Last trip to Manhattan

A few weeks ago, a professional acquaintance asked if I would miss New York and I said I didn’t know.

 I still don’t know for sure, but I know I’ll always appreciate the city.  When you commute daily, though, it just gets old really fast.  No matter what neighborhood I’ve worked in, I’ll freely admit I didn’t take advantage.  Today I went into Manhattan for the first time in a week, and felt a thrill of excitement.  Perhaps, knowing it would be the last visit for a while, I also realized how much I do love New York.

My life in the city (by which I mean Manhattan, as all Staten Islanders do) spans many years and different neighborhoods.  As a high school student I haunted the village and the uptown museums like the Met and MOMA, but I also headed to the city libraries — Donnell and Mid-Manhattan were the best — when I had a research project.

The downtown area — Wall Street and the Battery — was a kind of extension of Staten Island.  My mom worked at Banker’s Trust, right on Wall St., and various other family members worked throughout the financial zone.  My first job, in the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school, was on Battery Place, then about as far west as you could go.  Work on the twin towers had produced an enormous excavation, and the Hudson Tubes (now the PATH trains) were literally suspended halfway up from the bottom.  From the office window, I could trace the outline formed by bulkheads of what would someday be Battery Park City. In a big  rectangle pushed into the river, the future neighborhood was a soppy area to which trucks from the Trade Center came in an unending line, dumping fill. 

Downtown was a different world then,  one that professional women only slightly younger than me might think I’m making up.  Women in finance and insurance — the big industries downtown — worked mainly as secretaries and clerks.  The brokers, traders, underwriters and bankers were male.  As were the construction workers, groups of whom could be found on every street.  At lunchtime in the summer, this male world disgorged onto the sidewalks, and any woman who walked by was fair game for an unending stream of catcalls — you got equal treatment from the guy in the hard hat and the trader in the white shirt.  

One of the highlights of that summer was the emergence from the subway on Wall and Broad, at about 12:30 every day, of a spectacularly endowed woman.  I first heard about it via the rumor mill at work and it helped explain why every man in the office was suddenly taking early lunch.  For days, men streamed to Wall Street to see for themselves — the crowds got bigger, traffic was halted, it was a phenomenon.  It was even reported in the Daily News (I am not kidding), complete with crowd shots and a photo of the woman herself.  At some point the thrill was gone, or maybe the woman was gone, but the crowd scene stopped; I have no idea whether it was a publicity stunt or whether she was a hapless victim of anatomy.  What I do recall is that she was estimated to have a 44-inch chest, and that thousands of office workers, hearing the news by telephone, teletype or word-of-mouth, showed up that summer to gawk. 

A few years later college put me back in the city.   I attended the New School on 12th Street, then worked there after graduation, and migrated southward to Washington Square for graduate school.  I frequented restaurants, bars and shops that were student-budget friendly, so there were vast parts of the far West Village that I never got to see.  My best friend in college lived in a shoebox on First Avenue and 9th St, long before the area became trendy. Or safe.  In those days the unwritten rule was that you didn’t go further east than Ave. A (and only about three blocks of that were OK), and no further south than 6th Street, unless you wanted to get mugged or worse.  Plus it wasn’t a good idea to walk any of these streets alone.  It didn’t help that one of those years was the Summer of Sam.

The shoebox consisted of a main room with a mini-loveseat on one wall (it opened to a single bed), a sink on another, an elevated, curtained shower stall in the corner, a tiny stove and about six inches of counter space in another corner, and a refrigerator between two heavily gated windows.  The door featured multiple locks including an iron bar thing that clicked into place to prevent the door being forced open.  Two doors led from this multi-purpose room.  One opened to a WC — literally a water closet that contained a toilet, period.  The bathroom-sized sink in the main room served for both bath and kitchen needs.  The second door opening led into a bedroom.  A platform that ran wall to wall to wall cut the room horizontally about six feet up from the floor; on it lay a mattress.  A dresser huddled beneath.  Your head grazed the ceiling if you sat up while on the loft bed, and it was hot as hades up there in the summertime, but any other kind of bed would have consumed all the floor space in the room.

The apartment had hot-and-cold running roaches and, toward the end of her residence, was also overrun by mice.  But Girlfriend went home to Illinois every summer and handed me the keys.  I vowed to keep the plants alive and could use the apartment when I wished.  And so, briefly, I had a place in the city.  Unfortunately, I think I killed the plants.

