Interview: MAC Award Winner Celia Berk Discusses Her Latest Album MANHATTAN SERENADE and Her Lifelong Love Affair with New York

By: Oct. 13, 2016
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Celia Berk at The Metropolitan Room in celebration of her latest album MANHATTAN SERENADE.

Ask Celia Berk what she loves about New York and she'll give you a list. Or, better yet, an album.

Corporate executive by day, cabaret chanteuse by night (and a damn good one), Berk has won a MAC Award (New York Debut - Female), a Bistro Award (Vocalist), a BWW Award (NY Cabaret Debut), and The Margaret Whiting Award from The Mabel Mercer Foundation since her 2014 debut album YOU CAN'T RUSH SPRING.

Her latest, MANHATTAN SERENADE, is an eclectic collection of New York and New York-esque songs steeped in nostalgia and romance, complete with arrangements by Alex Rybeck and a stunning orchestra.

Extended by popular demand, Berk will celebrate its release once more at the Metropolitan Room this Friday, October 14 at 7:00 pm. Before the show, we sat down for a discussion on her love note to New York, carving out a space for yourself in the city, and typical New York resilience.

This interview has been edited for length and content.


AS: The album is pretty much a love letter to New York.

CB: It is a total love note.

AS: I made the mistake of listening to it for the first time when I was out of the city this summer, and it made me so homesick. It's so lovely, though. You start the album with "Manhattan Hometown." Talk a little bit about growing up in the city.

CB: I was born at Beth Israel Hospital, which is going away now, and then we lived in Queens and I grew up on Long Island, actually. When you see this show, I go, "My parents thought they were doing the right thing." (Laughs) I couldn't get back fast enough. I didn't even want to go to college. I just told my parents, "Don't worry, you're not going to have a great tuition burden because I'm going to be the First Lady of the American stage, so it's not necessary." My father said, "Don't worry, you're going to college." So I went to college at Hofstra [University] out on Long Island, but by that point I had a voice teacher in the city and I was going back and forth every week for lessons and everything and I wasn't going to lose that.

AS: You couldn't stay away.

CB: Yeah. So I graduated in December of my fourth year in college and became an au pair and came right back into the city and started pounding the pavement.

AS: Was it just with one family, or were you jumping around?

CB: Just one.

AS: Where was that at?

CB: Out on Park Avenue, which was a really good thing because what I learned was people on Park Avenue are not any happier than people not on Park Avenue (laughs). That knocked that little fantasy.

AS: What was your relation to music like growing up?

CB: Very interestingly, on my father's side there's no discernible music ability that I can see, and when I was a child, he would sing to me. He adores Al Jolson, so he would sing "April Showers" to me incorrectly, and to this day I cannot sing "April Showers" correctly. I can't hear it because it's wired in from before I could even speak.

AS: How'd he sing it?

CB: There's just something at the end that comes out weird. I don't even know because it doesn't sound weird to me, but when you hear the recording, you're, "Yeah, those are not the notes (laughs)." But he's the one who gave me his love for the Great American Songbook. We would watch old movies every Saturday and Sunday on TV and listen to Jolson and cast albums. He just loved cast albums.

AS: What did your parents do?

CB: My father was in marketing and licensing. He worked for CBS, he worked for the Yankees, and he worked for Viacom. My mother was originally his secretary and that's how they met. Then she became a mother at home in that era and then she taught and she got her Master's at Hofstra. I got my undergraduate at Hofstra and we actually got our degrees on the same day. On my mother's side, there is musical talent. Her mother, my maternal grandmother, was a wonderful pianist, and I have her 1926 Steinway. Her sister was a contralto, so that's where the singing is from and the musical ability. There's none on my father's side (laughs)--- none whatsoever. And my brother had no discernible musical ability, so I got that side of the family's... something. I got something from my grandmother. My brother, oh my god. He "played" the accordion and the dog would just howl- a horrible choice. And then he played the violin and it was truly, truly painful. My father was driving him to school one morning and he had the violin and he forgot something and he put it down on the driveway, and my father pulled out and rolled over and it was the happiest day in our family (laughs).

