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.
On a corner of Washington Square Park, the Public Theater producer’s life still turns.
When I was 12 years old, in 1968, my mother came to New York to do an advanced degree, and she brought me with her. We were staying in Hayden Hall, right on Washington Square Park. It was my first time coming to New York, from Kentucky, where we lived. I remember that Hair was showing then, but my mom decided I was too young to go see it. Still, Washington Square Park was a surreal place to be, and I thought the absurdity of that time and that park was distinctively New York.
It was the first place I saw a New York Shakespeare production, right there in the park. I remember an Up With People concert, with hippies all around. And I remember walking past newsstands that had semi-naked men on the cover, and thinking, Oh, so they have magazines for this? These mental, emotional, spiritual, and subliminally psychosexual fireworks were going off inside of me. It’s where I discovered theater, and it was where I discovered a piece of myself and fell in love with New York. At the end of that summer, we went back to our small, conventional town in Kentucky, and the rest of my time there I spent wondering, How do I get back to New York?
And then, in the summer of 1995, my mother came to visit. She was dying at that time – she’d had several strokes and was bound to a wheelchair. I was living on King Street, and I pushed her up Sixth Avenue, and we circled around Washington Square Park and started talking about that first summer, which had been an incredibly liberating time for her as well.
I realized there’s always been this parallel between my mother’s life and mine: Whenever she was redefining a boundary, I was, as well. We passed Hayden Hall, and it was one of the last times we had a really engaging conversation, because soon her speech started to leave. My mother died that December. So that afternoon in the park was this confluence of incredible emotions. To this day, I still feel it.
The other day, I got out of a taxi with Toni Collette right on that corner, and I thought, Oh, god! Possibilities! – Oh, no. Loss. Life and death just crystallized for me on that corner.PJ Harvey
At SummerStage in Central Park, one singer was transported by another.
I saw Marianne Faithfull play at SummerStage in Central Park in July ‘99. I was sitting very near the front, and I was absolutely bowled over by her ability to have the crowd in the palm of her hand – in a loving way. Marianne Faithfull is probably the most charismatic, graceful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, and effortlessly so. She wasn’t trying to be anything else than who she was. People were standing on their seats and screaming between numbers, completely enraptured. It was infectious.
On occasion in your life – quite often, if you’re lucky – you get these beautiful moments where suddenly everything makes sense to you. For me, as a musician, a lot of that does come from hearing great music. Everything came together, and I knew exactly why I’m here and what I’m doing. I didn’t meet her afterward. I could have, but I was actually too awestruck by the whole thing – I didn’t know what I could possibly say.
The Women’s House of Detention, in the Village, used to be across from this bakery, Sutters. Sutters had good coffee and you could smoke, so you could sit there and watch the prison outside. Now, of course, you can’t smoke – the prison is inside the restaurant. The prison was like a girls’ version of Rikers Island – no one had been convicted yet. This was before Giuliani, so they wouldn’t just shoot them right away. Boyfriends and friends used to stand outside of the prison and chat – well, scream back and forth, many in Spanish. They’d yell, “Hey, Maria!” and Maria would yell back and they’d throw contraband back and forth. Conversation is a little too elegant a word for what was going on. I can’t say I miss the detention center, but I do miss a city that would have a prison right across from a bakery right in the middle of the Village. Every inch hadn’t been turned into some ersatz bohemian housing.
Even before Seinfeld, Tom’s Restaurant was a touchstone for residents of Morningside Heights.
I took two of my kids to see the new Adam Sandler picture Little Nicky, and there it was again, behind Sandler as he sniffed some flowers: Tom’s Restaurant at 112th and Broadway. When I was at Columbia in the seventies, my friends and I had a joke that someday, older and successful, we’d gather for lunch, and Tom’s would be so famous we’d be able to jump in a cab and say, “Driver, take me to Tom’s.” It would be the Sardi’s of the Bromo-Seltzer set.
This turned out, bizarrely, to be nearly true. Tom’s is a Columbia haunt and home to senior citizens on fixed incomes looking for an inexpensive full-size Sunday meal available all week long. Its arrival as a second-tier New York icon came first with the house-mix version of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner and was cemented by serving for nearly a decade as the exterior of the diner where Jerry Seinfeld confabbed with Elaine, Kramer, and George. Now visitors come from around the world just to see the place.
Its fame always strikes me as a piece of bittersweet personal comedy. Tom’s, though called a restaurant, really is a diner, one of a decreasing number of fifties-vintage cheap-food establishments in Manhattan. I spent hundreds of hours there with the woman I dated through my college years, now my wife and the mother of our three sons. We would go on Saturday evenings, spending our last money on the early editions of the Sunday papers and coffee and a shared sugar-soaked glazed donut, which was best eaten with forks. Invariably, we’d argue about literature. “You don’t like any women writers,” she said. I offered Flannery O’Connor and Joan Didion. “They’re not really women,” she said. “Henry James is more of a woman writer than they are.”
Later, after fights, after rapprochements, after movies (dozens and dozens of movies, at the Thalia, the New Yorker, the Embassy, and later the Metro), we’d retreat to the window seat in the corner, do the crossword, watch for friends, and work out the boundaries of a shared world view. When we were flush, we had cheeseburger specials, with the great fries and the always-near-flat cokes from the fountain. One of us might even go for the roast-turkey supper, which on weekends came with stuffing, soup to start, salad, two vegetables, coffee, and dessert, an extravagance at $3.75.
We had times apart, of course, Beth and I, and if I were to meet any other woman, it would be at the College Inn up the block. Tom’s was for her and me. They all knew us there, not by name but by the matching narratives of maturing faces and growing intimacy: Betty the 60-ish waitress with her flaming red hair – “How are ya, Ba-bay” – and the other waitress, of similar years, so shy we never learned her name, knowing her only by her tiny little-girl voice and her fabulous jet-black wig. The guys behind the counter, Tommy and the rest of them, were dark and muscular young men forever wiping things down with white cloths and hot water from the coffee urns. “Yes, my friend, whatever you like my friend.” When we were broke, “No problem, pay me next time, sure, sure.”
This is our neighborhood still, vastly more expensive but in some way incurably grubby. We like it that way. Beth took one of our boys in for an ice cream recently, and Tommy, his hair and mustache gone gray like the aging Giancarlo Giannini, asked her, “You still married to that guy?” Yes, she said, in a tone that, I’m certain, very much depended on the day. “How many kids, two?” Three, she said. “Good, good, I stay married to my wife all these years, too,” he said. “Too expensive to get divorced, and what for? Another one is better?” He makes that face, waves his hand: Bah! to the modern world.
For a legendary director, the fountain at Lincoln Center opens the floodgates. Recently, I was sitting in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center with Susan Stroman, working on my new Broadway production of The Producers, and I started puddling up, and Susan says, “What’s the matter?” So I told her about this moment: In 1966, I walked past the fountain one night on my way to a casting session for The Producers. It’s superb architecture, quite beautiful, and in a strange way it reminded me of the architecture of Albert Speer, and here I was doing a movie about Hitler. (Not that I’m such a pro-Nazi; quite the opposite.) And I said, “Gee, what a wonderful place to film the scene in which Bloom says to Bialystock, ‘All my life I’ve wanted everything I’ve ever seen in the movies. Okay, I’ll do it! I’ll do it! I’ll join you in this crazy scheme.’ ” So they give us one night to shoot, and we get the fountain to go 90 feet in the air – the only time they’ve ever done that – so we’d have this incredible orgasm of joy when Bialystock joins Bloom. So we front-lit it, back-lit it, lit the shit out of it. It was incandescent. Heavenly. We shot all night; in the last shot, you can actually see the sky turning from midnight blue to pale blue as dawn edged forward. Afterward, I went to the Brasserie with Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Sidney Glazier, and some others, and we all had champagne and scrambled eggs and coffee.
My own window on the city is the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street – a building that, ironically, is notoriously short on windows. Where were you when the Challenger exploded? When the Gulf War broke out? When Reagan was elected (this year’s contest may be harder to fix in a single moment)? For me, the answer for all is: at my desk in Studio 47, a place where the walls echo with history.
Tea & Sympathy, on Greenwich Avenue in the Village, holds this ongoing, emotional through-line for me, from just hanging out after shows, or going there when I was pregnant, or taking my baby there for the first time to eat macaroni and cheese. I’m friends with the owners, two displaced Londoners, Nicky and her husband, Sean. At this point, they’re practically host and hostess of the whole Village. Sean used to model, but he’s really edgy underneath his cuteness. And Nicky’s a wickedly funny English chick – tough and real. You know that if there’s any problem, she’ll throw your ass out without thinking twice.
The Staten Island ferry reminds me of when I was very much in love with this man who I had to hide because he was married and it was such a scandal! We always had to go to Brooklyn and we had to go to Staten Island and we had to go to places where our friends would not see us, because of course when we broke up, we really hadn’t broken up. Every place we went had to be where nobody we knew would see us. So when we played tennis, it had to be in New Jersey. And music! Music was very much a part of our lives, so we would go to the Metropolitan Opera or to Madison Square Garden, but we would sit up quite high, wear dark glasses. It was such a scandal! My parents were quite scandalized! And of course he was kind of a famous man, so it had to be handled very delicately and very carefully … but it lasted many years, and I suppose everyone knew and just thought it was awful. * It was 40 years ago, but a day never goes by that I don’t think of him a little bit. I live on the thirtieth floor, and I can see all the bridges and the East River … all the way to the Bronx! And whenever I think about the outer boroughs of Manhattan, it’s like a hug that I remember, a firm hand on my back, a confidence. The most attractive man I ever knew fell in love with me.
On 155th Street, “an island of antique aspiration and gracious scale.”
