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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   La Boheme
Saturday, October 14 2006

setting: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York

I'm no opera fan, but in some ways Gretchen is. It isn't that she plays opera recreationally around the house, but she does like to attend live opera. So I, the dutiful husband, inevitably go along. Today we took the train down to Manhattan to see Puccini's La Bohème at City Opera, New York's cut-rate opera house. Gretchen had actually performed as a child extra in a production of La Bohème in Washington, DC, and one of her performances was attended by then-president Ronald Reagan. (Gretchen recalls entertaining John Wilkes Boothian fantasies on that occasion.)
The day was cool but sunny, and if one could find shelter from the wind blowing across the Hudson, an outdoor wait for the train at the Rhinecliff train station was a pleasant experience. The alternative was the train station itself, which was pleasant enough. Less so was the connecting hallways and stairwells between the station and the track, which had a run-down feel suggestive of the Third World, an indication of the priority given to public transportation in a nation intent on squandering global supplies of fossil fuels.

I'd never taken the train from the Hudson Valley to Manhattan before. It runs on tracks that mostly hugs the east bank of the river, with spectacular views along the entire route. There are bridges, massive storage tanks, a variety of power plants, and the ruins of everything from auto plants to castles. I'd intended on having a soundtrack for this video, but it seemed my MP3 player couldn't handle the FAT-32 file system on the CF card I'd plugged into it.

From the low-ceilinged grimness of Pennsylvania Station, we took the subway as far out into Manhattan's East Side as is possible, which isn't especially far. The Upper East Side is engineered for people reliant on taxi cabs and car services, people who are happy to keep more affordable transportation out. We were meeting up with Gretchen's friend and occasional employer, Wendy, who lives in a big cluttered apartment on the East end of 51st Street.
After picking up Wendy at her place, we walked to Amma, Gretchen's favorite Indian restaurant in the city. We were the only ones there but were waited on by a staff of three or four. It was difficult to tell which of them was responsible for what, and none of them ever told us that we should save our requests for someone else; if we were asking for something from the wrong person, that person just ignored the request. So we ended up having to lodge the same requests to multiple people in hopes that eventually they would reach the right person. As Wendy pointed out, Indian restaurants have their own special hierarchy of staff and until you get a sense of who is what you can't really know how to effectively place an order. And it's not like they'll ever explain it to you; to them it seems too obvious to require an explanation.
Dinner conversation mostly consisted of Wendy telling us about the roofing contractor her family hired to replace the roof of their big family retreat in Rhode Island. The contractor subcontracted the actual job to someone else and then ran off with Wendy's family's money without fully paying the subcontractors. Under Rhode Island Law it is now the responsibility of Wendy's family to either pay the subcontractors or find that AWOL contractor. Using Google, Wendy suspects that she's found the father of the contractor, and it seems he's head of the Providence Vice Squad. According to some people, his son fled town because of mounting debts resulting from the vice known as gambling.

Wendy had only paid about sixteen dollars for her seat in the City Opera opera house, whereas Gretchen had paid about $30 for each of our seats. Why then were we a couple dozen rows from the stage while Wendy was in the second row from the stage? Sure, she was off to the leftmost extreme of the front, but the view from there wasn't bad. During the first intermission she told us that there were empty seats down there and so we joined her there. It was a totally different experience being that close to the stage, particularly when Mimi (a beautiful Russian woman) stood not twenty feet away drenched in spotlight.
I can't say that I really understood why La Bohème is one of the most frequently-performed operas. As stories go, it has little to offer: not much happens, the only conflicts are between lovers, and none of the characters (except, perhaps, Musetta) undergoes much of a transformation. For the most part, it's just an excuse for the music. There is, however, the emotional power of the final scene, which helps obliterate memories of the relative weakness of everything that leads to that moment. The interplay between what happens on stage and the haunting quality of the music as it stands in for unsaid thoughts: it's hard to not suffer from their effects. Gretchen was rocking the whole row of seats with her sobbing.

The Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge viewed from the Rhinecliff train station.

A factory along the Hudson.

The pair of iron bridges where I-84 cross the Hudson at Newburgh.

I was trying to get my MP3 player to work but the format of its CF card was evidently incompatible.

Gretchen's MP3 player was working fine.

Ruins of an old castle on an island in the Hudson.

The George Washington Bridge, viewed from the tracks running along the Hudson below.

The Tappan Zee Bridge across the widest part of the Hudson. (Click to enlarge.)

Gretchen in Wendy's apartment.

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