood in and find their place. It’s the old Statue of Liberty message, but she swears it holds true.

On Saturday morning, many of the Canada loves New York crowd are heading down to the site. Jacques and Margaret are up at 8 a.m. for breakfast, having spent a glorious night walking. They saw the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and watched the skaters on the outdoor rink. (With a true Canadian eye, Jacques notes that the artificial ice looked a little soft in the unseasonably warm weather.) We meet up for a subway ride down to Ground Zero with the back-of-the-bus gang.

Kent looks a little worse for wear but blissful. The foursome ended up last night at a club called the Back Fence, where the band was being urged to sing a tribute to George Harrison, who had died the previous day. They didn’t know any of his songs—but Kent happens to be a pretty fair guitar player and a Beades fanatic. Urged on by Carol, Michelle and Gisella, and then strangers who picked up on what was going on, he performed Here Comes the Sun to the crowd’s delight—and the band’s annoyance. Telling me about it, his eyes light up. “I cant believe I played in a New York club.” We come up from the subway at Fulton Street, and there between the low nondescript buildings is the scene we know so well from TV. Melted, twisted metal. Heaps of rubble. The still-standing portion of the facade, with those elongated gothic arches. People fall silent. Someone says, “Oh, my God.” Carol pulls a fullsized Canadian flag out of her purse and hangs it over her shoulders. We get to within about a block and are stopped by a police barrier where dozens of others are snapping pictures. Jacques, ever gregarious, is soon exchanging impressions with a stranger. Margaret is quieter. “Imagine that,” she says after a while to no one in particular. “Terrible.”

We split up after trying to absorb something of the place. Walking back to the subway, a local woman, a Russian immigrant who works at a bank not far from where the World Trade Center towers used to be, offers this observation: “I can’t look at it. I start to cry. For some people, it’s like Disneyland, but I can’t look at it.” Later, I hear another New Yorker refer to the site bitterly as “the biggest attraction we got.” The rally is that afternoon. It soon becomes obvious that not everyone is going to get in. By 1:30 p.m., when the doors are supposed to open, a police officer says he figures there are about 10,000 lined up. That includes hundreds who travelled down for the weekend and many Canadians living in the city. All you need is Canadian identification to get past the door. But after VIPs and media are counted, the Roseland will hold only about 2,500 more. Jacques and Margaret are near the front of the line. Kent is not far behind them—but he’s alone, having lost Michelle, Carol and Gisella in the crowd at Ground Zero. Still, he’s sure they will somehow get in, and he’s right. Just before the doors open, the three show up, slip into line near the front, and make the cut.

Inside, it’s like a touring version of the Canada Day party on Parliament Hill. There’s some good music. A couple of Cirque du Soleil acts. A mass of little Maple Leaf flags being waved and those free red-and-white Roots caps. “O Canada” gets sung—twice. Also “God Bless America.” The speeches go on too long, but Giuliani, although he looks tired, doesn’t disappoint. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gives a solid speech. Those who didn’t make it inside but still hung around watch it all on a big video screen outside. By the time I leave, with Blue Rodeo still playing, the crowd is thinning fast.

I have a destination in mind. Over on Park Avenue stands the Seagram Building, surely the most elegant mark any Canadian has left on New York City. That Canadian is Phyllis Lambert. As a very young woman in the early 1950s, she persuaded her father, Samuel Bronfman, that his planned New York headquarters for the family’s liquor empire should be a great, daring building. She chose Mies van der Rohe as the architect, and oversaw the project until 1958. The result was a 38-storey office tower of dark-tinted glass and bronze details. It’s a classic—first of New York’s modern glass-and-steel-skyscrapers, of which the World Trade Center towers were gargantuan examples.

Lambert, who is the founding director and chairwoman of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, told me about the excitement of New York in the

1950s. But she was not merely nostalgic; she still loves the city today. “Walking along the streets is what’s exciting,” she said in an interview before the trip. “Going up 57th Street towards Carnegie Hall or up Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. When you put your foot down, you know that thousands of highly talented people have put their foot down right there.” She likes the energy, but on this Saturday night her Seagram Building stands serene on its wide plaza. It’s a wonderful illusion of permanence and perfection, the opposite of what I saw that morning.

Jacques and Margaret find some calm at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, during an evening mass with wonderful music, and then indulge in a romantic late dinner at an Italian restaurant. Kent, Carol, Gisella and Michelle find their way to a Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side that offers a mildly risqué transvestite-andtranssexual stage show. They don’t get much sleep. So there’s lots to talk about on the bus Sunday morning. As the skyline recedes, everyone cranes around for a last look, trying to figure out where they were, using the Empire State and Chrysler buildings as landmarks. Strangely, even those who were visiting New York for the first time, who never saw the World Trade Center, are able to point out where the twin towers once stood. E3

View our online photo gallery of the event.

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