Taxi drivers don’t want to go to West 155th Street. They don’t want to be dragged so far uptown, with slim prospects of a fare back. If they bring you from the airport, they insist on trying to get there by the Harlem River Drive, discovering too late that the only way to get smoothly onto West 155th Street is to approach it from across the river, via the Yankee Stadium exit from the Deegan Expressway, past the ghost of the old Polo Grounds. Up this far, Broadway has a strong Hispanic accent and boasts a considerable trade in illegal drugs. Nevertheless, the long block of 155th between Broadway and Riverside Drive – one-way east – has idyllic qualities; it is broad enough for diagonal parking, cobbles peep through its asphalt, and on its southern side the greenery of Trinity Church Cemetery, lifted high on a succession of terraces, shades the stones and names of many a once-eminent citizen, including John James Audubon, John Jacob Astor, and Mayor Fernando Wood (who wanted New York City to secede in 1861).
On the northern side, a succession of granite façades present the back side of a noble plaza designated Audubon Terrace; planned in 1904, built on land once owned by Audubon, the Beaux-Arts complex was intended as a cultural center. The Museum of the American Indian has lately vacated its space here for a federal building in the Battery, but the American Numismatic Society and the Hispanic Society of America – with its Goyas and Velazquezes, a gloomy remnant of the plutocrat Archer Huntington’s passion for Spain – hold on, as does, in the middle of the block, at No. 633 West 155th, the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Beyond the heroically figured bronze doors, a sparsely visited interior, staffed by a crew of mostly female employees and bustling during only a few annual fêtes for its generally elderly membership, houses the apparatus of an artistic aristocracy. Sculptures by Paul Manship and paintings by Childe Hassam decorate the generous spaces, constructed in the early twenties by the munificence of Huntington, himself a member. An auditorium added in 1930 turned out to have acoustical properties highly valued by today’s recording companies. The library on the second floor, where dinners and meetings are held in sobering view of the cemetery across the street, is surely one of the loveliest, and emptiest, rooms in Manhattan.
But it is the street itself, which would be quite unknown to me but for this institution, that I wish to celebrate: It slopes down rather sharply toward the gliding Hudson, and a warm river wind brushes the face of those marching down Broadway to attend the Academy’s mid-May ceremonial. New York’s claustrophobia lifts in this vicinity; the buildings throw short shadows, and the neighborhood’s stately elements – the terrace, the walled cemetery, the Episcopal church across Broadway – stand as a kind of pledge the past has made to the future. Some day, it is not unlikely, as population pressure extends the northern spread of gentrification as inexorably as it has moved south, taxi drivers will be less surprised to be directed here. Audubon Terrace was designated a New York City Historic District in 1979, and there was talk of renaming the 157th Street subway station in its honor. For now, pedestrian traffic is minimal and automobiles are just passing through, one way up to Broadway. The metropolis is not all seethe; islands of antique aspiration and gracious scale persist. Money with its wrecking ball may some day threaten even these underattended museums, but in my life of Manhattan visitation this byway has served, with its slanting sidewalk and riverine vista, to remind me that a complete city includes quiet places.
Stephen Jay Gould
Through the windows that light his NYU office pass the ghosts of an infamous fire.
On the Sabbath day of March 25, 1911, economic need trumped religious propriety as my grandmother, a 16-year-old immigrant just a few months off the boat, went to her job as a seamstress in a sweatshop for shirtwaists. On that very day, a disastrous fire broke out at the largest shirtwaist factory in New York, the Triangle company. Many workers could not escape from this drastically overcrowded building with inadequate exits (and one door illegally locked by management, ostensibly to prevent theft); 146 young women died, many leaping to certain death from ninth- and tenth-story windows, as the wall of flame advanced upon them. My grandmother worked for a different company, only a few blocks away.
Five years ago, on accepting a professorial appointment at NYU, I received a corner office in the Triangle building, bought and refurbished by the university many years ago. My tenth-floor office occupies an area that burned during the infamous fire – and many women jumped from the very windows that now illuminate my space.
By the luck of employment, Grammy lived to meet and marry my grandfather Papa Joe, a cloth-cutter who boarded at her aunt’s house. About five years ago, I found an address penciled into one of my grandfather’s books – 255 East 7th Street. I showed the scribbling to my mother, who remembered the address as her natal home. I doubted that the building still existed in this neighborhood of change and subsequent housing projects. But there it resides still, as we discovered on our “field trip” – an ordinary tenement located between Avenues C and D.
New York City includes some of the grandest places on earth – from the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park to the more conventional architectural gems of Empire State and Flatiron. But my New York shall be two absolutely ordinary places, central to the lives of people I loved, and who made my life possible in the most literal sense – a grim and undistinguished workplace that was not to be my grandmother’s pyre and a wretched house, cynically and shabbily built for profit but destined to be the foundation of hope for a young couple starting at the bottom in a land of opportunity.
A performer’s improbable vacation in the Elm Grove at Central Park.
My hearing’s not good anymore. My doctors asked me if I’d been exposed to rock-and-roll music, but when I came back to New York for The Best Man after being in Sag Harbor for five years, I realized I’d been exposed to 30 years of the noises of New York. The squealing brakes, the buses – I now walk around with earplugs. But I love to walk through the elm trees near the Robert Burns statue just above 67th Street or so, in Central Park. It’s where the American elms are, and it starts just above the merry-go-round. I’d go up there between shows and watch the progression of light in those elm trees, and it was magical for me because that’s just what I grew up with in Barrington, Rhode Island. We lost the elms to Dutch elm disease, but they’re beautiful in the park. There’s nothing more beautiful than that tree to me. Not palm trees or wild South American vegetation. Maybe it’s the puritanical thing in me – those dark, twisting trunks and those beautiful leaves. So I’d risk a salad bar – I’m a salad-bar junkie – and sit there and eat under those trees in between performances. It’s the most peaceful place for me in New York City. I’d just sit there for a while and then walk back down to the theater, and put back in the earplugs, in the city of chaos.
At Max’s Kansas City, art was better than money – and it was worth fighting for.
Max’s Kansas City, on Park Avenue South, was a magnet for visual artists, musicians, writers, critics, movie stars, politicians – virtually everybody moved through this place. Artists traded art for a tab. There was a huge John Chamberlain sculpture in the front, one of the compressed galvanized-steel ones – originally a bar tab. It became the coatrack. There was a Donald Judd hanging over the banquettes in the front of the bar, where my generation tended to hang out. The bar sort of ended up being sectioned off by generation. People like Robert Smithson and Richard Serra sat in the front. It was really a heavy-duty, life-or-death struggle for the soul of art – an incredibly heady intellectual experience. Everyone would go there after openings and discuss what they’d seen, telling one another they were jerks for liking what they liked or for not appreciating somebody else’s work. There were fights, people throwing drinks in people’s faces, punching people out. In the back room there was a red Dan Flavin fluorescent corner piece that cast a weird light on everything that took place in the back room, which was far more decadent, I suppose. It was Warhol and all his entourage and hangers-on. And if Rauschenberg came in with his friends, he would tend to sit back there. It was certainly a stranger crowd in the back, a lot of transvestites and stuff like that.
You just knew if you showed up there’d be something going on, and always something to look at. I remember Janis Joplin, drunk out of her mind, with a bottle of Southern Comfort in one hand, holding up the jukebox – which was a great jukebox, by the way – singing along with Billie Holiday at the top of her lungs, tears streaming down her cheeks.
The place gave you a sense that there were other people out there in the same boat. We all helped each other. Now that sort of thing might be called networking, I suppose.
Walking a little girl through Washington Heights, a writer saw the power of his people.
Back in the early nineties, the police had killed Jose “Kiko” Garcia. He was Dominican, and the police were swearing to God that he was a drug dealer, so they had to shoot him. The Dominican community absolutely exploded. If you’d seen the videos at the time, you’d have thought you were looking at something happening in another country. There were cars burning in the streets, entire blocks blockaded off. I was living in New Jersey, working full-time delivering pool tables. My girlfriend participated in a program called Heal the Children, where children from all over the world come to the United States to get free medical care. The child who was with her was this little Dominican girl, Ana. Ana was the most wonderful girl on earth, and she had a tumorous growth that was distorting her face and putting tremendous pressure on her eye and her brain. She was scheduled to have an operation at Columbia Presbyterian during those troubles. She had to go in – it’s not every day you can get five specialists to volunteer a free afternoon. So I took her in. So I was walking little Ana, age 2, to the hospital, and everything was insane. But the thing that struck me was that when we were walking through, people were absolutely wonderful. I’d been in Washington Heights repeatedly all through my childhood, but I’d never felt this sense of cohesion and community. And I had never seen little Ana so absolutely happy – and she hated going to the doctors, who were only going to hurt her. This may be me projecting, but I had never seen little Ana feel so absolutely at home. There comes a time in every community when it becomes aware of its power. I’ve always felt that I was wading through its future.
At this Pyramid, the nightclub on Avenue A, some of the mummies were really daddies.
In New York in 1984, the summer before my senior year, I started going to the Pyramid Club on Avenue A pretty much every night. To me it was the edge of the world. It was beyond my wildest imagination. It was much more camp then, and they always had people dancing on the bar, like go-go dancing, a lot of drag, a lot of androgyny. I met RuPaul there the weekend that he had moved to New York from Atlanta. He was doing a Grace Jones impersonation. He was lip-synching at that point. That summer, the big trend was everyone wore pajamas as clothes, so I was wearing pajamas pretty much every day in the city, old thrift-shop pajamas. I really had no idea I was going to go into fashion at all at that point. I was studying sociology at Harvard and I was working at Katz Communications as an intern. But Pyramid was very inspiring. And when I went home I had a mohawk and pajamas and my parents were not pleased. It was just my natural hair color, but it was completely shaved off and they were freaked. The ironic thing is it’s still my favorite club; now my favorite night there is called “1984.”
