Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ghosts of New York

Mourning the loss of old New York is practically a cottage industry in new New York.

Websites like Jeremiah's Vanishing New York document the domino fall of mom-and-pop stores and longtime watering holes, killed by $30,000-per-month rents and replaced with TD Bank branches and designer boutiques. (In the interests of full disclosure and blatant promotion, I should mention that Jeremiah covered My Beloved, whose Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies comic strip in the Village Voice Jeremiah describes as "...an invaluable time capsule of two decades when New York City was still a wild, weird, creative place filled with people who, at the very least, had something interesting to say.")

A niche site, ...and now it's a f***ing froyo place, hilariously specializes in the transformation of locals businesses into...you got it. Meanwhile the glorious Ephemeral New York celebrates the old city—before MetroCards replaced subway tokens, before froyo places replaced everything.

Boy Leaping Into Hudson River by Ruth Orkin, via Ephemeral New York

Even I, a relative newcomer at four-and-a-half years in, get snarly when I look out my window and see cranes on the old St. Vincent's Hospital site, now erecting a behemoth of "five unique addresses and five townhouses nestled together in the West Village"—for cozy nestling prices ranging from $2.195 million (for 892 square feet) up to $19.15 million. With, no doubt, proximity to a frozen yogurt place.

In the gloom of a storm, the cranes of "The Greenwich Lane" rise above the Village.

I know the rule of thumb: The Golden Age of New York was 20 years before whenever you got here. And I know that New York has never stood still. Still, it's feeling lately like the pace of change has gone to lightspeed—closures-building-closures-building-CLOSURES!-BUILDING!—with wads of new money greasing the skids.

But once in a while, you get to reach through a tear in the fabric and touch old New York. As on July 4, when we made a last-minute decision to have dinner at Fraunces Tavern before watching fireworks over the East River. Though it's been through many permutations through the years, the original building dates to pre-Revolutionary times, and it was here that George Washington bid farewell to his officers in 1783, as he prepared to resign his commission from the Continental Army.

Fraunces Tavern, where 1719 meets 2014.

Sure, the place was full of tourists, but it felt both appropriate and privileged to join George on the 4th of July. Even if he wouldn't have been drinking Abita beer during his last supper.

By the time we finished dinner, we couldn't get anywhere near the East River for fireworks, so we ended up in Battery Park behind the glassy new Staten Island Ferry building. As we watched the fireworks rise up over the roof, I was drawn to the quote on the wall inside the building—we could only see its final phrase:

It turns out to be two lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem Recuerdo:
We were very tired, we were very merry, 
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
On Sunday, we joined Ms. Millay and went back and forth on the ferry. It was hot and humid—no surprise in July—and as I often do during summer months here, I was trying to imagine exactly how unbearable it was in New York in the days before air conditioning.

The New Yorker recently re-posted on its website a piece by Arthur Miller that had appeared in a 1998 issue on this very topic. Writing about an "extraordinarily hot September" in the late 1920s, Miller said:
Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s...
...Broadway had open trolleys with no side walls, in which you at least caught the breeze, hot though it was, so that desperate people, unable to endure their apartments, would simply pay a nickel and ride around aimlessly for a couple of hours to cool off. 
Trolley at Broadway and Bleecker, 1917 (c) Culver Pictures

From 1897 until 1972, you could also ride the Staten Island Ferry for a nickel—crisscrossing New York harbor, hanging on the railings, just to feel fresh air on your face. Today, miracle of miracles, the Ferry is free for foot passengers, and on a muggy July afternoon, we were two of them.

The view from our outside bench on the middle deck of the Guy V. Molinari.

Some things never change:

Once docked on Staten Island, we disembarked from the Guy V. Molinari, circled through the ferry building, and immediately boarded the Spirit of America. There was a lot of competition for railing space on the side of the ferry with a view of the Statue of Liberty, but I muscled my 5'2" self into position on the top deck...and there she was.

Then, an hour after we'd started, we were back again—now a little cooled, a lot windswept—facing new-old New York, and greeting the ghosts of Arthur Miller and Edna St. Vincent Millay and generations of hot and sweaty New Yorkers.

On the Staten Island Ferry 1956 by David Moore

From the Staten Island Ferry, July 2014

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.

POSTSCRIPT: I was going to draw a line between the late St.Vincent's Hospital (now the site of The Greenwich Lane) and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but thought maybe I was going overboard...so to speak. Many thanks to Ephemeral New York for alerting me to the fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay was in fact named for the hospital, where her uncle had recently been treated and whom the family credited with saving his life.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Story About Ralph

Sometimes you wake up grumpy. You slept hot; or a disturbing dream hangs on you like a bad suit; or joints that did their job in compliant silence when you were 23 are now whiny and demanding. Whatever. Grumpy. Obviously, the answer is ducklings.

We went down to the river around 6:30 this morning, thankful for a mottled sky and a nice breeze off the water.

We sat on a bench and talked about work and advertising and Harvey Weinstein (briefly, that), and then a mother duck and nine fluffy-bottomed ducklings pulled up alongside us.

Most of the ducklings, eager and well-behaved, tended to cluster close to their mother's tail feathers. Ralph, the nonconformist, would drift to the outer reaches of her tolerance before she sent him the universal maternal signal for "Get back here."

Now we became the Jane Goodalls of the Hudson River duckling set: We followed the family's progress as they moved toward and around the pier, the implacable mama and her erratic toddlers, their tiny flippers whirring under the water to keep up. 

It's a big world out there.

They negotiated obstacles…

…and then she got them to toe the line.

Finally it became clear that they were heading to this little cul-de-sac...

…where they lined up and pecked at the slimy green stuff (scientific term) growing on the concrete containment walls. Periodically the sloshing tides would lift the family nearly a foot, and they'd crane their necks for another bite...

…but Ralph went in search of a cheeseburger.

It all reminded me of The Story About Ping, the "beautiful young duck" who lived on "a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze river," and who got separated from his "mother and father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins" for one scary and eye-opening day.

My stained and well-loved 1933 edition.
Rather, my mother's edition, which I stole.
At six or seven or eight, I read Ping's story as a "Whew" tale—as in, "Whew, he got back to his family safely and he'll never do THAT again."

Now I think, Isn't there some lingering token from his day of misadventure—the look of awe, maybe, in the wide, wide eyes of his forty-two cousins as he describes the "big boats and little boats, fishing boats and beggars' boats, house boats and raft boats" that he saw on "the yellow waters of the Yangtze river?"

Keep paddling, Ralph. Ride the tides.

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.