We’re new. We put it in our name. When we stop looking ahead, remove the internal organs and inject formaldehyde; we’ll be dead. And yet a time comes when even a New Yorker realizes that, simply by staying put, in this world and in one spot, he has seen places that have vanished, and known people that no one can ever meet. Everyone is a historian, every life is a city.
Some things are better off gone. In Union Square today, farmers sell rutabagas, dogs run, guys fall off skateboards. They wouldn’t have dreamed of it 30 years ago. The lawn was dirt then, hollow-eyed muttering men offered “smokes,” the only diversions were occasional rallies of the Communist party. The infamy of the park was worldwide; my trainer remembers, from his youth in the islands, rap songs about Union Square and what went down there, all of it exciting, none of it good.
Buildings last longer than milkweeds, about as long as trees. Three blocks from where I live there was a movie theater so old the nomenclature had not yet congealed when it was built. PHOTO PLAYS, said the spindly neon sign. You can follow the thought process of the new-media merchant: I am showing photographs, but the series of them tells a story. Next door stood a mission, a simple brick building that always had some ad for Christ posted on its message board. By the time I moved in, the photo plays all told one kind of story, porn; then the theater became an actual play house, losing in the process its ancient sign. The mission remained faithful, until both buildings fell to the last real-estate boom.
Peoples and their neighborhoods have struck their tents, and moved on. A portion of the Upper East Side still showed traces of the German diaspora as late as the Koch years. It was there I first tasted May wine, a double fake: sweet from the sugar, hard from the brandy. The Germans also liked whimsical marzipan, molded into tiny fruits, hams, and red-spotted mushrooms, to distract your palate from the fact that it all tasted like erasers.
The Jews have abandoned the Lower East Side, leaving their synagogues behind them to be converted into Hispanic Pentecostal churches. One of the last businesses to hang on was a lingerie shop at the bottom of a street of clothing stores. A high narrow space, it had heaped-up counters in the center of the floor, but most of the stock was stored in flat boxes, from the manufacturers, ranged on towering shelves. The owner had the dream job of every twelve-year-old boy; he could tell a woman’s bra size by glancing at her, and pluck down the appropriate sheath. After the shop closed, my wife got a letter saying that he was now selling insurance. She would rather we had bailed out his first business.
Ethnicities move away; when people move on, they go farther than Jersey. The old journalist was, like all of us, an ideologue, but he loved losers and irony; his heart often and his wit always warred with his opinions. He looked like a crane, the symbol of longevity, and his stance was alert, as if he was ever ready to perform a service. He loved anecdotage, talk freeing him from the Chinese boxes into which he packed his written words more and more tightly. When he began writing, the city had eight or nine daily papers. The difference between respectable and not-respectable newspapers, he explained, was that the readers of not-respectable newspapers would send you letters saying, “Sir: You are the servant of Jews and Negroes. AN AMERICAN” while the readers of respectable newspapers would send you letters saying, “Sir: You are the servant of Jews and Negroes. Roger F. Rogers, 33-62 47th Ave., Elmhurst.” Everyone honored him; he’s been dead for eleven years. Only one of his books is still in print.
The restaurateur built his business from a hole in the wall to a class act. Every meal was a production. While the maitre d’ took orders and armies of waiters shuffled plates and cutlery, he explained his entrees, listed on the menu in a private code, opaque and slightly erotic (Nightgown, Boom-Boom). Dessert was the climax, when a harem of lovelies would be rolled out on a cart. He had Italian mannerisms of a very old-fashioned sort, before cool gangsters or the Rat Pack. When he died, his obit said that he had had a considerable career recording humorous ethnic songs for the Italian-American market. Who knew? (Smile, shrug, spread hands.) The maitre d’carried on a while; a few months ago I heard the place closed.
Then there was the ringmaster. He did a million things, but his role peculiar to New York was to bring people together. He was always introducing you to Henry Kissinger, or to some college kid whose writing he liked, or to some beer or wine club. What other people could do was a bottomless source of fascination to him, and therefore, he assumed, to you. He hosted a thousand suppers in his stage set of an apartment, making all his guests sing for theirs, rapping his wine glass to direct our attention to the newest pearl. After he died, some of the regulars got invited to a last evening, a kind of wake. But it turned out to be a staging for the realtor; we were re-enactors, like the blue and the grey refighting Chancellorsville. There was a goody bag at the end, commerce imitating life and the art of hospitality together. In 20 years brokers will show holograms.
Among all the people who are gone is you, with ambitions and prejudices and Seventies hair, with less knowledge and fewer sins. Someone of the same name keeps that man’s place, pretends to answer for him now and then, whenever people want some odd particular glimpse of the past.