Bright lights, big city
I spent a long weekend, last weekend, in the Big Apple. Having grown up in the shadow of the Manhattan skyscrapers, I always experience a rich spectrum of sensations when I'm back there for a visit. This one was no exception.
Time was short, and so was the agenda. I had a tax conference to attend up around Columbus Circle, and I wanted to squeeze in a visit with some of my Jersey family members if possible. This combination of goals resulted in my taking several rides across the Hudson River on the New York Waterway ferry out of Weehawken -- a spectacular amenity that post-dates my Jersey years by a couple of decades. It's an excellent way to get in and out of the city, and given the clear, calm weather and full moon that marked my stay, it was truly magical. The view of Manhattan that people come from all around the world to get was there for me to enjoy during each short ferry ride, all of which were taken at night.
When you get to the New York side, big, free shuttle buses take you along several of the main midtown streets. I boarded the 42nd Street bus, and it fought through some serious crosstown traffic to take me right to the intersection of 42nd with Seventh Avenue. Times Square, baby, just like you pictured it. I had decided to take a room in the mammoth Marriott right on the square, and wheeling a suitcase and lugging a laptop three blocks through throngs of tourists on a Sunday night was... er, invigorating. It's definitely a place where one wants to keep one's wits about him (or her), but it seemed a whole lot friendlier and safer than it was before Giuliani cleaned it up. Unlike a walk through downtown Portland, I wasn't panhandled once in my day and a half, and thanks to the splendid weather, I did a lot of walking in Hell's Kitchen.
The morning of my conference, I sashayed up the Great White Way to Columbus Circle. This took me past the Ed Sullivan Theater, which brought back memories of my encounters with Dave. The Late Show was in reruns this week, and it was early morning by New York standards, and so the place was deserted. The Hello Deli, where I had shaken hands with Rupert many years ago, looked healthy, but Rock America, the kitsch palace that Mujibur and Sirajul used to haunt, is long gone. It looks as though there may have been a bar in that space recently, but the whole storefront is now soaped up and boarded up. Dave's good influence on his neighborhood goes only so far, it appears.
Curiously, I spent that part of my walk thinking about Bob Borden, the funny ex-blogger who's now got a gig as an in-house comedy writer for Letterman. I also thought about Bob when my sister and I were cruising through Nutley, N.J. on our way elsewhere over the weekend -- Bob and she use the same laundromat, but there's been no rendezvous yet. I'd like to meet Dave in person some day, but I'd take meeting Bob as a close second; am I right, people? It's the little things. I also passed Hurley's Bar a few times -- I think Paul Shaffer, the Late Show orchestra leader, hangs there, but of course, the show being dark for the week, there was no sense looking for him in there.
My other walks in the vicinity of Times Square took me past a number of other great theaters. Nathan Lane and Martin Short are right next to each other. There's a "Tarzan" with music written by Phil Collins (gack), a "Beauty and the Beast," a "Mary Poppins" -- and "The Producers" is still running. To me the vestibule of a Broadway theater is one of the most exciting places on earth.
Upon my arrival at the hotel, I proceeded down to the lobby bar -- lobby, as in on the eighth floor. There I ordered a bourbon Manhattan, and it was so good that I indulged in a second as I shot the breeze about sports with a tech guy from Michigan. The tab for my two cocktails, with tip? Thirty-five bucks. Yikes. And in good conscience, that one couldn't go on the expense account. It was all me.
The emotional highlight of the trip came at my mom's house, where she broke out the old photos. It's really something to be looking at a 75-year-old photograph with somebody who's in the photo. The fading images confirmed for me my perception that I look a lot like my mother's father, and that one of her brothers looked in his younger days like a Bruce Springsteen type. I still hear his central Jersey twang in recordings of some of Springsteen's concert speeches. There were my godparents. There was JFK in that Lincoln, cruising up Fifth Avenue. First Communions. Confirmations. Graduations. The whole works.
Speaking of the heart strings, one thing that really bothered me in the big city was looking at the downtown skyline. It's been five years since the World Trade Center was destroyed, and of course I've seen the cityscape without those buildings many times since (including a few in person). But I saw the financial district from a couple of new angles on this occasion, and what I saw (and didn't see) hit me right in the gut. It's still a spectacular crowd of buildings, but I think the kids who never saw it the old way will find it a more glorious sight than I ever will. I feel the devil's hand on my shoulder when I take it in now. The ultimate in obscenity.
In the end, the trip showed me, probably for the first time, that New York City is just a place -- unique, special, but just space that so many people, even lifelong New Yorkers, pass through. Most of the souls who showed me around the city in the '50s and '60s are gone now, and many aspects of the metropolis that once seemed eternal are nowhere to be found. The Horn & Hardart Automat and Nathan's Coney Island have been replaced by the Virgin Megastore and a McDonald's. Ethel Merman's dead, but Nathan Lane's still going strong. Where have you gone, Mickey Mantle?
And if that impermanence is evident to me in New York City, then it's surely true everywhere on the planet. We're all renters.
On the way out to La Guardia (a grim little airport in a grim little neighborhood), I tipped my hat to the people who dwell in New York now -- all sorts of newcomers since my time, along with those few who remember the same things I do. It's a wonderful locale in a lot of ways. But I stand by my choice of 35 years ago -- the West is the best. The Christmas trees lining the road out of the San Francisco Airport many hours later never looked so good.