The Village offered lots of cheap ethnic restaurants before the cheap ethnic restaurant scene exploded throughout New York.  Two tea & coffee shops, including the famous McNulty’s on Christopher Street, kept us supplied with varieties of loose and exotic teas, when Lipton, Tetley and Red Rose were all supermarkets offered.  When I landed a job as assistant to the Dean at the New School immediately after my graduation, I indulged myself with frequent trips to Balduccis for bread and cheese. 

Father west, little shops charmed with one-of-a-kind ambiance.  A few months before I married Mr. NYer, I spied a modern maple butcher block drop-leaf table with caned chairs in a shop on Greenwich, perfect for a small apartment.  On the day we arrived to buy it, the shop owner directed us to season it with linseed oil, helped  load the furniture into the car, and accepted for payment one of those brand-new temporary, ,non-imprinted checks that you get when you first open an account.  He never asked for ID, remarking that he could tell we were honest.   We also loved Johnny Jupiter, a tiny place with a bell on the door that jingled when you arrived.  It featured early-to-mid- 20th century kitchenware and toys, and I’ve often wondered if the gay owner survived the 80s. 

I fell into teaching after I got my masters’ degree, just for a year or two before I resumed study for my Ph.D.  A year or two turned into 18 years on Staten Island, with only occasional trips to Manhattan for quick injections of culture, entertainment, school or shopping.

In the last  decade, though, I’ve been there pretty much every day.  I worked near Columbus Circle for a long time, only a block from Central Park, which I only occasionally repaired to for my summertime lunch.  I tried to do it more often and even carried a sarong to lay on the lawn, but with a three-and-a-half hour round trip commute, I usually ate lunch at my desk to avoid staying later than I already did. Until the Time Warner Center opened, there really wasn’t much in the area to enchant the sense or stimulate the spending anyway.  

For  the last year or two, I’ve been in Soho. It’s been a much easier commute, to a potentially much more interesting neighborhood, and I did my best to take walks in and out of Soho, Nolita, Chinatown and Tribeca when the weather was good.  Old habits don’t die, though, and too often I ate lunch at the desk and hurried home at night.  Venturing out onto Broadway takes stamina, anyway, because it’s clogged with meandering, gawking tourists.  Upon arriving in Soho, I made a discovery:  everyone on the streets, especially off Broadway, was younger, thinner, richer or hipper than I. Often they were all four.   Most disappointing:  I was ready, able and willing to shop, but apparently it’s against the law to sell clothes suitable for women over 30 in Soho.  Topshop had  ropes and bouncers to keep people  like me out.

The point is, when you go anywhere day in and day out, the routine kills the senses.  It’s hard to see, smell, hear or feel anything new.

Only a week has passed since I was in Manhattan last.  Today a lunch date brought me to Times Square, so I grabbed an express bus that goes up 6th Avenue after emerging from the Battery Tunnel.  I am still surprised to see that the high teens have turned into a shopping mecca — these were deserted industrial loft areas for such a long time.  I saw that the flower district of the 20s had shrunk, but was happy to find a few blocks of the wholesale flower business survived.  As the bus approached Herald Square, we entered the trimmings district, something I didn’t know existed.  For several blocks, store after store offered beads and trimmings “wholesale to the trade and to the general public.”  Seeing this subsection of the garment/fabric district gave me a thrill–there’s always something new in this city, something you feel you just discovered. 

That’s when I realized I would miss it. 

I got off the bus on this crisp winter day, and got the whiff of chestnuts roasting from a nearby street vendor.  It’s a smell that instantly recalls waiting in line to be admitted to the Christmas show at Radio City (in the days before you could  buy tickets in advance).  Early for lunch, I walked a few blocks, and realized just how many restaurants I hadn’t eaten in.  Oh well.   I wove in and out among the tourists, and savored the pace of New York.  I like walking fast.  Passed Virgils Barbeque where a truck, filled with hickory logs, was parked outside, and men from the kitchen pushed carts laden with the logs right through the front door.  After lunch, in one of those noisy, warm and gloriously busy midtown restaurants, I waited for the bus on Fifth Avenue and wallowed in the people-watching.  There might be folks who bicycle in Montgomery, but chances are I’m not going to see a middle-aged black woman biking by wearing a hat worthy of Aretha and rhinestone-encrusted eyeglasses with wings that scroll up to her hairline, so beyond cats’ eyes that I don’t know what to call  them.  

Will I miss New York?  I don’t know.  But I do know that I will never lose my capacity to marvel at the city and love its details.  Maybe for the next move, I’ll live in Manhattan.  But not in that shoebox on First.