“Go and visit that feverish and dreamy city.” ~ Georgio de Chirico
New York has been the center of the world (one of the centers? It would say otherwise) for a rather long time. Just the city’s name means things—variously defined—to people all over the world. This was truest in the twentieth century, which held our nation’s glory days. Midcentury New York had a late-night glamour; paging through old black-and-white photos, you can feel the romance and the daring.
When I planned a trip there, I had my pilgrimage list ready. The Algonquin, to nod at the ghosts of that viciously witty, self-consciously literary roundtable. The Russian Tea Room, opened by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet corps in 1927. The Stork Club, where Alfred Hitchcock, Dr. Seuss, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor hung out, news of Grace Kelly’s engagement broke, and Hemingway cashed his $100,000 check for the film rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls to settle his bill. Bemelman’s piano bar at the Carlyle Hotel, where the creator of the Madeline books painted murals of elegantly dressed bunnyrabbits picnicking in Central Park as a swap for eighteen months’ free lodging.
Somehow I expected to find a big, round, empty table at the Algonquin, not a dusty little corner of memorabilia. The Russian Tea Room closed, bankrupt, in 2002, and almost became a golf museum before reopening in 2006 with a less buttery and eminently forgettable menu. The Stork Club is now Paley Park, a pretty, minimalist space whose only drama is a waterfall. And my friend and I spent an hour standing in line at Bemelman’s only to be seated adjacent to the bar, hear a piano tinkling faintly, and open a menu that includes a $65 cocktail.
We bolted before the waiter returned.
What feels most real about New York today is not its venerable establishments but its people. The young woman from Ecuador selling ice cream cones. The Romanian kid from Thailand who intends to parlay his kitchen job into a Romanian restaurant. “New York,” he confides, “is the first place in America I felt truly comfortable.” The Uber driver from Punjab who welcomes me to “a twenty-four-hour city” and, when I ask if he has met any characters, rolls his eyes and reminds me, “This is New York!” The sculptor waiting tables at an Italian restaurant who speaks passionately about the espresso machine’s design then segues to the soul, confiding that he does not believe we have the right to take our own lives.
Nothing is too personal here. New Yorkers are ready to be seen and heard. (At a new hotel on the High Line, couples booked rooms just so they could open the drapes and shock the passing tourists.) A doorman tells me he grew up in Spanish Harlem and only got an eighth-grade education, but one of the tenants taught him how to invest, a little at a time, safely, and never look at the balance, and now he has put three kids through college and can retire early.
Asking directions, I learn to look for people attached to dogs and baby strollers, because everybody else shrugs and says, “I am from France.” Or Italy. Or Iran. Japan. India. China. Spain. Kentucky. “Everybody is from somewhere,” a cabbie from Ghana observes solemnly. “My dad said New York is the only place in the world where you can land and in a couple minutes find a police officer who speaks your language.”
As soon as I trash my habitual assumption that most people in a place are from that place, something breaks free. Few of us know New York inside-out. That means we are all in this together, looking hard, following breadcrumbs and tips and our GPS. I inhale deeply and realize the city runs on coffee and cannabis. At the Little Church Around the Corner—an Episcopal church beloved by the theater community—morning prayer is said at an auctioneer’s speed. In midtown, I look up and see graffiti painted so high on the buildings that only Spider-Man could have managed it. Everywhere there are projects, ideas, bits of whimsy, like the flamingos filling the pool at Lincoln Center and the disco mirror ball for summer dancing. So much style is on the streets, I can see why it was enough to fill Bill Cunningham’s life.
Finally, exhausted by all this looking and sniffing, I close my eyes and eavesdrop.
An older woman, watching a European stalk around on her cellphone: “She’s got attitude. This is not the place, but she’ll find out. I don’t want to wet her parade.”
A harried mother: “So I get home and the turtle’s on the couch watching TV.”
A man describing a buddy: “He doesn’t believe in anything, he’s not doing anything, he’s just fun.”
An older woman to a friend at the Jewish Museum: “She was actually instrumental in saving him from making an ass of himself.”
A younger woman outside the Met: “We’re trying to get laid seven to eight times.”
A puzzled wannabe actor, late night at Columbus Circle: “What would your mouth do if you didn’t know the words?”
On Fifth Avenue: “One thing about Russian women I’ve learned, they do whatever they damned want.”
Garment District: “Actually, this is the way it’s done in Hong Kong”—this from a White woman with an American accent.
In the middle of Times Square at midnight, a casual troupe of muscled street performers are showing off their tumbling skills. “Come closer, White people,” one calls, and the circle of well-dressed gawkers pulls tight. A better way to ease the tensions of racism than all the woke rhetoric in academe.
New Yorkers need the tension eased—and they need their surprising politeness—because they are smashed together. So many strangers, yet you see friends running into one another all the time; apparently there is a 15 percent chance of it. “The city is a huge monastery,” Erasmus once wrote. What do people worship here? Art, money, real estate?
They ought to worship one another.
In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto writes that Manhattan–“a slender wilderness island at the edge of the known world”—was where America began. It is still where we measure ourselves. Back in 1939, in the WPA Guide to New York City, a writer observed “the cycle of decay and renewal, the leapfrogging vagaries of fashion…the striking extremes.” Institutions fade, but those extremes are still here, embodied. The city keeps lighting itself up, drawing energy from the mix.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.