Through the Botanical Gardens was a path to a secret universe – the library.I went to Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights. It’s positioned right across from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and diagonally from the Brooklyn Museum. Often there was really violent competition between the students at Clara Barton, who were mostly women – it’s a school for people who want to go into the health professions – and the students at Prospect Heights. You could count on it that there’d be a fight at school. My friends and I who didn’t want to get into a fight would walk through the Botanical Gardens to get away from them. It was so different from the Brooklyn I knew and lived in that, walking through, it almost seemed that I’d escaped the city for a while. One of the paths had the names of all of these Brooklyn writers. I remember Paule Marshall, because I was reading her on my own, and Arthur Miller. And the Brooklyn Public Library was, for me, one of the most stunning buildings in the world. When I first came from Haiti, I was so awed that they trusted you with these books and that they trusted you to bring them back. I used to get in trouble with my parents because my father had really timed the time it would take to leave school and take the bus on Flatbush right home. I’d get in trouble because I would go to the library and stay there.
On Mott Street, an artistic and musical movement was launched – with a copy machine.
In NoLIta, there was this copy shop, Todd’s Copy Shop, on Mott Street, between Spring and Prince. This was the early eighties. It was a very coveted job when I worked there. It wasn’t exciting, but you could kind of lie back and read and know what was going on in the art world. Todd was, for a while, kind of the center of that world. It was one of the only copy shops that would let artists manipulate stuff with a color machine. He would have little shows – it was a very small shop, two little rooms – but he would do these shows up on the walls. People would go there and Xerox their résumés, their artwork, their grants, their press. I used to work there with Sarah Driver, a filmmaker. She lived with Jim Jarmusch, who would come in and Xerox his scripts. Jean-Michel Basquiat came in a couple of times. We Xeroxed his first artwork and we sold his record – Todd would sell people’s records too. We could get deals on making flyers for our shows; there were a lot of bands making their flyers at Todd’s.
Because of the real-estate boom, a lot has changed. Now New York’s not as much an environment that’s conducive to experimentalism. It’s very mall-like downtown, people sitting and lounging at Pottery Barn, talking on their cell phones. We live mostly in Massachusetts now. We moved out here about a year ago. I didn’t want my daughter to be exposed to supermodels tripping up and down the street.
In 1990, before I was on the radio, I had taken a basement apartment that cost $400 a month. And my rent was backed up, because I was counting on this job doing A&R at Profile Records. Luckily, I got it, and started making $400 a week working on the seventh floor of this building on the corner of Broadway and Astor Place. The office was gloomy, way in the back. The lights were always blowing out, the demos just piled up, I had this nasty sound system, and the room was small. I used to come in real early and listen to bags of demos – it was the dream. There’d be piles of tapes and videotapes, and people didn’t know who I was then, so I used to get so excited if one was addressed to me because that meant somebody knew I was working there. I thought that would be the height of my career, doing A&R at Profile Records, and I was happy about it. Profile isn’t there anymore – but Astor Place still has the energy it had ten years ago. For people, the flyers, style, clothing, it’s where I go to see what’s going on downtown. And I still check out the guys in front of the building to see if people are giving out flyers to my parties.
Very early on a bitter-cold morning, on the day I first moved to New York last winter, I took a walk down Greenwich Street. It was my first morning walk as a New Yorker. I went down to the meatpacking district and passed by all the great restaurants like Pastis and Florent and walked down by the river a bit, just clearing my head. Everybody takes those morning walks at some point in their life, and this one was just – I’m smiling right now just thinking about it. It was perfect: Everything was quiet and crisp and clean; I felt at peace, like I really belonged here. I love the neighborhood now. Everybody is so wonderful to me. Just last night in the D’Agostino’s, someone said to me, “Hey, Monica, welcome to the neighborhood.” People are very protective – at various times they’ve sent reporters looking for me in the opposite direction. I feel like a real New Yorker now.
When I was 15, there was this punk-rock band called Fear that was playing at the Mudd Club. One of my friends told his parents that he was just going out to the movies and asked to borrow the car. We drove in from Darien, Connecticut. None of us had ever been to New York at night on our own. Eventually, somehow, we found the Mudd Club. Fear went on at, like, two or three in the morning. We were these kids from the suburbs, and the club was all full of dark, dangerous punk rockers, so the whole thing was really exciting. It was the first time I had ever seen people slam-dance. But when we got back to the station wagon, it wouldn’t start. We had to call the driver’s father, and at like five o’clock in the morning, he had to drive in to pick us up. I have such distinct memories of sitting in a diner at the corner of Broadway and Canal, exhausted and terrified at what this guy’s father was going to do to us. But he was a lot more forgiving than we thought he would be.
Every time I walk past Carnegie Hall, I look up to the ninth-floor windows and think of the wonderful times I had there when I got out of the Army. I lived in a loft there – really, it was more of a studio – and this was my very first apartment, out of which I started my career. Some of the lofts were used for living, and some were also used for instruction – music teachers, ballet teachers – and there was a terrific roof. I could climb onto the roof and walk across into Bobby Short’s apartment whenever he gave a party. And you could go up the back way and you’d find yourself on the very top level of Carnegie Hall, having not paid, and catch yourself a concert.
When I first moved to New York, I lived in an SRO near music school, but in 1959 or so, I met some artists who told me about these loft situations – big, empty industrial spaces – down near the Fulton Fish Market. It was a special moment, when it was possible to come into New York with this kind of frontier spirit: I paid $30 a month, and my neighbors – Mark Di Suvero lived right above me, Jasper Johns lived in the neighborhood – were very upset because they thought I should be paying $25. They said the landlord was gouging me and that this would raise everyone else’s rent. They thought I was gentrifying. There was no hot water or heat, but if you learned to run those damn pot-bellied stoves, you could get one cherry-red and keep it going for days. For fuel, we’d walk out at night – there’d be a lot of deliveries in the port area, and there’d be these wooden pallets that things were loaded on. So you’d have wood for your stove. It was wonderful, just being a part of that unseen part of the city – like gathering wood in the forest, but the forest was lower Manhattan.
Bruce Jay Friedman
At the tailor shop he got something that lasted longer than a new suit.
In 1953, having served my country honorably in the Korean War (flying around, taking pictures, writing stories for an Air Force magazine), I went to work for the Magazine Management Company as assistant editor of a bite-size publication called Focus. In no time at all, I was perceived to be a “comer” and put at the helm of yet another miniature magazine, called Picture Life. My salary was raised from $90 a week to $125. (I’d actually asked for a “rise,” having come across the phrase in a British novel. The term puzzled Martin Goodman, my employer, who may have assumed I was asking him, indelicately, to adjust the inseam of my slacks. Tailoring was in the air, which will soon become clear.)
Flushed with success and well-being, I decided to upgrade my usual lunch – tuna on rye, and coffee, at the counter of Boyd Chemists, which was on the ground floor of my office building at 60th Street and Madison Avenue. I headed for the legendary Gino, of the prancing-zebra walls, and had a more-than-satisfying meal that included California red wine (Pinot Noir – a shaky proposition then), shrimp marinara, and memorably thick-crusted bread of a variety that was new to me. Returning to my office along 60th Street, I passed a small brownstone building with a sign outside that read: otto perl, tailor. What an excellent time, I thought, to leave the ranks of the off-the-rack crowd and have my first suit made. I climbed the steps to the second floor – I took them two at a time then – and there to greet me was Otto Perl himself, a small, slender, bald man in shirtsleeves, with a tailor’s measuring tape around his neck. He began immediately and approvingly to trace and describe my measurements in the air.
“Come, come,” he said, ushering me into a small fitting room. “There is another client I’d like you to meet.”
I followed him, and there, in front of a three-way mirror, being fitted for an Otto Perl suit, stood Joe DiMaggio. I would like to say that the Yankee Clipper came gliding effortlessly in my direction to shake my hand, as if he were pulling down a long fly ball. This was not the case. With characteristic taciturnity, he said, “Hi, kid,” and turned back to the mirror. I was properly awed (I grew up two blocks from Yankee Stadium) and thought it would be rude to tell him I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan.
Could the episode have come about in any other city – downtown Dayton, maybe? Unlikely. Was it a magical New York moment? Absolutely. And Otto’s pinstriped suit never wore out. After fifteen years, I virtually had to beat it to death with a stick. “Hi kid,” said the great DiMaggio, and turned back to the mirror.
In the Grace Church Garden, he buried an old friend – and an old life.
Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but when I was 20, in my second year at NYU in 1970, I smoked a joint with some friends in the garden in front of Grace Church at 10th Street and Broadway. There was something in that joint – PCP, or “angel dust,” it was called – and it was very hallucinogenic. But I didn’t know that. So I was out very late and when I got home to my apartment on 12th Street, I saw my cat had died. I was hysterical and on these drugs, so it was beyond freaky – like, this can’t be happening. I didn’t know what to do, so I just picked up the cat and took a little garden shovel with me, and I buried it in the yard in front of Grace Church.
It was late, really late, and cold, so I dug a hole really quickly by a tree, and I put the cat in there. While I was sitting there, really upset, I had an epiphany and I thought, I have to go back to school at NYU – this was during Christmas break – and tell the head of the department that I wanted to change my major to be an artist. I just thought, I have to do what I want to do – I can’t be miserable anymore.
When they tow your car to the impound lot, rock bottom is within striking distance.
I spoke English when I first got to the city in 1987, so I got to drive the van for a highfalutin’ caterer. One day I double-parked in midtown, dropping off endive stuffed with chicken-fig deliciousness for somebody’s Christmas party. The sign said DON’T PARK HERE, but I had commercial plates, and I thought that gave me diplomatic immunity.
