There I was, lucky enough to be at the glorious Met, in the third row.  My generous daughter had splurged on a ticket for me.  She and her husband were also going, but they were sitting in cheaper seats in the back.

First, I demurred politely and insincerely. “You shouldn’t have.”  Then I accepted happily. 

That was a mistake.  

A nearly blind person should never sit in the third row in almost total darkness, surrounded by laughing, engaged, enthusiastic neighbors, all of whom can see. Lots of small kids and their parents happily sat up front all around me, transfixed, beautifully behaved.  I was the only malcontent.

 I’d reread the text on my reading machine.   I love the play! It is indeed, magical.  My favorite characters, of course, are the mechanicals.  I’m a sucker for clowns. But the whole comedy is romp, on the page and onstage – when visible.

 I heard beautifully and, if I had been listening at home that would have sufficed.  But the lighting was such and my seat was such that I saw only darkness.  The frustration of having everyone around me watching the  “mechanicals” while I listened but saw nothing was overwhelming.  I was the most disappointed kid there.

 It made me more jealous and resentful than I think I’ve ever been.    How come…?   Who knows?  It’s my fault, not Shakespeare’s, nor Britten’s, nor the Met’s.  It was certainly not my generous daughter’s fault.  I just didn’t want to be blind at this performance!

 Okay, I know, I know.

 Asinine thinking.

 Pun intended.  Shakespeare would have liked it!     

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I don’t mean to play favorites.  Honestly, I use and appreciate all the subway lines the city offers, but I travel to and from work, and to my children’s home on the #1.  So I know it pretty well.

Since I am a senior citizen (86 years old) I always ride at a discount which I appreciate, being frugal (a nicer word than cheap).  My slow gait is due to advanced age.  Once aboard I invariably get a seat.  I query seatmates frequently about the stops till mine occurs, by which time we are often good friends.  I wish all well and depart. Mission easily accomplished.

When I travel with my small suitcase (on wheels) if I pause  and l appear distressed for a second at the subway’s street entry, Sir Galahad  (well disguised) invariably appears to escort me and carry my bag downstairs.  The reverse occurs at the end of my journey.  Then I am even more appreciative and noisily effusive.  Upstairs would be particularly hard to accomplish solo.

I babysit sometimes and I feel perfectly safe even if I leave for home after midnight. The Broadway Line is busy and well traveled.  I never want for company even very late at night.

About three weeks ago I left for home unusually late.  I boarded a long-awaited local on 103rd Street and was, oddly, the only passenger in that car!   Never had that happened before.

Then – a man hurriedly just made it through the closing doors; his collar was raised, his features partially obscured.  I was truly afraid.  He sat down at the far end of the car, his face still buried in his scarf and collar.

Abruptly, he rose and purposefully and deliberately walked towards me!

I was terrified, seized by lurid imaginings, the worst.  What if no one else boarded at the next stop, 96th Street?  What if?

Boldly, he sat down right BESIDE me.

“Professor Klass,” he said affably, “I was in your Creative Writing Class at the college thirteen years ago.  You were very helpful and encouraging.  I didn’t become a writer.  I’m an architect.  But I remember the class vividly and happily.  I still have all my manuscripts with your comments.  Who knows?  Some day I might build on paper, too!”

I nearly kissed him!

And speaking of writing, my daughter Judy has a new young adult novel, an e-book, just published; you should all check out the book trailer for it!

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Harry puts the roast in the pre-warmed oven following Louise’s specific instructions, and then he forgets all about it.  When she arrives she is frantic, but Harry hasn’t noticed smell or smoke.  He is in his study reading Margaret Fuller’s, 19th Century JOURNALS, his eyes smarting.  He is sorry, terribly sorry, so sorry she almost weeps at his humility. 

“I just forgot,” he says over and over.  “ I was preparing for tomorrow’s lecture and I just forgot.”

“It’s only a roast, Harry.  Not filet mignon,” Louise tries to comfort him.  She is a large, capable woman, younger and of buoyant mind.  Quickly, she throws open doors and windows.  “We can have pasta for dinner.  It could happen to anyone.”