When I was in sixth grade, they brought us into a room, sat us in a circle and had us sing. They were trying to figure out whether they should give us an instrument. I remember the guy hearing my singing and going, "You're getting an instrument" (laughs) and I walked in that door with a French horn and the look on my mother's face. I could not get sound out of it. I remember opening the case and I thought, "Well, this is beautiful red velvet. I like the case---does that count?"

AS: "Can I just show off the case? I don't need to play!"

CB: It was bad. So I took piano and I can play enough to accompany myself and bang out things, but I don't have the touch.

AS: You talked about watching old movies growing up. What else did you like to listen to and see during this time?

CB: Every birthday present was a show, which is just a phenomenal thing. That's my memory, all the way through my life was, "Oh, I saw-" I can't tell you which birthday but saw Broadway musicals. And my mother had a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera. My father, after commuting every day, the last thing he really wanted to do was come back in on a Saturday afternoon, so I would go with her. So that's how I got introduced to opera and saw some of the greats.

AS: Did you go to shows on your own at all?

CB: When I was in school, no, but our class always came in also to see a show, so that was good, too. So you got at least two shows a year. It was like a class trip.

AS: Did you spend any time out of the city for extensive periods of time?

CB: Since, yes. Growing up, not really. It was a very New York-centric childhood and adolescence and it was fine because you lived near one of the great cultural cities in the world. It wasn't until I started working and after I came into the city and realized I wasn't meant to be a starving artist and got a corporate job, I started to travel. Like, immediately started to travel. I've been pretty much all over the world.

AS: I asked that because I'm a huge traveler and I still find it very difficult to leave the city for an extended period of time.

CB: Me too.

AS: Even if I'm in some fabulous place, "What's going on in New York? What am I missing in New York right now?"

CB: My father and I have a running gag: Whenever we come in from anywhere and we see the skyline from whatever angle, we both go, "Ah, civilization!" And that's the way I feel, but it is true. It's a joke and it's not a joke. It's like, "Thank God, I'm back."

AS: You've got a song on the album "I Gotta Get Back to New York" talking about that. It follows the song "A Day Away from Town," which I thought was a very nice pairing.

CB: Exactly, and it's placed in that order. And at the end, "A day." A day. I can take a day. That was given to me by Debbi Whiting, Margaret Whiting's daughter, and it's from her grandfather; it's one of his trunk songs. She asked me, "What are you working on?" and I said, "A New York album, but, you know me, I don't do the usual song choices," and she just got this far-away look and said, "I have something for you." By the time I got home that night, she had sent me Carol Woods's recording of it. And I said, "Thank you, I'll take it." With her permission, we tweaked a couple of lyrics because it talked about going into the country and that I was going "home, home, home" and I said, "That's not me, but the song is great. Can I just play around with those lines?" and she gave me her blessing. [Hubert] "Tex" Arnold took a deep breath and gave me his blessing. He's a purist, which I respect, and we were fooling around with Gus Kahn's lyrics, but we tried to channel Gus Kahn.

AS: That's very Sondheim-y. He sent a telegram to Elaine Stritch when she was doing the Café Carlyle---

CB: Oh, that's my favorite story! The "good luck" telegram?

AS: "Good luck. I won't be there, so feel free to make up your own lyrics."

CB: Oh, that's not the version I saw. She said, "I got a telegram from Stephen Sondheim and it says, 'Good luck.' I know what that means! I know that that means, 'Good luck remembering my lyrics,'" which is absolutely true. I always say you just switch one word and you're on the exit ramp of a song. You go, "...How did I get here? I have no idea how I got here," and it's just one-word difference. It's very frightening.

Alex Rybeck, Debbi Bush Whiting, Celia Berk, and Hubert "Tex" Arnold. Photo: Scott Lehrer

AS: How did "All I Need (Is One Good Break)" come about?

