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<<  -- 4 --  Grahame Ainge    WITH CALLAS IN MIND

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October 2002 came round and with it our return to New York to see four more operas. With our evenings filled with opera we had time to search for evidence of Maria Callas' early years during the day. After studying the relevant maps we asked the concierge if it was safe to walk in Washington Heights. Yes, it was OK during daylight but not at night. I felt I ought to offer an explanation of why we wanted to visit this corner of Manhattan which the guidebooks had either dismissed or described as 'seldom visited by tourists'. 'Maria Callas lived in several apartments in Washington Heights,' I said, proudly displaying my knowledge. There was no flicker of recognition from him.

We had decided to make the journey by using the Subway as it appeared to be a straightforward ride, taking the number one or nine train to 191st Street. Although yellow-cabs are quick and easy to use, we suspected that finding a yellow-cab for the return journey might be more difficult and this is exactly what we found.

The Subway was certainly an experience in itself. We had become familiar with the increasing lack of maintenance of the stations the further north we travelled but were not prepared for the experience at 191st Street. The train had rattled along in the open air like a string of gigantic aluminium cans on a track held high on steel stilts for a short while in the Harlem-Hamilton Heights district before diving into the ground again, presumably as a result of the 'Island of Hills' nature of Manhattan, so that a lift was necessary to reach the street level at 191st.

A bunch of largely down-at-heel passengers, who had got off with us, searched for a lift that was working. Soon the working one arrived and the concertina doors opened to reveal what appeared to be a goods lift with about a quarter of the floor space taken up with discarded cardboard boxes and other rubbish. A middle-aged lady passenger dragged in another, larger, empty box and kicked it into-touch in the back corner of the lift. In the opposite corner by the door, sat on an office seat, which clearly had been rescued from a tip, was an overweight lift attendant of Hispanic descent. Before him was a small, worn-out, makeshift table on which there was a plate of cooked breakfast and a portable radio playing music we could not recognise. It was almost as if he lived there. The happiest aspect of all this was that although he still continued with his breakfast, regularly lifting a well-filled fork to his mouth, he seemed to know almost everyone who entered the lift greeting them with genuine warmth and a special word for each of the children.

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Copyright © 2 December 2003 Grahame Ainge, Hertford, UK

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