 Louise cannot say when she first began to notice Harry’s  slips.  He has always been absent-minded and disorderly in the handling of every-day chores.  That is part of his charm.  He is her second husband.  Alfred, her first, was an accountant, meticulous and mean.  He kept track of things like where the Colgate tube was squeezed.  He never spent paper money without getting a receipt.  And each time, he said the same thing, “For tax purposes of course.  Ha hah.”  Louise, discovering that she could not love such a spiritual dwarf, divorced him.

 Harry lives at a far remove from all quotidian preoccupations.  He never remembers to get receipts.  He was that way at thirty-five when Louise came upon him reading THE MARBLE FAUN in a coffee house: a tall, ascetically thin man, already white-haired, with periwinkle blue eyes, and that is the way he is now, at sixty-three.  From the beginning, Louise managed things, which is what she likes to do.  She loved Harry dearly as he was; he had an intrinsic sweetness to him as though scholarship had protected him from the pettiness that alters so many American male academics.

One day soon after the incident of the roast, Harry goes off to work wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe.  He doesn’t notice until Max, the linguist down the hall, stops him. 

“Hey, Harry.  Is that the latest style?”


“Your shoes.”

Harry looks down.

“My god!”

“Maybe you should put the light on when you get dressed.”

 “How could I do such a thing?”

 “It could happen to anyone.  I put my undershirt on inside out and backwards all the time.”

Harry understands that Max is being kind.  “Undershirts are another story, Max.”  Harry grips his colleague’s shoulder to say thanks.  Inwardly he is telling himself: one, it’s a small mistake; the other, it’s a tragedy.  All day Harry walks  around  in his mismatched shoes.  He stands in front of his lecture class in American Literature, and he conducts his Melville seminar wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe.

 Another man might have run out and bought a new pair of shoes. To him, that would have been kin to a lie.  “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he begins each class, “you have surely heard about absent-minded professors. You see one before you.  My mind was somewhere else when I dressed this morning.  I cannot say where.”  There is a ripple of laughter and some scattered applause.  Harry’s students like him. He offers American literature to them as a rare treasure.  Many are reading Poe and Whitman for the first time.

It could happen to anyone, he keeps saying to himself and he sits on the commuter bus heading home, mismatched shoes concealed under the seat.  It COULD happen to anyone, but it’s happening to me!   Sorrow rocks him.  I must try to focus on what I’m doing, he resolves.  I must pay attention and not allow my thoughts to wander.  He stares through opaque dirty bus windows.

 Louise, on her own, goes to the family doctor.  He is sympathetic, but has no suggestions.  “ Lecithin?” She asks him.  “Can’t hurt,” he tells her agreeably.  Is he only humoring her?  No matter.  She hurries to the drug store and buys two giant bottles.  Health nuts, she knows, swear by Lecithin.  Harry is touched. “You are too good to me,” he says sadly.

One morning he carries the wrong books and notes to class.  He weeps afterwards.  Louise, desperate, would go to a witch doctor, to a psychic; SHE WOULD DO ANYTHING, but there is nothing to be done.  It sits between them; they cannot talk about it.  Louise covertly looks Harry over very carefully before he sets out daily.  Sometimes she corrects his error and he minds.  He almost never remembers his Swiss cheese sandwiches for lunch.  One day he forgets to zip his fly!

He wants to talk to her about the terrible thing that is happening, but he can’t.  He begins.  Stops! He notes Louise’s suffering. She is constantly checking: the gas jets, the faucets.   He is suddenly afraid to make allusions in class.  Sometimes familiar material floats temptingly into his mind, but he fears using it.

Late one night, after a good day when he has forgotten nothing, in the soft darkness of their bed, he forces himself to speak.  His arms are about her, her warm, comforting body cushioning him.  He caresses her hair.  “Louise, when the time comes, you must do with me whatever has to be done. I know how kind you are,” he whispers. “

She puts her palm over his mouth.   “Sh.  You do not have to say anything.”

“I give myself completely into your hands.”  He buries his face in her bosom.  “Remember always, I forgive you and will love you still.”

Weeping, Louise draws him closer.

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Bar Mitzvah Speech Honoring Gabriel Julian Klass, My Beloved Grandson, October 12, 2013, at the 92nd St Y

I am so happy to be here today.

I thank Gabriel’s parents, David and Giselle, for the great honor of inviting me to speak. My initial reaction was to go right home and dig out my old silver bugle, polish it up and practice so I could play a Fanfare to Gabriel at his Bar Mitzvah! Then I calmed down a bit. Eighty-six year old grandmothers do not usually play Fanfares at bar mitzvahs. I would keep the idea in abeyance.

Gabriel’s grandfather, Mort, my late husband who died twelve years ago is the person who – in the best of all possible worlds – would be making this speech. He loved Gabriel deeply. Brooklyn-born, working class, public school educated, he was a reader, a writer, a chess player, no athlete. He graduated from high school not knowing what he would become.

On a Maritime Service ship in the Atlantic, the government sent books for the sailors. Mort read Margaret Mead’s COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA, an anthropological study, and it changed his life. He would be an anthropologist and study ritual, religion and culture. And so he did.

Purposefully, he went through Brooklyn College ($25 a year!) then Columbia University. I was lucky enough to meet him and to marry him and go off to Trinidad on his first field trip. Where our first child was born. He knew so much about religion and ritual and culture and their beauty and importance in all our lives even those of us who are not particularly observant. HE should have made this speech!

David – when you were still living at home, your lifelong dream was to dwell in a mythical paradise called “Klass Acres.” In your corny version of Eden, all would be perfect, parents, siblings, ambiance, et cetera! Your mother would have a well modulated, ladylike voice. She would be discretion itself, her dress impeccable, fashionable, and dignified. Dulcet voice. No weird opinions. No bugle to call you to lunch. Forget that mother; she was science fiction.

But otherwise, Dave, 105th Street and Broadway ain’t bad! Add a lovely, smart wife and two beautiful, delightful, complicated, humorous children. Earning your living at what you like to do and do well: teaching at Columbia and writing books and movie and TV scripts. All of this we celebrate today here. You’re close to your Klass Acres, David. May more and more of your dreams come true.

For me, it’s a singular honor to speak at Gabriel’s bar mitzvah. Maybe I should have played the fanfare. Nah, too freaky. Gabe, you are – in the best sense of the word – cool. Never judgmental. It’s very nice for me to be 86 years old and eccentric and have one relative who always treats me like I’m sane. Gabriel, so far, you have held up beautifully! No matter what my condition; I come to the front door and knock my ParkYarKarKuS special knock (Eddie Cantor show 1930’s-40’s) and I’m given entry. I’m more than welcomed. I’m in!

Gabe, for me, you are an absolute delight: a kind, smart, funny, loving grandson with, of course, that beautiful red hair. Gabriel is truly interested in everything – EVERYTHING – like his late grandfather was. To want to know more was a major part of Mort’s life and I see it in his heirs. It drove our family to wander all over the world. I would never, myself, have dreamed of such ventures. How lucky I was!

What’s really remarkable to me about Gabriel is that never once in his thirteen years has he complained or even winced at family eccentricities. And believe me, he had cause; we are peculiar, and what’s really odd is that we enjoy and celebrate nuttiness. Other kids might find me embarrassing – Not Gabe. He has real courage. I love him and salute him on this, his 13th birthday. Happy bar mitzvah, Gabe!

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“The grandmother that everyone thought dead was a lie and kicking.” 

“My handsomest uncle has always been an encourageable romantic.”

“In my notebook, I have a complete copulation of the material.”

“My sister would bend over backwards for anyone in trouble to help.”

“My boyfriend’s father, who doesn’t like me, has a one-tract mind.”

“She has this cousin who was arrested for jade walking!”

“My grandmother always had a synthetic ear for my problems.”

“Her aunt had a sick sense.”

“My husband was all eagle and no super eagle.”

“I have just come out of a moody bag.  My father hates all rap music and will not allow any in the house because it is nerve-racqueting.  My mother is easier on me because the essence of woman is tender-hearthed.”

“The repetition of initial sounds is illiteration.”