CB: That's Kander & Ebb from FLORA, THE RED MENACE. We chose that pretty late because we looked at what we had and I said, "I feel that there's a striving song that we don't have that's part of my New York," which is the pounding the pavement and looking for your break and that you have to hold it in your own head and believe it, or else why would anybody else believe it? Alex [Rybeck] and I, we do deep dives and we looked at everything. Somebody recommended it to me and I pulled it up on my phone. I was coming back from a concert I had done and somebody in the car said, "Oh, look at this!" and I went, "Oh! Oh, I think that may be it." And then Alex just gave it such an interesting vibe.

AS: Let's talk a little bit about your partnership with Alex and your collaboration with [director] Jeff Harnar on this. How did that arise?

CB: I only went back to performing about seven years ago, something like that, and the first thing I said to my voice teacher, "I think I'd like to work with a coach." She's not a vocal coach; she's about vocal production and singing correctly and singing safely. And she said, "Thank God" because she'd been trying to get me to do something for years. So she helped me find a coach, Brian Hurley, and I went to him and he worked with a microphone and I'd never sung with a microphone and that just completely changed things for me. And he took me down into my speaking range. I was singing very much in my legit range.

AS: What were you performing before that?

CB: I wasn't. I had given it up and the only thing I had kept doing was I was going to a voice lesson every week for like 20 years at the end of my corporate day. I would do that and I'd go home at night and sing, and my voice teacher would say, "Are you ever going to do anything with this?" and I would go, "No!" So I went to Brian and he started recording me so I could hear. I'd never heard myself sing, which was so interesting, and I'd come home and really listen to it, and after a while I said, "I'm hearing arrangements" and he said, "I'm not an arranger." So I went to a jazz musician friend in London and asked him whether he would do it. He said, "I don't have the bandwidth for it, but I just played for Audra McDonald. Let me give you Ted Sperling's email and ask him." I wrote to him and he said, "Actually, I'm about to go into a big project," which turned out to be SOUTH PACIFIC. He said, "May I introduce you to my friend Alex Rybeck?"

So he gave me Alex's email and I wrote to Alex and I said, "I'm wondering if you'd work with me. Full disclosure: I'm a corporate executive by day, but I take it really seriously. I promise I'll take it seriously." And he said, "Sure, come on over." I walked in and I brought music and I sat down and I sang something and he said, "What else you got?" And we must've spent an hour or so just going through music and we just sort of found our way with each other. Then he started to say, "Are you ever going to do anything with all of this?" and I said, "I don't know, I'm really loving the microphone and I think I'd like to hear myself." I said, "I would really likely like to sing with some musicians. I hear a bass, I hear percussion." He said, "Let's go into a studio so you can come out and hear what's going on." So we went in for about three hours and came out with four songs. Then I had something to play for other people because nobody had heard me sing in 20 years, so most people had never heard me sing, including me. I think it just opened things up for everybody. I started playing it for various people, and I think if I hadn't done that I wouldn't have had the courage. Sarah Rice studies with the same voice teacher, and Laura [Thomas] and I were listening to the studio tracks and Sarah was there and she said, "Oh, you have to come upstate with us; there's a group of us who sing and you get just enough of an audience to get the adrenaline going. Come and sing with us." That's what started me performing again. I would send emails to Alex who was out on the road with Liz Callaway, Faith Prince or whoever, and I would send texts like, "I would like my body donated to medical science."

AS: Do you get stage fright, then?

CB: I did. I had to have somebody help me figure it out. It was such a big thing emotionally to go back after 20 years, and Alex had said to me, "You're not a kid and when you walk out on that stage, people are going to read you as mature, which means an audience is going to read you as seasoned so they're going to hold you to the standard of somebody who's been doing it their whole life. You have to just know that and figure that out."

AS: Does that perception influence how you portray yourself as a singer?

