New York, the city of my birth, is the best, the most, the everything. I never get tired of it. Samuel Johnson famously said, ‘If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ Dr. Johnson never visited New York. New York grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go until she is finished with you. A mere mortal doesn’t stand a chance.
New York has changed a lot in some ways since my last visit; not so much in others. The new Yankee Stadium is more like a baseball theme park than a place where baseball is actually played. The old ballpark has been sanitized and recreated in the heart of the Bronx. It’s still by the El and surrounded by stores selling Yankee-branded gear of all kinds. Inside the stadium, you can buy designer food, craft beers, and even more Yankee merch. There’s a gigantic digital screen above center field and electronic ribbons running around the upper levels from the first base foul pole to the third, that carry game stats and ads. The original scoreboard from the old park is there. But the famous upper level white columns are recreations. The sound system is on a par with any concert venue. The restrooms are clean and plentiful. And the entire park is environmentally-conscious. It didn’t hurt that the Yanks won, 3-2. And Jeter hit a home run in his second at bat.
“There are no bad neighborhoods anymore.” I met an old friend for drinks. Like me, a former exile but who had made the move back to the city a few years ago. He’s right. New York has been, for lack of a better word, sanitized. Gentrified, overdeveloped, cleaned up, turned into a Potemkin village. It’s now a place for the very rich or the very poor. The middle class need not apply.
Many years ago, when I lived in New York, things were a bit different. We lived on the Upper West Side and it was truly the Wild West. A frontier. We would make plans to get together with other couples and, as soon as they found out where we lived, they would say, ‘You live where? Can we meet you?’ Today, the UWS is highly fashionable and a much in demand place to live. Tall, gracious buildings fill tree-lined streets. There’s not as much new construction and what there is, is designed to match what is already there.
We spent time with people from the old days who still live in the area and have never left. People we have known for many years, rarely see, but it’s as if we’ve seen each other a million times. Old friends are the best kind of friends. And we’ve known these people since college and the Army days–that many years have passed. It’s so easy to pick up the old rhythms and patterns. We don’t spend time talking about the past; however, we always acknowledge it and the role it played in bringing us together. What is that saying? The past is present.
We went to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It’s far from the first time I’d been down to the site; but this was the first time I’d been there since the park was done, the Freedom Tower completed and the Museum opened. We spent over 3 hours there. I was in tears when we left. Not just my country, but my city was attacked that day. And I shall never allow it to recede in my memory.
The Highline. Formerly an elevated rail track, it was unused and nature was reclaiming it. New York is desperately short of open greenspace in this most congested of cities. So a park was created. The self-seeded plants were augmented by others, walkways and benches were added; food vendors, Highline kitsch sellers, stairways and elevator access points came next. The very day we walked The Highline was the day the final section was opened to the public. I was among the first to walk the entire length of the park.
Give my regards to Broadway! Can’t go to New York and not see a show. Still not sure which was the more entertaining–the show inside the theatre or the one on the street. We had some time to kill after dinner, but before showtime, so decided to walk down Broadway to Times Square. A big section of Broadway is closed to traffic, so there are people wandering around everywhere. Costumed characters, superheroes, cartoon faves–all out there, trying to make a buck posing with the tourists. There is an illuminated, red staircase at Duffy Square behind the TKTS. booth, full of people, sitting and watching the parade below. And the signs! Oh my Lord, the signs! Swirling, whirling, flashing neon, digital millions of colors signs! Digital screens six stories high promoting new Fall television. The latest movies. New plays about to open. Leftovers from Fashion Week.
And all along Broadway, Seventh Avenue, Eighth Avenue and some of the side streets are vendors selling counterfeit designer handbags. Used to be, you went down to Canal Street and said a few words to someone, who found someone, who brought you to a locked storefront and then his cousin would roll up the gate and let you in to buy what looked like fairly good copies. But the designers got the police to shut them all down. Now the purse sellers are all from Senegal. They set their wares up on a bedsheet on the street and, at the first sign of approaching authority, bundle everything up in a flash and move to another location. They all seem to know each other and communicate via cellphones.
Don’t get me started on the smokers! Just don’t.
We had a glorious brunch at Barney Greengrass, recreating our usual New York Sunday morning. I bought a paper (first checking to be sure all the sections were there) after having to negotiate with a woman standing in front of the rack, staring at the paper. ‘Are ya looking or are ya buying?’ She stepped aside. Side note–I still got it. Then we hopped a cab uptown. Got seated right away–a bit unusual, there’s always a wait–and ate and ate and ate. Gave our waiter (note: not our server. This guy is a professional.) a semi-hard time. Don’t judge. It’s expected. And he gave as good as he got. The UWS, right by the restaurant, was the staging area for a gigantic parade/protest march against global climate change. There were huge charter buses, from all over, disgorging marchers of every demographic stripe. A few of them even came into Barney Greengrass with their signs and buttons and T-shirts to grab something to eat along the way. Why not? It’s going to be a long march. We, on the other hand, skipped the crowds and took the subway back.
Walking in the city, though, is the best way to get anywhere. I took a walk down Fifth Avenue one afternoon, crossing the street whenever the coast was clear. Not necessarily with a light and the little white man, but when there was no crosstown traffic to be seen or the traffic on Fifth was blocking the street. You can always tell the tourists from the locals by the way they gather at the intersections. New Yorkers step off the curb and look up the street at oncoming traffic to see if it’s safe to dash across the street. New Yorkers don’t wait for the Walk sign; they go when there’s a space to move. I’m a New Yorker. Jaywalking is my birthright.
I miss my city terribly. But Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. On these visits, I live an idealized version of my former life. I stay in hotels where anything I want is attended to, I eat in restaurants, I take taxis, I have a timetable of my own devising. I’m not tied to anyone else’s expectations. And when I’m done, I get on a plane and go back to my life in Los Angeles. And leave behind the noise and the traffic and the expense and the inconvenience of everyday life in the city. And the smokers!
I’ve been to some of the world’s greatest cities–London, Paris, Rome–and the one I currently live in is pretty OK in my book. But I am, and will always be, a New Yorker.