One frightfully cold day, we were in the Upper West Side, lured by the promise of a bazaar of food trucks. The furious wind made indents everywhere. The exposed bits. Face, hair, ankles. And the unexposed bits. So that the sight of a fenced-in enclosure packed with rows of food trucks was comforting. As expected, a cornucopia of food and people. Kiwi-style pies, South Indian dosas, Lebanese grub. I can tell you that there were at least a dozen more trucks promising lobster to tacos and more. I can also tell you that we meekly fell at the last hurdle. Queues that grew longer by the second. There was not a truck left that was not besieged by a peckish crowd.
We ended up striding to Sarabeth’s, a classic NYC brunch hotspot, with French doors that swung open to reveal warmly lit interiors. The kind of place where wooden tables for two sit cheek by jowl and beautiful old women in black clothes dine with their girl friends. Where they serve potato waffles with apple-flavoured chicken sausages and where the calamari arrives perfectly crunchy at the table. For those moments, it felt like we were on holiday.
Senses humming with bellinis and beer, we emerged on Amsterdam Avenue, the long road previously known as Tenth Avenue. Sometime in the 1800s, a Tenth Avenue Cowboy rode a horse up and down it, warning people of approaching trains that used to run along the avenue. He is no longer to be spotted there. Instead, a worthy line-up of cafés, bakeries, candy shops, taverns and hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries impart this avenue, renamed after Manhattan’s first 17th century colonisers, with contemporary vibes.
It was so blustery that to walk was to brave the winds and cower. Just as Adi wondered aloud, what were we to do then, a church with a distinctly Byzantine personality turned up on the right (it’s the feature photo), and I said, ‘Just let’s step in for a second’.
Inside, as I craned my neck up to gaze at the dome, I heard a whisper, ‘Excuse me’.
An old woman, with a shock of white hair, sat in the pews towards the back of the church, and whispered again, so that I had to inch closer to her. ‘There is a movie being screened today.’
I gave a silly grin, and replied, ‘Is that so? How wonderful!’ What do you say when someone informs you, out of the blue, of a film showing somewhere? The woman carried on, as if I had not interrupted her. ‘There are refreshments. There is Gregory Peck.’
It being one of those days when you felt like indulging a stranger who promised Gregory Peck, because you had nothing better to do, we followed her directions, got out of the church, and spotted the parish centre adjacent to it. In a dark hall there, they were projecting a technicolour film upon the wall, in front of which sat a group of elderly people. We joined them discreetly when Christopher Plummer flashed upon the screen in the uniform of a Nazi military officer, standing upon some terrace in Rome, showing his children the city that he had fallen in love with before he arrived on duty. Soon Gregory Peck showed up in the habit of a Vatican priest.
The name of the film was The Scarlet and the Black. In about two and a half hours, I was tearing up at the solid performances delivered by Plummer and Peck…as they played out the real-life story of a Nazi officer, Herbert Kappler, and an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland. It is based upon a novel, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by J.P. Gallagher.
The time was 1943, when Allied prisoners and Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis in Rome, and O’Flaherty was doing his best to rescue them. By the end of it, he had saved thousands of people from Kappler, assuming various disguises to escape his clutches. It is quite the watch, if only to remember the bravery of the Vatican priest with the bulbous nose.
There we sat in that dark hall, with strangers for company, feeling snug as a priest circulated with a tray loaded with cookies, fat chunky ones that challenged you to stop at one. There was an old-world charm to the occasion, befitting the movie we were watching.
When it ended, and our minds were still floating around in that WWII bubble, the priest got up and circulated some papers. For a second or two, I was alarmed. Would he start talking about God? Time to pay up for the cookies.
But he took us by surprise. Those papers contained photos and quotes from the film. The priest talked about the storyline, with passion. That Monsignor George J. Murphy, who the centre was named for, had met O’Flaherty. That O’Flaherty had met Peck and had given him tips, but not lived long enough to watch the film. As the talk veered to Pope Pius XII, who was heading the Vatican at the time, an old woman with her ash blonde bob tucked beneath a beret, piped up. She had known the pope before he had assumed office. ‘I lived through the war in Rome and my aunts stayed behind. They were such difficult times,’ added this woman whose name was Giuliana.
The priest invited contemplation as he finished up with the thought, ‘When we are in heaven, will there be a special place for those who speak American English? It’s all rubbish, you know.’ That is how we found ourselves at an impromptu film club that evening in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a bizarre but wonderful way, we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be.