I saw the van getting towed and chased after it all the way to the impound lot across the West Side Highway, which was quite a run in my catering boots. I was sure that once I showed the towing people that I was in uniform and clearly on a mission to deliver delicious treats to a Christmas party, they would take pity on me and give the van back. Apparently they don’t work that way.
If you’ve ever been to the impound lot, you know that it is truly one of the most depressing places on earth. Imagine the Gulag with a lot of cars. It’s a tin lean-to with no windows that they’ve set up in an empty lot with barbed wire. The people who work there basically take shit for a living. There’s a lot of screaming and yelling – not a lot of Christmas spirit. I do believe there was a garland or two, but, that’s sort of like spitting in the wind.
When I got there, I didn’t have enough money to get the van out. I sat in this tin building with no insulation, sweating my ass off, weeping the bittersweet tears of a man who knew he had run afoul of the law and was still trying to hang on to his humanity. I realized at that moment that I’d better write some jokes, and quick, or I’d be spending a lot of time at the impound lot. And that was not a life I wanted to lead.
I remember going down to a Democratic gathering back in 1974 in the Amalgamated Houses on the Lower East Side. It was one of the early union-sponsored housing projects. It was about ten at night when I got there, I was hungry, and there was a lot of homemade food, chicken cacciatore. This woman gets me some food, and I said, “Is your husband a member of the Amalgamated?” And she said, “No, the Teamsters. My husband, Patsy, can’t make it tonight because he has a bad back.” We had convicted a Patsy Crapanzano for taking kickbacks and embezzling money from a bookbindery. So later I turned to someone else at the party and said, “Is that Mrs. Crapanzano?” And they said yes. And she couldn’t be more friendly, and I wondered whether she knew who I was – the guy responsible for her husband going to prison.
A writer’s vision, sharpened forever by Coney Island.
Years before my friends and I discovered alcohol and psychedelics, a trip to Coney Island was the most efficient, the only way we knew to thrill and terrify ourselves into altered states of awareness. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 when I first experienced the amusement park’s pleasurable terrors during a vaguely illicit excursion (my brother, myself, our housekeeper, no need to tell the parents) that included all the bloodcurdling delights (freak show, fun house, dangerous rides) from which fifties middle-class Brooklyn children were so carefully protected. The weeks of nightmares that followed led to a sort of addiction. From the minute my friends and I were old enough to ride bikes, Coney Island became our favorite forbidden destination. It was where we first sneaked cigarettes and, as adolescence approached, rode the Cyclone over and over, a compulsion most likely inspired by the same budding, inchoate urges that made so many suburban girls so crazy about horses. My leaving home for college coincided with Coney Island’s decline into a place where the dangers were too genuine to be amusing. Occasionally, I still go back. I prefer the dead of winter, when Coney Island’s melancholy, Pompeii-like desolation is unmistakably apparent, and when its resident population of ghosts is most fiercely restless and active. Of course, the ghost I am seeking is the ghost of my own past selves. Like some giant, tattered Ouija board, the ruined amusement park allows me to channel back to the child I once was, and still am: the girl, the adolescent, the adult drawn to the lurid and bright, to the bizarre and grotesque, the garish and the theatrical, to the roller-coaster terrors and fun-house darkness that, from the first moment I glimpsed it, changed my vision of the world, and left it changed forever.
To a performance artist, a SoHo parking lot was better than a stage.
In 1971, I was working on a public performance of Vessel – which was an “opera epic” loosely based on the life of Joan of Arc – and I was looking for a big outdoor space. I was studying t’ai chi on Canal Street, and I happened to walk past this parking lot between West Broadway and Wooster Street, next to where the SoHo Grand is now. And I thought, This is it. At the time, the neighborhood was pretty run-down. It was an unknown area of the city, and, against this reality, I thought that if I placed these magic images there, you’d get this resonance, so that when people walked by the next time, they wouldn’t be able to forget that.
The last night we performed it was Halloween. We had 150 people, ten motorcycles, a Volkswagen bus, a Spanish dancer and a Scottish dancer, a welder, people up in trees, three people singing on the steps of the church that used to be across the street. The rain was pouring down and I was playing this electric organ – we put plastic over it. I remember lying there on the ground with the rain falling down and wondering, Now what? Am I gonna be electrocuted? I’m playing Joan of Arc, thinking to myself, Am I literally going to go up in smoke, too?
And I remember that somebody from one of the apartment buildings leaned out of his window and saw this extravaganza outside his apartment window and decided to sing a duet with me, right in the middle of everything. And, you know, that was fine. We just went with it.
When I was a kid, my father’s office was above the Gotham Book Mart, and that’s when the legendary bookseller Frances Steloff was still alive. My mother was working for my father upstairs and couldn’t afford a sitter, so Frances would baby-sit me in the store. It was this wonderful dusty place. I just remember wandering through the bookstore and watching Frances greet these great writers, because she had such reverence for writing. I would come back and visit her while I was in college, and I wrote a cookbook when I was 21, so Frances filled the entire window of the Gotham Book Mart with my cookbook. But she said, “Now you have to write a better book. A real book.” And I think that’s part of why I did.
A Midwesterner finds literary welcome in the lobby of the Algonquin hotel.
One image keeps looming and looming: the grandfather clock in the lobby of the Algonquin hotel. I’m an immigrant to New York, you see. I didn’t come across the ocean, but I came up from the Middle West. And The Algonquin, for a Middle Westerner of my generation – I was born in 1922 – was our imaginary literary hotel. In 1950, I was a P.R. man working for General Electric in Schenectady, delivering stories and so on to press organizations in New York. One day I just walked in, as anyone is free to do, but for me, well, I had the same feeling when I first saw Venice, which was, Am I allowed to see this? I felt at home there, and it remained a symbol of my arrival in New York and my home away from home, a beacon, a lighthouse for a Middle Westerner.
At the Lion’s Head you could learn to write by talking.
My home away from home was the Lion’s Head Bar – which is gone now – down on Christopher Street. It opened in 1964, and it lasted for about 30 years.
I went there on its opening night – Paddy Clancy of the Clancy Brothers invited me. Before that, I would go to the White Horse on Hudson Street. But the White Horse was becoming too popular – every graduate student in the world would go in there and want to know, “Is this where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death?” The Lion’s Head was more intimate. In the back room, the dining room, there was a big round table and we’d sit around there and sing till dawn. The food was terrible most of the time, but it was a great place to talk, and it had a terrific jukebox with jazz.
In a sense, it was our extended family. We’d all go in there when we were having trouble with women. We’d all weep in our beer and feel sorry for ourselves and exchange divorce horror stories. And then you’d move on to the next wife or the next husband.
It was a great gathering place for writers and poets and journalists. There were fascinating bartenders, one of whom was Paul Shifman, a poet, who I think was the only Jewish merchant-marine captain in the world. Norman Mailer would come in; in the early years, Bob Dylan; the Clancy Brothers; Pete Hamill; Vic Siegel and Mike McAlary – who died a few years ago – from the Daily News; Lanford Wilson, the playwright; and Amiri Baraka, the poet, whose name used to be LeRoi Jones.
Bobby Kennedy went in there one night, and before he came they went into the men’s room and erased all the graffiti. There was wonderful graffiti, and they erased it all because they wanted to look respectable for Bobby. One piece of graffiti was one that I’ll never forget. It said, “My mother made me a homosexual,” and under it was scrawled, “If I get her wool, will she make me one, too?”
The city was falling apart – and from 43rd Street it was a pretty good show.
I came to New York in 1975, when I was 22. I worked at the Chelsea Westside Theatre, which is now the Westside Theatre, on 43rd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. I was a gopher. I made coffee. They gave me a tiny little room in the attic with the condition that I had to paint it. The room is still there today, with this little circular window. And every time I walk past, I can still see that window up there. Twenty-five years ago, the area was the absolute pit of New York. There was a garbage strike, a musicians’ strike on Broadway, and the city was supposed to be going bankrupt. I had no friends in the city back then, so I’d just hang out the window and smoke joints and watch the straight hookers fighting with the transvestite hookers, yelling Three holes are better than two! or Two holes are better than three! I would eat at a gyros place, where I’d watch the homies come in and watch them steal éclairs right out from under the nose of the proprietor. Cops gave up on the neighborhood about eleven o’clock, and it just became a free-for-all, people getting their asses kicked in the streets. When I’d walk home, I’d try not to appear normal so people wouldn’t screw with me. I’d hunch my shoulders and walk with a stiff gait and mumble to myself and make my eyes look a little crazy. But it was cool. I had this Silver Surfer mentality – I thought I was just coasting through all these environments and that nothing could touch me.
In a radical time, the staid old Judson Memorial Church was anything but traditional.
Back in the late sixties, many of us were busily going to meetings at one or the other of the two radical churches south of Washington Square Park. As a Jewish atheist, I had practically no acquaintance with churches before these two hubs of community activism became central to the raging political life of the city. I’d venture to say that most of the organizers and activists who draped the churches with banners and slogans – RESIST! FIGHT! END! – considered religion irrelevant and exotic.
Judson Memorial is the big corner church with the bell tower, designed by McKim, Mead & White in the neo-Italian Renaissance manner, just east of NYU Law School. Washington Square Methodist – now Washington Square United Methodist – is tucked into the seedier block between Sixth Avenue and the park and is a modest Romanesque Revival with four spires and a red door. A faint stenciled resist is still visible in the stonework. The few protest banners one sees today read nyu.
