“Me and my stupidity, sittin’ on a fence
Digging what I thought was New York City.”
— Ian Hunter
This is another post in which my grandfather does not figure.
My aunt’s in it, near the end, but it’s not really about her either.
It’s about New York City. Two New York Cities, actually … as different from each other as Mona Lisas and mad hatters, but equally fabled, and equally real.
Climb the grimy stairs from the subway to the sidewalk, turn your shoulder into the wind, and I’ll tell you about them.
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From cultural scraps and second-hand narratives, half-hour scripted dramas and faded ads on the sides of brick buildings, I have constructed a mental narrative of two sharply different worlds occupying the same scattered geographic footprint.
We’ll call the first one “Golden New York,” and presume it existed from the end of World War II until sometime in the 1960s.
In my imagination, Golden New York is a place of cool confidence … a city where well-barbered men in crisply pressed business shirts make lots of money during the day and drink bourbon on the rocks in conservatively decorated penthouses at night.
You know this city as Sinatra’s New York, and Don Draper’s as well.
It is Holly Golightly’s playground, and Murray the K’s, and Harriet the Spy’s — a metropolis benevolent enough to protect tomboys who peer into skylights and squeeze into dumbwaiters.
This city of promise and adventure is also home to the Yankees, who roll to championship after championship with the same unruffled confidence shown by the bourbon-drinking business magnates; and the football Giants, who are not quite as dominant but capable of beating any team in the league with points and personality to spare.
Life in Golden New York is burnished and radiant and early-autumnal.
And it will not last.
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We’ll call its replacement “Tarnished New York,” though you might know it by its sardonic early-’70s nickname, “Fun City.”
It’s the squalid, bankrupt, grime-tattooed city Sinatra bequeathed to Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders when he pulled up stakes and moved to Palm Springs.
No one knows what happened to Don Draper and Holly Golightly — death? The suburbs? A quiet life somewhere upstate? — but they don’t walk the streets of this New York.
(Most people don’t, if they don’t have to. Even Theo Kojak tends to stay behind the wheel until he gets where he’s going.)
It’s no place for inquisitive schoolgirls with spy-notebooks. Life is cheap in Tarnished New York, and even getting onto a commuter train is a matter of taking your life into your hands. Never mind who you might meet if you step into a cab … or, hell, if you simply try to cross the street.
The Yankees? They’re struggling to win more games than they lose. And the football Giants? They’re in New Haven.
Tarnished New York, like Golden New York, will pass away with time. But it will leave its own counterbalancing impression, a burnt taste shadowing the autumnal crispness of its predecessor.
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If you buy the vision of two New Yorks, an inevitable parlor game follows: Where was the tipping point? Is there a single central moment of transition, or does it depend on the beholder?
(Exceptions and outliers can be found on both sides of the divide. The brutal murder of Kitty Genovese belongs to Sinatra’s New York, while the joyous, improbable victory of the ’69 Miracle Mets belongs to Ratso Rizzo’s.)
For my Aunt Elaine — who has been patiently riding the train in from Stamford during this entire rambling exposition, and is about to disembark in Manhattan — Dec. 31, 1966, might well have been a personal tipping point.
What was supposed to be a fun trip to watch the ball drop turned out to be something disillusioning. In my aunt’s words:
I went to Times Square on New Years Eve 1966 to watch the ball drop. It was the only time I did that because at that time I thought I was going to be trampled to death! I traveled into NYC w/a male friend from Stamford, as I was home from college for Christmas break.
We took the train to avoid drunken drivers. It seemed like a fun idea, but soon became apparent that the people in the larger area surrounding the ball were bombed and stomping around without regard for those under their feet!
I tried to get a drink at a bar, because I was 18, and it was legal in NY to serve liquor to 18 year olds, but they would not serve me. Then I tried to hide in doorways of stores to avoid serious injury and my friend tried to shield me, but that didn’t work very well either. So I watched the ball drop from this vantage point, but it was not nearly as exciting as it looks on TV!
Perhaps if we had arrived in mid-afternoon to get a front row spot and had brought our own flask, this endeavor would have been more successful!
Which New York will the ball drop on tonight?
A decade after its lowest low, the city appears to be riding high — maybe not as high as it did in Sinatra’s day, but successful and spirited nonetheless. (In fact, the well-being of New York City seems to be outpacing the well-being of the country as a whole, fraught as it is with shootings and fiscal cliffs and government gridlock.)
The city is closely connected to its suburbs, as it has always been. Perhaps tonight will be a night to remember, one way or another, for some 18-year-old taking the train in from Stamford.
That will be someone else’s myth to create.
For now, Golden New York and Tarnished New York are growing hazy and disappearing before my eyes like steam from a manhole … and a salaryman going on 40 in eastern Pennsylvania will take to his bed well before midnight tonight.
Happy New Year.