Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Last night long ago.

Last night I ducked out of work early to go to a “New York Times” sponsored talk at Symphony Space, the capacious and rickety old theater on 95th and Broadway. The talk featured Dean Baquet, editor in chief at the Times, and among others, the great Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for the Times.

Like most of these Times events this one was intellectually challenging, upsetting, funny and more. But mostly, because the average age of the audience is in the low-90s, you’re left with the feeling that the ancien regime is over, and your time, and much of what you hold dear has most-decidedly passed.

Maybe this is due more to the demographic of people who have the time and the inclination to hear Times’ reporters talk than it has to do with the demographic of the readership at the Times. Still, my mood was hardly improved when we exited the theater (no easy feat when nearly the entire audience is made up of 90-year-old former rock-throwing Upper West Side socialists with walkers emblazoned with old Eugene McCarthy bumper stickers.)

We were out on the old, decrepit Upper West and I was sent back to the summer of 1979 and my arrival at Columbia University. This was just two years after the black-out and riots that racked New York in July of ’77. Just four years after the city was practically declared bankrupt. The city was, in a word, scary.

Many of the old, stately Upper Broadway buildings, built after the IRT subway opened in 1904 hadn’t been cleaned since they were erected. The entire neighborhood seemed noisy, dirty and out-on-the-street and more than a little threatening. Dozens of these buildings still stand and are still decayed. They were single-room-occupancy hotels back in the day, and look very worse for wear today. While many of the pre-war structures have been scrubbed and rich-ized and cooperated, many more stand there like old soldiers, lame, limp and crooked and probably more than a little squalid.

That was the New York I grew into. Where I learned to walk home at night with my keys interlaced between my fingers, so I could cut someone with a punch if I were mugged. (I never was, though I lost my wallet to a pickpocket in the subway labyrinth beneath the old New York Colosseum at 59th and 8th.)

There’s a lot I miss of old New York. I miss reasonable apartments, and being 22, and bookstores, and the old New Yorker movie house on 89th and Broadway where $5 let you see a day-full of Charlie Chaplin movies, come and go as you please.

There’s a lot I miss of old New York. The Thomas Wolfe—not Tom—frenzy of the place, the hot and cold-running graduate students living in an old nine-room apartment on West End Avenue with a partial river view for $360/month.

I think about Graham Greene’s screenplay of the American version of “The Third Man,” one of the great movies ever.

A bygone place.
A place of danger.
Laughter and love.

That’s the New York I saw, I glimpsed from the window of my cab last night, as I drove home to a land, the antiseptic east side, that I like very much less, occupied by a man who has gotten old with his memories.

Opening narrator: I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.
[Scenes of black market goods changing hands]
Opening narrator: I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We'd run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs
[Dead body seen floating in the river]
Opening narrator: but, well, you know, they can't stay the course like a professional.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Whore of Babylon. Revisited.

The Whore rides into Babylon on a seven-headed beast.
An old friend of mine called last week. He had just lost his job and was turning to me for some insights, and maybe a soft shoulder, about the world of freelancing.

Ordinarily, when I go out for a drink, I go solo and I go, almost exclusively to the Tempus Fugit. Many of my friends have asked exactly where the Tempus Fugit is, or have urged me to take them. But since it opened as a speakeasy 90 years ago and was thereby hidden down a labyrinth of hallways and stairways in a Verizon warehouse on way east 91st, I have yet to reveal its exact whereabouts.

The place is well-hidden and a secret. I intend to keep it that way.

That said, when my friend asked me if I knew a bar where we could bend an ear and an elbow, I came up empty. Finally, pressed, I blurted: "Let's go to a place I heard about on 114th and Pleasant Avenue, The Whore of Babylon."
Pleasant Avenue is often anything but.
I don’t usually think of city-planners as blessed with a sense of irony, but Pleasant Avenue is and always was a misnomer. It’s a scab of a street. The scabs hiding the bruises beneath. As such, however, the location suited my needs. It was far away from the sequined banality of the Upper East. Far away from the short-skirted and tight-shirted.
A long way from the short-skirted and tight-shirted of the Upper East Side.
The Whore of Babylon, tonight, would suit me just fine.

The Whore, like the Tempus Fugit, also started in the wake of Prohibition. It also boasts no sign and puts up a threatening front so as to discourage hipsters and other temporal phenomenon. Like the Tempus Fugit, it has made no concessions to the 21st Century. There are no flat screens, no music, no neon. Just a dark old bar, three tables shoved against a back wall, and a burly, Popeye-forearmed barkeep. His tattoos show no trace of irony.

