My relationship with New York, particularly New York City is akin to visiting a former long-term lover. When I’m there I feel the history the place has within me, the memories the place holds for me – but I also leave knowing why I dumped the bum to begin with.
I grew up in suburbia. Cedarhurst, a village in south-western Long Island with John F. Kennedy International Airport right in my backyard. Literally – our backyard, our house for that matter was in a pretty active landing pattern. From an early age trips to Manhattan were frequent. My parents held subscriptions for every major ballet troupe in New York at the time – American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet. They were also avid theater fans and brought us along to as many shows as they could muster. By the time I was thirteen I was hopping on the Long Island Railroad and venturing into the “big city” on my own (well, with friends).
My love affair with New York actually started when I was quite little, around four or five years old. My aunt had left behind in the family house a sweet book by Kay Thompson called “Eloise” (whose popularity has since been resurrected).
“I am Eloise. I am six. I live at the Plaza Hotel”.
I was enchanted. I wanted to be Eloise in the worst way. She was a precocious young thing, left to run wild while her mother skipped around Europe, under the not so always watchful eye of her Nanny. Eloise knew every nook and cranny of the famous Plaza Hotel – and got into a good deal of mischief there. I wanted so much to be Eloise – I wanted so much to see and live in the Plaza Hotel.
Even though I did not live in the Plaza Hotel, I grew up somewhat modeling my life after Eloise – a fierce independence, a knack for mischief and yes, I’d been described as precocious until I was old enough to be described as obnoxious. My love affair with Manhattan grew as I grew. My senior prom was held at none other than the Plaza Hotel. My date did not quite understand why I wanted to crawl over the place but did indulge me in having a cocktail and doing some other nasty stuff in the Oak Room. One day, I thought – I’ll stay in this hotel, whether I need to or not.
Before actually moving there, while still in high school and college, I made frequent trips into Manhattan for a variety of reasons. I went to Museums, I got two-fer tickets for shows on Broadway, I still accompanied my parents to the occasional ballet performance. There’s not a whole lot my parents did right but the culture thing they did SO right and I am so privileged to have personally experienced so much theater and ballet. I’ve seen Zero Mostel play Tevye in Fiddler; I’ve seen Richard Kiley and Joan Diner reprise their roles as Don Quixote and Dulcinea in Man of LaMancha. I saw the closing night of Dream Girls. I saw A Chorus Line on three separate occasions – the first being with the original cast. I’ve seen brilliant actors grace the boards such as Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Richard Dreyfus and Judd Hirsch. I saw ballet dancers at their prime, dancing before my very eyes – Mikail Barishnikov, Peter Martins, Gelsey Kirkland. I saw many a foreign film, often French and often with my mother at many a little art cinema house. I went to see Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Waverly at midnight – at the same theater I managed to sit through an entire screening of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”. I saw “Little Shop of Horrors” Off Broadway.
My trips to the city though surrounded popular music more and more. I spent years scouring Wollmans Skating Rink, then subsequently upon it’s closure, the Pier venue for the New York City Summer Concert Series – seeing acts such as Blondie, Peter Tosh, and The Clash.
As my late teens progressed into my early 20’s I came of age on the streets of Manhattan. Living first in SoHo before it became “So-Ho” and then in a two room roach infested apartment that leaned at a 45 degree angle on 17th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. My time in SoHo was splendid. We rented a 1500 square foot loft on the fifth floor of a converted warehouse (into an artists co-op) on the corner of Grand and Green. We shared a floor with a lithographer named Heinriki Ricki – he had the same sized space but doubled it by building a second floor. (He sold his place in 1981 for $1 million in cash and bought a building in a then little known warehouse district that was being called TriBeca – go dude!!!) We got to our floor via hand-operated elevator…very cool but also pretty tricky after a night out on the town.
SoHo at that time was just starting to buzz. The community was still mostly artists who bought or rented abandoned raw warehouse space very inexpensively and turned these spaces in cavernous live-work studios. There was a wonderful French restaurant right around the corner– we’d go there an just order appetizers and sometimes dessert, depending on how good a cash flow week it was. A block or two down was the Cupping Room – best oatmeal in the world. Our grocery store was Dean and DeLuca. A few steps away were some of the most interesting galleries – my favorite being Urban Archaeology. I could spend hours in that place – taking all the old pieces of buildings and sidewalks and cobblestone ripped up during the days when landmark preservation wasn’t a priority – but making art from its ruins was.
