THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
A Time Capsule Travelogue of New York City (before Big Money changed the character of the Big Apple)
18th July, 2020 0
In light of the fact publication of the 900th issue of The REVIEW is looming on the horizon in August, I’ve been sifting through 41 years of back-issues to help commemorate this occasion with a time capsule spanning different decades.
Back in August, 1982, I wrote this following ‘travelogue’ for our 55th issue after spending a week in New York City visiting my old Albion College buddy Pete Klein, who was attending Columbia Law School at the time. I had been publishing ‘The REVIEW’ for 3 years and was only 27-years old at the time. The last time I had visited New York City was after I’d graduated from high school in 1972.
This dispatch was written long before Times Square was cleaned up and Disney-fied, and I haven’t visited New York City since this was authored, so have no idea how it has changed since this was penned, apart from seeing all the property destruction that has ensued in the aftermath of protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. But I hope you find it an amusing and informative impressionistic chronicle captured in a specific space of time of a great American city.
Even though its barely been three weeks since this intrepid editor took his summer vacation to New York city intent on bringing back a comprehensive memoir on the cultural differences between Midwestern and Manhattan lifestyles, it seems a difficult city to place in perspective or summon for recall, largely because there’s so much one simultaneously wants to remember and wishes to forget.
New York City is the world’s largest hotel, featuring 31.2 square miles of stacked living space for over 7 million guests and professionals (in New York there are no residents, only doctors, lawyers, junkies, stock brokers and sterno bums - all of them professionals.)
Because Manhattan is not any one identity so much as a mixture of nationalities, delivered at Ellis Island and left to grow, mature, and get fat in a melting pot of national attention and opportunity ever since Henry Hudson concluded his exploration of it back in 1609, New York is a worldwide city totally conceived and created for the Big Payoff: a rollercoaster ride of restaurants (over 85 pages in the phone directory), exhibits, occasional race riots, all sandwiched amidst the smog of human endeavor and covered with the rarified air and hot breath of patrons and practitioners incessantly pursuing and defining themselves around the pleasure of Art - whether on the stage, in the movie houses, or on the streets.
As a general rule people in New York are friendly once you get to know them (i.e. offer them a free subway token). New Yorkers are also more concerned with what one is presently doing than what one has previously done. Unlike the open and relatively unquestioning hospitality of Midwesterners, social graces and considerations are extended according to stature and station - a Rum Rat is not going to be admitted into Regine’s nor is an accountant walking down Battery Park with a briefcase in one hand and a pizza in the other likely to merge with money or munchies intact.
Another thing about New York hospitality: any city that has a public library with over 6 million volumes isn’t necessarily going to be throwing get-to-know your neighbor block parties every night of the week; after all, reading habits like Midwestern television habits, are relatively lonely occupations.
Enough for the preliminary comments. Let us dive into a day-by-day diary of sorts on this multi-million dollar art deco dumpster….this mecca of the Metropolitan Opera and the rollicking Rockettes, the gorgeous Guggenheim and the brilliance of Broadway….this curious work we call the ‘Big Apple’.
It figures that proportion should set the stage for arrival at JFK airport. 50 minutes on a 747 and now the plane spends 20 more minutes circling over the shark and sludge infested shores of the eastern coast of the Atlantic ocean. The ‘Train to the Plane’ is a specially prepared subway line geared with air conditioning, armed guards and an express route into Manhattan that deposits me to my destination point at Washington Square for a cost of $5.00. Such bargains in New York are welcome, especially since taxi fare is $1.00 per 1/9thof a mile and representative of the fact everybody’s meter is always running in New York City.
The subways are sweaty concrete swamps populated with many varied types of lifeform. The voice of my friend Pete greets me on the other line of the phone: “Have you emerged yet?” I tell him where I am. “You better hop right into a cab. You’re in the Quaalude Quarter”.
Great. As my cab drives around Greenwich Village - the bastion of beat, Ginsberg, Kerouac, James Farrell and Bob Dylan, street art and radical politics, the center of Off-Broadway, crowds of mini skirts and young thugs move down the lit and littered streets.
I arrive at my destination on Mercer street one block from Bleecker in the West Village and head up to Pete’s 18th floor apartment, marveling at the view of the teeming city - a sociologist’s dream with pockets of subcultures ranging from affluence and Rolls Royce’s parked in front of our building; yet two blocks on the left is the Bowery populated with alcoholics and skid-row homeless passed out on the steps.
After an excellent dinner of sushi, I waft off to sleep - the roar of the subway, the scream of a stabbing soothing my semi=softly shut eyes off to mingle with the iridescent clouds.
For a Saturday in August it’s a cool day for Summer in the City. Most of the celebrities about town have left for the Hamptons, but its not unusual to hear an occasional deli cook gush over the French toast he might have served to William Hurt or Al Pacino over the weekend.
Washington Square Park is a classic example of everything amusing about New York City. Balloon vendors converge, bag ladies sell their wares, roller skaters juggle tennis rackets, and we walk through crowds of knaves and happy tourists. I am told 50% of the people I see are undercover cops.
A tremendous concerto rings out from a longhaired piano player sitting in a drop down movable crate under the Washington Arch - a beautifully carved piece created by Stanford White in 2895, which presides at the foot of 5th Avenue in poignant irony over all the hubris, harlots and hooligans gathered as one.
As the piano player gathers a crowd of onlookers together (he is really quite good) I am told the fallen maestro sleeps in an accompanying piano rate at night like a Bronx bat.
