Monday, August 3, 2009

Even though it has crappy pizza (Yeah, I said it!) I really do ♥ New York.

(Image from Jello Kitty)
I just got back from a trip to New York to meet my newest niece. The baby was adorable, the new parents were smitten with her, and New York was itself - full of people, noise, smells (it was summer), and the buzzing energy it's always had. New York is one of the few places in my life that I've been able to return to again and again and gotten to know deeply over time. I've seen a lot of different sides of it and seen its changes over the years.

I first visited the city in the early 60s with my grandmother and saw it as a fairy-tale place of privilege. The ladies in that world all wore minks and pearls. We whisked around in cavernous Checker cabs, stayed in my Aunt's Park Avenue apartment, went to see Mary Martin fly over our heads in Peter Pan on Broadway, and had hot chocolate at (the now sadly closed) Rumpelmayer's in the Saint Moritz hotel.

The next era I remember was the mid/late 70s, when I was in college. New York was getting scuzzier by then, or more precisely, the scuzziness of it was spreading beyond the areas it was supposed to stay in. And I was hanging around places that my grandmother, in her mink and pearls, would never have dreamed of going. Like the subway, which at that time, was unairconditioned, wildly graffitied, stinking of urine, and full of hoi poloi. Oooh, the danger and excitement of breaking away from your family: of going to downtown galleries and clubs; of sleeping on someone else's dorm-room floor; of not taking cabs! I was young, intellectual, and living on the edge (when I wasn't safely ensconced in my Ivy-League college, that is).

Oh my darlings, then came the disco days! I had left the Ivy League, with it's inscrutable (to me anyway) preppies and its revolting winters, far behind. I moved to San Francisco and in short order fell in love with a sitar-playing poet, stopped being an intellectual (because he was more talented than me, or at least that's what he told me), started wearing peasant skirts, got my heart broken, stopped wearing peasant skirts, and became a fag hag. Somehow one summer, we hags and fags all went East and met up in Manhattan at (shall the circle be unbroken?) someone's father's Park Avenue apartment. Not a pearl, fur, or pump in sight though. I remember I wore a black slit-leg skirt and a gauzy, almost-but-not-quite-see-through top. I looked gorgeous, as we all did. It was our hobby, our defense, our gang insignia, and it was the 80s so we all (boys and girls) had to look like Brian Ferry's back-up singers. Soon Daddy's limo came to get us. Poppers came out and were sniffed. We pulled up to Studio 54 and, because we came in a limo, the bouncer pulled aside the velvet rope and let us in. It was the absolute height of Studio 54's fame. We were all desperately excited about who we might see, but no one famous was there. My friends told me about all the famous people they had seen on other nights - Mick, Bianca, Liza, Andy - but not that night. I did, however, manage to get propositioned for a three way, but even though I said no (they weren't that cute), I remember the fact of it fondly.

Then, in the late 80s, I moved to New York and went to grad school on the upper west side. It was the height of the crack wars. I lived right across the street from Morningside park and I never stepped foot in once. Two crack-dealing gangs were warring over it and we were always hearing gunfire from the shadowy depths below the leaf canopy. In the 80s New York, every time I went outside I had to harden my heart against panhandlers. Walking a few blocks down Broadway to get groceries was an exercise in psychological warfare - them trying to get, and me trying to limit what I gave because we were broke. But there were museums (Yes I am paying just one penny to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thank you!), free festivals, free music, good street food, and such amazing things - some incredibly surreal - to take in just walking through the city. One cold winter night walking home on Broadway, we saw a gleaming black grand piano on the sidewalk. No one was paying any attention to it. It was as if it had just popped out of Lincoln Center at the intermission to get a breath of fresh air or catch a smoke.

Now the panhandlers, bums, and squeegee men are gone. (Where did they go? Are they all in jail? Or in New Jersey?) Morningside Park is being used by all and sundry as a park(!). Washington Square Park isn't full of ganja dealers, there's a Target and an Applebee's in the Bronx, and the only meat in the Meat-Packing district is the expensive organic, grass-fed kind the waiter serves you on a plate. Weird, amazing, and a little bit sad. But that's just pointless nostalgia. Because, really, all those parts of New York - the ladies in mink, the bums in rags, the middle-class families scraping by, the drugs, the dirt, the art, the pretty boys and girls, the excitement - are still there, just in different shapes, different places. And unlike London or Paris, the geographical facts of New York, the huge population crammed within its tiny boundaries, makes it a place where all those parts of the city get shoved, willy nilly, together. It makes for friction, unease, exhaustion, and unexpected beauty and inspiration. It's what made me go there, it's what made me want to stay, it's what made me leave.