We sat at one of the tables, the bartender brought over our beers, wiping our table damp before setting them down.

"Nice place," my friend said.

The bartender kicked at the sawdust accumulating on the floor.

"This was a place of dissolute wickedness in its day," the bartender began. "As they say, it was fairly swarming with hot and cold-running temptations."

My friend and I toasted to temptation. We drank to those we succumbed to and even more to those few we resisted. The bartender, quick as a furtive kiss, whisked around the bar and brought us another.

"So how is it," my unemployed companion asked. "How is it dealing with the caprices of the job market?"

"You are a ditch-digger now. Wake up, grab your shovel and dig."

"Dig?” he asked.

"This is when you find out if you did your homework. If your reputation's solid. If your opus precedes you."

"And if it doesn't?"

"Well, I can't help you there. Then you're the Whore of Babylon. A wicked creature, the Queen of the prostitutes riding on a seven-headed beast."

"Fuck, you're gloomy."

"There was a time when personality--even a personality on the spectrum like mine--was permitted. We're all supposed to be Little Mary Sunshine these days, but I am that I am."

He drained number two. I was about four sips behind him. I caught up, then signaled the bartender for a check.

We laughed for a minute, like old times. Laughed about the banality of our business. Laughed about being old when we knew each other when we were young.

“Stay away from bars like this,” I said as I got up to leave. “The Whore of Babylon blows often an ill-wind.”

I treated, and we walked silently home.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Shakespeare, Hamlet and Saturday night.

On Saturday night, my wife and I taxied to the Public Theater to see Oscar Isaac in Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

I've seen a lot of Shakespeare in my day--going back to visiting Stratford, Connecticut when I was in high school for a performance of "Macbeth."

My wife and I have been supporters of the Public for about 20 years. So we, more often than not, see two performances of Shakespeare a year, outdoors in the Delacorte Theater.

I've seen Anne Hathaway. Al Pacino. Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Kevin Spacey and other names I'm sure I've forgotten.

I dig Shakespeare.

It's not always easy to get through--and Hamlet, at 3 1/2 hours is his longest and most challenging play--the most Wagnerian of his opus.

A lot of people avoid things that are long and challenging. It seems to my jaded eyes that virtually every movie out today is essentially a video version of a comic book story I outgrew when I was 12. However, Shakespeare is Shakespeare. He deals in eternal truths and the rawest of conflicts and emotions.

Oscar Isaac, who blew me away five years ago in the Coen Brothers' "Finding Llewyn Davis," gave the greatest Shakespearean performance I have ever seen. 

Usually, when the Elizabethan English starts, your ears buckle for a bit and you miss 2/3rds of what's going on until you adjust to the 16th Century.

But Isaac's performance brought the language to life. The theater was silent when he spoke.

I leave you with this.

Perhaps the greatest passage in all of English literature.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The last of the breed.

This morning I had one of those happy circumstances.

My wife, an inveterate veteran freelancer, gets to bring Whiskey, our five-year-old golden retriever to her current office, and we share a cab to get there.

I hailed a beaten Toyota Prius as I was exiting my building and a cab-driver with a leonine grey mane screeched to a halt. As I was sliding across the vinyl, I checked out the number on his hack license. It was in the high 300s.

“You’ve been driving for a while,” I began.

“Ah, you noticed my white hair.”

“No,” I said, “I looked at your number. 35 years?”

“40. I’m the last white, English-speaking, Jewish cabdriver in New York.”

“You own the medallion, I take it.”

“Worthless. We’ve been done in by Uber, Lyft, Gett, Jett, Via, Scmhmia and Gonorrhea. There are more ride services than you can shake a lug wrench at. There are 60,000 cabs on the streets.”

We were speeding down Park, where the rich folk (the ones who get tax cuts live.)

“What was the best cab you ever drove?” I asked.

“The Checker. No more iconic cab for New York than the Checker. Just two problems with it.”

He waited with Jack Benny’s timing.

“No heat in the winter, no air in the summer. Outside of that, you could fit five people in it and they weren’t even touching.” I thought about my family, when I was young, piling into the back of one. My brother and me on the rickety jumpseats, my parents and sister sitting in the bench across.

He turned, disconcertingly while we were crossing East to West on 47th, to pet Whiskey’s head through the opening in the bullet-proof plexi.

“This is a dog,” he began. “My mother just got Chloe, a Muttipoo. Half-poodle half something else.” He showed me a small picture on his flip-phone.

It was time for me to exit the cab.

We shook hands goodbye.

“Julian Krause,” he said with his grip. “The last Jewish cabdriver in New York.”