“Show me the city,” my sister insisted.
(“Show her the city,” my parents pleaded. “Emphasize the good parts. Try and convince her to leave L.A. and move back East.”)
She had come into Manhattan to visit me for a long weekend, during a 10-day break from her disheartening singer-songwriter struggles on the Coast. I was not daunted by the notion of presenting an ideal city in only 36 hours. I was not daunted by the challenge of persuading someone that her music career would stand a better chance in Manhattan than in Los Angeles. If I believe in something, I can usually pitch it as fast and as enthusiastically as Crazy Eddie. I should have gone into sales. Or evangelism.
“Show me the city,” my younger sister demanded, eager, open — presold. The perfect customer.
I think about leaving New York at least once a week. If I didn’t have two years left on my rent-stabilized lease, the urge would occur even more frequently. And I resent that it’s smarter to stay put just because I happen to have an apartment. It’s not even such a great apartment: the old lady to my right cranks up her TV because she’s hard of hearing, the opera singer to my left is enjoying full voice, thank you, and so are his students, and the guys upstairs, who favor cement-lined shoes and have a predilection for loud rock with an unvaried bass line, keep regularly irregular hours. My sister, however, lives in a snazzy, ’burb-satellite of L.A., in a tidy green house with a lawn, quaintly sagging picket fence, lemon and orange trees in the backyard, and a next-door neighbor who happens to be the lead guitarist for two of the best known singer-songwriters in the nation.
The tour began Saturday morning. We swung jauntily onto Sixth Avenue, my sister puffing and tottering in her impractically skimpy boardwalk sandals; as she tried to keep up with my running dialogue and my bob-and-weave N.Y. crowd maneuverings. Through the rain forest of the flower district, past Little Korea, and into Herald Square — “There aren’t all that many people out today,” I shrugged. She gasped. “If you think this is bad, you ought to be here on weekdays at lunch hour — 11 a. m. to 2:30,” I said. We went into a monster mart to look at winter coats. The hem on my old coat had survived one Manhattan season almost intact; another season with Scotch tape, and two more with safety pins, and I’d finally considered retiring its number. So me and hundreds of like-minded others swarmed onto the coat-sale floor that day.
My sister tugged a beauty away from two indecisive women (my sister is loyal to the point of public embarrassment). I tried it on and she exhorted everyone around us to tell me how nice that coat looked.
“Sorry,” I said to her, as I slipped it off. “It’s wonderful, but totally useless for New York winters. They’re horrible. Those damn icy winds would cut right through the skirt and down the neck. No protection. And look how lightweight it is. The moment some cab skidded and sprayed slush all over me — that’s it. It’s not so bad for snow, though, because snow generally falls when the temperature’s between 20 and 32 degrees. But, come to think of it, we haven’t had much snow in the last few years — it’s been too cold. What do your lemon trees look like in February?”
Certainly a lot perkier than her crestfallen face did at that moment. We left the store. and waded back into the street crowds, intending to get over to Fifth. “Hold on a minute,” she implored. “I know you probably want to show me some fancy place for brunch, but this is what I really want — ” She fished around in her pocketbook for change (“For God’s sake, would you keep that thing tucked under your arm,” I muttered), and bought a steaming hot salted pretzel and a bag of roasted chestnuts. “I know it’s not quite cold enough outside for them to taste their best, but I’m willing to settle.”
As we stepped onto Fifth I had to concede: it certainly was one of those grand city-on-parade afternoons. The sunny autumn day had a snap-to-it elegance that grooms New Yorkers to a glossy briskness; they were chattering and trotting up and down the Avenue like beautiful, nervous Lippizaners. We instinctively slipped into the rhythm, and chattered and trotted past the airline offices, the great stores, Godiva Chocolatier, St. Patrick’s, Steuben. There was music everywhere: church bells, sidewalk chamber groups, steel drums, jazz quartets, violinists, folk-singers. No sooner did one fade away than another would swell up. Heels tapping on pavement, dogs barking, car horns, laughter, phrases hanging in midair as pedestrians hurried by — everyone that day flushed with the peculiarly Manhattan self-importance: this isn’t the center of the universe, this is the universe, and since I’m here, I’m important, too. My sister and I laughed at it, pointing out the cockatoo costumes and circus posturings that surrounded us at each street crossing — and then we were laughing along with it, giddily, and people were turning their heads to stare at us.
