Seven days ago I filed a story on JFK the man and then jumped on a plane to JFK the airport.
I’ve just finished my first week in New York and think I’ll stay for awhile. Does it get much colder?
I’m staying in Astoria. Longtime denizens of Tradsville will recognize this as the place where the Internet personality Horace presides over the local chapter of the Brotherhood of the Weejun.
It’s actually a pretty cool place. Having every amenity you could possibly need in a 10-minute walk is amazing for a lifelong car-bound Californian. In the afternoons, for exercise and The Urban Experience, I play handball with the high school kids at the local park. Man, these Queens kids are tough. Curse like sailors, too.
But on to Manhattan. The first time I popped out of the Lexington/59th Street station I felt like a new recruit dropped into a war zone. I couldn’t even tell where all the noise was coming from. All I could think was, “What the hell is all this banging, and is this normal?”
Everything was a blur. Then gradually, from the depths of my unconscious, a song popped into my head. Took me a while to realize what it was: a 1934 tune by Ben Pollack and his Orchestra called “Got the Jitters,” with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, who coincidentally also wrote “Like Young,” which I wrote about in the recent North Beach post:
Like the pounding of a hammer
Is the clatter and the clamor
Of Manhattan’s panorama
Got the jitters
For the next 24 hours I subsisted entirely on Pepto Bismol.
But the next day I returned, and like a breakthrough in tennis when suddenly everything slows down, I could see what the problem was: I was coming out of the subway right in front of a jackhammer. Once you got away from it, things improved significantly. I strolled to the park and took the above photo.
Things started improving. I was shown a tremendous menswear archive (more on that later), and met with a publisher. Then I went to a gallery opening for Barnaby Conrad III, whom I’d met in San Francisco the previous week. He’s written books on the martini, cigars and Pan-Am, and also paints fish. Some guys catch fish and then release them. Others catch fish and eat them. Barnaby catches fish and then paints their portrait.
Conrad’s father was a man about town in San Francisco in the ‘50s and ‘60s, often appearing in Herb Caen’s column, and remains America’s greatest bullfighter. Conrad the Third is also a Yalie, for those keeping track of that sort of thing.
Barnaby’s opening was my first venture to the Upper East Side. Funny, of all the buildings I passed on my way, the one sign I noticed was for the Junior League, where two women entered without acknowledging each other. At the party I was introduced to producer James Ivory, of the Merchant-Ivory period films, which I’ve loved for years. I told Ivory “A Room with a View” was one of my favorite films, and like any creative person, he seemed slightly annoyed to be praised for work he did 25 years ago, and promptly mentioned his latest film.
To counter the discomforts of the subway, I’ve been listening to Gilded Age parlor tunes on my iPod, stuff like “The Sidewalks of New York” and “In Old New York”:
You’ll never see
In Gay Paree
In London or in Cork
The sweets you’ll meet
On any street
In old New York
I’ve always been an advocate of using imagination to transform mundane reality. When I first moved to LA, I countered the banality and isolation of modern Los Angeles by keeping a vigiliant eye on the ghosts of the past. I could see the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory from my apartment, and used them as perpetual reminders of “Rebel Without a Cause” and the scene between Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin in “Chaplin.” To me, LA was the land of Musso & Frank’s, Valentino and Falcon’s Lair. Though the effect only lasted for a little while, it was a useful tool for adapting to a new city.
It is quixotically tempting to try and engineer a New York experience squarely within the parameters of Edith Wharton and John Cheever, but it’s too great of a town to impose any kind of limits. This is where people come to expand their horizons, and I’m one of them.
I’ll give Chet the last word. Now there’s a ghost to keep an eye out for. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD