May 17, 2008

Manhattan Nostalgia

I've been reading Pete Hamill's Downtown: My Manhattan and it stokes memories of my three trips to the Big Apple in '85, '92 & '98.

NYC has waned enough in memory and affection that Boston feels more my favorite, but then Boston has nothing like the Strand or Gotham Books (slogan: "Wise Men Fish Here") and New York is to cities what Warren Beatty is to Carly Simon songs. Frank Sinatra’s refrain about making it in NY always seemed to have the undeniable ring of truth. I suspect few with a competitive nature can completely resist her.

What nostalgia I feel from that first visit, back in that pre-journal age before records were kept when I stayed at the Essex House for half-price with the help of an Entertainment book coupon. How gutsy I felt, a 21-year old out of the land of Podunk and fresh out of school, driving alone right on into Manhattan, engaging in gladiatorial combat with fast-livers and finger-givers as if I owned the place and well-nigh I did in some sense for I was an American and this was the de facto capital of America. At the time I grandiosely considered it a rite of passage, the post-Vietnam equivalent of war.

I stayed at a hotel on Central Park - in close quarters with those whom I then esteemed as higher beings, New Yorkers, the denizens of Woody Allen movies. If the film Manhattan was pure fairytale, I came to see if it was real. For months I’d pored over the opening pages of the New Yorker, scouring the agate print full for locations and reviews of every blues joint and off-off-Broadway play. (Who wanted to sell-out and see a Broadway play?)
Perhaps most of our enthusiasms are ultimately derivative – much modern art is surely proof of that, having little seeming value other than the pedigree of recent authority. Reality is charismatic, and to be in the city where I considered the Real lived was heady. Slaves of New York was more than the title of a book; I was easily impressed because my appreciations were such that if the Times said something was great, then I shared in the enthusiasm. The imprimatur of hearing jazz balladeer Shirley Horn as the featured album playing at Tower records in Greenwich Village was enough for me to buy a CD. (Though she really can sing.)

In the ‘98 visit, from which records are extant, I find a letter I’d written to my out-of-town co-travellers offering a potential itinerary. Motivated by my adoration of Dorothy Parker, I’d spliced a mention of the round table at the Algonquin from the New Yorker:
“Every time we sit down at one of the plush little sofas in the oak-paneled lobby-lounge and ring the bell for a glass of Scotch we are reminded of the generations of actors and writers who have held forth here since 1902. Robert Benchley, James Thurber, HL Mencken, Dorothy Parker….Once you get there, do have a meal at the celebrated Rose or Oak room, or at least a drink in the lobby.”
I had a crush on her notwithstanding her unhappinessness and irreligion. Even her name seemed magical: Dorothy Parker, a perfect five-syllables, for all good names have either four or five syllables. It struck the right notes: “Dorothy”, redolent of “dolorous” (and thus depth), and Parker, the perky, strong name one would expect to stand up to the boys, i.e. Thurber and Benchley.

The cliché "I wouldn’t want to live there" certainly applies. It can even apply to New Yorkers - I recall Jody Bottum of "First Things" wrote something awhile back that mentioned his wish to be out West where he grew up. I was surprised to read it for I’d always had the impression that pining generally reached from the sticks to New York, rather than vice-versa.

It's a city meant for walking - begging to be walked - but there's too much city for most legs. If only one could easily walk from the Battery to Central Park! I recall a Times Magazine article from a million years ago that described the author’s weekly jaunt, a walk not terminated until he saw a celebrity. Be it twenty minutes or three hours, he walked in search of. In that article he described his latest journey, seemingly fruitless, until the redemptive denouement when Andy Rooney (!) suddenly appeared.

Re-reading my old trip log, I see that even in those bad old days we were congenitally Catholic. For of all mortal sins the easiest to avoid is missing Mass:
"St. Patrick's", I said as we entered the cab.

"Good for you!" the surprised cabbie said.

"Yeah we're paying for our sins."

The cabbie laughed and told us in broken English of his all-boy boarding school background, and how the only time they would see girls would be at church.
New York feels the most inexhaustible of cities. With Boston, I felt I could get a handle of it, but even if Manhattan could be tamed there are always the outer boroughs, Brooklyn with her fascinating Hasidics and the Bronx with the House that Ruth Built.

It feels poignant to read of what would be the first (and last) visit to the World Trade Center:
After rest and a shower, we cabbed to the south end of the island and headed up to the 107th floor of World Trade Center. The view from there captured all the elegance and magic of New York. This was first class, something that even a hardened New Yorker could enjoy. We paid dearly for it, as our $23 check attested. We'd each had one drink, and boy we savored it. Overlooking the Brooklyn bridge, looking out 20-30 miles in the distance, I etched the view in my mind.
I can’t say that I etched it well enough in mind for I wish I could recreate it now. It was beyond my powers of imagination that it would be destroyed, at least in my lifetime. And it’s funny to think of a $23 check being in any way shocking today unless it’s breakfast for two at McDonald’s.

Finally no trip down Manhattan memory lane is complete without a reference to an early memory, that of my best friend's mother teaching us to sing with a New York accent:
Give my regards to Broadway,
Remember me to Herald's Square,
Give my re-goids to old Broadway
and tell them baby I'll be there.
Funny, all those trips and I've yet to be there!

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