CB: I don't think so. I think it lands on the audience. I think when I take the stage, they say, "This is something slightly different" because I think I bring my entire life up onto the stage. I don't pick up a different persona of some kind, I just pick up a, "I've been around and I've done different things and, look, I found my way back to here. How great is that?" So I hope in some subliminal way all of that comes in. That's why we call the first album YOU CAN'T RUSH SPRING. My spring took a long time. But then Alex and I just kept going and we did the first album and then did the show. I had to decide whether to do a show or do an album and I asked lots of people's advice and my jazz friend in London said, "Why don't you do an album? You obviously love the microphone and the microphone loves you, so do the album and then people will want to come and hear you sing it live." So when we got to that point and we were getting amazing responses, Alex had taken me to see Jeff. I asked Alex to approach Jeff because I just think he's such a class act and I thought he won't pull me somewhere I don't want to go and he'll have the empathy and a sympathy that a performer brings to something. Because he and Alex have worked forever together, it's really three very equal voices in a room. It's not one over another.

AS: Was a New York album your only choice you had? Was it so predominantly, "I want to do a New York album?"

CB: I knew---and I don't know why I knew---the second album was going to be a New York album. I just knew it. I was saying it before the first album, whereas now, I am really not clear what comes next. I have half-baked, incoherent ideas. I can describe to you what makes my head kind of tilt to the side, but I can't quite figure out how to take that impulse and convert it into, "So the next thing I'm going to do is this."

AS: Besides New York, what inspires you? And what in New York inspires you, as well?

CB: I just love the city. Ever since I came in and got my Broadway shows for birthday presents and before that when I was younger for my Christmas holiday, my father would bring me into his office at CBS and I loved going to work in Manhattan. I just thought that was the coolest thing you could possibly do. And I don't get rattled by the noise or the number of people and I know how to create my own space in it and I never feel lonely here. I just belong here. I think everybody has a place they probably belong and I really do belong here. Other people come here and I think it closes in on them and they feel crushed or overwhelmed, and I just don't. I feel totally level here and I feel like I can disappear if I want to or I can be very visible and I love that. And I love that everyone in the world comes through New York and you can stand still and everyone you've ever met will come to you, which I think is great.

AS: How did you go about carving out space for yourself? What does that mean to you?

CB: It means having my own space, literally, physically. It's probably much more important to me than maybe some other people to have their own apartment. I really wanted my own apartment, and my first one had a little sunken living room and I went, "This is just like Mary Richards [from The Mary Tyler Moore Show] (laughs)!" Mary Richards with that sunken living room and just the life she was living, I just thought, "This is what I am. I have to get that life." Mostly, it's about that. It's having my space and that nobody can take it away from me.

AS: Literally a room of your own.

CB: Literally a room of my own, and I've worked very hard to make sure that nobody could ever take it away from me in any kind of circumstance. I prioritize that. To me, money is not about stuff you can buy, it's about freedom. It's about freedom from spending your life doing something you hate or feeling like you have no choices or worrying that you will lose the place that is your home, and so I just very early on prioritized that my four walls were going to be my four walls.

AS: How did this arrangement of "Up On the Roof" come to fruition?

CB: Alex feels very strongly that if you're going to be somebody who mostly does unknown songs that you have to give the listener a bit of a break. Also, we wanted to do something that was a little more contemporary. So we went through a ton of stuff because I'm not a pop singer so we had to find something that lent itself to me, and we got to that one and he started to strip it away. We tried everything and we just sat that night and stripped and stripped, and he knew it immediately. He said, "Oh, we found something. We found something that would only be your version of this song."

Where we position it in the show is exactly in the point where Jeff and Alex very vigilantly would say, "And now we need to give the audience a break." It's not that 'Manhattan Hometown' or some of the others aren't accessible- they're not dense and atonal- but everybody wants to go, "Ah, I know that one," and I see everybody just sort of smile and they love that moment.

AS: It's interesting on an album that's all about New York and you and the sense of recognition and the nostalgia, and you've planned this one moment for everybody else who may or may not be in New York to have that sense of recognition as well.

