Think of this as a memoir of a love affair-of the beginning, anyway, of a long, strange, curious, sometimes deluded, sometimes dangerous love affair with the city. A memoir prompted in part by last Sept. 11, and this one.
Prompted more by the fact that I’m just about the only person I know who hasn’t left town overnight even once during this miserable, heat-stricken summer. I had some lovely invitations, but I had work-but it was more than work.
It has to do with being one of those people who happen to love summer in the city, no matter how oppressive it gets. Even when it gets down to that funky dead-end part of the season which Susan Orlean once memorably called “The Season of Funny Smells.” Maybe because my first full summer in the city, I had the quintessential summer street job: hand-truck operator in the garment center, the true watch-your-back king of the road.
Maybe because my second full summer in the city, I was staying in a sixth-floor walk-up in Little Italy overlooking the Feast of St. Anthony, and it was the year every radio at the feast was booming out that Ringo Starr song, “It Don’t Come Easy.” (You know: “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues / And you know it don’t come easy.”) I don’t know why, but I loved that schlocky song, or just loved the way it floated out over the feast in this echoey way in the narrow streets. They weren’t just playing it; they were playing it incessantly, and I loved it so much that even when my girlfriend at the time left me-I think because she couldn’t stand to hear it all night-I didn’t feel so bad lying awake at night in the heat and the zeppoli fumes, mesmerized by the song of the summer. Maybe because-and this is the theme of this essay, in a way-“it don’t come easy” to love New York. It’s worth it, but you got to pay your dues.
I think one component of my emotional reaction to 9/11, and certainly one reason I love the city, has to do with the fact that my father spent most of his working life in the Empire State Building when it was the tallest building in the world. He had much in common with many of the W.T.C. victims-a lower-middle-management guy who could have been a casualty just because he happened to work in a building that was also a symbol.
Part of the contour of my love story has to do with separation and return. I was born in Manhattan, but my family moved out to the south shore of Long Island shortly thereafter. So Manhattan was always the Emerald City for me, some distant place I had a dreamy connection to, some place my father disappeared to every day (he commuted on the LIRR every work day for 40 years, poor soul), some place I would occasionally be taken to as a child for an excited visit, like to see the first run of the film Around the World in Eighty Days .
Don’t laugh; it was a big deal to me-as was the cheesecake at Lindy’s afterward. All those clichés thrilled me. And then there was taking the train in to visit my father and have lunch in that smoky businessman’s restaurant near the Empire State Building, the one that was located below the sidewalk, the one I’ve convinced myself was the model for the one in The Great Gatsby where Nick meets Meyer Wolfsheim. Yeah, I did the Garden for the circus and the Knicks, and I did the Planetarium and the U.N. on school trips, but it was the subways I loved most. You know the deal: riding in the front car, the stations flashing by on the express, the secret underground metropolis. But all this was as a daytripper, and a daytripper under supervision of some kind. The trouble started when I reached the age when my friends and I started to go in on our own.
There was the time one of my best friends from high school, Bob Metcalfe, and I went into the city to look for beatniks. Bob, as techies out there may well know, went onto become a big-time computer whiz (invented Ethernet), but at the time, as I recall, we were both the sort of suburban kids who carried around those great-looking New Directions paperbacks, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind , in the optimistic if deluded belief that this would impress beatnik-inclined girls, of which there was a dire shortage in Bay Shore.
But we were sure we could find beatniks who would appreciate our paperbacks, and we thought we knew where we could find them: We had, of course, listened to that Peter, Paul and Mary version of “Freight Train,” the one that had the verse:
When I die
Please bury me deep
Down at the end
Of Bleecker Street.
So it should have been easy, we figured. Only we picked the wrong end of Bleecker Street. Not only that, we picked the wrong time: Sunday morning, when any self-respecting beatnik would be sound asleep, recovering from the previous night’s bongo-crazed revels.
When I say we picked the wrong end of Bleecker Street, I mean that when we reached Penn Station, we were given directions to the Bleecker Street subway stop-which, as you know, is on the East Side near Bowery.