“Oligarchy is when the vast majority is ruled by the vast minority. ”

“I came to this conclusion after much research, being as I am, a vociferous reader.”

“In society, feuding fractions may cause division.”

A dedicated social worker volunteered,  “I truly long to study spychology because  “ it is good for a man to help spychotics!”

And, finally, one empathic soul expressed deep concern about a dear friend, relating that, “She is always putting herself down because she has low self steam.  That’s why she hangs out with the rift-raft.”                   

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At the Writers Workshop in Iowa City in 1950 the professor who taught my graduate English course said to me sternly after the big exam, “Young lady, Question 1 was obligatory.  The other questions were optional.  Why didn’t you do Question 1?”

“Because it was obligatory,” I replied innocently, terribly flustered.    I had, of course, mixed the words up.

He was a kind man and let me do the exam over.

I am the same person I was then, so as a teacher I have always been sympathetic to such errors.  In Remedial English classes, they are very frequent.

Firstable, I believe…” a freshman essay began, early in my teaching career.  I held my breath, as I read to see his second enumeration.  “Secondable,” and “Thirdable,” followed and then he decided to retreat; he circled his wagons and he re-grouped behind  the more routine Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3.

Another logician argued with intense sincerity: “The causes of the recession are manifold.  The first fold is technology, the second fold…” he continued, and then proceeded through 8 folds on his laundry list, arriving at the glorious conclusion that “The more man excels in his scientific and educational advancement, the less God will be used as a crotch.”

It is not surprising that this sort of accidental and idiosyncratic locution occurs during essay exams as frantic students searching desperately for THE RIGHT WORDS choose THE WRONG WORDS – choices that are marvels of misinterpretation and invention.

In the years since I penpointed the Firstabler and the Manifolder, in brilliant red ink, I have continued to teach in the CUNY community college, which is indeed a melting pot.  For many of our students, English is not their first language and others, though highly intelligent, have weak verbal skills.  Summing up the situation perfectly is the lament of a young sophomore with strong political convictions: “Though I urge everyone to think for themselves and check things out, my words often fall upon death ears!”

Now being both a writer and an English teacher, I have strong feelings about language.  I love words!  I love neologisms and unexpected usages, for I believe that English is strong and vigorous, and I believe that non standard speech becomes standard only when it serves the speakers well; I know that language is alive and constantly changing.  Old words are done away with as new ones replace them.  No one need be scared; nothing sacred is threatened.

Over the years as I marked papers, my eyestrain and the tedium were often relieved by novel usage, metaphor, spelling and diction.  I would rush into my husband’s study and share whatever verbal misadventure I’d come upon.  I was entertained when an occasional humorous alternative came along on the page to relieve the monotony of ordinary speech.

I appreciated the eccentric beauty in the misuse of language, so much so that through the years with the help of colleagues, I have collected a bountiful bouquet of blunders.  I‘ll publish a sample in another blog entry, but I shall close here with a sage political science observation from a student paper.  He warns the reader sternly of dire consequences because “Communism is spreading its dangerous testicles all over western Europe!”

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The Limerick Lady

I love and admire poetry, but have never been able to write a really good poem.  I’ve tried many times.  I’ve even been published in school magazines! But I attribute those few pathetic publications to either a dearth of better material or the fact that I was editor! The one simple poetic form that my mind fully embraces is – the limerick.  So this page is a paean to the limerick.  No person exists no matter how tin his ear, who cannot write a limerick! 

In grade school I wrote:

Mrs. Astorbilt once had a poodle,
She fed him on apple strudel.
He became temperamental;
Wouldn’t eat beans or lentils,
So they shot him right through the noodle! 

I offer here a few of my favorite limericks; except for Edward Lear in the 19th Century, limericks are usually attributed to that nervous, shy Latin poet, Anonymous.

There was a young woman named Rose,
Who had a large wart on her nose.
When she had it removed;
Her appearance improved,
But her glasses slipped down to her toes. 

A maiden at college – Miss Breeze
Weighed down by B.A.’s and Lit. D’s
Collapsed from the strain
Said the doctor, “It’s plain  –
You are killing yourself by degrees!” 