For enjoying the cotton candy of sweet consumerism, there is no place like New York City. Shops shoot out from street like fresh stalks of corn waiting for harvest. Shops specializing in chess pieces, shops specializing in china plates, shops specializing in import records; there is nothing made in the world by man that one cannot buy in New York City.
Walking out one of these shops, however, I have my first encounter with a bona fide crazy. He’s standing on the sidewalk stripped to the waist completely painted with black charcoal. Breaking a cardinal rule, I look the crazy in the eyes. A one man audience is all he needs to start pointing and screaming, “From here to there you can’t find any room to breathe!” Despite the fact he may have a point, my friend Pete and I continue to walk.
Later that day another New Yorker friend of Pete’s remarks upon my experience. “You must realize,” he explains, “that given the profile of your traditional lunatic, the chances he will reside in New York City are very high indeed; but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are New York lunatics. Lunatics from all over the United States come to New York. Besides, what’s crazier - a guy painted in black charcoal screaming there’s no room to breathe, or a flag-waving patriot zealot living in the Midwest screaming for more bombs?”
Kicking over a discarded Perrier bottle on the ay home from a movie, I toss about the merits of this point. Given the carnage of alcoholism throughout the country, is it more crazy for New York City to at least have well-heeled bums with a preference for healthy California sparkling water?
SUNDAY IN CENTRAL PARK
Central Park is an oasis - a naturally planned aberration called on to protect the city’s water supply and give its denizens peace. Sunbathers soak, athletes jog and play baseball, and people actually try and relax on this Day of Rest. Trees with over 100 years of growth behind their branches set off definable tracks of time as revealed in such items as Cleopatra’s needle, an Egyptian obelist dating back to 1500 B.C. and moved to the park in 1880 - prehistoric possibilities in the city of high tech.
Central Park is surrounded by doctor’s offices, expensive prep schools, and the upper east side of Manhattan, which includes the chic Dakota - a beautiful Gothic legend, which since John Lennon’s assassination has turned into a grotesque tourist attraction, replete with little crowds of people peeking into the ill-fated entrance way….looking….for what....a lock of hair, the ghost of a great musical legend, or maybe some souvenir of sun-dried blood to take home for the kids?
The museums and galleries are to New Yorkers what meatball sauce is to Italians and punchy polkas are to Germans - a necessary source of nourishment and inspiration for the public mind in the midst of aggravated anxiety and a means to ponder the last mysteries of the creative hypothesis, free of uncorrupted logic and meretritious methaphor.
Whether one catches original Tiffany stained glass windows of such topics as the ‘View from Oyster Bay’, or slips into an exhibition of Rodin’s ‘Gates of Hell’, the detailed look offered through the museums and galleries of captured emotion and movement serves as a counterpoint to the insanity of continuous hustling and filled-up appointment books waiting to be followed Monday morning.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS • Hanging with the Thespians
My first New York stage play - a new off-Broadway musical titled ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is based on Roger Corman’s cult movie hit of the 1960s in which a new strain of Venus Flytrap starts eating people. Most plays are tremendously expensive, echoing the notion if you want to bathe in the theatrical limelight the price of admission can be more crucial than the point of the play.
For large part, the theatre is a major exponent of New York attitudes in general; and specifically, one of the few places left in the USA where actors and actresses can polish their art in front of different audiences every night of the week.
My New York friends are good companions with one of the actresses in this play - Marlene Danielle - an extremely talented singer, dancer, and actress who mimes and jokes with flashy glistening eyes while sweating to survive and make it ‘Big’ in classic and explosive New York City fashion.
She got the part for this play filling as understudy for the character of Maria in West Side Story and has appeared on the Today show. After the play, on top of her penthouse terrace in a modest and slightly seedy park of town, we eat duck, drink tequila sunrises and in the midst of the celebration, I realize that money and instant success on TV may speak of notoriety, but what is left of the true heart of New York City comes through the altruistic aspirations of its stage people.
On the New York stage, a strange mirror of distinction manifests somewhere between classic Midwestern Middle Class values and the countless striving and slightly starving aspirations of actors and actresses caught in the marrow of their roles. Characters brood about loss, indulge fantasy, survive everyday situations that in effect serve as a forum for study: the goal being to dramatize the dangers of the day by dissecting them and rearranging them to test humanity’s ability to pass through shocks, ambushes, tests and crisis. At least that’s what I walked away from hanging out and talking with this group of thespians at my one-and-only post-cast party.
This cast party is definitely a highlight of my trip. The stage people encompass the umbilical tie to the rest of the nation because plays speak of a communion between mystery and magic. They are church to some, ceremony to others, but mainly attempt to reach a moment sufficiently magical to live in the deepest nerves of the audience that sees them in action. They speak of fire rising up the edge of cold silver and hair rising on the back of the neck when the breeze of intimacy is touched.
Broadway is the heart and spirit of New York City because when it is really good, it offers what can be found in no other artform. It os a religion for the irreligious and gives praise of something which may live forever. And when plays are bad they are like NYC when the rubbish trucks refuse to roll - a concentration camp of clutter and cacophony for the crushed and cheerless.
There is easily much more I could write about my New York City vacation - the new rock clubs such as Danceteria or the renovated Peppermint Lounge; the beauty of the boardwalk of Brooklyn Heights - all solid subjects for explaining the poetry of a beautiful city left with little refinement and too much fear.
But hopefully enough points have been made and imagery rendered. And when it comes to affairs of the mind - Manhattan may have more miraculous feats of inspirational magic going for it; but as for the soul, I’ll take a sunset over the sweet shores of the Great Lakes of Michigan any day of the week.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)