Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Last night long ago.

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Last night I ducked out of work early to go to a “New York Times” sponsored talk at Symphony Space, the capacious and rickety old theater on 95th and Broadway. The talk featured Dean Baquet, editor in chief at the Times, and among others, the great Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the Times.

Like most of these Times events this one was intellectually challenging, upsetting, funny and more. But mostly, because the average age of the audience is in the low-90s, you’re left with the feeling that the ancien regime is over, and your time, and much of what you hold dear has most-decidedly passed.

Maybe this is due more to the demographic of people who have the time and the inclination to hear Times’ reporters talk than it has to do with the demographic of the readership at the Times. Still, my mood was hardly improved when we exited the theater (no easy feat when nearly the entire audience is made up of 90-year-old former rock-throwing Upper West Side socialists with walkers emblazoned with old Eugene McCarthy bumper stickers.)

We were out on the old, decrepit Upper West and I was sent back to the summer of 1979 and my arrival at Columbia University. This was just two years after the black-out and riots that racked New York in July of ’77. Just four years after the city was practically declared bankrupt. The city was, in a word, scary.

Many of the old, stately Upper Broadway buildings, built after the IRT subway opened in 1904 hadn’t been cleaned since they were erected. The entire neighborhood seemed noisy, dirty and out-on-the-street and more than a little threatening. Dozens of these buildings still stand and are still decayed. They were single-room-occupancy hotels back in the day, and look very worse for wear today. While many of the pre-war structures have been scrubbed and rich-ized and cooperated, many more stand there like old soldiers, lame, limp and crooked and probably more than a little squalid.

That was the New York I grew into. Where I learned to walk home at night with my keys interlaced between my fingers, so I could cut someone with a punch if I were mugged. (I never was, though I lost my wallet to a pickpocket in the subway labyrinth beneath the old New York Colosseum at 59th and 8th.)

There’s a lot I miss of old New York. I miss reasonable apartments, and being 22, and bookstores, and the old New Yorker movie house on 89th and Broadway where $5 let you see a day-full of Charlie Chaplin movies, come and go as you please.

There’s a lot I miss of old New York. The Thomas Wolfe—not Tom—frenzy of the place, the hot and cold-running graduate students living in an old nine-room apartment on West End Avenue with a partial river view for $360/month.

I think about Graham Greene’s screenplay of the American version of “The Third Man,” one of the great movies ever.

A bygone place.
A place of danger.
Sadness.
Laughter and love.

That’s the New York I saw, I glimpsed from the window of my cab last night, as I drove home to a land, the antiseptic east side, that I like very much less, occupied by a man who has gotten old with his memories.

Opening narrator: I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.
[Scenes of black market goods changing hands]
Opening narrator: I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs
[Dead body seen floating in the river]
Opening narrator: but, well, you know, they can't stay the course like a professional.

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