Interviews by Logan Hill, David Amsden, Sarah Bernard, Sara Cardace, Robert Kolker, Amy Larocca, Chris Tennant, and Jada Yuan.
When an author gives up his perfect Upper West Side apartment for love, all he's left with is the memories.
I once owned an apartment with a splendid terrace in a twin-tower Moderne building in the West Nineties, and for several years after I sold the place, I made a point of staying away from the neighborhood. I only saw the building if I was sitting on the left-hand side of an airliner coming down the Hudson. There it was, 5,000 feet below, my terrace and the windbreak of spruce trees in boxes and the awning under which my friends and I used to sit around a glass-topped table on warm nights and drink wine and talk ourselves silly. And then it was gone and the plane banked over Staten Island and made its approach into La Guardia, where I caught a cab to our new apartment, three blocks west of the old one.
A marriage ended in that first apartment. I spent many evenings in the living room, writing letters to my wife in Copenhagen, reading her replies. We both had fax machines, and some days we'd exchange twenty letters across the Atlantic, accusing, pleading, protesting our love, alternately sentimental and bitter, hopeless, grieving, emotionally all over the map. And after the marriage, a romance began and ended there. And then I met Jenny, whom I would marry. And three women is too many for one apartment. So I sold it.
On the last day, I walked through the rooms with a video camera and taped each one, the little kitchen like a Pullman galley with the stainless-steel cupboards and the fridge with glass doors, the gloomy dining room full of books, the living room with the immense work table, the anonymous Sheraton-like guest room, the master bedroom with a sitting area and writing desk and bathroom with an old green-tiled shower stall. That night we held a candlelit last supper, my love and I, and stood on the terrace for one last time, and in the morning the movers came. I closed the door on those bare rooms and didn't look back.
But then, one day last August, five years later, the loss of it came crashing down on me. We were in London. My 2-year-old daughter and I were walking along the Serpentine, keeping pace with a pair of swans swimming. Something lovely in the air struck a chord with time past, and the old apartment hove to mind, and I felt a great loss of grandeur, as if I'd been deposed from high office and shipped into exile.
We lived on the twelfth floor, a classic six with that great terrace that you could have invited 40 of your closest friends to stand around on and sip champagne and it wouldn't have felt crowded.
A twelfth-floor terrace in New York is a large white elephant. Weeks go by when a chill wind blows and you venture out only to water plants and hose off the black grit that New York deposits on us daily. Every year the terrace springs leaks and workers come and replumb a drain, caulk a seam, replace some tiles. But then there were all those New York evenings, when we climbed on the elephant and felt a majesty that is hard to find in real life.
When you led your guests to the terrace, no matter who they were, Midwesterners or old West Siders, jaded rich or impressionable youth, they always stepped over the doorsill and stopped and took a deep breath. It was like stepping out on the deck of a ship anchored in the city, a sea of lights below, and here and there high promontories of lighted façades, the apartments of other cliff dwellers, a man working at a computer in his bedroom a hundred feet west, a woman brushing her hair, a TV set flickering and children toddling off to bed, and to the east the leafy darkness of the park and to the south the lights of midtown, glowing like a smeltery, and rising up toward us, the heat and low hum of the city, unmistakably erotic, an old slow music. We stood and gazed, and then I lit the lantern over the table and we sat down to supper, with Manhattan for a backdrop -- lighting! scenery! -- and everyone who sat at that table shone; even people wilted at the end of a bruising day became lighthearted and lucid and sweet and sexy.
Sometimes on a summer night, we would carry a mattress out to sleep on under the stars. High in the tower above our terrace, Sinclair Lewis lived in his last dwindling years before he went to Italy to die in 1951. I thought of him when I lay down below at night listening to the city. I read Main Street and Babbitt when I was in seventh grade because he was a Minnesota writer and I wanted to be one, too. He fell out of favor long ago, crushed under the weight of a Nobel Prize and hundreds of mean stories about his alcoholism and irascibility and pock-marked face, and I lay below on a mattress, feeling unreasonably lucky.
I had moved to New York from St. Paul, a well-to-do man in his mid-forties who craved the anonymity of the city. I had been a drudge through my twenties and thirties, working, working, working, and when my ship came in, I was desperate to get a reward. I found that I loved putting on a tuxedo and starched shirt and taking my loved ones to the Rainbow Room to dance on a revolving floor to a big orchestra with a girl singer and a boy singer doing Gershwin and Porter. I never attended my high-school prom, and in Manhattan the prom was waiting to attend me any night of the week. And on the nights I stayed home, I could walk out on the terrace and look at the city and feel enlarged, uplifted, ennobled. You don't get ennoblement from going to a therapist and weeping over your hard life; you get it by going outdoors. You open a door and step through it onto a terrace, and there's all the grandeur you ever dreamed of.
Next to Shea Stadium, my favorite place to go in New York is Rao's, a little Italian restaurant on East 114th Street. They have great Southern Italian food, and what I like about the restaurant is its intimacy. There are only ten tables in the entire restaurant, and when you're there, you're a guest of Frank Pellegrino, whose family has owned the restaurant for 104 years. It's very homey and low-key, and last winter Frank even let me use his kitchen to cook a meal for a TV show that I did! Frank told me not to quit my day job.