Sunday, February 17, 2013

47. Discovering New York: Three Stories

          Here are three stories of people coming to New York City in the 1950s: their first impressions, their adjustments, their adventures and misadventures.

The magical city

         My partner Bob grew up in Jersey City, which in those days was a blue-collar town and, in the sections he knew, predominantly white.  He wasn’t unhappy there, but by the early 1950s he sensed in it a certain sameness, whereas just across the Hudson was something strikingly different: a magical city, New York.  And so, at the tender age of thirteen, this inquisitive eighth grader embarked on a series of explorations.  Sometimes he took his younger brother with him, but usually he went alone.  He preferred going alone: more freedom.  So off he went, wearing a blue-and-white terry shirt and chinos or dungarees.


         The adventure began in Jersey City itself, when he took the trolley to the Hoboken dock.  The trolley, with its clanging bell, had an old-fashioned charm for him, and approached the terminal on a high trestle that was just a bit scary.  But soon he was in midstream on the ferry, with New York’s skyscrapers looming in the distance.  Landing at Barclay Street, he explored the Washington Market, a huge enclosed structure with hundreds of vendors, where carcasses of duck and pheasant and geese and venison and bear were strung up in the stalls, and buyers thronged, and stands in the corners of the market offered roast beef sandwiches and beer.  (He was underage, so no beer!)  Nothing like this in Jersey City!

        Walking on through what is now the World Trade Center site, he passed dozens of little shops and came to Saint Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, the city’s oldest church (1766), its classical Georgian portico topped by an octagonal tower, and next to the church a cemetery with hundreds of worn gravestones.  Inside he found a complete contrast with all that was happening outside: elegant architecture, chandeliers, space, quiet.  Above all, in the heart of this bustling metropolis, quiet.

File:St Paul's Chapel sunny jeh.JPG

File:NYC - St Paul Chapel - Interior 1.JPG
                                                          Jean-Christophe Benoist


          Going on from there, he would come to the old City Hall, a gem of Federal architecture, and its park, with the Brooklyn Bridge looming nearby.  Often he would have coffee across the street at the Park Place automat, not noted for elegance but suited to his limited budget.  After that he went to Foley Square, where at the top of steep steps the courthouses rose impressively, fronted by Corinthian columns.

                                                                                                        TEAM TOM 

         And then to Chinatown, the most congested section of his walk, where not only the people looked different, but he was baffled by signs in a strange language, indecipherable jabberings with weird intonations, and groceries displaying hunks and slices and heaps and sprouts of foods that were totally unfamiliar.  This was his first immersion in another ethnic group, another culture.  Once again, nothing like it in the Jersey City he knew.

         Along the Bowery there were pawnshops, flophouses, pushcarts, cheap restaurants with their bargain prices conspicuously displayed, bums sprawled on the sidewalk, and – an invitation that he would some years later accept – a cabaret advertising Sammy’s Bowery Follies.  The Bowery was shabby and down-and-out – another stark contrast after the courthouses and City Hall -- but he didn’t feel threatened.

                                                Gerhard Vormwald

File:Blossom Restaurant; 103 Bowery by Berenice Abbott in 1935.jpg

         From there he walked to Cooper Union, or took the Third Avenue Elevated, which he came to love – to the point of riding on the very last train in 1955.  The 
used bookstores along Fourth Avenue between 9th and 14th streets he also loved, and Greenwich Village as well, which was less commercial then than today and mostly residential, quieter, with an atmosphere that he considered bohemian; artists and writers would be happy there.  

          For lunch he usually resorted again to an automat, probably one of the Horn & Hardarts found all over the city, self-service restaurants where you surveyed the array of foods offered in little glass-fronted compartments, made your choice, inserted coins in a slot, raised the hinged door, took the dish out, and carried it to a table.  A bit impersonal, but convenient, quick, and cheap.

A New York automat.

(Surprisingly, the automat was not an American invention, but an import from Germany in 1902.  There were forty Horn & Hardarts in New York at one time, but in the 1970s the automats were undermined by two developments: the coming of the fast-food restaurant, and inflation that raised prices to the point where it was no longer practical to insert coins in the slots; dollars were needed.)

          Often he had another coffee in the Café Figaro at the corner of MacDougal and Bleecker.  Or sometimes he would go to the Lower East Side to see Delancey Street with the busy stands selling clothing on the sidewalk, and have coffee and a snack at Katz’s Delicatessen, which still exists today, when so much from back then has vanished, much of it to make room for the ill-fated World Trade Center.

         When he took a PATH train back to Jersey City, he was saturated with the excitement, bustle, and diversity of magical New York, though not unhappy to be going home, since he knew he would be coming back again many times.