Simply put – the move to 17th Street happened when we ran out of money. That area is now part of the very fashionable “Chelsea” but at that time it was a netherland between the up and came West Village and the up and coming Chelsea. It wasn’t fashionable at all. The apartment itself was perpetually tilted and it was a five story walk-up. Once done there, I made my move to Queens and rented a four bedroom house with four roommates for $650.00 per month. Our rent never went up for six years, even in the midst of the real estate boom in New York and the five boroughs. Never knowing much about Queens, much less about Sunnyside – our house was five blocks from the still elevated #7 train that took you smack into midtown in less than a half-hour…less time than my commute from SoHo. If you stood in the middle of our street you had a glorious view of the Manhattan skyline, with the Empire State Building smack in the middle. Hot and sticky summer nights found us grilling our food on our ample backyard patio, then retreating to the front stoop, wrapped in a Sarong, sipping gin and tonics. Our neighbors were all people’s grandparents and once they got used to the idea of a bunch of 20-somethings taking good care of house in their ‘hood, it became our ‘hood. We knew all the shop-keeps…we waved hello to all the Italian Nonas with their huge zucchini plants growing in their meager front yards. The house came fully furnished and that came in handy as we built around that base and called it ours. We had legendary parties in that house that soon became known amongst our friends as “couch west”.
It was during this time that my romance with New York was in full bloom. I was gainfully employed by Jordache Enterprises in the Human Resources Department. The situation there was so un-stuffy, so not what you’d expect from a garment center business. Our building was funky, funky but chic – we had to yell for the elevator since our call button never worked (Down, Seven!). It was a young company, tons of turn-over, lots of drama – perfect for my 21 year old state of mind. When not working, simply put, I was partying. Manhattan, late night Manhattan was my playground. The Ritz, Irving Plaza, Chase Park, Peppermint Lounge, CBGBs, The Bottom Line – each weekend found our little crew in one of these establishments enjoying the burgeoning alt-music scene of the time. I saw the Clash at Bonds a week after I was supposed to in 1981 since the fire marshal basically put the cabosh on them overselling the venue by more than half. I saw Nils Lofgren sing “Hang On Sloopy” doing an aerial summersault at the end. I saw bands such as The Waitresses bop at the Pep Lounge. I saw the Talking Heads play at the tennis stadium in Forest Hills – while they were shooting their classic concert movie “Stop Making Sense”. I saw it all and then some – very off the wall punk rock, very off the wall folk music…very off the wall off-off-off Broadway theater. St. Marks Place was oh so cool and oh so alternative – scary alternative really…you could buy almost anything for $5.00 from someone’s blanket on a side walk, you had to step around used crack vials and works – but you could stoop sit the night away and talk existential philosophies with some guy wearing a skirt and sporting a twelve inch Mohawk.
New York and I, we were a glorious pair.
Fast forward to 1985. I’d left Jordache in pursuit of greener grass and found it for a short while at a temp agency on Wall Street. My boss’ office had a wonderful view of the Hudson River and New Jersey. I was bored to tears, save for looking out the window. Wall Street held no allure to me – there was hustle and bustle but not like in the garment center…I’d become used to dodging clothing carts on 37th Street when bringing back my $1.50 baked ziti lunch to my desk. No carts on Wall Street, just the hustle and bustle of overdressed uptight assholes. You could almost smell the greed. Luckily, I could still walk just a few blocks and be on the Lower East Side and spend $100 and come out with a summer wardrobe. I was getting antsy, I was changing. The winters were starting to get to me as the four of us for the umpteenth time carved away the ice on our stoop. The summers were starting to get to me…finding myself getting to the beach less, lying very, very still with every window open and the fan blowing – we couldn’t afford air conditioning. Truthfully, the lifestyle was getting to me too – it was getting old getting home at sunrise, reading the Sunday paper then first trying to get some sleep. I’d developed some bad habits, unhealthy habits. Battery Park Plaza began construction – within the year the view from my boss’s window would be obliterated with overpriced condos and co-ops. The Citibank Building was being built in Long Island City and was about the complete obscure the Empire State Building from our view…I was starting to get a little tired of my relationship with New York so when our friends called from San Francisco to tell us their roommates were moving out, we jumped on it. On August 25, 1985, Su’s little car pulled out of the driveway from Couch West for the last time. As I looked behind me, leaving New York, letting the skyline drift out of view from the rear window a melancholy came over me. I turned around and looked forward and tried not to look back.
No such luck. I still had friends there, I still had an aging Grandmother there. Work eventually would bring me back two, three, sometimes four times a year. So I’d meet up with my old friend, my old lover and try to reminisce. I’d changed….but so had New York.
