Exactly 25 years ago, this native New Yorker finally escaped his hometown’s gravitational pull and flew off to a new life in Europe.
Twenty-five years. A quarter century.
The former New Yorker, of course, is a familiar breed. One of us, a jazzman named Dave Frishberg, played piano at the Duplex, a Greenwich Village bar, in the ’60s, then moved to Los Angeles, where, after finding a degree of fame, he wrote a witty, wistful tune about the topic:
Do you miss New York —
The anger, the action?
Does this laid back lifestyle
Lack a certain satisfaction?
Do you ever burn
To pack up and return to the thick of it…?
When I first heard the song, back in my own New York days, I could relate, kind of. I spent much of my 20s (too much) in L.A., sitting by the pool at the Melrose Place–type complex where a relative lived. It was, as Frishberg’s lyric suggests, a very different world from New York — easier, quieter. The one problem was that, at the time, I was trying to make it as a freelance literary critic, and after a few days by the pool, invariably, I couldn’t read or write anything remotely serious.
In any case, I was never in L.A. for terribly long. And I didn’t want to be. I loved New York as Woody Allen does (and fully appreciated the L.A. gags in Annie Hall). And I loved living on the safe and civilized but surprisingly affordable eastern fringe of the Upper East Side, where I moved often to avoid the automatic biennial rent increases.
In memory, it’s as if I never rested: after a day of reading and writing (eased into with four-plus hours of golden-age Howard Stern), I’d rush off — rain or snow, hot or cold — to dinner downtown with friends; to some off-off-Broadway play I’d heard good things about; to a writer friend’s reading (usually at some little joint way downtown, occasionally at the upscale 92nd Street Y, and, once, at a tiny West Side hardware store, where a shaky John Ashbery stumbled in halfway through, zigzagged to the makeshift bar, and poured himself a giant vodka); to a book party or literary reception at some magazine’s offices or the National Arts Club or the late lamented Books & Co. (where owner Jeannette Watson, a true patron of the arts, threw my own first book party); to Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club on West 52nd Street (where a friend, Martha Sherrill, sang with Max Kaminsky’s legendary band); to the ballet at Lincoln Center (whenever my friend Dana Gioia, the great American poet, who subscribed, had a spare ticket); or to the monthly drinks party of the Vile Body (a club for young conservative writers founded by another friend, Terry Teachout) at the midtown townhouse owned by the Manhattan Institute.
From October 1983 to June 1993, I wrote at least one article for every issue of the New Criterion, and after delivering my monthly contribution in person (and hanging around to shoot the breeze with the editors, read other people’s galleys, and get sent off with a handful of free books), I’d take the elevator downstairs to the Carnegie Deli — where Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose begins and ends — and treat myself to a huge, pricey, impossibly delicious pastrami sandwich.
Living, first, in a sixth-floor walk-up on East 65th Street between First and York, I was pleasantly surprised by the chumminess of the neighbors, so at odds with the stereotype of New Yorkers: the charming old Hispanic lady across the hall whose dogs were named Romeo and Juliet (“they are lovers!” she gushed); Allison Burnett, the playwright in the apartment directly below mine who, years afterward, relocated to L.A. and wrote a Richard Gere romcom, Autumn in New York. Later, living on East 49th Street — a block down from Katharine Hepburn, whom I saw multiple times scampering down her front steps, still lithe and limber, to drop items in the trash — I enjoyed running around the corner, at lunchtime, in fine weather, to eat a sandwich in the U.N. gardens while perusing a review copy of whatever book I was supposed to write about next. (This was before 9/11 turned the U.N. grounds into an armed camp.) I was so young and vigorous that I’d wake at dawn to jog up and down the magnificently empty avenues. Early one morning, turning from 49th onto First, I found myself alone, as far as I could see, with Henry Kissinger, who was standing on the southeast corner with a small dog on a leash.