CB: And it's not an explicitly New York song. It's just about even in the heart of the city, there are ways to escape.

AS: Tell me about "Seconds."

CB: Nobody loves Burt Bacharach more than Alex, so when he handed this to me, that was like the ultimate compliment that he would trust me with this song. I said, "Really? Really, you're going to let me sing a Bacharach song? Whoa!" And again, hidden gem, great story: It was when Bacharach and [Hal] David had split, so it was written for Promises, Promises, for the movie, but they had split by that point and so Neil Simon wrote the lyrics, which is interesting because he did kind of a David kind of feeling. The whole coda at the end, all of those things, the sound that Alex got, that's such a Bacharach sound. Bacharach has heard it and was happy with it, so that made me happy.

AS: How did Alex feel?

CB: I don't think there's a word that expresses Alex's happiness at that. And again, it's not explicitly about New York. It's about the frustrations of New York. It can't exist now because you wouldn't have a letter in your hand, you'd be able to do what you and I did when we were running late with each other, which is to send a text. You can't get, "I missed him just by seconds." It's a moment in time and it's just charming. It's this thing we unearthed.

AS: "The Romance of a Lifetime/The People That You Never Get to Love" is a beautiful song and a beautiful arrangement.

Berk in the studio recording Manhattan Serenade. Photo: Richard Nesbit

CB: That one's getting played a lot. "The Romance of a Lifetime" is also Kurt Weill with Sam Coslow and I heard it at an event I went to at OPERA America and the soprano Lauren Flanigan was doing all kinds of--- It turns out to be in a book called Unsung Weill. I heard it and I said, "Oh, oh, oh! I just found something! That's a 'me.' That's a 'me' song." Alex and I had been looking at "The Romance of a Lifetime," so next time I set down with him, I put this in front of him and he played through it. He said, "That's a Celia song." When he got to the end of it, he just instinctively went right into the vamp for "The People That You Never Get to Love."

More than one person and some people who know their Kurt Weill quite well have said, "I didn't know that had a verse." It sounds like the verse to "The People That You Never Get to Love." And then we sent it to Rupert Holmes, who wrote "The People That You Never Get to Love" with some trepidation. He loved it and he gave us a quote that said, "Remember when songs used to have verses." I just thank the musical gods. But I don't have to thank the musical gods because Alex will never do anything bad. He's not capable of it. He's not capable of it, but he just has the sense of how to serve the song without being so reverential about it that you can't think creatively. Like stripping out what you're used to hearing for "Up On the Roof" and hearing the essence of it.

AS: You mentioned listening to songs and choosing songs and how certain songs jumped out at you as being "Celia songs." How do you define a "Celia song"?

CB: I don't like pity songs; I won't sing them (laughs). I don't sing "Poor me," full stop. I will sing, "Poor me, how am I going to pull myself out of this or snap out of it," but I don't do, "Woe is me" songs, I don't think. Most of the songs have some kind of an arch, at least to me. There's a reason why you start to sing and you hopefully end up in an either very different or slightly different place at the end of it. The lyrics are really important. If the lyrics aren't something I would say, I'm probably not going to sing it.

AS: How did "Manhattan Serenade" become the title track for the album?

CB: It could've been a couple of different songs and we always struggle with that at the end and we look at the song titles, we look at particular lines of songs. We looked at "Manhattan Hometown," but there was something romantic about "Manhattan Serenade." That was another one where Alex said, "Please, I want you to hear this," and I think he played it and I didn't have a reaction, so then he recorded it on his phone and sent it to me and I was in New Jersey in a parking lot. I had arrived early for a meeting and I was sitting there and I was just listening to the song. I will forever see myself in that car in the parking lot listening to it going, "Yeah, I can hear this."

AS: "Spring in Manhattan"... What does spring in Manhattan mean to you? What does it invoke?