“You don’t understand,” my sister said, “the streets are so different here. You can feel it — all this movement, the colors, the people. This city is alive.” She fantasized: she could be a part-time waitress at some ritzy place where she’d meet an agent, a record producer, or a famous singer looking for an Eve Harrington. She’d had enough of the smogged-in L.A. hustlerama blues.
“You could never find an affordable apartment here,” I broke in. “So you might as well take mine. I’ll trade you tomorrow.”
“You can have it,” she scowled. “Along with my roommate’s giant dog — just the kind you’re allergic to — the dog’s giant fleas, and the freeways. With your terrific sense of direction, you’d just love them. If you could ever find them.”
We ducked into Rizzoli’s: she gazed slowly around that green cathedral of a bookstore, taking in the balconies, the high ceiling, those authoritative, oversized books with documented proof of the Good Life, listened wordlessly to the Chopin streaming through the speakers, and burst into tears. (Overenthusiasm, actually, runs in the family.) “It’s so wonderful,” she sobbed. “I can’t stand L.A. It doesn’t have anything like this.”
On Fifth Avenue again, we heard vaguely familiar brassy sounds, saw a crowd accumulating across the street and the glint of sunlight on trombones and cymbals. My sister recognized the song first and began belting it out in her best piano-bar imitation: “Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today/I want to be a part of it/New York, New York — ”
Since I live and work downtown; I don’t get up to Central Park much. It really startled me that afternoon. The foliage was hanging, proud and heavy, from every tree and bush: everyone who was passing through seemed unduly jovial and high-spirited. They waved (!) and smiled at us as they walked, roller-skated, rode, drove, jogged, and bicycled by. My sister asked about the profiles of buildings that formed the east and west skylines of the park, and I was surprised at how many of them I knew. The music rose and spread out as we traversed bridges and boulders. Oversized radios, bongo players — we would stop by every musician, listen for a few moments, and then, without saying a thing to each other, agree to move on. We paused longer at the jazz quartet, and almost stayed with the Dixielanders, but they weren’t right. We crunched on.
It beckoned. It insisted. Faintly at first, and then growing stronger, pulling us across bridle paths and lawn short cuts. A wicked, witchy beat, layered with all manner of dense clashings and clatterings. And abruptly, just over the ridge: samba. A crowd of people, six deep, had gathered round eight dancer-musicians. Musical magnets, they held us with small, cool, confident smiles that belied the naked sexiness of their music-making. They’d get a rhythm going and then the performers would step out and solo: two compact, lithe men did an elegant kung-fu-like dance around each other, graceful, acrobatic, sculpted; a sensual catwoman in a short skirt with the best legs in the world stamped out a crazy beat with her high heels. No one could break away; people would laugh if only to ease the erotic tension of the music, the exhilaration of pure moment, of absolute presentness. There were no memories of life before that brilliant afternoon passage, and no plans after it; we only wanted the music to continue, not just as a stay from everyday concerns but because we wanted to see how dizzy that intensity could make us. And when the catwoman passed around the tambourine during the last number, the New Yorkers were practically climbing over each other to drop in coins and dollar bills, even calling her over if she missed them as she glided by.
My sister and I danced and capered down a path to the lake, where, for the first time in hours, we paused and were silent. We sat by the water, strains of music still echoing in the distance. At last my sister whispered, “I can’t believe you live here. You’re so lucky. I don’t think I could stand it — there’s just too much. No wonder you think of leaving — this city is too intense.”
We wound our way back up the path, took another shortcut, intending to come out in the West 80s. The path narrowed, and as we clambered around a hillock, we had to travel single file. He was waiting on the other side of the curve. I only caught a glimpse of the dark raincoat but I understood. City instincts. I hesitated a fraction of a second, but decided to walk brusquely past and deliberately look the other way. There was no time to alert my sister. She caught up with me hastily as the path widened.