Still later, living at First and 54th, I liked being across the avenue from my favorite brunch place, an Irish bar called Parnell’s. And last of all, living at 89th between York and East End — the very building, coincidentally, where I’d lived as an infant, and where I could buy, not rent, only because my apartment’s previous owners, who’d retired to Florida after renting to a hoarder, wanted to unload it (and her) prontissimo — I loved being just a few dozen steps away from the East River. In the other direction, I was just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — which, in the winter, was the perfect place to stroll around for hours, piecing some text together in my head and pausing every few minutes to sit on a bench in front of a Van Gogh or a Sargent or a collection of medieval armor and scribble while the tourists flowed past. (In the Seinfeld episode “The Marine Biologist,” Elaine’s boss, Mr. Lippman, says that “Tolstoy used to write in the village square. The faces inspired him.” That’s me — Tolstoy.)
Then, of course, there was Central Park. One night when I was living on 89th Street, New York was hit by a huge snowstorm, and in the morning a friend and I trudged to the park and then all the way across it, from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West, without seeing another human being — or, for that matter, so much as a single footprint in the snow. We had the whole park, it seemed, to ourselves. It was dazzling.
My favorite flat of all was on East 85th Street — the fourth of five — where I lived on the same block as MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson. One day there was a piece of paper taped to the wall in our lobby: Woody Allen was looking for an apartment to use in his next movie. (I didn’t look into the offer, but when Crimes and Misdemeanors came out a year or so later, I realized he’d been scouting for digs for Anjelica Huston’s character.) On 85th Street, moreover, I was right around the corner from a piano bar, Brandy’s, which became my neighborhood haunt. What a joy it was to be able to put down my work and, five minutes later, hear a world-class chanteuse, Natalie Douglas (who, criminally, was obliged to double as a barmaid), belt out the standards.
It was, in many ways, a magical time. But eventually all New Yorkers start talking about leaving. Most, unable to abandon what they’ve told themselves is the center of the universe, never do go (although that number, thanks to the city’s successive Marxist mayors and DAs, has certainly climbed). But, 25 years ago, for a combination of personal and professional reasons, I eventually decamped.
When you’re back in town for a quick look around, how is it?
Does it feel like home or just another nice place to visit?
To be sure, it wasn’t a final goodbye. I’ve been back many times. Twice to bury my parents. In 2007, I was up for a book award and my publisher treated me to a week’s stay at a luxury hotel. (I lost.) In 2010, I went to New York — and traveled around the U.S. — to research another book. In 2011, briefly insolvent (not least because I’d poured so much dough into researching that book), I spent several months in and around New York on other people’s couches.
That was my longest time back. Did New York feel like home? Hard to say. The circumstances were weird. And it took days to get out of the habit of addressing people in Norwegian. I went to Brandy’s: the music was good, but Natalie had moved on. At Parnell’s, the waitstaff — and the menu — were different. (The Sunday morning English breakfast no longer included what, in my experience, were the world’s best sausages.)
Yes, I still knew Manhattan like the back of my hand. As much as ever, it was a delight to walk up and down the familiar avenues, wend my way through the crowds, grab a dirt-cheap slice of first-rate pizza, scan the bookshelves at the Strand. In one Seinfeld episode, George brags that when he’s somewhere in Manhattan and nature calls, he always knows where the closest available public men’s room is. I did, too. But was it home?
One day during that 2011 stay, on a crowded subway, I heard Norwegian being spoken. I never approach strangers. But this time I rushed over to the speaker — a man with two teenage sons — and started chatting away. He was indulgent. He asked, probably out of sheer politeness, for tourism advice. I told him his sons would probably enjoy the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. As soon as I got off at my stop, I was appalled at myself for having been so pathetically thrilled to run into “people from home.” And I was a bit surprised to realize that, yes, even in the heart of New York, Norway was home.
And were those halcyon days
Just a youthful phase you outgrew?
