Downtown: My Manhattan, by Pete Hamill. Little, Brown and Company, 289 pages, $23.95.
Pete Hamill and I make an odd couple. He’s a grizzled old guy; I’m a fresh young daisy. He’s been the editor in chief of the New York Post and the Daily News, covered numerous foreign wars and produced a fat pile of fiction; I’m-let’s face it-kind of a dilettante. And yet my contented canter through Downtown, his 19th book, brings hope that things might work out between us.
This one is a memoir, not a novel, but along with Williamsburg’s Mary Francie Nolan ( A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Bensonhurst’s Tony Manero ( Saturday Night Fever), Mr. Hamill had the good literary fortune to be born in Brooklyn-specifically, Park Slope-blinking in wonderment at the distant, sparkly spires of Manhattan. His mother pluckily dubbed this vision “Oz,” and her son wasted no time in finding the yellow brick road leading there. (And this is the right way to go. Trust me: The reverse trajectory, though trendy these days, doesn’t feel quite so glorious.)
Mr. Hamill has paid rent, by his own calculation, at 14 separate addresses on our “long skinny island.” He has hoisted sheet metal in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, studied graphic design, toiled as a messenger boy and covered grisly murders. His personal library is stocked with over 500 books of New York City history (my sympathies to his wife), and he’s read countless more. He’s qualified.
And if he wants to define “Downtown” as extending all the way to West 57th Street-heck, this native Manhattan daisy is certainly not going to stop him. After all, I now live in Los Angeles, where half the residents don’t even know where their grim simulacrum of a Downtown is, if they even know it exists.
The Hamilltonian concept of New York’s Downtown is far subtler and more complex than the wanton, nightclubbing Petula Clark version (“Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares … “), or the infuriating definition used by would-be hipster arrivistes who claim they “get a nosebleed” if they venture above 14th Street. Geographically, it stretches to accommodate Carnegie Hall, P.J. Clarke’s saloon and Times Square. Aesthetically, it’s sometimes grimy but almost always majestic, even magical, stocked with attractions like the Marble Palace, the city’s first department store, which “gleamed with its facing of white Tuckahoe marble” on Broadway between Chambers and Reade; and a West 52nd Street jazz club’s wise-talking doorman, “dressed in a royal blue coat adorned with gold braids, like someone from the court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
Spiritually, Mr. Hamill’s Downtown is filled to bursting. He’s truly a haunted man. The specter of Sept. 11 hangs heavy over this work (his most recent address is Tribeca), but the May 11, 1849, riot at what was then the Astor Place Opera House also looms large: “I can hear the groans of the dying,” the author reports from the site, morphing briefly into Miss Cleo. “Some of them died right there, in front of Kinko’s.” Poor Pete can’t take a constitutional around the Battery without extrasensorily perceiving the phantasms of reluctant early-19th-century prostitutes. In the late 1950’s, hanging out in Washington Square, a former potter’s field, he half-believed the old residents who told him “how on certain foggy nights you could see the dead rising from below the grass and the footpaths.” Is that Vincent Price peeking out from behind a velvet curtain?
Actual celebrity sightings are idiosyncratic and brief: Zsa Zsa Gabor flashing cleavage outside Luchow’s; Jack Kerouac, at a party of Beats in the Village (“much drinking and much reefer”). Mr. Hamill is less interested in name-dropping about his intermittently glamorous life than dragging his hand through history’s dustbin. He’s particularly keen to honor the old-time newspapermen who served as his ghostly mentors at the metropolitan desk: Horace Greeley of The Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of The Herald, Charles Chapin of The World. “In imagination, I saw myself scribble in candlelight,” he writes, turning fanciful. “I saw myself rushing to the Bowery with pencil and paper, in search of some story, and finding that Stephen Crane had arrived before me.”
The reader will have divined that Downtown does not observe a strict textbook or chronological format; it meanders, rather, into curious districts and favorite themes, sort of like a collection of Calvin Klein perfumes: Nostalgia. Velocity. Regret.
The walking tour is most interesting when Mr. Hamill integrates his own intimate recollections: Voicing the common reaction to the destruction of Penn Station in 1965 (” You bastards. You stupid goddamned bastards”), or remembering small beautiful things like “girls in polo coats with snow melting in their hair,” he sometimes soars into the Salingeresque. Young Master Pete was rather a horny fellow, longing to curl into bed at the Brevoort Hotel “on a snowy January night with a girl who loved me”; and drooling a bit over the memory of the Palladium chorines, with their “golden skin, white teeth, amazing hips, narrow waists, and bosoms encased in black silky dresses” exuding “the aroma of gardenias.” Let’s hope, as he dryly observes, that today’s generation will one day entertain similarly hot memories of Webster Hall.
Downtown can be a little preachy and schoolmarmish (“The culture of television has deepened passivity … “). At times, it takes on the dusty sepia tones of a dull PBS documentary: Tammany Hall, rummies and winos, oyster bars and saloons, stickball … yeah, yeah, cue the “Maple Leaf Rag.” Occasionally, Mr. Hamill’s economical prose slips into boilerplate (“Sometimes New York knocks you down. It also teaches you, by example, how to get up”).
But big generous swaths off his memoir are elegiac, honest, humbling. We’re all familiar with the jumble of Dutch and Irish and Italians and Germans and African-Americans that settled in Manna-hata being described as a “melting pot” (playwright Israel Zangwill) or a “gorgeous mosaic” (former Mayor David Dinkins); Mr. Hamill prefers the term “human alloy.” His book is also an alloy, a fresh, ambitious blend of personal and city history. It finds God in “the goddamned details” (a Post editor’s advice), be they the well-polished testicles of the bronze Arturo DiModica bull statue at Bowling Green, or the simple bliss of a cardboard cup of coffee and a cheese Danish. It allows the most jaded uptown girl to be born again, as a tourist.
Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.