I got to know the Reverend Howard Moody of Judson in 1968 when I was writing a story on abortion for New York Magazine. All abortions were illegal then except for a handful of life-or-death cases, and Moody, a maverick Baptist, was trying to change that oppressive climate. His Clergy Consultation Service steered desperate women away from back-alley butchers and toward safe medical procedures on the underground circuit. Moody was deliberately breaking the law as a matter of conscience, and I think he hoped he’d get arrested when my story hit the stands. (No such luck.) Judson Memorial also attracted and nurtured the avant-garde, through Moody’s associate, the Reverend Al Carmines, a pioneer in jazz cantatas and Off-Off Broadway.
Another abortion story, this one for The Village Voice a year later, took me to Washington Square Methodist, where the Reverend Finley Schaef presided. There, on a historic evening in 1969, I witnessed the Redstockings abortion speakout, the first time that women anywhere in the world actually stood up and “testified” about their unwanted pregnancies. (New York’s State Legislature legalized abortion in 1970; Roe v. Wade came in 1973.)
Washington Square Methodist was a hotbed of antiwar activism in the Vietnam era, open to draft counselors, draft resisters, and supporters whose T-shirts proclaimed we harbor fugitives. When antiwar bomber Sam Melville was killed in the Attica uprising, his coffin was shipped to Washington Square Methodist for the funeral.
By 1980, the radical churches of Washington Square had slipped off my personal map of inspirational places. “The sixties” were over. I mourn for that wondrous time when the city pulsed with new ideas for social justice and people gathered to work for a better life beyond the walls of their co-ops and condos.
I looked in on both churches recently to see what remained of the old spirit. At United Methodist, the Reverend Jacquelyn Moore explained that she’d been on the job for only four months and was consumed by roof and wiring repairs and the daunting task of rebuilding a congregation. (Chalk one up for feminism: Thirty years ago a woman pastor would have been unthinkable.) At Judson, the Reverend Peter Laarman gallantly confessed that he’d drawn fire over the sale of church property around the corner to ever-expanding NYU. “We’re in bad odor because we’re involved with the Evil Empire,” he sighed. “But we haven’t changed our values.”
When I came to New York as a child, I was taken by my governess to the zoo – not the one uptown, but the one in Central Park, where the seals and the monkeys were. When I was not here, it was what I thought about, and every time I came to New York, I dropped by to see them. I was very impressed with the seals and then with the gorillas – I wanted to be taken every afternoon! But then they moved – they don’t have the chimps there anymore. But I like monkeys a lot, and I still think about them every time I go by.
Bloomingdale’s offered one schoolgirl an early taste of emancipation.
To a certain species of post-Henry Orient New York girl, going to Bloomingdale’s on Fridays (we were all dismissed at midday) was an almost accredited private-school activity. This was before soccer. Trolling the makeup counters in my uniform was more or less my hobby. The point was not to actually wear makeup; it was to loiter with a minimal sense of purpose. Our stops always included the Yardley (pot-of-gloss), the Bonne Bell, and the Love’s Fresh Lemon counters.
Our mothers knew where we were – they might even have supplied us with the desirable “My daughter has my permission to use my charge account today” note. We were familiar with the other department stores, of course, but we went to them with parents or other grown-ups. Bloomingdale’s was ours. They still had a notions department then, so as a store it felt affordable. (You could buy a yard of grosgrain ribbon for 15 cents.) It was ten blocks from school, so we would walk there (a gym equivalent), and we would roam in packs.
Bloomingdale’s was also the place where many New York girls experienced something thrilling for the first time. I’m not talking about shoplifting, silly. I’m talking about frozen yogurt. It is my belief that Bloomingdale’s subterranean café, 40 Carrots, was the first place in all of Manhattan and probably the Western World to serve frozen yogurt. We’d wait in line and sit at the counter and savor this completely new food sensation for as long as we possibly could. We knew we were at the frontier of something. We could reinvent ourselves as sultry, emancipated teenagers instead of sullen, virginal girls in the uniforms we allowed to define us.
Being part of the cutting edge as we were – now ninth graders – it was time to jump into the brave new world of coed jean stores, and the best ones were all in close proximity to Bloomingdale’s. My favorite was called A Different Drummer, on the west side of Lexington, somewhere between 58th and 62nd Streets. It was dark. Peter Max designed its paper bags. It smelled of patchouli and sex … whatever that was.
The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” was always playing on its sound system when we walked in wearing our uniform skirts rolled up to mid-thigh and knee socks. A guy would look you up and down and, practically grazing your buttocks, say, “You’re 27” – and hand you a small stack of Landlubber bell-bottoms. Oh my God! Then you’d go into the dressing room with a door that barely covered you and try on these new, skintight, flare-legged pants. And we’d have to wear them out with our uniform shirts! Do you understand? Our mothers didn’t even own pants then!
On the basketball courts at Marine Park in Brooklyn, New York’s new senior senator met his future constituency.
I spent most of my high-school days hanging out at the courts. We’d get there right after school and play until nine o’clock, and on the weekend we’d be up at dawn and play till dark. They were choose-up games, not leagues. There were kids of all different backgrounds, kids who had just emigrated from Puerto Rico and Jamaica. You made your own rules. These were tough games, but they were fair.
I’d say I had very good eye-to-hand coordination, and I was pretty good under the boards. But as one guy said when I did well on the House basketball team, “I couldn’t believe someone could play so slow.”
We’d take breaks at Kiegtans, the German deli, and I’d get a roast beef on a kaiser roll and a Nedick’s orange soda. I would often drink a couple of malteds, too, because I was so skinny. I didn’t want to get roughed up under the boards.
And that’s where you’d try to meet girls; they’d come to watch. My first date, my first kiss, all that. I remember I met a girl who lived right there. We went and saw The Ipcress File, and I took her for an ice-cream soda and walked her home right through the courts. Now I drive by there and see the kids there. Life doesn’t change.
The world goes dark, and a 24-hour diner casts the city in an old light.
“The present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost,” John Jay Chapman wrote not long after the turn of the century, and it seemed at least as true when I arrived at Columbia College in the late summer of 1965. After all, not long before, the city had lost the chilly splendor of Pennsylvania Station, and the 1964-65 World’s Fair’s vehemently modern pavilions were still caroling out their paeans to a radiant future. But Chapman was wrong; the past is as durable in New York as it is anywhere else, and I found that out one night 35 years ago in a diner whose name – the West Side? The HiWay? – lies beyond the reach of my memory. I’d gone all over town to get there.
The evening began with what I believe is the only moment of actual megalomania I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t a bit pleasant. I was living in Carman Hall, the freshman dorm on 114th Street, where my room commanded an infinitely better view than any place I’ve been able to afford since: glittering acres of downtown Manhattan, the Hudson, the Palisades. It was a Tuesday evening in early November; my roommate had gone off somewhere after telling me in the sternest terms not to touch his electric typewriter. It was a new IBM Selectric, its little type globes in their jewel boxes, and I badly wanted to write my girlfriend a letter on it.
I resisted the temptation for about twenty minutes, then uncovered the typewriter, clipped in a ball featuring tricky italic cursive, and turned on the power. The machine hummed softly into life. I hit a key, then another; the ball darted and spun: “Dear Liz, I – ” The typewriter made a sizzling noise and the keys froze. The desk lamp flickered and went out. I looked up at the window. The Empire State Building flickered and went out, too. Downtown Manhattan blinked and was gone; and then New Jersey went black. Oh, God! I thought. I’ve done this!
It was only a couple of seconds before I understood that my tampering with the forbidden typewriter had probably not caused the Great New York Blackout of 1965, but I’ve never forgotten those seconds.
Now there were brief blades of light under my door – flashlights in the hall – and I went outside and found a friend, Brian. Together we groped our way down the fire stairs and out onto the campus. I later learned that diligent astronomy students were hurrying past us to get to the college’s small observatory and their one chance to see the firmament unbleached by Manhattan’s imperial blaze. Brian and I thought we should go see what was happening downtown.
We got aboard a 104 bus (the subways, of course, weren’t running), found it already packed with a high-spirited crowd, and crawled down Broadway where good citizens were out directing traffic. We got off at the bottom of the park. As we walked past the Plaza, a full moon, big as a grapefruit and bright enough to make you squint, rose clear of the buildings and made Fifth Avenue a trough of cool, radiant light. We went on downtown, through the dark roil of Grand Central Terminal, the big, pale clock stopped at 5:16, and out past the little steakhouses of the East Forties, all seemingly doing a good business, diners sawing away at their chops by the light of votive candles. Down into the Thirties, over into the West Forties and a convivial bar where drinks – I’ve never seen this happen any other time – were on the house and I couldn’t pay for my rye-and-ginger. Uptown along Ninth, then Tenth, some blocks crowded, some empty, all the black-windowed buildings looking like architectural renderings in the clinical, shadowless light.
Then we were at Riverside Park and hungry, and one of us thought of the diner. It was at 125th Street and the river, under the West Side Highway. It boasted about being open 24 hours, so we made our way there, and sure enough, it was open and busy. The power failure hadn’t affected the gas supply, and pots were steaming over blue beads of flame. I ate a cheeseburger (which, mysteriously, came with string beans) and then sat there, tired, happy with the novelty of the night, watching the candles on counter and tables glinting off the corners of napkin dispensers and the barrel of the coffee urn; outside, the Hudson was going from silver to gray with the coming dawn. When the occasional car nosed cautiously under the dead traffic lights heading toward the highway, its headlights would show the fat rivets on the columns that carry the road.
I understood what had been tugging at some part of my awareness all night: that this tour of a city of dimly glowing restaurants; of clean, marmoreal buildings; of the gilt trickle of window-lettering in passing flashlight beams, had been a visit to New York’s past. Watching the counterman, lit from below, drawing a mug of coffee, I felt I had been given a pass to the ghostly city that lies beneath the raucously self-consuming day-to-day one.
