(EDIT: I decided to make these stories pages, so that (a) they wouldn’t overrun everything and (b) it would be a tiny bit more organized. You can read all of the stories by hovering over the “Unlocking the City” tab at the top banner, where all of the sites are organized by borough in the order of when they were seen.)
I knew it was a good idea to come home again.
Thomas Wolfe said it couldn’t be done – but he’s been proven wrong with that phrase so many times it can’t be counted – and it was proven wrong once again yesterday when I returned to the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
The Armstrong House had been my place of employment (okay, volunteering) for over three years. Yes, that tenure makes it sound more like Tom Bergeron on Hollywood Squares than Bob Barker on The Price is Right, but it was a good three years spent there, I enjoyed working there, they enjoyed having me work there, and when this May came around, we went our separate ways.
I finally came back yesterday, and was greeted with an interesting – and quite unexpected – welcome-home present.
“By the power temporarily granted to me and this work of art, I award you this key.”
And with that, I had been given a Key to the City. Well, not a classic oversized Key to the City usually given out, but a key that was part of a larger art and culture project in New York’s Five Boroughs. The Commons at Times Square where these keys had been given out have been closed for weeks by now, but Deslyn, my old boss, had some left for staff (considering they were one of the sites), and gave one to me with the sort of pomp and fanfare you see in this video…
…so it was off to the closest lock to open…the Louis Armstrong House Museum!
(bit of a spoiler alert if you haven’t gone, by the way)
“Humble spaces are part of the story, even if they are not part of the official tour.”
This one I had inside information about – the insider being me – so I knew what it was. The Armstrongs’ basement is sort of a shadow of its former self – it’s by necessity for this historic house museum, retrofitting the basement into an area for both permanent and temporary exhibitions. It used to be more of a rec room for Louis and his fourth wife, Lucille, with a service kitchen and laundry room (the former has remained basically the same in terms of purpose, the latter is now the restroom). But one room in the basement does remain from its former self: the Armstrongs’ Powder Room – which had previously been on display.
For this site, the experience mattered more than what was behind, as I already knew what it was – but even still, there were a few surprises in store with that – a picture of Louis in the…um…altogether. That one I never, ever expected to see the light of day (and probably nor did Louis!).
Later on in the day I went to my second lock…Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Forest Hills.
“A soda stand is the perfect place to meet.”
Getting to Eddie’s Sweet Shop was the first interesting part of the journey. It’s a good ten or 15 blocks from the 71st Avenue-Continental stop of, in my case, the F train (though the E, M, and R – and for a time the G and the now defunct V (you can still see the imprints of the G and V insignias on the train sign coming into the station, as the change was quite recent) – run there), but I wouldn’t have even gotten off there if it had not been for the Key. The trip felt even longer with the sweltering heat and humidity, but I didn’t care – it was another stop on the journey, another lock to open.
The heat was assuaged by the air-conditioned Sweet Shop, on Metropolitan and 72nd Drive (not 72nd Avenue, as I found out), an aged building inside and out – it looked like it was stuck somewhere circa World War II. I showed my key and the gentleman at the counter (wearing a green shirt and a blue Mets cap) went to the back of the counter to get the lock…a box.
Really, a box? I thought. It was filled with messages – I read a couple, and wrote my own (on a piece of paper from my Macaulay notebook, which had a crude drawing of a pig on the back). I found out from the guy at the counter that the Key was also good for 20% off.
So it’s nothing more than a thinly-veiled marketing scheme, I thought. Well, it worked. But two things changed my mind on that front. The first took place mere moments later – when I started talking to a fellow keyholder, something I wouldn’t have done if we hadn’t shared that trait. (I compared our conversation, beginning with showing each other our keys, to a conversation between Freemasons after they show each other their rings.)
The second took place just before I left, after having consumed a milkshake featuring the rare combination (well, rare to them) of mint chocolate chip ice cream and cherry syrup, I asked just how old the vintage cash register was. “About 80 years old,” the guy said. “Everything here is original.”
I thought that was incredible – I felt like Marlin in Finding Nemo when he asks Crush the sea turtle how old he was, to which he responded, “140, dude! And still goin’!” While the key only literally led to a lock box, it unlocked so much more.
I’m going to try to visit all 24 (okay, 23) locks, and I’ll blog about them either by day or by site, depending on how many I see. In the meantime, you can see my pictures from the Key to the City adventures so far on Flickr.