Maybe I’ve gone soft…
I cut it kind of close driving to the station in Hudson to catch a morning train to New York City. “Hope I don’t miss the train…” I thought, kind of wishing I would. I hadn’t taken a dedicated trip to the city since March 2020. I’ve driven through a few times, moving my daughter out of Brooklyn and up to our house for half of last year; dropping off my brother or daughter on a trip back from Pittsburgh. On those occasions I’d come through Manhattan and not even gotten out of the car, back when sitting in a purpose built outdoor structure was the only option for even drinking a cup of coffee. Then there was that quirky trip through back in December: on my way to my stepmother’s funeral out of state – when a Covid test couldn’t be found for love or money in upstate New York, but could be bought for the price of a case of wine from City Winery.
“I don’t live here anymore” has long been my refrain, but usually said with a wistful air, that left the door open.
I honestly don’t know if I have it in me to even dream of living in New York City these days. I was going down to the city to meet up with one of my oldest friends – Adolfo, who lives mostly in Italy now. I also thought it would be fun to visit a museum or two. It’d be a real moment, I thought: the first since my daughter moved out west, to Los Angeles, and the last before my dad moves to assisted living in Queens next week. I felt sure I’d even come up with a meaningful piece of writing, about my soul being in the city, even if I wasn’t physically present, the last several years thanks to my daughter and then, incredibly, my dad for what’s likely to be his final chaper. Part of me just wanted to stay upstate where summer is peaking and the back porch glider, yoga beside the Hudson River and a stool at our little local coffee shop all have my name on them. I feel kind of fragile these days…doesn’t everyone? Did I really need to test myself in the way only a trip to the city can do?
Chances of missing the train slipped away as I cruised by the station and saw loads of parking spaces. FREE PARKING, literally steps away from the train tracks. Sometimes we moan how the area has become overrun, the population tripling and quadrupling the last year, but it is still a sweet spot, idyllic really – a (recently renovated) historic train station right next to the river, where we’ve made a life for ourselves.
So there I was on the train, masked up as required, thinking it would all be fine and that New York would fold me in her loving embrace as usually seems to happen after it first kicks my ass in the corridors of Penn Station. I enjoyed the ride—the beauty of the Hudson River spinning past and the woman in the seat next to me gently snoring. After two months of looking into assisted living places for my father in New York, I saw train stations along the route in a new way: oh there’s Landing of Poughkeepsie; I think this is where that place outside Ossining was. Random bedroom communities of the city I now had way more knowledge of than I ever expected to. We went under ground in Manhattan and I exited the train prepared to battle through the morning throng…
The station was eerily empty. I mean – nobody. Where were the workers hurtling through; the travelers trundling rolling suitcases along? I saw cops and a higher ratio of the homeless and unhinged: a woman on all fours grinding into a large piece of cardboard on the sidewalk; a guy shouting about the police and another man dropping his filthy pants with one hand and holding a bottle in the other.
Corner of Seventh and 34th— Macy’s, the sometimes center of the universe—deserted. I followed my well-worn path of the office drone from Penn Station. I’d been one off and on for many years, up to Bryant Park, once a scary hellhole, transformed a decade or two ago into a verdant space with chairs, tables and free books on carts to encourage reading. A few tourists scattered among the tables and chairs. The heat was coming on. I sat and eavesdropped on a woman and man, she dressed impeccably as if for an audition. She asked him in accented English if his friends had returned to their offices yet. By the look of things, no. Empty windows in buildings above, signs for vague business concepts like WeWork and Salesforce Tower.
I walked uptown, feeling like I’d snuck into a hospital room with strangers – somebody else’s family. No I shouldn’t be here. Museums are mostly closed on Tuesday.
I sought shade on Fifth Avenue, a trickle of tourists around Rockefeller Center and the Nike store; the windows of Saks blacked out except for a few Chanel logos, like they couldn’t be bothered to do any displays. The corner around St. Patrick’s was empty and it kind of made me feel glad, like watching a shitty restaurant go out of business. I’d looked for solace there a couple times while I was turning into an adult in this city but the Catholic Church is nothing to me now.
The fancy Uniqlo near MOMA beckoned, but the air conditioning was busted—huge fans on the floors blasted warm air. I headed west, passed Black Rock—is CBS still in there? – and the Warwick Hotel, which had been charmingly old-fashioned even when my parents stayed there nearly half a century ago and now looked like a slightly bizarre curio. I wanted to embrace the whole building. Looking north a thin shiny skyscraper bisected the blue sky and made me think there weren’t enough vertebrae in the human spine to look up that high. I remembered when the Citicorp building opened in 1980 (?). It had been an event, how its white half a chevron top felt radical and punctuated the New York skyline. Who marks the events of the dozens of insanely tall structures going up everywhere? “Oh, there’s another one….”