Of bluey blues, bagels, and martinis

         My own discovery of the city was very different.  Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I had often visited the Loop, so I had had many glimpses of a big city and its surging crowds.  I came to New York after two years of study in Europe, so I was constantly comparing it to European cities.  Returning by boat from France, I experienced the harbor as all new arrivals then did, and was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, looming up like nothing I had seen in Europe, and, running between them, deep, deep canyons of streets.  Clearly, this was a New World, bold, unsubtle, dynamic, unencumbered by the clutter of the past.

         I came to New York for the most practical of reasons: a scholarship for graduate studies in French at Columbia University.  So while Bob was exploring monuments and communities all jammed together at the lowest tip of Manhattan, I was experiencing the campus of a huge university and exploring a different way of life.  I was lodged on the fifteenth (the topmost) floor of John Jay Dormitory, I ate in the ground-floor cafeteria and attended classes in nearby buildings.  But I was learning a lot more than what my classes offered.

File:Columbia pano.jpg
The Columbia campus today, little changed from the early 1950s.  Looking north from Butler Library
toward the classical elegance of Lowe Library, which is now used for administrative purposes.
Getty Hall

          Sartorial elegance – or at least conformity – was requisite.  “Don’t wear any browny browns or bluey blues,” a new friend advised me, when I was shopping for a jacket or suit.  “Don’t be one of those!  “Those,” presumably, were oafish rubes from the provinces who sported gaudy colors and thus proclaimed their lack of New York sophistication.  And my friend Ken informed me imperiously, “When shopping for a shirt, you don’t go just anywhere; you go to a shirtmaker!”  By way of demonstration he took me to a pricey men’s clothing store where the well-heeled shopped; admittedly, the shirts there reeked of elegance and taste.  Ken himself, having a slight build, got most of his clothes from the boys’ department at Brooks Brothers, shrewdly combining elegance and a budget.  No such stratagem was available to me, nor was I drawn to such esoteric realms; in Brooks Brothers I never set foot.  But as a child of the Midwest whose wardrobe, after two years of student living in Europe, was, to put it mildly, shabby, I had a lot to learn, and mentors were not lacking.  This was, of course, long before the peacock revolution of the 1960s, when men’s clothing erupted – briefly -- into a rainbow of colors, and Ken himself would sport rings on all his fingers; back in the 1950s when I first experienced New York, restrained taste was still the rule.

Friends of mine, fresh baked.  But there are bagels
and bagels.  Here, as everywhere, quality counts.
Ezra Wolfe
         Another thing that struck me was the prominence of Israel in the news.  Many of my friends were Jewish, and I was soon absorbing and even using a host of phrases new to me: chutzpah, mishegosh, shicksa, goyim, and the names of all the Jewish holidays, while at the same time having my first taste of a bagel and a blintz.  And Jewish jokes abounded: the Jewish lady in Miami Beach who shouted, “Help!  Help!  My son the doctor is drowning!”  In fact, so many jokes opened with the phrase, “There was this Jewish lady whose son was a doctor,” that everyone but me would already be laughing.  So it went.  “I want to be Jewish!” I finally announced.  “Because all my friends are Jewish.”  (A slight exaggeration.)  “In that case,” said a young woman friend with a knowing smile, “you’ll have to have a bris.”  Smiles all around.  But by then I had a good idea of what was involved and could explain that, being a hospital baby, I had already undergone the procedure, albeit with a shocking lack of ritual.

File:Dry Martini-2.jpg
My enemy.

         Imbibing was another part of the New York way of life; every social occasion required it.  Scotch and very dry martinis were in vogue and, not knowing better, I went along.  One martini, I soon learned, relaxed me; two made me everyone’s friend and a brilliant wit; three meant immediate befuddlement and, the following day, a nasty hangover. There was simply no such thing as a single martini; they were by nature serial.  As a result,  one evening I had to leave a party early and go home, and on another occasion I saw the double bill of Tennessee Williams’s Garden District and Suddenly Last Summer float by me in a haze.  In time – a very long time, alas -- I learned to shun martinis, a ban that continues to this day. 

         I was never completely a New Yorker; maybe my Midwestern roots ran too deep.  My mother once, having met my friend Ken, promptly informed me, though without a hint of censure, “He’s very New York!”  I doubt if anyone has ever said that of me.

How a naive Midwesterner was plunged into the New York art and design world

         Our friend John (for another of his adventures, see post #41) tells how, an 
innocent in every way, he left his home town of Minneapolis and came to the city in June 1951, fresh out of college with a B.A. in English and vague hopes for a writing job.  On the train he met a young woman whose sister was a designer in the city, and through the sister he heard of Interiors magazine and a possible job there.  Arriving in the city, he stayed briefly at a YMCA and then, seeing an ad in the Times where "twelve Christian gentlemen" in Jackson Heights -- wherever that was -- were looking for another roommate, he answered the ad and ended up in distant Queens, with twelve guys who shared a big apartment and had a room to let.  Then, having settled in, with the spunk of innocence and no knowledge of interior design, he rushed to apply for a job at Interiors.