So when we got to the Bowery end of Bleecker Street, we found many guys with beards, but we didn’t think these were the kind of beatniks we were looking for. Still, the sight of guys stumbling along with a bottle in a bag in the glare of Sunday morning always and forever attuned me to the fact that it wasn’t the Emerald City for everyone. And to an emotion more universal than the Bowery-end-of-Bleecker locality: that sorrowful, somehow beautiful and painful remorse Kris Kristofferson captured in “Sunday Morning Coming Down”:
And there’s nothing shorta dying
That’s half as lonely as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down.
Now I should probably tell the story about the fake pimp and The New York Times , and how I got conned by one of the oldest con games in the world: the notorious “Murphy game.”
Somehow I suspect it was, if not invented, at least perfected in New York. It may not sound like a romantic story, but I think it’s a kind of metaphor: Love affairs with New York are often complicated matters that involve false starts and costly learning experiences, all to help prepare you to get beyond naïve, blind love.
Anyway, I’m walking through Times Square on one of my high-school-era expeditions into the city (probably to buy some more New Directions paperbacks), and a skinny guy comes up and whispers in my ear, “You lookin’ for a girl?” There followed a quick negotiation and a complicated transaction in which he folded my two $20 bills (basically a week’s take-home pay from my dishwasher/donut-maker job in a Woolworth’s at the South Shore Mall) into a newspaper (I think it was The Times ) and told me he would arrange everything with the lovely young lady in question, and then meet me at the Times Square Buitoni restaurant to give me directions to her room nearby.
A half-hour later, sitting over a cooling plate of spaghetti and meatballs at the Buitoni counter, my bud, the fake pimp, came in and told me sadly that the woman was nowhere to be found, so he was going to give me my money back. He handed me the folded-up Times and disappeared into the night.
Needless to say, no matter how many ways I unfolded the newspaper, the bills were gone, and I was left with a learning experience, not least of which was: don’t put your money (or your faith) in a newspaper. They fold; they break your heart.
So I’d been misled, conned, deceived by the city, and was later to be fleeced again in the bargain (one of those carriage-horse drivers took me and a college date on a ride wrapped in a smelly flea-bitten blanket, during which he seemed to stop every few clip-clops to clip me for another $20, until I had nothing left and we had to escape the park on foot). If it wasn’t for bad luck, I woulda had no luck at all.
It was about this time that the city, which I think of as a kind of hypersensitive organism with a finely balanced awareness of the rewards and punishments it dispenses-not the Big Apple so much as the Big Karma-began to realize that it had put me through sufficient preliminary quests and tests of my love (there would be more, believe me, there would be more) and began to feel sorry for me and offer me a reversal of fortune. If you want to come to New York, “you have to be willing to be lucky,” E.B. White famously said-but you have to put up with a lot of bad luck until you get lucky, I think.
I’d date my change of luck to the summer after I’d flunked a Yale course known derisively as “physics for poets.” (I stopped going to class because I couldn’t handle the calculus, and read a huge John Barth novel, The Sotweed Factor , instead.) So I went to summer school at N.Y.U. at night while supporting myself working as a hand-truck handler in the garment center. I stayed in an N.Y.U. dorm on Washington Square and hung out a lot at the Cedar Tavern under the delusion it was the Cedar Bar, where the Abstract Expressionists and the Partisan Review writers once hung out, but which, alas, no longer existed. (Remember the scene in Casablanca where Rick says he “came for the waters”-and then, when told there are no waters, says, “I was misinformed”? Story of my life at that point.)
But as I said, I think my luck began to change that summer. One night, coming back from another fruitless avant-garde vigil at the Cedar Tavern, I saw a notice on the dorm bulletin board: a woman had an extra ticket for Bob Dylan at Forest Hills, the night he brought his electric sound into the heart of folkiedom. More important, more earth-shaking, more groundbreaking to me, it was the night he introduced “Desolation Row”-which if not one of the all-time great New York songs is one of the all-time great Downtown songs. That was the summer the Byrds cover of “Tambourine Man” was in the air, even at the St. Anthony’s Feast. What’s that Wordsworth line, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”?
