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My New York: A Romance in Eight Parts

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 2, 2013
pp. 38-56 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0031

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Painting by Peter Selgin

And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, "My Lost City"

Not long ago, while lurching through cyberspace, I chanced upon a luncheon menu from Schrafft's, circa 1962. Especially among the city's working women, Schrafft's was once New York City's most popular restaurant chain. The menu is an arresting artifact, one that might have been concocted to certify an era's lost innocence—how else account for Jellied Tomato Bouillon, Browned Lamb Hash with Wax Beans, Deviled Tongue and Swiss Cheese Sandwich, Corn Soufflé, Minute Tapioca Pudding, Fresh Banana Stuffed with Fruit Salad, Green Apple Pie and Grape-juice Lemonade? Top center on the menu: "May We Suggest Bacardi Cocktail 70¢."

My eyes misted over. Here was the New York City I once fell hard for, the city of my childhood and young dreams. And though the menu belonged to a vanished time, still, it was real—as the Hotel Paris had been real, as the passenger ships lined up in their berths had been real. As my innocence, my ambitions, my disappointments, my failures and a host of betrayals—mine, my father's, the city's—all had been real.

I. Love at First Sight

GAS HEATS BEST. They loomed: black, blocky letters on a yellow field painted on the side of a gargantuan corrugated hatbox. An ad for home heating fuel. But to my six-year-old eyes, it might have been God creating Adam in the firmament of the Sistine Chapel.

It was my first trip to New York with my father. His "business trips," he called them, though someday I would learn there was more to them than that. My twin brother, George, and I took turns, each of us going with him every other Friday. The trip took just a little over an hour, but as far as I was concerned, we might have been blasting off to Venus or Mars.

We rode in my father's Simca, an ivory wagon with whitewalls and a split tailgate. I watched him work the gearshift, a thin chrome rod with a pear-shaped knob—an object of fascination that I would secretly commandeer whenever Papa went into the post office or the bank, my vocal cords imitating the engine's winding RPMs, ignorant of such things as clutches. As Papa backed the Simca past the dying birch tree in the turnaround, I'd see my brother and my mother standing there, my mother waving, my twin crying—as I would cry a week later when it would be George's turn. Why our father took us separately I'm not sure. Maybe because we fought so much.

At the end of the driveway we'd take a right onto Wooster Street and head to Danbury, where we drove past the war memorial and the fairgrounds. On Old Route 6 we'd pass by the Dinosaur Gift & Mineral Shoppe with its pink stucco tyrannosaurus, headed toward Brewster. Interstate 684 had yet to be built, so we rode on what would today qualify as "back roads," past apple orchards, nurseries and reservoirs, then down the Saw Mill River Parkway through exotically named places—Croton Falls, Katonah, Armonk, Chappaqua—tallying bridges and groundhogs.

While driving, my father hummed: "The Blue Danube," a Maurice Chevalier ditty, his cigarette dangling. He drove with an elbow out the window, preferring his arm to the car's turn signal. The Simca's glove compartment burst with road maps, but my father never consulted them. The city's outskirts were a tangle of parkways, thruways, expressways and turnpikes. That my father could untangle them amazed me, but then they seemed to belong to him, all those highways, as did everything to do with the city.

We crossed over the Henry Hudson Bridge. At the tollbooth, Papa tossed a nickel into the yellow basket. We glided under the girders of the George Washington Bridge. Here the city began in earnest. We passed the Cloisters and Grant...



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