“Youthful”? Yes, in memory, at least, New York was about being young. It was about having the stamina to write all day — perhaps breaking at noon to walk the six miles to and from the Mid-Manhattan Library to pick up or return a few books — and then to take a packed, jostling rush-hour subway down to Greenwich Village or the East Village or Chelsea, attend some cultural event, spend hours afterwards shooting the breeze in a noisy eatery with half a dozen friends and strangers, walk alone 20 blocks or so to a crowded, smoky bar, down a few, and eventually walk the five miles home — all without ever getting the slightest bit tuckered out. And after all tha,t I’d wake up at six, turn on Stern, and start writing. (Tolstoy, I wager, would’ve found the sound of Howard’s voice very helpful in getting the day’s work off the ground.)
Alas, during my most recent New York visit, a year or two before COVID, I felt I was moving among ghosts. The Carnegie Deli was gone. The New Criterion had relocated its offices. My favorite Greenwich Village bar had closed: it was there that I’d first seen Madonna, not in person but on a boob tube tuned to her then brand-new, career-making “Material Girl” video on, I guess, MTV. The bar, I learned, had reopened in Midtown. I dropped in. It was now a piano bar. Between sets, I struck up a conversation with the pianist, who was terrific. I mentioned another gifted piano man, who back in the day had worked at Brandy’s. It turned out they’d been friends, and the Brandy’s guy had just died. My new acquaintance told me the whole sad story.
On that visit, I walked through Union Square. I thought of my friend Tom Disch, the brilliant poet and science fiction writer, whom I’d met in February 1985 at a dinner with mutual friends. (When told that I was the one who’d taken down Allen Ginsberg in that month’s New Criterion, his face lit up with joy.) He lived on Union Square for decades, and on the Fourth of July 2008, alone in his apartment, he’d put a gun in his mouth and blown his brains out.
I also made my way up to my old neighborhood in the East 80s. It looked largely the same. But when, out of curiosity, I checked out the rents online, they were astronomical.
Even now, when so many people are fleeing the Big Apple, the prices remain prohibitive. Do the trust-fund brats arriving every year from around the country, equipped with brand-new Ivy League sheepskins, think today’s socialist dystopia is the New York of story and song? Or is New York, like Harvard or Yale, just a brand name to them, a place where they can kick-start their careers, a potential line on their CV?
One person was still alive and kicking during my last visit: my old friend Terry Teachout, who’d worked his way up to being drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. In many ways, Terry was New York — a Missouri boy who’d been drawn to the city by its magic, who become a key figure on the cultural scene, who ended up (it seemed) being friends with absolutely everybody, and who, immune to the cynicism that eventually infected almost everybody else in town, leapt into his work every morning with youthful exuberance. (Unlike me and Tolstoy, Terry worked best in a tiny, windowless room with no distractions whatsoever.)
On Jan. 4 of last year, sitting on my couch in my sleepy little town in Norway, I exchanged Facebook messages with Terry, who, he’d recently written, was looking forward to discovering what the year 2022 held in store for him. Nine days later, sitting on the same couch, I glanced over at my computer screen, which had just refreshed, to see, on the Instapundit website, the words RIP: TERRY TEACHOUT.
I’ll never get over that particular shock.
I was never a regular at the Duplex, where Dave Frishberg played piano. But I did frequent a piano bar right across the street, where I was one of those half-sloshed patrons sitting around the piano until way after midnight, singing the old songs. I think I’ve been there every time I’ve returned to New York, and it’s one place that always does make me feel, a little bit anyway, as if I never left. The pianists change, but the songs remain the same: “On the Street Where You Live,” “I Won’t Send Roses,” “Send in the Clowns.” Plus a thousand others. And don’t forget that inevitable piano-bar tune:
Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York…
Well, I was a part of it. Still am, I guess. But as Heraclitus quipped, you can’t step into the same river twice. Or, as Tom Wolfe put it, you can’t go home again. Maybe before my next visit to New York I’ll tease out one of those lines into a lyric, set it to a catchy tune, and sing it at that piano bar. If I tip enough beforehand, I’m sure they’ll be good about it. Maybe, if I can track her down, I can even persuade Natalie to give it a try.