Something was happening and I didn’t know what it was, but as I returned to New Haven that fall, I knew I wasn’t going to find it there. I’m glad I stayed to graduate (the 17th-century Metaphysical poets had their own thrills to offer), but I’m glad I didn’t overstay at grad school.
I’d had a taste of the thrills of reporting at the Chicago Democratic Convention riot my previous year, and I left a graduate fellowship at Yale with no plan except to see more of life than faculty sherry-parties had to offer.
And then my New York City luck really changed.
Maybe the way you fall in love with the city has something to do with the imprint of the first time you fall in love in the city. The first time I fell in love in the city … it’s a long story that has to do with the Episcopal Theological Seminary, a classified ad in the Voice (not that kind), the rivalry between the Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais dance companies, dancers in general, leg-warmers in particular, an apartment in Crown Heights, Jamaican beef patties, dancing with the Torah and an epic struggle with a mouse.
Faithful readers will recall I’d led up to this story in a column about the night I left grad school (in The Observer for Nov. 12, 2001), but broke off the narrative of that night to pay tribute to a host of Lingua Franca writers who exemplified the grad-school-dropout-wised-up outsider take on scholarly controversies I love. Faithful readers will also recall that my own decision to drop out had a lot to do with love (well, love as a concept ) : with some smart-ass Yale English Department pet who scornfully reproved me for asking a question about the conception of love in Chaucer’s “Love Vision” poems, when love was “so uninteresting ,” he said, “compared to the true subject of the poems: the making of poetry.” Uninteresting to you, buddy. In short order, the following things happened, which I will compress as much as possible:
-That night I started scanning the classified ads in the Voice, looking for anything nonacademic: my first preference at the time was a traveling salesman job. Since I probably would have been the world’s worst Willy Loman, it was particularly fortunate that luck stepped in and directed my eyes to an ad for an assistant editor position at the Fire Island News , a summer-only weekly whose offices in Ocean Beach were a short ferry ride from my hometown of Bay Shore. In short order, the editor quit, I got to move into his princely apartment in the back of Karl the Barber’s shop, and I stayed on to edit and write most of the paper’s features, including an incredibly over-earnest English-major analysis of Dylan’s new country album, which found Seven Types of Ambiguity in the “Nashville Skyline” cover photo alone. (Is he tipping his hat hello or goodbye?) Anyway, my work came to the attention of Dan Wolf, the legendary founder of The Village Voice , who spent weekends in Seaview, the next burg over on the island, and I covered an anti-discrimination march led by Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who led a raggedy, barefoot throng down the Fire Island beach to protest the no-blacks-and-Jews policy of the Point o’ Woods WASP enclave.
Here’s where the luck begins to display several types of ambiguity: At Nat Hentoff’s suggestion, I wrote to Dan Wolf at the end of the summer to ask if there were any kind of opening for me, and I was stunned to learn that there was . Only later would I learn about the misfortune that made my good fortune possible-the curse upon the job.
Which began when the legendary gifted Voice writer Don McNeill, walked into a pond on a commune in Vermont (called, I think, “Total Loss Farm”) and didn’t come out alive. A death that left ripples in its wake: grief, uncertainty, all kinds of theories (accident, suicide, love tragedy, acid tragedy-we may never know). But a curse seemed to fall on his successors: one of the two that succeeded me ended up joining a cult that regarded a banjo player in a jug band as God. I kid you not; they once tried to recruit me on a long evening that involved a beautiful blonde and many jug-band records.
But I didn’t know about that history then, when I came in for my interview at the old Voice offices. I couldn’t even find Sheridan Square without asking directions; that’s how much a Village Person, so to speak, I was.