“That’s disgusting,” she hissed. “No wonder everybody says the park is dangerous.”
Some people were coming. “Excuse me, but, uh, there’s a flasher just around the bend,” I told them. They thanked me, smiled ruefully, shrugged.
Saturday night in the Big City: I took her downtown, for a whirlwind tour of as many clubs as I thought might be relevant to her career. On Seventh Avenue, heading for Sheridan Square, we heard screams, aural shards. The woman veered toward us — “I HATE SOHO! THE GODDAMN GALLERIES HAVE DESTROYED IT! TOURISTS IN MY GODDAMN NEIGHBORHOOD! GET THE GALLERIES AND THOSE WESTCHESTER PEOPLE OFF MY STREETS!” My sister looked at me, perplexed. “What does she mean? Do you always have crazy people running around here? Why are you laughing?”
“Because she’s not really that crazy. Honest.”
Cody’s, City Limits, the Lone Star, Sweet Basil’s, Seventh Avenue South, the Back Fence, Kenny’s, Folk City, the Surf Maid, the Other End, the Bottom Line. More and more and more. I was picking up steam, just getting going, when my tired, blistered sister begged for a halt. “What do you mean?” I said. “New York doesn’t start up on Saturday night till about 11. One more place.”
As we headed west across Bleecker, we saw pedestrians jaywalking abruptly to get to the other side of the street. The man was whirling around, lurching at everybody; the glint of a streetlight caught on his large blade. “Please kill me, come on, come on, please kill me,” he babbled. By the time I found a cop, 911 had already received a half-dozen calls.
My sister looked upset. “It’s almost the full moon,” I heard myself trying to justify. “Everyone in the world goes nuts.”
“Yeah, but there are more borderline crazies here than anywhere else,” she retorted. “And how can you just say that? Your old apartment was broken into and your new one got ripped off last month. You got mugged last week. You’re nuts. And look at your new place — two box rooms and a fake kitchen! You call that living?”
“At least I don’t have to drive a mile to do my laundry,” I snapped. “And since when did you love mowing a lawn?”
As we marched off down the street, carefully not looking at each other, I understood that if we indeed traded tomorrow, I wouldn’t be merely exchanging my noisy, vulnerable apartment for her snug, pretty house. She needed those lemon trees as consolation for parking herself in a drive-in city that doesn’t allow for spontaneous moments of connection. New Yorkers, though, who generally can’t afford what middle-class America considers good — never mind great — housing, have learned to shrug off such consolations. Backyards and fences give you a home in a city that can’t be one; but opera singers and cement-lined shoes teach you to see the streets themselves as consolation. New York apartments function as resting perches, and then as points of departure. Which may be why New Yorkers feel so possessive, so intimate about the City: they all have Fifth Avenue walk-ups, Central Park walk-throughs, Seventh Avenue walk-downs.
“Besides,” I told my sister, ” I have a great location.”
We went to the Cottonwood Cafe; it showcases musicians on Saturday nights and serves quite decent guacamole. From her time in Los Angeles, my sister has developed a real fondness for Mexican beer and food.
We listened to the band for a while, and drank Tecate with lime slices. My sister sampled the guacamole and didn’t say anything. At last she looked at me and said flatly, “Why is this band in New York when they’ve got such a mellow L.A. sound? And I hate to tell you this, because I know you’re trying to impress me, but I can get much better and cheaper guacamole back there.”
After the set the young drummer from the band came over to our table to flirt with my sister. He was from Wisconsin.
“I’m a singer,” my sister said.
“Oh, no wonder you’re hanging out in L.A,,” he replied, admiringly. “I heard it’s real tough to make it in music there, but it’s tough in New York, too. We’re even thinking of splitting for L.A. You just visiting here?”
She glanced at me, hesitated, and then nodded. “Guess who I live next to,” she whispered to him conspiratorially. Then he asked me if I was visiting, too. I looked at my sister quickly and she smiled.
“I live here,” I said to him. And for that night, I meant it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 28, 2019