There once was a sculptor named Phidias
Whose sculptures by most were thought hideous
He carved Aphrodite
Without any nightie
Which shocked all the fussy fastidious!  

A canner exceedingly canny,
One day remarked to his granny:
“A canner can can
Anything that he can,
But he can’t can a can, can he?” 

A mouse in her room woke Miss Dowd
She was frightened it must be allowed.
Soon a happy thought hit her
To scare off the critter;
She sat up in bed and meowed! 

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot – or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”

A professor named KLASS, SOLOMON SHEILA
Sought great verse, that would to students appeal-a
She poured as she pored;
Growing increasingly bored,
And passed out from excessive tequila!

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 I am the world’s most willing virtual traveler. I will happily go anywhere on a page! 

I come from an immigrant family that fled Hungary for Brooklyn and stopped there forever.  There I grew up, never going farther than the Catskill Mountains summers.

When I was twenty-two, I set off for graduate school at the Writers Workshop in Iowa City.  My whole family came to see me off.  My father bought me a lavish corsage.  My teary mother kept telling strangers I was “going west”.

I married an anthropologist whose interest in religion and ritual took us all over the world. Now I’m old and no longer taking long journeys, but I beat the system with the help of the New York subways.  I’m that white-haired octagenarian, nearly blind, with irrevocable wrinkles, carrying her stuffed briefcase downtown twice a week and returning during rush hour.  What drives me?  Power?  Money?  Fame?  Hah, none   of those, obviously.  I go because I’m a teacher and the hours spent in the classroom are the happiest hours of my week.

To be so old is lucky; to be so old is tiring and tiresome.  And yet, and yet if there is some pleasurable task that one can do and do well – and enjoy –  it seems to me to be a major reason for living.

For more than half a century, I’ve been teaching college English, and most of the last years were devoted to creating fiction in an undergraduate Writing Workshop at Borough of Manhattan Community College, currently on Chambers Street.

The college started in 1963 in rented office space in the West Fiftieth Street area, and originally offered business courses, making them easily accessible to workers nearby.

BMCC has grown exponentially.  It now has its own handsome campus on Chambers Street and is already renting additional space nearby to contain its burgeoning, incredibly heterogeneous student body.

With the right “papers”, I travel anywhere – FREE – I just blasted through outer space effortlessly, piloted by a friendly, savvy space alien, in a terrific science fiction tale filled with natural and unnatural wonders. Literally, another world.

I recently visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum in the first city destroyed by an atomic bomb. And I saw the Genbaku Dome marking the single structure left standing in the city of Hiroshima after the disaster. And I identified with an older student who, having seven years in graduate school in Germany studying psychology and doing what his family thought was right for him, decided to cut loose and start fresh, so he emigrated! Here he was happy in my class and he absolutely convinced me it was the right move. Seven years notwithstanding. 

I cowered in a closet with a scared little girl while police searched her grandma’s house, pulling things apart as they sought her criminal uncle-and after an interminable time, they found him. She was not sorry!

I accompanied a South African teenager and his outlaw uncles on a perilous errand and happily, I went along with a child and her gentle, prosperous parents on their annual trip back to Costa Rica to visit grandparents, an idyllic family reunion.

Et cetera. I am so pleased when my students take me along with them. I don’t mind the heavy briefcase. I dote on it!

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“Momma, how are you?” a young Chinese woman stopped me suddenly and asked.  Her tone was gentle and concerned.  “Are you well tonight, Momma, out so late?”

Thank God, I thought, knowing somehow I was safe and in good hands.  Her blurred face was vaguely familiar.

It was past midnight!  I was wandering around the 14th Street Station of the IRT Broadway Line.  I am legally blind, so what normal eyes perceive at 200 feet my eyes can only see at 20 feet.  I couldn’t read the EXIT street signs and I have a notoriously bad sense of direction.  I dared not go out.

I had just come from an evening of babysitting my grand children uptown.  Tired and disoriented, I needed to find the northern exit of the station.  Not the 13th Street or the 12th Street exits because, up above the dark chaotic streets were even more threatening than the subway’s bench sleepers and all-night sitters.  And Duane Reade Drugs had further confused things by having stores on BOTH ends of the SAME block!

