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The New York We've Lost

From the December 21-28, 1987 issue of New York Magazine.

Once there was another city here, and now it is gone. There are almost no traces of it anymore, but millions of us know it existed, because we lived in it: the Lost City of New York.

It was a city, as John Cheever once wrote, that "was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat." In that city, the taxicabs were all Checkers, with ample room for your legs, and the drivers knew where Grand Central was and always helped with the luggage. In that city, there were apartments with three bedrooms and views of the river. You hurried across the street and your girl was waiting for you under the Biltmore clock, with snow melting in her hair. Cars never double-parked. Shop doors weren't locked in the daytime. Bus drivers still made change. All over town, cops walked the beat and everyone knew their names. In that city, you did not smoke on the subway. You wore galoshes in the rain. Waitresses called you honey. You slept with windows open to the summer night.

That New York is gone now, hammered into dust by time, progress, accident, and greed. Yes, most of us distrust the memory of how we lived here, not so very long ago. Nostalgia is a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment, never to be wholly trusted. For many of us, looking back is simply too painful; we must confront the unanswerable question of how we let it all happen, how the Lost City was lost. And so most of us have trained ourselves to forget. And then suddenly, you hear a certain piece of music and you are once again at the bar of the Five Spot on St. Marks Place. You are listening to Monk, of course, and working hard at being hip. On another afternoon, you see the slanting yellow light on 125th Street, and abruptly you are again leaving Frank's restaurant in the early sixties after lunch with a politician and you walk down to Michaux's bookstore to find that rare poem by Countee Cullen or read the news from Africa. You flick on the television set late on an exhausting night, and in the silvery images of some forgotten forties movie, you glimpse the Brevoort Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 8th Street and then you are at one of its sidewalk tables again with an impossibly beautiful girl on a cloudless summer afternoon. All the wars are over, you have an entire $30 in your pocket, and the whole goddamned world seems perfect. Who then resident in the Lost City could dare imagine a day when the Brevoort would be gone, along with the Five Spot and Monk, Frank's and Michaux's, and even that impossibly beautiful girl?

In the cross-cutting of memory, the Brevoort leads you down 8th Street when it was the splendid Main Street of the Village. You have come up out of the subway from Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx and are engulfed by swarming crowds, lining up for Bergman or Fellini at the 8th Street or the Art, and the very air seems thick with sensuality. Old guys are selling lemon ices from carts. There's a Bungalow Bar truck down at the corner. Music is playing from upstairs apartments in this year before air-conditioning silenced the New York night: Symphony Sid or Jazzbo Collins, Alan Freed or Murray Kaufman (Mee-a-zurry, Mee-a-zurray, all through the night) . . . even, in memory, Jack Lacy on WINS before it became an all-news station (Listen to Lacy, a guy with a style, of spinning a disk with finesse, yes, yes). If it's warm enough, and the right year, you can hear the ball games too: Ernie Harwell and Russ Hodges bringing us the Giants (with Frankie Frisch the Fordham Flash on the post-game show), or Red Barber and Connie Desmond with the Dodgers, or hear the simulated crack of a bat and the simulated roar of a crowd, and Today's baseball, with Bert Lee and Marty Glickman, and the absent Ward Wilson, who is ailing. . . . Ward Wilson was always absent. Ward Wilson was always ailing. And nobody listened to the Yankees.

Across the street is Hans Hofmann's art school, in the building that used to be the Whitney Museum. Upstairs, you can see the backs of stretched canvases, the faces of people talking passionately about space and gesture, oblivious to the dense space and extravagant gestures of the street below them, but subliminally driven by its energy. There, wandering up from MacDougal Street: That's Joe Gould, who has translated Rimbaud into the language of seagulls and is writing the oral history of the world. You run into Hans Hess, the great émigré typographer from Huxley House, and he once more insists upon the obvious superiority of Caslon over Garamond, "except, of course, in boldface." Then you wander into the pulsing heart of the great crowded street: the Eighth Street Bookshop.


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