Rudy Guiliani is heralded as this great mayor, the mayor that cleaned up New York. What I saw happen is a simple cartoonization of what was “supposed” to be New York – he basically turned the city into an idea. Gone were the hookers, XXX movie houses and general grit of Times Square…now there’s a Chevy’s, a Chili’s – all that chain restaurant shit lining Broadway…big lights blaring and about as sterile as you can get any street in New York. Man, you can’t even walk down Broadway when MTV is doing TRL! The biggest, most glaring difference in my lover was that he turned into a whore. If you have money, New York is yours for the taking. SoHo is unrecognizable to me – so polished and uber urban. St. Marks Place – geez, I saw a tour bus unload there. New York University, my roomate’s alma-mater, bought up all the property it possibly could in the East Village and Alphabet Land….it is now a playground for the super-wealthy spoiled brats attending the most expensive private school in the country. The old Academy of Music (also known as The Palladium) – where Frank Zappa played Halloween Shows and where I saw an all night Hells Angels benefit featuring the likes of Ronnie Spector and Jerry Garcia…that got leveled and turned into a dormitory. Ballsy as they are, NYU named that dormitory “Palladium”. There’s a Trader Joes in that building – New York City’s first – I love Trader Joes but not in the East Village.
The most affordable apartments in my day were located on Avenues, A, B, C and if you had a stomach for grit and good walking shoes – Avenue D. In my day, that’s where all the funky after-hours clubs were…it was also where all the heroin dealers were but hey! Those dealers sold heroin to the most down and out and the most up and coming…including Keith Richards. Now…blocks and blocks of fancy new restaurants, co-ops and condos. Jesus, even Stuy-Town has sold out and gone the co-op route. New York is for the taking….if you are willing to pay out the nose. There’s no safe harbor even in the other boroughs…my little neighborhood of Sunnyside went the way of the Yuppie as did much of Brooklyn and the rest of Queens. Even the South Bronx has gotten nice – a long way from Fort Apache.
Even the club scene – all gone or changed…The Ritz is now called “Webster Hall” (but still looks and smells the same)…who knows what happened to Irving Plaza? Gone are The Bottom Line, CBGBs, Chase Park…gone is the Copa Cabana, the Plaza Hotel. New York had implemented some pretty stringent guidelines with their urban landmarks but no one can hold on to historical music venues – so they all now reside in the Urban Archaeology of my mind.
Here’s the rub – my former lover had shaved and gotten a haircut. I liked him better with the perpetual five o’clock shadow.
Still, there is that familiarity whenever I step off the plane and we start that drive from JFK into the city…I still find myself looking eagerly out the window to see the approaching skyline rising like a Phoenix as we approach via the BQE. I walk the streets as though I’d never left – a little rusty with the subway, they’ve added a few letters but I can get around town just fine. I still get lost in the West Village – I always did. The sight of the Statue of Liberty still takes my breath away and the view of the park from my Aunt’s terrace on CPS – unbelievable calm in a frenetic city. It’s a place that can be stunningly beautiful and exasperating at the same time. My feelings for my ex-lover are often conflicted.
On September 11, 2001 my phone rang at 6:00am – I stayed glued to the TV for two days. I watched the footage of those planes hitting those towers – I saw the second one hit live on television. My mind raced, my heart broke – as it would for a friend who had been deeply injured. When I went back in November of 2001 we walked around the area of Ground Zero. Les took photos from every vantage point. From my uncle’s office window we watched as all work stopped and everyone stood still as a body was lifted out of the wreckage. We hit the street and I inhaled god knows what – the air still thick with the smell of burning plastic, sheet rock, steel. Standing by one of the wooden board, right on the precipice of that great canyon, were a group of about seven Tibetan monks stood chanting and we stood with them until they were done. You could hear a pin drop. In the middle of downtown New York. As I walked up West Street, the sides of the street still piled high with shredded office paper I mourned for my lover.
At some point before that fateful day…I walked out of my aunt’s apartment on Central Park South and defined the difference between familiarity and home. I was familiar but I was no longer home. Which is why my gut reaction to the Towers coming down was odd at first, but not when I thought about it. I remember those towers being built…thinking how ugly they were…guilt? I felt compelled to be there – but didn’t jump on a plane, heck there was nothing I could do anyway. It was just an indescribable pull. It made me proud to see my lover come back…clean and shaven set aside, as if new. Since 9-11 New York is a bit softer, and a bit friendlier. I’ll take that – but I still miss the grit.
New York is still a brilliantly exciting city to me – nostalgia set aside. I could bemoan the changes to my lover from here till tomorrow but someone once pointed out that perhaps my melancholy, my wishes for my old lover are not based in the “thing” itself but in the memories that we shared? Perhaps. At least my lover and I parted on good terms and I always feel welcome in that city I called home proudly.
“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…” No shit, it served me well. You can take the girl out of New York…but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.
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