I’ve never left that city. It’s there in the gray lumps of painted-over gas jets in an apartment-building stairwell, in the foundry date on a fire hydrant, in the staunch brass banisters that lead down to the tracks in Penn Station (the last remnants of Charles Follen McKim’s masterpiece), in the suddenly uncovered wall at a construction site that bears a painted legend like: wackler and brinton, livery and boarding stables, rigs for hire, harness for sale.
The spot at 125th Street and the river is still a pretty good place to stop and get a sense of the heroic underpinnings of the city, but the diner is derelict and up for lease. I go by it now and again, always with a flicker of gratitude.
A fledgling playwright and a fledgling theater, Playwrights Horizons, get their first break together.
In 1973 Bob Moss, the founder and artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, taught me how to drink coffee like a theater professional (bite off a corner of the lid so the bumps don’t throw you). Playwrights was located in the Y on 52nd and Eighth. I was 23 and a first-time playwright; Any Woman Can’t was about a Smith College graduate’s first year in New York.
Three years later I sent Bob another play, Montpelier Pa-Zazz, hoping he’d remember me. He’d just moved Playwrights to the former Maidman Playhouse, a burlesque theater on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The International Body Rub Institute was upstairs, and there was a massage parlor next door in what is now Chez Josephine restaurant. The audience always included a few stragglers in raincoats who thought Montpelier Pa-Zazz was, well, a different kind of show. I couldn’t blame them. The front walls of the theater were still decorated with photos of burlesque stars like Honey Dew, who performed in sequins while swinging on a crescent moon.
That year Bob hired André Bishop to be the literary manager and part-time custodian; he read the plays and cleaned the bathrooms. By 1977, when my play Uncommon Women and Others had its first reading, the sex institute was gone but the neighborhood remained untamed territory. A citizens’ group wanted to turn the entire block into a park, but Bob persuaded them to turn the buildings next to Playwrights into a string of Off-Off Broadway theaters. In 1978, Joan Mondale christened Theater Row. We took to the streets to honor her with a homemade show, starring Mimi Kennedy as “Joan of Art.”
Not long after, Playwrights managed to buy its building, perhaps sensing that 42nd Street would become the city’s most valuable real estate. This summer the building is being torn down and a new Playwrights will be built there. It will have two theaters, and the actors won’t have to share bathroom space with audience members anymore. When I go to 42nd Street now, past the multiplexes and the gorgeously restored theaters, I remember Bob Moss in 1976. He was Neil Armstrong, planting his not-for-profit flag on the moon.
For this young novelist, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station is the airlock to her Jersey-girl past.
Though I grew up barely five miles outside the city, in New Jersey, it wasn’t until college that I got up the nerve to cross the bridge in a non-familial (i.e., non-Saturday afternoon excursion to the Museum of Natural History) context. And though I moved to the city after graduation, I still considered New Jersey home. I went there often – for dinner, or to play tennis with my father, or to raid the Hadassah thrift shop in Teaneck with my mother, having spent the previous portion of the day or night trying to pass myself off (usually unsuccessfully) as some terribly sophisticated young thing. The George Washington Bridge bus terminal became my parents’ and my agreed-upon meeting and retrieval ground for such occasions.
In ten-plus years, not much has changed.
The favored routine is for me to catch the A train to 175th Street, where I walk a gently ascendant underground passage that connects the subway to the bus terminal, climb a flight of stairs, and exit onto Fort Washington Avenue, where – with any luck – my father’s Chevy Celebrity is parked out front. In the pre-cell-phone era, there were plenty of times when I’d be unable to predict my time of arrival and would simply call collect from “George” on one of the station’s public pay phones, which would be my parents’ clue to come fetch me A.S.A.P. (Needless to say, my parents, who never turn down the opportunity to save 75 cents, always declined George’s request.)
It was in those waiting moments that I came to know (and love) the G.W. Bridge bus terminal in all its depressive grandeur. The concrete, camel-toe-shaped mausoleum that sits on the corner of Broadway and 178th has its own kind of romance: the romance of nowhere.
Indeed, at most times of day, the place is deserted but for a few retirees shuffling toward OTB (the nexus of all bus-station activity) and a lone runaway leaning against the pay phones, sucking on a filthy-looking lollipop. Other regulars include an impeccably groomed white-bearded old man my father is convinced was a famous physicist in another lifetime. News and concession stands share space with a menacing-looking check-cashing joint called Your Friendly Neighborhood Credit Union. There is also an incense wagon, a bookstore filled with last year’s best-sellers, and, most ominously, behind a windowless hardwood storefront, bridge dentists, begging the question: Why would anyone get their cavities filled at a bus station?
Over the years, the G.W. Bridge Bus Station’s distinctly unwelcoming walls have served as a powerful reminder that, like most people who live here, I am not a native of this city, nor will I ever be, as much as I sometimes like to pretend otherwise. In that sense, it has been a corrective to certain illusions I like to maintain about myself. It also seems to underscore – if not undermine – my stubborn refusal to settle down and stop trying so hard.
A young man from Baltimore gets a sentimental education at Hellfire.
Well, I always liked the club Hellfire in the days before AIDS, when they still served liquor there and everybody did drugs. It was the only S&M sex bar where both male and female heteros and homos of all classes mixed with abandon. Some people even checked their clothes into little lockers when they entered. I, of course, never did. I used to see Jerzy Kosinski every time I went, and he never checked his clothes either.
Hellfire made me feel relaxed and oh-so open-minded. You could be standing there talking to a slumming uptown art maven brought there by a bunch of raunchy gay friends, and suddenly you’d see an erect penis poke through a glory hole and hit her in the back. “Excuse me,” she’d politely say, as she moved slightly to one side and continued the conversation. A lesbian couple I knew had a fight in the back, and when it became physical, a crowd of masturbators suddenly surrounded them, watching in glee. And using the bathroom – well, here was a real dilemma if you didn’t know the geography of the place. One bathroom had real toilets, the other human. I always tried to imagine the water-sports enthusiasts on the way home after a long night in the bathtubs at Hellfire. Did their doormen ever get a whiff, and if so, were they too polite to comment?
The old days of Hellfire are long gone. But it’s time to bring back some kind of shock to the nightlife in Manhattan. Come on Hillary, we voted for you. Get behind the opening of a new sexually mixed Mineshaft – it’s your political duty.
When I first came to New York, I was 20 years old and I wanted to go to the Savoy Ballroom. I was scared to death. I knew you weren’t supposed to go to Harlem, but I figured out the subway map and found my way up there. I scurried very quickly down these dark streets and paid maybe $2 to get in. It was marvelous. There was this huge ballroom with these wonderful people dancing. Such marvelous dancing! I was so scared. I was standing in this little corner all by myself, and I started to shuffle my feet. I kept my head down, thinking no one would look at me, and started doing the lindy hop. Well, when the song ended, I looked up, and a ring of people were standing around me, looking at me – and they just applauded. I was overcome. New York was so exciting – from the first day I got into it, I knew it was home.
My mother was Margaret Mead’s secretary, as she’d say, or, as I like to say, her assistant. I was 5. So I would spend a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History. I’d go there once a week after school and wander around, looking at the Charles R. Knight dinosaur paintings. Every dinosaur that you ever saw until Jurassic Park was influenced by Charles Knight. By then I was pretty good at drawing. I would draw the turtles and frogs I had in tanks in my room. I’d draw little backgrounds to put behind the glass to imagine where they were. But my first attempt at painting was copying a Charles Knight. I went home and tried to copy one from a postcard or something and became enraged that I couldn’t do it. I was so infuriated I never painted again until I was forced to in art school fifteen years later. The original attempt is in my closet.
In the Depression, the playwright found work in an auto-parts warehouse in the slum where Lincoln Center would later rise.
I worked from 1932 to 1934 at Chaddick-Delamater, which is where Lincoln Center now stands. I was trying to save up some money and go to school and I made $15 a week. I remember my first day and my last.
It was a gigantic warehouse for automobile parts. The area was kind of a slum, with a lot of saloons, working-class bars, and boarded-up houses.
Anyway, they had never hired a Jew before. I didn’t know that, but they put an ad in the paper for a stock clerk and I went over there and I didn’t get the job at first, but my old boss – who I used to pick up parts for – called them and said, “This guy worked for me, and he knows more about parts than most of you guys, so if you don’t give him a job there ain’t anything but one reason.”
So they hired me. My boss at the warehouse, his name was Wesley Moulter – nobody could make up these names. He was very dour, pasty-faced, very neat. There was hardly any heat in there in the winter, and it was a hotbox in the summertime, so he was constantly washing his hands in the one toilet we had for about 30 people. He would go down the aisles with a fresh-pressed linen towel over one arm like a waiter, and wash up four or five times a day.
When I was hired, he just said, “Okay, you got the job.” They didn’t waste too many words back then. It was ‘32, so there were no jobs.
There were four stories of bins – thousands of bins going to the ceiling and falling ladders – and you had to fish out parts for cars that had been built as early as the turn of the century. So you got to learn a lot about engines and parts. My last day, I worked through the whole day as usual. And at the end of the day, I said, “Well, I’m leaving.” They just nodded and carried on, except for one of the women who worked out front. She wished me luck. That was it.
I remained the only Jew they ever hired. The guy they hired after was an Italian guy, and they hated him too.
I stopped by a few years later, after I’d started to publish, just out of curiosity, and nobody remembered me – but I remembered all of them.
The court I grew up playing on out in Coney Island is called the Garden. It’s just a regular playground court, but playing there was the biggest thing, because it was the court that all of my brothers had played on. So you were part of a legacy – and you knew that all the best players from the neighborhood were going to be there. * My brother and I took over a tournament out there. It’s called the Stephon Marbury Basketball Classic in Memory of Jason “Juice” Sowell. He played with me in high school. We won the city and state championship together. He was killed – he got shot in Coney Island. * The kids win seven-foot trophies and jackets, and big-time bragging rights. Growing up, I always was looking forward to the tournament and I know that kids now look forward to it the same way. It’s like when you’re about to get something from your mom and you’re looking forward to it all day in school. You know, waiting and waiting till the summer comes. It’s always a good day.
A pan roast at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar is still this New Yorker’s madeleine.
I was a visitor to New York City long before I was a resident, and even though I’ve lived here for more than a quarter of my life now, I still feel like someone who’s just blown through the door and hung up his hat for a minute or two. Both my parents grew up in Manhattan, but my father chose a career as a diplomat, and as a child I lived a roving life overseas. But whether my brothers and I were camped out in Beijing or attending dysfunctional boarding schools in Massachusetts, New York was the city we came home to. It was the distant family seat, a place of tall, glittering buildings, odd foods, and eccentric natives wearing topcoats and fedoras. I felt then more or less the way I do now, like a sojourner abroad in a strange and foreign land.
My earliest guide to the city was my grandfather, a New York gentleman of the old school. He was an architect by profession and the first chairman of the New York City Landmarks Commission. He knew all the city’s grand buildings, but his favorite was Grand Central Terminal. When I came to town, he’d tell me to meet him there, by the clock, under the smudgy, star-strewn ceiling; then we would descend to the Oyster Bar, which he seemed to regard as a kind of family cafeteria.
My grandfather went there for lunch, never dinner, sat at the bar, not the counter, and usually took his oysters raw or, if he was feeling lavish, gently poached in an oyster pan roast. The pan roast is a silky concoction, thicker than soup but gentler than a stew. It’s made with cream, sweet butter, and Worcestershire sauce, plus a dash of secret chili sauce. The first time I tasted it, down at the bustling bar on a wintry afternoon, it seemed as mysterious and exotic as Peking duck.
Although my grandfather died long ago, the pan roast still tastes that way to me. It’s one of New York’s essential Proustian delicacies, on a par with the Coney Island hot dog. Like the hot dog, a good pan roast is built to be eaten quickly, in solitude, among crowds of strangers. Unlike it, however, the oyster pan roast is produced in its own officially landmarked shrine.
The Oyster Bar is hemmed in by other swanky food joints now, and there are seven pan roasts on the proliferating menu. But the oyster version is still the cheapest ($9.95), and the place to order it is still the bar, where you can watch an imperious chef mix the ingredients in steaming pots with a long, metal spoon.
When I ordered the dish not long ago, it took exactly four minutes to reach my place at the bar between a pair of British tourists and a Korean gentleman reading his New York Post. The oysters (always bluepoints) rested on a soggy mattress of toast. I took one steaming spoonful, then another. The soup tasted sweet and spicy, and a little like the sea. It tasted, come to think of it, like the comforts of home.
The eclair set a breakfast standard that only one other spot can live up to.
There is such a thing as a proper New York breakfast. It isn’t brunch, and it has nothing to do with power dining of any sort. You want to be set apart, catered to but left alone. It’s a highly individual act.
For seventeen years I had my solitary breakfast each day at the Eclair on West 72nd Street. During this time, it went from a period piece of Eastern European-Jewish-West Side-ishness (I. B. Singer often had his breakfast here) to a crumbling tomb. By the end, the customers were the same people who had been there seventeen years before, but who hadn’t died yet (now they’re probably all gone).
We moved to the East Side shortly after the demise of the Eclair (and the rise of Starbucks), where I began anew the search for my kind of ritualized, possibly obsessive-compulsive, highly waited-upon New York breakfast.
You don’t want a fashionable or reviewed place. You don’t want to struggle to have to make eye contact with waiters and waitresses. You want everything to yield and to appear and to be refilled without your having to ask for it – or even think about it. Indeed, you want what you want when you want it. I myself like some history. (Tommy Wilhelm, from Bellow’s Seize the Day, for instance, living at the Ansonia, would surely have had breakfast now and again at the Eclair.) Ideally, it’s a place that could only exist in New York (although it should be a little European).
Obviously, I can’t tell you where I go now (you can’t get a true New York breakfast in places written about in magazines). But it fits all of the above criteria. It is very only-in-New York-ish (New York via Milan in the fifties). The décor is Venini-manqué modern, saved from being just purely vulgar by various unconscious Fellini touches (the back room is rather grandly coffinlike). There is a fine croissant with a silky apricot filling. The manager is a stern, House of Savoy sort of figure. The other patrons seem to be as odd and unidentifiable as I’m sure I am to them. Sometimes people walk in and ask for a coffee to go – that, they are told, is not something done here. But, in general, most people look and linger and walk on. There is something off-putting, circumscribed, snobbish, peculiar. It lacks a certain contemporary commercial sense. It is very much at ease with its own eccentricities, as well as mine.
Which is a condition that may exist in other places, but which, in my experience, you can only really count on in New York.
What if Yankee Stadium were your local neighborhood playground?
If you grew up on East 161st Street in the Bronx, as I did, the Yankee in Yankee Stadium was silent. To us in the neighborhood, this massive pale-green structure, with the elegant frieze hanging from the grandstand and a tendency to emit the occasional unearthly roar, was simply “the stadium.” We had a movie theater, a candy store (a candy “staw,” to be precise), a pizzeria, a library … and a 75,000-seat major-league ballpark. Big deal. Didn’t everybody? For most of my childhood, there was even a second one of those things within view: the Polo Grounds, just across the Harlem River.
Directly across the street from the stadium was Macombs Dam Park, where I played for the Bombers in the Stadium Little League and took up running on the quarter-mile cinder track. Just up the hill, I learned to ride a bike by tracing wobbly circles around the Bronx County Courthouse. On the other side of 161st, flanked by Lou Gehrig Plaza and Babe Ruth Plaza, was my front yard: Joyce Kilmer Park, through which I ran with a gang of embarrassingly well-behaved 10-year-olds who terrorized no one and were ourselves deeply wary of Chuck, the dyspeptic Good Humor man.
The stadium, and the neighborhood it sat in, wasn’t merely a destination for professional baseball teams seeking elimination. For years it was also the ill-fitting home field of the football Giants, and my childhood sports fantasies reached a miraculous apogee when the splendid safety Carl “Spider” Lockhart moved into my building. I saw Pelé play soccer at the stadium, and glimpsed Pope Paul VI tooling along the Grand Concourse in his bubble-topped Popemobile after celebrating Mass there. From the vantage point of my father’s shoulders, I watched JFK campaign for president, riding up 161st Street in an open car; two days after his assassination, I was part of a numbed crowd at a Giants game when word spread through the stadium that Oswald had been shot.
As a teenager, I would sometimes turn up hours early to wait for Yankee autographs outside the players’ parking lot (Fritz Peterson! Roy White!), then install myself in the right-field boxes during batting practice, scrambling futilely among the seats for ersatz home-run balls. But my most vivid memory is pretty pure: Mickey Mantle launching a late-inning, game-winning home run way, way up into the left-center bleachers one night, an astonishing drive made no less thrilling because Mantle was near the end of his career and the Yankees were near the end of a dismal season.
The stadium has changed – that mixed blessing of a renovation in the seventies – and so has the neighborhood. But it’s still a neighborhood ballpark. From the grandstand, I can see the park and the courthouse, and also the first two apartments I ever lived in – even my old bedroom window.
A few years ago, I met Yogi Berra, and he beamed when I told him where I’d grown up. Like a lot of players, he’d once lived in the Concourse Plaza Hotel, across from Joyce Kilmer Park and next door to my own building. “Awww,” he said, “the park was beautiful then.”
It was? Joyce Kilmer Park? Briefly, insanely, I wondered what charm that unremarkable rectangle, patrolled by a testy ice-cream vendor and infested with library-card-packing hooligans, could have possibly held for the Hall of Fame catcher. Then I understood: the ballpark, our neighborhood ballpark. And Yogi was right: It was beautiful.
Chinatown is a source of fascination for just about every cook in town. It’s where I found myself as a chef and really started to develop my own Union Pacific style. It embodies all the elements I try to work into my food: ethnic cooking, a myriad of ingredients, exotic flavors. I go there when I am looking for inspiration. One of the first things I remember finding was little tiny dried shrimp – it really adds complexity to anything you’re working with. For me, the Hong Kong Supermarket is a miniature Chinatown; I like to go in and ask the guys about some of the strange produce I find there. Sometimes they speak to you; sometimes they get really annoyed with your questions. But with a little tenacity, eventually you get a little information out of them.
For the star of Dirty Blonde, a traffic jam on the Williamsburg is still a treat.
I’ve lived all my life in New York; I am formed of it, the warp and weft of each block, light, pay phone. In fact, due to my peripatetic job history, between Water Street and 96th Street I can stand on any corner and point to somewhere I have worked within a five-block radius. There’s almost no corner where I haven’t cried, laughed, made a phone call, bought a soda, met a friend.
And so many landmarks: Backstage at the Helen Hayes, The Public Theater (my adolescent temple), New York Theatre Workshop. The many sanctuaries of the Public Library, the fantasy of the Frick, corners of color and peace at moma. My being born in Brooklyn swells the list – Coney Island, Spumoni Gardens, Shore Road, bam, Kings Highway, Junior’s. But sometimes I need distance, perspective. And I find it in the outside lane of the Williamsburg Bridge heading toward Manhattan. The only bridge with a nickname (the Willie B), it’s a humble, crumbling span that faces the swath from Stuyvesant Town up to the 59th Street Bridge, the heart of Manhattan, what you think of when you think of New York: Empire, Chrysler.