CB: Oh, I think we all hunker down wrapped in a million layers and there's slush and the bottoms of our coats are black and the trains aren't running right, and then all of a sudden, it's spring. And because I live on Gramercy Park and I can see the park out my window, it's the moment when you look out the window and all of a sudden you see a little green--- There's something trying very hard to come out. That's what I see when I'm singing the song.

AS: "A Tree in the Park." What did you decide to wrap the album with that?

CB: Alex actually posted on Facebook without identifying me and said, "What's your favorite song?" and got hundreds and he, then, started to sort them, but we got that from several angles, including from Andrea Marcovicci, who sent me a whole package. She said, "What are you working on?" I said, "New York," and five days later, a whole envelope of her treasures came. And then Steve Ross gave us his entire folder of New York songs, including some he had written. I went to his apartment and picked up this massive file, and Alex and I spread it out like children in a candy store going through it all. I know that it repeated multiple times and I love Rodgers and Hart and I love that one and, again, to me, it's about Gramercy Park. That's not what they were writing about, but that's what I see. We work very hard on the sequencing, even though you know in the digital age people are going to shuffle and everything, but Alex and Scott Lehrer, who's our co-producer and engineer and owns the studio and who I trust with my life, absolutely, if he says, "You can do it better. Don't be a baby, go back in there. I know it's two o'clock in the morning. Go back in there and do it one more time," then I will go back in there and I will do it again, because if he says it, it must be true because he's a Tony winner and Grammy winner.

Berk, Rybeck, Harnar, Joshua Lance Dixon, and Kristoffer Lowe in the studio. Photo: Nesbit

AS: You kind of have to trust him.

CB: But I do trust him. I trust him to always get me to do the right thing. And we work very hard on the sequencing and we thought we would end with "The Broadway Song" because we all assumed there was no place you could go after "The Broadway Song" because it's so different than any other song. We just thought you couldn't. We all went, "...No, no, no. We need to bring it back down again and we need to come full circle to 'Manhattan Hometown' in some way." So we tried various things. It's one thing on paper where you go, "That would be a good sequence" and then it's another to listen. Alex and I had done the arrangement and I was performing it upstate and things like that, and then he had a very serious medical emergency and the last recording session was done with Jeff Klitz as the musical director. The last thing Jeff and I did in that session was "A Tree in the Park." And it wasn't Alex. The two of us talk to each other musically. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Jeff's version and it wasn't it and Alex was in recovery at that point and I asked him whether he would consider, because we both knew it wasn't right and Scott knew it wasn't. It just wasn't a bullseye. We asked Alex if he would consider coming in and I don't know how he did it, I really don't, but it was just the two of us one night. Everything else was done and he went to his corner and I went to mine and we did it three times and this is the third take and we knew we had it. I remember hearing Scott say, "That's it," and it was very emotional because of what had happened, that he was able to do it. It is a musical partnership and you can just hear us talking to each other and breathing with each other, really. The first one, I think we were just sort of slightly overwhelmed by the moment, but by the third time through, we had it. I'll never heard it without seeing that in my mind's eye.

AS: Is your sequencing in the show the same as what you do on the album?

CB: No. It ends with "Manhattan Serenade" and then we do "The Broadway Song" as the encore and we do "The Broadway Song" to the recorded track. We do it to the recorded track because we built an orchestra and it's Larry Moore's orchestration and we wanted people to hear it. And it's got those amazing backup singers, The Rialtos [Joshua Lance Dixon, Jeff Harnar, and Kristoffer Lowe].

AS: You mentioned "The Broadway Song", as well as growing up seeing shows. What do you enjoy now? What do you go to see now?

CB: I have had a hard time listening to anybody else's music. The only thing I've been able to listen to is HAMILTON because, first of all, once you hear it you're obsessed by it---it's just incredible---but it's because who are we kidding? I'm never going to be able to touch any of that material. Although I did listen really hard to "The Room Where It Happens" when we were looking for the striving song, but I thought, "No, don't. That is just going to be grotesque. Don't do it. Just don't do it." Me doing it would've been not wonderful. But I really have not been able to... For a long time, I couldn't, so one of the things I'm doing now is going back and listening to a stack of music of wonderful musical friends who I couldn't listen to.