But to my astonishment, they offered me a job if I could start immediately: 95 bucks a week, and I was suddenly a staff writer for the paper. But I had to find a place to live immediately. I’d been staying sort of illicitly in the Episcopal Theological Seminary on Ninth Avenue, by the grace of a high-school friend who was studying for the priesthood. But suddenly I had a full-time writing job, if I could get a place to live. I tried living in a sleeping bag on the floor of the Voice office (I was the “writer in residence”), but I couldn’t sleep, and the Rikers coffee across the street was so deeply depressing that I despaired I was blowing this opportunity.
This is where the sandwich-board sign and the girl in leg-warmers come in. Desperation and a measure of unaccustomed chutzpah drove me to craft a sandwich-board-type sign of white cardboard and Magic-Marker it “I NEED AN APARTMENT,” and start walking around Washington Square on a cool, late September night. After weary hours and few offers (most of them unsavory), I was heading back up to my theological-seminary crash pad when I passed the Riviera café and a girl sitting at one of the outdoor tables stretched out a long leg, clad in the first leg-warmer I’d ever seen, to stop my weary progress and tell me that she was looking for an apartment, too! She was a dancer, she said, making a big philosophical career switch from the Merce Cunningham to the Alwyn Nikolais/ Murray Louis school of dance theory. Who knew that such a schism existed? Anyway, she suggested we merge our apartment searches.
She had just come back to the city from some summer-retreat thing where she picked mushrooms with John Cage and got into a Zen thing, so maybe that was why she trusted a stranger in a sandwich board as a potential roommate. She was the one who found the place. Some dancer was leaving town and giving up a great two-bedroom place “right over the bridge” in Brooklyn. Well, right over the bridge turned out to be a 45-minute ride on the New Lots line to Crown Heights, where we found ourselves looking at a big old apartment building at, I recall, 711 Crown Street (7-11: had to be lucky). And we found ourselves there on Simchas Torah, when the Hasidic types who lived in the brick single-family homes across the street danced with the Torah. Our side of the street, our building, was (except us) American and Jamaican-immigrant black, and it seemed to us that Crown Heights was a beautiful vision of racial harmony.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t all harmony inside our new shared digs. We became roommates, as in ” just roommates.” This turned out to be more complicated than we blithely thought it would be. There was tension, there was jealousy, and finally there was the mouse that brought us together.
I think we’d been living together in separate bedrooms for a couple of months, sometimes telling each other about our dates but never bringing anyone home-a kind of unspoken understanding. But we did spend a lot of time together cooking and eating, and exploring the wilds of unknown Brooklyn together.
I’ve written about the dancer thing of buying 50-pound sacks of millet or some kind of cheap grain and boiling it for days into a barely edible mush, usually doused with toxic amounts of soy sauce to make it marginally palatable. I personally preferred neighborhood takeout Jamaican beef curry patties and coconut cake. So, too, did the mouse. We weren’t untidy-we’d steel-wooled every crevice in the place when we moved in-but this one mouse had defeated us.
Then one night we got it, after an epic chase, and that night we got each other. I think it was the breathless ferocity of the chase that brought out a primal hunter/huntress thing. Anyway, as I recall, she finally administered the coup de grâce , violently slamming the rodent with a heavy frying pan. I was in awe. We were both breathing heavily. That’s how things started.
They lasted less than a year, alas. I think the spirit of the mouse we killed put a bad spell on our future somehow. But anyway, the first six months we spent seeing so much of the city for the first time through each other’s eyes, from the Botanical Gardens to Brighton Beach. And I got to meet, through her, that whole wonderful underground of aspiring dancers, and the whole artist-writer-bohemian world it was entangled in, and all those sometimes-impractical dreamer types I’ve been drawn to ever after.
It’s been a while since I lost touch with the dancer. After her Buddhist phase she left the city, and then there was a born-again-Christian phase that led her to marry a minister in the Midwest, last I heard. But I learned a lot from her brave, hopeful spirit. Each of us was lucky in our own impractical way. Each of us was lucky to fall in love with the city while first being in love in the city. Even with the fear of another attack-it’s Sept. 10th and they’ve just announced an elevated “Orange Alert”-I still feel lucky to be here.