Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

C has a friend, Heather. There is actually more to this story than that, though, although it requires some background. Heather sings, and sings well. Someone with a background in music and voice could probably describe her singing with more nuance than that, but what do you expect from a lawyer? “Well” is as good as it will get. But you can judge for yourself ( From the layman's perspective, let's just say she sounds professional, which she is. The kind of voice that astounds as an instrument, makes me simultaneously want to break into my own aria and never open my mouth again for recognizing that some things I will never be able to do. Sing an opera is one. Heather can, and has. These days she sings on Broadway. Heather is a cast member in the longest running musical on Broadway, working in the ensemble of Phantom of the Opera. But she also understudies for the role of Carlotta and at times gets to strut her stuff—fittingly—as the operatic diva of the Paris Opera house. A couple of weeks ago, C received an e-mail from Heather announcing her schedule for filling in as Carlotta. C had never heard Heather perform, but always wanted to. As it turned out, C was in up-state New York, visiting family, and as such in the neighborhood for one of Heather's scheduled turns as Carlotta. C rebooked her return to allow a side trip to Manhattan, and I flew out for a long weekend.

We saw the show, which despite its long running tenure had an incredible line at the door 15 minutes before curtain. As I suppose it has several nights a week for 25-years, the chandelier came crashing to floor, Christine Daae was both repulsed by and drawn to the Phantom, and the diva pouted as divas do when younger voices muscle in on their spotlight. After the show, Heather led us backstage to marvel at the wigs (which we learned quite a bit about from another friend in Manhattan; suffice to say, I never much thought about Broadway wigs before, but the hair you see on stage could be the subject of another complete blog post), see the inner workings of theater magic, and stare out at the empty seats of the Majestic Theater.

But the excitement of Broadway and catching up with old friends was only part of the trip. Walking the streets of New York also gave me the opportunity to dabble in comparative urbanism, a school of study in which I am something of a hobbyist. I can't claim any formal training, but have, of course, read the classics. Being in New York gave me the chance to come home and look at my current hometown of Anchorage with new eyes as compared against one of the world's great—some would see greatest—cities.

Clearly, the foundation of a great city is great architecture. Buildings and living space provide the framework upon which a vibrant society is draped. The buildings and structures of New York are true icons, recognized the world over. The Empire State Building, the Flatiron, the Brooklyn Bridge, they are unmistakable symbols of urban America and the pull of the new world.

Well, Anchorage does not have the benefit of long history, but just as New York stands shoulder to shoulder with Paris, London, and other giants of the old world, Anchorage is itself home to inspiring architecture enhancing life in our city despite its relative youth. In just a few short years, classics like the abandoned layer cake church, the Wal*Mart, and that weird shanty like building in the middle of mid-town have been built and inspire Anchorage residents on a daily basis to strive for greatness.

Similarly, great cities have great cuisines. Some of the best restaurants in the world (or, at the very least, the most expensive) are found in New York, but classic eats are found at all points on the economic spectrum, including the classic New York slice.

Not to be outdone, Anchorage too is known far and wide for its food specialties, like the classic waffle, biscuit, gravy, roll, a celebration of carbohydrates smothered in fat.

Great cities often have rich spiritual traditions. Home to famous cathedrals, New York embraces religion at all scales, and it is not unusual to turn the corner and find streets closed to accommodate a procession celebrating the Virgin Mary.

Anchorage's houses of worship similarly operate on all scales, including the humble Wilderness Village Baptist Church.

But a rich and complex urban life is built on contradictions, and just as New York welcomes its residents to worship in its great churches or in the city streets, the city billboards make its residents question the very utility of prayer.

Anchorage's contradictions are evident only in geography. The Wilderness Village Baptist Church is, after all, located directly across the street from the city's most famous strip club. I like to think that gentleman, having spent a night and the bulk of their savings within the dark walls of the Alaska Bush Company, stumble out into the bright light of a Sunday morning and directly across the street to pray for forgiveness. A closer look at the Wilderness Village sign, however, makes me wonder if that is such a good idea.

The Wilderness Village congregation appears to have very specific ideas as to what should be done to sinners. That is a picture of two angels pushing some poor man to an eternity of damnation in the fires of hell, right? I think I would want to make sure I knew what side of the line I stood on before I walked through those doors. Maybe safest to just head back to New York. At least there you have a chance of getting lost in the crowd. Or you can hope that the two angels will get distracted by the bright lights of Times Square and maybe forget about you altogether.


  1. Alaska Bush Company, really, is that its name? For such a clever pun shouldn't they be spared from the endless pit of flames venomous snakes?

    1. Yes, that is its real name. You can't make this stuff up. Frankly, having included the name in a blog post, I expect my web traffic will increase by several orders of magnitude from misdirected Google searches. And what makes you so sure there are snakes in that pit of flames? Man, the imagery is just getting worse and worse. I'm totally treading the straight and narrow from here on out.