AS: Is that because you weren't performing?

CB: Yeah, because I just couldn't listen to any music, I couldn't read, and once the show went up and the album was released, I started to read again because there was so much in my head, and now I'm noticing where I'm going with my listening. There are three things I keep going back to: One is an album with Margaret Whiting and Mel Tormé called Broadway Right Now that I just love. Another which is Mel Tormé which George Shearing, and then the third is Doris Day with André Previn. Those are clues as to where I'm going to go next. I don't know who is this generation's Mel Tormé? Who is he?

AS: Is there an answer?

CB: I don't know! And would he sing with me? Would he allow me to? Which jazz musician- because I'm not a pure jazz musician, although I think in "Lonely House" you can see me moving into that space. Who will let me in? And there are wonderful jazz musicians and there's David Berger and The Sultans of Swing, and there's Aaron Diehl, and, of course, the other end of the spectrum is everything Michael Feinstein does with his symphony orchestra. It's like, who will let me partner? I think it's a clue that I want to partner next and that I want to move into somebody else's musical space if they'll let me in.

AS: I find that interesting when we were talking about space earlier and the importance of space. You're carving out another space for yourself.

CB: Exactly. Maybe I opened the door just a little bit to it with this album. I hope I did. I'm honest about what I am and what I'm not at this moment, but there are things I'm doing in the second album that I would never even have tried in the first one.

AS: How do you define your growth between the albums?

CB: People are telling me that my voice sounds bigger. I think it sounds happier. The first album was a lifetime's worth of dreams on that first album and that's a lot to bring to a project, and also I was working through some loss and, to me, that first album was about resilience and taking a deep breath and going on. The second album is just pure love for the city and how happy I am with the life I have now. So I think that comes through.

AS: How has the city changed?

CB: Obviously the big change was 9/11, which is very weird for me because I wasn't here. I was in London and I couldn't get back for a week. When I came back and it was so quiet, which freaked me out, and, of course, there were pictures plastered everywhere. About two weeks later---I spent two weeks just eating pints of Häagen-Dazs because I was so stressed (laughs)---I came out of a deli with my morning coffee and I saw a bicycle messenger and a cab and the bicycle had cut off the cab and the cab driver was cursing out the guy on the bicycle and I went, "Oh, thank God. We're back (laughs)." And when that bomb went off a couple of weeks ago, I was at the Metropolitan Room. I was angry. It's like, "Cut it out! Don't even think about messing with us. Just don't even think about it." Then the fact that the second bomb got disabled because people were walking the street and stealing--- I went, "That's it, my city." It's all about resilience and I think that's the same, but underneath I think everybody's frightened because something can happen that's totally illogical.

I think the biggest thing that's changed in this city are these big buildings that have gone up and I don't like them. But I know that there's an equivalent three or four generations where the last round of big buildings went up. To me, the thing that I particularly don't like or that worries me is the middle class being squeezed out because I think a great city has to have a middle class, and you're either the haves or the have-nots now and I think that that's very dangerous and I see people on the street again. I see people sleeping in doorways and I thought we were past that. I think that's the biggest change, which is a return to something that we haven't seen in a while. But in other ways, I live in Gramercy Park and I see just the people pouring off the trains in the morning going to work there and I see how that's brought some interesting shops and restaurants in and changed the vibe a little bit in a good way. I'm definitely a student of the city. I watch it very carefully.

AS: Has your perception changed of the city at all?

CB: No, I still see this city through the eyes of the kid who came in with her father to go to work at Christmas and the kid who was sitting on the school bus when the class trip was happening and the kid who was holding onto her father's hand or mother's hand crossing the street going to a Broadway show for her birthday and then to dinner at Sardi's. I still see all of that when I'm on those streets. I see the whole city through that lens.


Celia Berk plays The Metropolitan Room on October 14 at 7:00 pm. For reservations and information, go to


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