West across Central Park South. The Essex House remained a comforting emblem of the past, a doorman out front dressed in full regalia. But when you think about the whole idea of a doorman, got up like an officer in some forgotten army, it’s ludicrous. All the pieces that used to fit. This old world needs dismantling but what comes in to take its place? In this part of town…uh, not a lot if the empty stores are any indication.
I bought a bottle of water from a food cart guy. It had doubled in price to two dollars. I try not to buy water in plastic bottles anymore, so I guess it’s better that they cost too much. I descended into Columbus Circle subway station and caught an uptown train, nearly empty, marveling that you could pay with a credit card to go through the turnstile now?
The last time I’d been up on the West Side was for Bob Dylan — November 2019. I remember Eric and I walking around the neighborhood near the Beacon before the show: “I’ve never known this part of town” I said. That night is bathed in a glow the golden color of Bob’s stagelights. I always wished I could have one more New York life where I was an Upper West Sider. What would it be like? I passed Barney Greengrass, an iconic name in bagels and lox, and the font and signage looked ancient. No, not a lot remains of that Manhattan I fantasized about.
I turned down a graceful street of brownstones to meet Adolfo at his sister’s apartment near Central Park West It was trash day. So much trash. In amongst the bags and discarded shelves and a whole pile of tarot books, a dark green leather Eames-type chair, beige tufted ottoman. Had some classic old shrink died? It was like a stage set for a psychiatrist’s office—going in the trash? Was there still a bedbug situation in the city or had they all moved upstate too? I wished I had our truck…
Then I saw a moving van, a man and woman wrangling bookshelves into the back. So, even the shrinks are leaving New York? I don’t want to start any rumors. A rat ran across the sidewalk in front of me. The phrase “with impunity” went through my head, like I was watching an episode of Law & Order. I felt repulsed and comforted at the same time.
Adolfo and I had lunch and walked across Central Park from west side to east. He loaned me his Italian straw hat and I suddenly felt chic. I remembered seeing A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy at St. Marks Cinema with him in 1982. We’ve known each other that long. I flashed on us as a couple in a scene from an updated version of Manhattan and I wondered if it was okay to think of Woody Allen films fondly in retrospect only. I wouldn’t watch anything of his—old or new— anymore, but the images they put in my head of a kind of effortless sophistication I could never get to on my own—is it okay to still feel affection for that? Even if he’s the biggest creep of all time, and I’m more at home behind a lawn mower than at an art opening or literary event?
We ambled around the city and by the time I got back to Penn Station I’d walked eight miles and had started getting used to the streets being semi-populated. It had never been easy working in midtown at the best of times and I could understand nobody wanting to do that anymore —not now, anyway—if they didn’t absolutely have to. I’d realized on my way down to Manhattan that there was an election that day in our small town, the position of Village Trustee which is the closest thing we have to a mayor. I felt an obligation to vote and switched to an earlier return trip so I could do my part. Dark clouds were rolling in and as the train headed north, I saw the Hudson churning, boats tilting scarily along the shore. By the time we got past Poughkeepsie, the sky was red, the sun setting over the Catskills. Giddy visitors piled off the train in Hudson, looking with delight at all the lush green, old buildings and stunning mountains. I felt happy to be home.
But yesterday I took a walk when the rain let up for a little while and listened to Paul Simon’s Concert in Central Park from 1991. The combination of his artistry, the massive audience— hometown boy in front of hometown crowd at the peak of his career, now thirty years ago, brought me to tears. Maybe I was pasting myself in the audience there—I’d seen him at Madison Square Garden around then, one of the most accomplished concerts I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember it in terms of emotional impact but all the elements of craft: songwriting, performing, ensemble playing, musicianship firing at the highest level. Through my headphones now, when he strummed the first chords of Me & Julio, so familiar the audience goes crazy within less than a bar, and he sings Rosie, Queen of Corona and it finally hit me he meant Corona Queens and not the beer…and I thought of my dad moving to Queens, around the corner from one of my brothers and I decided I’m not too soft at all, I’ve carried the city with me and woven it into my family and there I stay, whether I’m walking on sidewalks or just in my dreams and occasional check-ins.
“What I recommend is don’t get the shittiest one of everything—get the second shittiest” a guy on the train advised his younger brother who was trying to buy furniture online for his first apartment. Best; worst—maybe it’s healthier, if you’re able, to choose not to forever fly too close to the sun.