God I'm glad to be home in a calm quiet city where I don't have to pay more than the monthly mortgage on my house to rent a cramped one-bedroom apartment. God I want to go back.



oh i would have given anything to have been with you on those trips to nyc...lane keeps threating to haul me there but I'm prone to panic attacks if i'm around more than 15 people that aren't direct blood kin..ha...but gee, that sounds like fun

jason said...

oh my god, how I looooove reading this!

New York is my favorite place on earth (well, so far)

Willym said...

I am breathless with the wonder of it all.

a thousand shades of twilight said...

What a beautiful, breathless love letter - you have really whetted my appetite!! Love the way you evoked all of those different eras. You are living history, my friend!
The story about the Piano particularly tickled me, by the way..

Oh, and PS: You went to Studio 54??? You can expect LOTS of questions about, well, just about everything in a month or two!

sageweb said...

For all the traveling I do I have never been to NEw York..I really need to go. You make it sound fascinating.

Elizabeth said...

Granny - It's a blast (though not great for people who don't like crowds of strangers)!

Jason - So glad you liked my little homage to THE city. It's one of my all-time favorite places too.

Willym -Oh, the music there! And not just at the big money spots like Lincoln Center. There were free or dirt-cheap concerts of all sorts all over town. It would be great if you and Laurent could get posted there. You WOULD be breathless with the wonder of it!

1000 shades - It's just such a great city! You and M. are going to have so much fun. And, yes, I went to Studio 54 and, being me, saw no one famous. (For all the time I've spent in NYC, the only famous person I ever saw was Tiny Tim! Pitiful.) The piano is, I think, my favorite New York moment ever. You really do see everything there.

Sage - You HAVE to go! It's worth it just to make a pilgrimage to Stonewall. There is so much to do and see.

Kim Hambric said...

I've been to New York a dozen times, but I've never been to your New York (with perhaps the exception of a scary evening walk through Washington Square).

I'm going in October & counting down every day. Your post makes me feel quite giddy about my upcoming visit.

Not sure I could ever live there. I do remember I had a serious discussion about it with my husband. We were trying to figure out a way to do it. We were armed with a few guides about living there. I can tell you the date we had this discussion. September 10, 2001. He is bringing it up again, though.

RoseandSara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth said...

What are you planning to do there?

One of my favorite things my husband and I did when we lived in New York was to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Friday night, which was their free night. They always had musicians playing on the balcony above the entry hall. Very romantic. Our goal was simply to eventually visit every room in the museum, so we'd wander with no particular agenda and see all kinds of gorgeous things we would have overlooked normally.

laurent said...

You write very well, it is so easy to read and it just flows. I could just see these periods in my mind that you describe, I remember them and how NYC was then a different city.

L said...

It's really fantastic that you witnessed all those eras in New York. I'm definitely glad to have lived there, although I think I share your ultimate sentiment, which is not to pay your soul in rent each month in favor of a happy house with a garden.
My problem was mainly that I felt I was living in a mall, and heck, being the shopaholic that I am, it is Dangerous, with a capital "D" to live inside a mall.
If it is any consolation, I lived on the other side of Morningside park, and just last year there were still drug wars going on, which I came to know quite intimately. Once an entire SWAT team stormed the park at night, after several nights of rapid gunfire pops. A building was torched next door, and a man was killed outside my place. As you rightly predicted, it's still all there, 100% concrete, but still mercurial.

Elizabeth said...

Laurent- Thanks so much! It's longer than my usual post, so I was worried I would be boring everyone. Glad it brought back memories for you.

L - Well it is strangely reassuring to hear that Morningside park still has a little of the old "excitement!" When we lived on the upper west side, there were almost no shops up there except bodegas and the Columbia bookstore, so a shopper had to do some serious traveling before she could find much of anything worth buying. (Luckily for a shopper's husband!)