17 February 2012

New York Stories: 4 AM.

     When you fall in love with a city, it tells you its secrets.

   New York is, for better or worse, the city I am in love with.

    Oh, I've had flirtations: Paris and I have a long standing affaire, but, not surprisingly, it doesn't want to commit; Rome and i have had some beautiful moments, but, being both beautiful AND Italian, it's seeing other people; and Sydney and I like to say "we're just good friends", but that time in the park when a three-foot-tall ibis with a scimitar where it's beak should have been, offered to eviscerate me if i didn't hand over my sandwich...well, that moment binds us forever. -Me, Sydney, AND the ibis. [Note to bird lovers everywhere: maybe it wasn't an ibis. I didn't stop running long enough to ask.]

   But New York has my heart.

   Maybe it's because my family got here from Limerick, Ireland, in 1832, and one way or another, never got around to leaving. Maybe it's because my family's history is inextricably intertwined with the history of New York: not in a big way, but in small ways that matter. I can walk around and see the house where three generations of my mother's family lived : the upright, now-Episcopalian, newly hyphenated (some of them, anyway) Knox-Robinsons. I stand in front of the townhouse on West 10th Street, and think about how the hero of the 19th Cavalry Brigade of NYC, also known as The Fighting Irish, came home from with a Congressional Medal of Honor from Gettysburg, and later, ran for Mayor of the City in 1876, on an Anti-Tammany Hall/Anti Boss Tweed platform. Since the Boss and his Tammany machine ran every molecule of the city back then with a grip that was ferocious, greedy and ruthless, I think Captain Knox got minus twenty-two votes. 
 Then, I can go to Fifth Avenue and 41st Street and see the grand Stanford White-designed "Knox Building", symbol of my lovely Mom's family's former glory. My profligate grandfather, on that side, sold that gorgeous gold mine of a marble property, for a song in the 60's: right around the time he burned a Mary Cassatt portrait of his mother, because he had "never cared for it.". [That sound you hear right now is me yelling, "Even if you hate art,someday you'll have a granddaughter who both loves art and could really use a trust fund!!", to handsome, improvident, dead Grandad.]
Or,  I can walk to 75th and Second Ave, and see the tiny hardware shop, that my (wonderful, New York born, Jewish) Dad's immigrant father, David, founded 75 years ago[ it's still there!], when he and my grandmother came here to escape the shtetls of the Ukraine. My grandmother had been a typist for a jail, in the "old country". Her desk overlooked the courtyard, where, every day, men were marched out and dispatched by firing squad. My grandmother was not exactly nostalgic for that, and loved her adopted home, where, instead of a steady diet of death and potatoes,  she could nibble marzipan, and dress up like a Chinese Maiden in order to better play MahJohnng with the other fair, fiftyish "maidens" of the Yorkville Jewish community. (So many other family places...but, that's enough for now.)

 Maybe I love New York so much, because so many of my favorite writers, artists and musicians have breathed their molecular selves lastingly into the air we breathe here now. Either born here: the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Edith Wharton, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Norman Mailer, among so many more; or self-imported treasures, such as WH Auden, Truman Capote, Josephine Baker, Carson McCullers...on and on and on.
If I walk the Brooklyn Promenade, I can hear Walt Whitman and Melville talking about the harbor; if I walk in Central Park, it's a Ludwig Bemelmans drawing. Uptown, I can hear Langston Hughes saying, "Life, for me/ain't been no crystal stair..."; downtown, I can hear Edna St. Vincent Millay murmuring:
"My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/ But oh my foes and ah my friends/It gives a lovely light," 
which is the unofficial creed of the young who flock here to have Life...before it has them.

  My personal city has celebration and loss, mourning and hope, and most of all, surprises. As a friend who now lives in Hong Kong, said wistfully, last time she was here, "The best parts of this city happen in minutes and years...and nothing in between." -Like most who are most astute about this town, she was born elsewhere. Some of the most passionate lovers of this granite gathering, have been from other, softer, better-natured places. Joseph Mitchell, who with passionate dispassion chronicled New York's eccentrics and day-to-day workers in books like "Up In The Old Hotel", was from balmy, half remembered Missouri landscapes. These live in his language, in his Southern, dawdling observer's awe of the city's zooming minutiae. The contrast makes both views more vivid, as smooth blue velvet brings out a diamond's most brittle glittering sharps.

