by Suzanne Reisman, 07/07/2009
Dear New York City,
Fifteen years ago, I arrived on your teeming streets from the suburbs of Chicago. I promised my parents I'd return once I finished college, but once I was here, I found keeping my word impossible. There were many things I immediately enjoyed about living with you (walking everywhere, 24-hour corner groceries, street food), but the secrets you shared over time keep my heart fluttering.
Once, your subway whisked me from the Upper West Side to the Enrico Caruso Museum of America in Brooklyn. (Enrico Caruso was the Luciano Pavarotti of the turn of the 20th century.) The museum was hidden upstairs in the home of its curator, Cavaliere Ufficiale (an honorific Italian title) Aldo Mancusi.
Mancusi spent three hours showing the artifacts that crammed the space from floor to rafters. I studied Caruso's clothes, shoes and bling (like the two-inch citrine pendant he gave his mistress), read his letters and critiqued his doodles. However, only when Mancusi spun the original records on phonographs from the early 1900s and Caruso's voice filled the room did I understand why Caruso is considered to be one of the greatest tenors ever. I gazed upon Caruso's death mask—one of only three in the world—through teary eyes.
The Caruso relics alone would rank this museum as one of your best hidden treasures, New York, but there was more. In what was formerly the dining room, Mancusi stored his phonograph and music box collection. He played some of the first recordings made by Thomas Edison on cylinders. The metal discs that fit into music boxes reminded me of proto-CDs. A third room held opera costumes, decor from the old Metropolitan Opera House and chunks of the Brooklyn Bridge. A jukebox from 1927 and a player piano housing a drum and an accordion were also engaged for my entertainment. My tour ended in the 20-seat theater Mancusi built to show Caruso films.
Exhausted, but happy, I headed back home to Manhattan. Only you, New York, boast such a diverse population whose treasures I can access with public transportation. How could I ever go back to Chicago, when there's still so much left to explore?
Suzanne Reisman is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track: New York City's Best Unusual Attractions (Cumberland House Publishing). She resides on the Upper West Side with her husband and a 13 lb. albino rabbit.