Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Welcome to Free York.

As a life-long resident of the City of Mugged Shoulders (not in Carl Sandburg's words) I've spent a good part of my 65 years wrestling against the grip of parsimony.  In other words, for a lot of my days and even more of my lonely nights, I hardly had two dimes to rub together. Accordingly, as the saying goes, "I throw nickels around like manhole covers."

Along the way, I learned a few things about getting by with very little tender, legal or otherwise. 

I learned you could go to Zabar's virtually anytime of the day or night (especially in the old days when they stayed open till 11PM on weekend nights) and for free you could get a bisl this and a bisl that. On a good day or night, you could cop a wedge of cheese, a schtickle of cold cut, and a smattering of belly lox on a thin wafer of bagel, all for free. You could probably loop around and double-back if you were particularly famished.

As I wander I wonder. And I found a dozen places in New York, especially on what had been the "largest Jewish city in the world," the Upper West Side where you could freeload. All along Broadway from the old urine-scented Colosseum at Columbus Circle up-through the curvilinear apartment houses and wrought iron fences of Columbia University on 116th and Broadway, I think I knew everywhere you could get something for nothing just for stepping inside a store or restaurant.

I knew where I could grab a handful of pistachios. Where I could get an espresso-sized cuppa jamoke, and where I could grab a sample or nine of chocolate, as dark and bitter as a Hasid's wardrobe.

I learned bakeries where a baker's dozen (13 for the price of 12) was a matter or principle. I learned that Fairway had H&H bagels, two for thirty-five cents, a quarter of the price of H&H bagels from their very own storefront just six blocks north. I also learned where you could nibble while you shop, sample while you amble and fairly have lunch just while you were picking up your groceries.

As I got older and money was a little more plentiful, the sort of knowledge I valued changed a bit. I still enjoyed a dab of whitefish salad while I waited at a counter, but as the dad of two daughters, I learned where to find clean and safe bathrooms no matter where I was in the city. The Peninsula Hotel, btw, which rented a storefront to the chocolatier Lindt, had not only clean bathrooms, but a giant silver bowl of free Lindt candies. Take as many as you like and take some f'later.

I also learned where you could get a button sewn quickly, shoelaces if yours broke, or even a collar-stay compliments of the house if you had an interview and your collar had a mind of its own.

This morning the temperature was seasonally-appropriate (for a change) and the sun was bright. My wife and I went out for a four mile walk. When we turned around and walked homeward on Madison Avenue, my wife announced, in front of the famed Carlyle Hotel, that she needed to tinkle. We revolved through the doors and she stepped down into the famous precincts of Bemelmans bar

Ludwig Bemelmans, who went onto fame as the author/illustrator of the famous Madeline children's books was a waiter there--and by his account, a terrible one. Years later, as recompense, he painted murals on the walls of the bar that is named for him.

Next door--still in the cellar--to Bemelmans is the Cafe Carlyle. The chicest of the chic in New York High Society hotspots. The kind of place that would give Jackie O a crappy table if she came in the same night as Greta Garbo. 

The pianist Bobby Short held court there for many decades playing the great American song book and singing those wonderful songs nightly. Even now when I making more money than I ever imagined, I can't fathom going there. I think I might be more comfortable interviewing undertakers at funeral homes for my incipient burial services.

However, going back to the topic (if there is one) of today's post, while I was waiting for my wife to tinkle, I heard these tinkles from the baby grand in the Cafe Carlyle.

It was all absolutely free.

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