         It was a hot summer day and, having only one suit, a heavy wool one appropriate for the wintry rigors of Minnesota, he wore it and sweated profusely.  Furthermore, his blond crewcut and tie with zigzags situated him, as he now realizes, at the antipodes of New York sophistication.  Going to the magazine’s office on East 50th Street, just across from Saint Patrick's cathedral, he applied.  The magazine’s managing editor, a woman named Magda, entered the waiting room – stomp, stomp, stomp – with a heavy tread and a look of being very, very busy.  Her stomp and her appearance were, to put it mildly, formidable.  Slightly overweight with red hair in severe braids wrapped tight around her head, and plainly dressed with no attention to fashion, she exuded a kind of Old World funkiness.  With a look of having little time to waste on a lowly applicant, she led him into her office, confirmed that there was indeed an opening, gave him a book entitled Designing Tapestry, and told him, “Take this book and bring me a review in twenty-four hours!”  That said, she waved him away.  John rushed off eager to do as instructed, the only problem being that his mind was uncompromised by any knowledge of design or tapestries.

          The next day he was back in her office with his review.  Looking as busy as ever, Magda gave him a cursory look, then took the review and read it.  Nervous, John waited in suspense for the verdict.  To his surprise, her features softened.  “You write very well,” she said.  “I have others to interview, but you are definitely in the running.”  Again, she dismissed him.

         Over the next few days John was going to other interviews – none of them promising – or simply wandering about gaping at big buildings like the Minnesota naïf he was.  Then, after a week had passed, she phoned him: “John, the job is yours.  You lack experience, but we’ll train you.  You can learn.”

         John was elated: on his very first try, he’d landed a New York job that involved writing!  If the pay – fifty dollars a week -- wasn’t princely, neither were his qualifications.  His first assignment for the magazine was to write a three-or-four-page section presenting small news items from the rich and fascinating world of interior design.

         A few weeks later he learned from someone in the office that, just when he was being interviewed, there had been another applicant for a job at the magazine: a journalist named Ada Louise Huxtable, who hoped for a somewhat more elevated position than the one John got.  And why had he been hired, and not Ms. Huxtable?  Because she was overqualified and he was underqualified, and underqualified was just what they wanted: someone new to the game whom they could train, while paying an appropriately measly salary, and not the substantial sum that Ms. Huxtable would have expected.  The publisher, John learned, was stingy.

         John worked for Interiors for five years, acquiring experience and writing reviews of interior design installations.  His relations with the overbearing Magda ran smooth at first, and he noticed how, when an important visitor came calling, she could be a fountain of charm.  But when the top editor died and Magda pressured the publisher into naming her as his successor, and John was promoted to managing editor, that relationship changed.  A workaholic, Magda was desperate to keep her job, and now eyed John – and for that matter everyone else – warily, as if they were out to snatch that job away from her.  Yet John, harboring little ambition, was perfectly satisfied with the job he had.

         A byproduct of the magazine job was entry into the world of art.  The magazine had connections with prominent artists and critics – Andy Warhol did covers for them – and John got to know a number of them; to this day he is knowledgeable about the New York art world and maintains contact with several artists or their widows.  But when he got a hunk of money for an article on Playboy, he quit his job and set off to explore the Old World wonders of Europe.  Happily, in those days the dollar went far.
         A hopefully relevant aside:  Beginning as a journalist, Ada Louise Huxtable went on to become this country’s most noted critic of architecture and in 1970 won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for criticism.  She loved cities and was a great preservationist, lamenting the demolition in 1964 of the old Penn Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece, to make way for the fourth incarnation of Madison Garden.  “Not that Penn Station is the Parthenon,” she wrote, “but it might as well be, because we can never again afford a nine-acre structure of superbly detailed travertine [a kind of limestone], any more than we could build one of solid gold.  It is a monument to the lost art of magnificent construction, other values aside.”  I recall my own shock when, soon after the demolition, I saw a photograph of the station's imposing columns lying abandoned in a field in New Jersey, soon to be used in a landfill in the Meadowlands.  But the loss of this architectural treasure, probably unappreciated by most commuters as they hurried through it, gave a hearty boost to the budding preservationist movement in the city. 


The main waiting room of the old Penn Station: 
high-vaulted classical magnificence.

    And then ...


(c) 2013  Clifford Browder


No comments:

Post a Comment