Heading in on the bridge, the city stretches out like a scimitar of light and mass; it is all anticipation, all unknown – what will happen today on this shift, at this party, on this date, at this performance?
And because of the eternal state of construction and traffic, there is ample time for reflection and contemplation. It’s the perfect spot for me: Brooklyn at my back and the city ahead. Suspended, I’m connected to my past and my present, and sometimes there is a moment when I see that this is where I live, where my life is happening. And I never fail to feel the wonder of “so many … possibilities.”
Because I grew up in Chinatown, I was always a tourist in Times Square – I rarely went, so it was still the Great White Way to me. I remember these amazing things – when the Astor Hotel held the opening for the film The Vikings, and they had this huge cutout of a Viking ship with pictures of the stars in medallions on it and oars that were moving across the front of the hotel. And I remember the old Pepsi-Cola display, which was a block-long waterfall of Pepsi-Cola. Don’t ask me how it was done. I don’t know if it was really Pepsi-Cola, but it looked like Pepsi-Cola. It did! It was amazing. A Niagara Falls of Pepsi! Then there was the Camel sign with smoke coming out of a guy’s mouth and the burlesque houses, the Broadway theater, movie palaces, and the Flea Circus up there, with little fleas! I loved it. I guess I’m attracted to spectacle; my family came from Chinese opera.
For a future congressman growing up in Harlem, Lenox Avenue sizzled.
I started working when I was 8 or 9 years old, on Lenox Avenue. I’d be working in the Model drugstore on 133rd Street, and I’d run across to the Rendez-Vous, the nightclub on the corner of 133rd Street, where they had the dancing girls, to bring them their theatrical makeup. Because I was a kid, no one paid me any attention, and they’d be there in various states of undress. Dancing girls. Hot damn! I was bringing more theatrical makeup over there than they ever asked for. The guy there knew what I was doing, but they loved me and I loved them. People would come in with black eyes and I’d leech them, I’d pump castor oil from a 40-gallon can – all these home remedies. Doc would tell me what to do; I was the little doc.
Everybody on Lenox Avenue knew me, they’d be wishing me well. At the Hotel Teresa, I was a big shot just as a desk clerk. It was right across from the Apollo Theater, and the lobby was filled with show-business people, hustlers, performers. Everybody came through there: Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Joe Louis. Ron Brown’s father was a big poker player, and I was a gofer, and I made a lot of money. I probably made more money there in tips than I did in my law practice.
My first political meeting was on Lenox Avenue, at Noble’s Undertaker Parlor. We got the crowd from 132nd and Lenox, the guys I was raised with. All the hoodlums I was raised with cleaned themselves up and came over in limos. I didn’t recognize them.
In Room A of the New York Society Library, there is no way to avoid finally writing your book.
There comes a moment at every book party when the memory of sitting at a long table in the main reading room of Widener Library 30 years ago comes back to me, a memory of silence, of pure concentration, of being happily alone. In the midst of feverishly trading information about who got what advance, I’ll find myself overcome with a longing to experience again the sensation of poring over a dense page of print and taking notes, a pile of musty volumes at my elbow. Wasn’t that what drew me to the writing life?
I know a place, so hidden away that I’m nervous about even disclosing it, where the dream remains intact. It’s the research room of the New York Society Library. At the desk, you’re given a key and assigned Room A or B. You go up to the top floor in a creaking elevator, laptop in hand, and settle down at a desk that looks as if it could have occupied the newsroom of the old New York Herald Tribune in the 1920s. The only other furniture is an empty bookshelf. No phone, no view to speak of, just the brick wall of the apartment building next door. No distractions of any kind. Over a decade, I wrote a good part of my biography of Saul Bellow in that room. There was nothing else to do.
Often when I’ve been in Room A, Wendy Wasserstein has been typing away next door in Room B; she wrote The Heidi Chronicles in that room. Once, in a fit of boredom, I fetched some discarded pages out of the wastebasket; it turned out to be the manuscript of a play about Martians. The next time I ran into Wendy, I asked her what had happened to her extraterrestrial play. She stared at me: “How did you know about that?” I smiled.
Onstage at the Bottom Line the writer lived out her rock-and-roll fantasy.
Dylan sat in with Muddy Waters at the Bottom Line. Paul Simon sat in with Tom Paxton. Springsteen rocked the club so hard he made the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. The Bottom Line’s stage was Prince’s New York debut. Mick Jagger sat in with Joe Satriani. Just last fall, Bonnie Raitt, Gladys Knight, and Judy Collins sat in with Beth Nielsen Chapman. Miles Davis, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello, and the Police are only a few of the innumerable artists that have taken the stage of Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky’s West Village club since they opened it in 1974, and in 1998, I added my name to that list.
I wasn’t the first writer to perform at the Bottom Line. Richard Price read from his work as the opening act for Suzanne Vega, and Sarah Paretsky once read there. But for me, it was the best working night of my career, and among the most joyful six hours of my entire life.
First, I got to see my name in lights on the big white marquee. Then, I got to read from my fiction to two sold-out crowds, including some of my dearest friends. Best of all, I got to meet for the first time, set the stage for, and introduce my favorite alternative-rock band, the Nields.
I had first seen the Nields at a folk festival in Lyons, Colorado. Gotta Get Over Greta was their new album then, and I think they opened with “Best Black Dress.” It took me about one whole verse to fall in love with them. Katryna’s long-limbed energy, Nerissa’s “I dare you” guitar and occasional belt of a solo, the three Daves on guitar, bass, and drums. I knew right away that Nerissa was the writer. She had that stretched look around her eyes. And Katryna followed the emotional roller coaster of her sister’s pen as if they were, well, sisters.
I went home and wrote them a fan letter, and they were in Birmingham, Alabama, by the time it caught up. Their van was broken down for the hundredth time that summer and they were contemplating disbanding, once and for all. It’s better if they tell the next part of the story, but suffice it to say that my letter cheered them up. Enough to get the van fixed one more time, and enough for David (Nerissa’s husband) to write me back and tell me that they had read my first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, and had written a song (“Art of the Gun”) that was influenced by one of my stories.
My second book was scheduled to come out the same month as their next album. My publicist called their publicist, and the next thing you know, Allan Pepper had said we could perform together at the Bottom Line.
They say every writer secretly wants to be a rock star, and every rock star secretly wants to be a writer. Speaking for myself, there wasn’t a moment of my night in that hallowed hall that wasn’t star perfection. There was the ugly little green room with its platters of Butterfingers and Oreos, its walls covered with head shots and graffiti gone by. There was David Nield’s smile when I walked in the door, and the gruff stage manager who kept telling all of us to please watch our time. During the sound check I could hear the echo of Arlo Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt bouncing from wall to wall. I wanted to take off my shoes and walk the stage barefoot to soak up all that song wisdom in the floorboards. When I read my story, the crowd laughed and gasped in all the right places. When the Nields came out and started singing, none of us could stay in our chairs. The Nields invited me onstage for a solo “on book” during their encore. And at the end of the night, when Allan Pepper stuffed a roll of twenties into my hand – my “cut of the door” – I thought, I will never spend these bills.
A couple of years have passed since that night. The Nields and I perform together in cities other than New York at least once a year. We always have fun onstage together, and the crowds have a good time. But there will never be another night like that first one, when I walked through the West Village thinking about Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen, on my way to meet my new friends, on my way to being a momentary rock star, on my way to adding my name to the substantial list of artists whose dream came true at the Bottom Line.
James J. Cramer
In the middle of Third Avenue, at 36th Street, a Wall Street trader bids on the biggest merger of his career.
Cross Third Avenue at 36th Street going west. You see that spot, about two thirds of the way across? That’s where I knew I had met my match, where I knew I had found a woman who could speak my language, who would go where no woman on earth had ever ventured with me before. That’s where I asked Karen Backfisch, on our very first date, what she thought of Compaq. We had just left our office, and not only did she not laugh at me, but by the time we reached the pavement on the west side of Third, I knew two things: Compaq was a buy, and I was in love.
Office romances don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. Work is the place where you meet people who have something in common with you. On some nondescript floor in a high-rise on Third Avenue, I met my wife-to-be; she sat on the trading desk of Steinhardt Partners, while I had just emigrated from Goldman Sachs.
I asked her for that date on the sly: I gave her a piece of research – I still have it – that showed a graph of Harcourt Brace’s stock, which had been straight up. I crossed out the lower axis and wrote, “My interest in meeting you after the close for a drink.” Next thing you know, we were having margaritas across the street at El Rio Grande.
The fact that she didn’t sneer at someone who’s idea of cocktail talk was Compaq’s basics was terrific; and the fact that her answer made me money, even better; and the fact that she joined me, not long after, as a trader for the new company we started was the best. A year and a half later, we were married at the Boathouse in Central Park.
In the summer of 1962, I saw an ad in the New York Times that said, “Ice cream truck for lease, $25 a day.” So I sell ice cream with a Mr. Frostee truck for three months. I start selling ice cream in midtown, but nobody buys. I don’t know what to do. One day, I make a mistake and end up in Harlem. Harlem’s safe today, but back then, no one thought it was, and nobody was selling ice cream up there. But I was a wrestling champion, so I wasn’t afraid of anything. It was a hot summer and people went crazy for my ice cream.
I’d drive down 125th, 126th, and 127th Street, and sell to kids on the corners. They always called me Chinaman. But I knew a gimmick was important. I had Japanese music broadcasting out of my truck, and put a tiny Japanese umbrella in every cone.
I sold ice cream seven days a week, sixteen or seventeen hours a day. That summer, I made $10,000. I used it to open my first Benihana restaurant. That truck made me what I am today.