A vacation around the corner

FIRST came London, then Italy. Last year's trip was sheer extravagance - a driving tour through France - Chartres, Normandy, the Loire, Arles. How could we top that, I wondered? We tried staying home. You won't see any ads in the travel section for this vacation: three weeks on East 86th Street, Manhattan, featuring daily excursions to nearby parks, restaurants, and museums; unlimited sofa-lounging and reading in bed; Mets and Yankee games nightly on TV.

It may sound odd, but our high-rise apartment proved the perfect vacation spot. We threw away the conventional definition of a vacation - a getaway - and left it to others to abandon hearth and home. Our territory would be the byways of our neighborhood.

We did no research for this vacation; we followed no guidebooks. There were no planes to catch, suitcases to pack, or itineraries to plan. Instead, we threw away the alarm clock, put on the answering machine, and allowed ourselves to follow a different rhythm. There is no more glorious feeling, we quickly discovered, than to putter inside, while outside the world dashes by. And because our own pace slowed to a stroll, when we did step outside, even the streets of Manhattan seemed calm.

Ambling down an avenue or loitering near the East River, we were able to enjoy, as if for the first time, the flavors to be savored along each street: the monumental calm of Fifth Avenue, with its mansions and museums; the elegance and dash of Madison; the stately march of red and yellow tulips all along Park; the bustle of Lexington; the dusty clatter of construction between Third and York; then the serene pace of East End Avenue and the river beyond.

We would pause before the quaint reserve of the red brick Queen Anne row houses tucked into the mews of Henderson Place; wonder at the peculiar mixture of high-rises and brownstones in neighborhoods that seemed to be in a state of permanent transition; shake our heads at the transformation of yet another home-style, family-run restaurant into a glitzy pastarria, all aluminum and glass.

Often, we would walk as far east as we could go, crossing East End Avenue, passing through the quiet, tree-lined entryway to Carl Schurz Park, then climbing the broad stone staircase that leads to John Finley Walk, the promenade that overlooks the riverfront. It was easy to forget that thousands of cars were rushing unseen below us on the FDR Drive, carrying with them all of the hurried cares we had left behind.

Every evening, we would gaze at the darkening sky, and as the glimmering face of the water also began to darken, we would exclaim, ``What a marvelous city this is!'' in exactly the tone we had used in Florence and Rome.

Sometimes we would fix our attention on the elegant length of a man-made wonder, the Triborough Bridge. Both my husband and I had just read the life story of its builder, Robert Moses, in Robert A. Caro's monumental biography, ``The Power Broker.'' We were so fascinated by Caro's monster-hero that one night we sought out the apartment house where Moses had lived on Gracie Square. Our prey proved elusive, however. We asked one doorman after another for remembrances, always without success. Finally we decided that in this neighborhood, at least, the famous are guaranteed their privacy, even after they are gone.

Each evening as we sat by the river, we would watch the passing show: There was the pale, lanky apprentice mime who would act out, in slow motion, his impression of the fledgling softball pitcher he had spotted the evening before. There were the picnickers, lounging on the grass as if to pose for a painting by a modern-day Seurat.

We, too, became characters in the show as we listened to the wheezing of runners, smiled at the proudly goo-goo-eyed new moms and dads, turned discreetly away from the caressing of the lovers, or nodded sympathetically at the slightly older moms and dads plopped nearby, with kids, softball gear, and gleaming new bicycles in tow.

One night fireworks erupted across the way in Queens - who knew where or why? When boats passed by, we waved to the passengers and they waved back. The park and the river provided our live entertainment each evening. Unlike TV, there was never a repeat.

Though we roamed no farther from home than a handful of blocks east, west, north, or south, we had no difficulty embarking on culinary tours of many cultures: Thai, Indian, Italian, Chinese, German, Hungarian, even down-home American. Because proximity can breed neglect, when the vacation began, we had not yet sampled the elegantly informal Thai addition to our neighborhood; but the calm, sea-green, bistrolike setting beckoned, and by vacation's end we had become regulars, captivated by the fiery, aromatic flavors of ground chilies and peanuts and curry and ginger and garlic.

Every vacation thrives on the chance encounter, the accidental discovery. This one was no different. I happened to notice a small announcement in the newspaper that the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York was offering a special evening for anyone interested in gazing at the stars. And sure enough, on the appointed evening, we discovered right there, only a few steps from our usual spot by the river in Carl Schurz Park, three telescopes surrounded by a group of oddly excited children, parents, and curious people like us.

I squinted into the metal eyepiece, already warm from the brows of other would-be observers and cried, ``What's that?'' ``Arcturus, the sixth brightest star in the universe,'' calmly replied a kindly amateur astronomer. ``And that?'' ``Oh, that's Mars.'' ``Really?'' I asked in a tone of childlike awe. ``Oh, certainly. Yes - and look at this - '' he crouched to adjust the cylinder of the telescope. ``That is a double star,'' he explained. And then, holding back a smile, he changed the focus of the telescope once more and beckoned with a wave.

Could it be? In the lens before me shone the hazy rings of - Saturn! The halo circled round and round its distant orb while all the while I stood, a puny being far below. After a long moment, I looked from the heavens to the water, from the river's dappled blackness to the starry sky once more. Suddenly, all New York seemed awash with brightness and light. I had traveled around the universe, and I was home once more. Only then did I remember: I had never left.

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