   My personal city is sometimes literally personal. I can trace my years of being married to a great artist who worked, back then, as a mural painter, by walking into certain churches, theaters and the houses of the Great, and seeing my own face and body on the walls-and sometimes ceilings. I've been Goddesses, Maenads, angels, and some romping Renaissance nudes, or sometimes just a worried face in a crowd, whose inherited mongrelsy reflects, in her features, the hybrid vigor of this immigrants' town. I walk by a Chase bank on Fulton Street, whose dull facade looks vapidly out, expressing nothing...but whose granite mulishness, hides the place where PT Barnum's Museum once drew gasps of wonder from a constantly changing-but always aghast-audience of happily duped gapers. "See the Fiji Mermaid!" [Really a stuffed manatee.] "See George Washington's nurse!" [An African-American woman of incredible antiquity and dignity, sitting in a chair hardly less stiff-backed than she was.] "This way to the Egress!"-a joke on his audience, as "egress" is a silver dollar word for "exit", so the punters happily showed themselves out.

Two houses down from Barnum's jackdaw splendors, you could stop in the famous Cigar Store, and buy a smoke from a pretty girl, who'd throw in a smile as lagniappe. One such wood cured nymph was named Mary Rogers, and one day she vanished, to turn up in the caves off Hoboken as a forlorn bundle of rag-and-bone. One of her regular customers-an odd and dandified newspaper man with forlorn, agate eyes-was named Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was so intrigued by a life going up in smoke, that he wrote what was arguably the first detective novel, about the crime.  Out of respect for Mary Rogers (nee Lyons, and a Mather-descended half Yankee, like your humble correspondent), he changed the setting rather randomly to Paris, and her name to "Marie Roget". [Not the best disguised nom-de-homicide.] "The Mystery of Marie Roget" is a still a wonderful, "dread-full"read.

 Next to that was the first Knox Hat Store. Charles Knox had escaped the potato famine in Limerick (yup-we've come full circle-he was my great-times 5--granduncle), to apprentice himself to a hatter at 15, and open his store at 22. At that time, no man would leave his house without wearing a hat. It would have been as indecent as going outside without pants on...really. Hats were most often made from the pelts of the beavers John Jacob Astor got his start by trapping and selling. The beaver pelts were then treated with the toxic heavy metal mercury, which, if one is unlucky or unknowing enough to come in contact with, will poison your mind and then the rest of you...hence the expression "mad as a hatter." But Mr. Knox seems to have kept his wits enough to make a fortune, for soon "Knox Hats" had a bustling factory in Brooklyn, and his stores rivaled our modern chain stores, for ubiquity. Charles Knox made the hats for President Lincoln to wear to both of his Inaugurations. The second time around, the silk lining of the great man's top hat, was hand painted by Civil War widows. History does not relate, alas, what the paintings were of, or whether the widows' tears caused the pictures to run, tellingly, movingly, indelibly.

Fittingly enough, the great Civil War photographer Matthew Brady's photography studio, was upstairs. 
Next door, in a modest apartment, lived a customs clerk named Herman Melville, who liked to write in the evenings. "Moby Dick" was most likely written, about where the Chase's third ATM now stands...perhaps twenty feet up vertically. And the peripatetic and worldchewingly exuberant Walt Whitman, had a place around the corner. Poe's office was one block down. One wonders what the Cigar Store conversation, the talks over choosing a hat next door, were like. One does, at four in the morning, writing on a laptop, thirty blocks north of these lost stories. But not so lost after all.

Will end with a moment that distills my own wanderings, of daytime glittering/nighttime somber, sidewalks. It was 10:30 on a beautiful Mayevening. I was leaving the place I worked, late, and decided to walk home to the Village, to breathe and dream and gaze around in peace.
A song called out from a shadow, a low tango murmur on a boombox breeze. In an alcove in front of a building, where flowers nodded their small bright heads, were a man and a woman, evening-clad: he in a dark swallowtail tuxedo, she in a gown that shimmered like a waterfall of twilight satin. They danced the tango, to the music coming from the portable player set, like a conductor, in front of their secret stage. He led and she followed...bending, swaying, prowling like panthers, as I walked by and into my own dark unknown streets. The music followed me. It felt like a soft, lingering hand on my cheek, saying goodbye gently, reluctantly...and forever.


xoxoxoxox

peri lyons. c2012  all rights reserved  New York City 4:15 in the morning

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