My rescuer asked more urgently, “How are you, Momma?  Are you going home? I will show you the way. Come.”

I could have kissed her.  I followed her obediently.  Only a few months earlier, I had moved here and been introduced to the pleasures of the Chelsea neighborhood by my children, who lived nearby.  One of the neighborhood’s absolute delights was this new Chinese restaurant, “LEGEND” on 7th Avenue and  15thStreet just across the street from me.  Ah ha! That’s who this young lady was, the cashier, gentle, always cordial, quietly charming and concerned.

Since my daughter’s family ate there frequently and I often joined them, I had soon become “Momma” to the whole staff, who were attentive and marvelously friendly and thoughtful.  If I was absent at family meals, they asked after me.  And they never failed to fully report on what I’d eaten on my solitary  lunches.  “Momma had Szechuan Noodle Soup.  Momma ate TWO orders of soup dumplings for lunch!  Momma loves the dan dan noodles!” They delighted in my greedy consumption.

I’ve lived in this city most of my life and, of course, done my shopping and my eating here among strangers. New York City is large, the transactions impersonal and the customers many.

So I feel an undeniable delight and gratitude at being the American Momma to this larger heterogeneous “family” who have generously expanded to embrace and include me.

I glory in being the Legendary Momma!  And I do truly love the spicy dry cooked chicken with ginger and peanuts!

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Last Friday night the moon was high.  I’d been looking forward to the night eagerly because it was the night of the Chinese Moon Festival!  I’m neither Chinese nor a moon worshipper, but I’d been invited to celebrate the occasion at the home of Chinese-American friends.  

This ancient festival, they explained, one of the most important in Chinese culture, traditionally celebrates the autumnal harvest under the full moon.

For an urban creature like me, an ancient harvest festival is exotic indeed.  I never harvested anything in my life that I didn’t have to pay for first at the cash register of WHOLE FOODS MARKETS, and my several attempts long ago at planting bulbs and growing things in pots or in my New Jersey backyard were abortive.  I have a black thumb.

So, at this delightful, noisy party, after an extraordinarily tasty international dinner – prepared by a hostess who is a fabulous cook – and after too much wine and beer, we finished up with small round delicious mooncakes that symbolize the full moon. These mooncakes were tiny savory pastries stuffed with lotus seed paste. 

Some of us went outdoors to enjoy the bright moonlight on the terrace and then we all settled around the large desk in the living room to Skype.

While the food and company were great, this was the part of the evening that, to me, was wondrous. Our hosts, using their computer, of course, skyped their young daughter who is studying on Taiwan, and – in a second, there she was virtually with us in the New York living room, vivid.

 But there was no moon shining in Taiwan. A typhoon and heavy rainstorm were pounding the island at the time.  Though we could see the storm through HER windows, it did not interfere with or mar our transmission. 

This miracle of communication dazzled me!  She was a member of our moon party in that living room. Thousands of miles away and yet there. 

We had come to the best part of the evening, the poetry and song part.  The plan was to celebrate the moon by offering snatches of poetry and song that were in some way lunar. The first poem, a lovely original work came from Taiwan, and was enthusiastically received.  Unfortunately, since I only heard it recited, I have no copy to produce here.

 Her poem was followed by an eclectic variety; literature is packed with “moon” allusions and poems and it was great fun to hear guests offer them.  Someone sang “Blue Moon”.   We were entertained by “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear.

“The moving moon went up the sky; And nowhere did abide; Softly she was going up, And a star or two beside,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

We heard a snatch of  “Endymion” from John Keats and then “Moonlight Becomes You,” the old Bing Crosby favorite.

Then, “It’s  Only  A Paper Moon,” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”

On it went for a long, melodic time.  I think the ancient Chinese farmers would have been pleased by our celebration of their festival.  We  scavenged the moon literature, enjoying it till, alas, it was quite late.

Our hostess loaded our pockets with mooncakes for the journey as we bid farewell to Taiwan, and then walked, a happy group, along darkened but moonlit upper Manhattan streets to the subway underground.  

For New Yorkers at that hour it was, obviously, the only way to go.


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