One of my enduring childhood memories — seemingly random, as are most of the mental souvenirs that tumble down into the gears of the brain and get stuck — is driving up and down Fourteenth Street in the backseat of my dad’s big, green International truck, looking for a German restaurant that wasn’t there anymore. It’s a cliche that anyone who lives in the city for a stretch preserves in amber their own version of “the real New York,” and my dad’s ossified Manhattan clearly dated to the 1950s, when he had lived uptown while studying at Columbia Journalism School. I think he was looking for Luchow’s, the ancient German restaurant that, when he lived in the city, still had gaslight and pig’s knuckles.
My own real New York City was — is — the neighborhood between Fourteenth and Houston Street, running east from Astor Place to Avenue C, between 1985 and 1990. Those years of dancing on tables in nightclubs and running from bums armed with copper piping haunt my dreams; photographs from that time still feel like images of “the present” to me. I know which Ukrainian restaurant had the best pickle soup. I remember what was on the jukebox at the Blue and Gold. I remember the lampposts with mosaics and the upside-down martini-glass graffiti and the Missing Foundation.
Even so, I haven’t been back to the East Village in a million years. I emphatically don’t want to go back there, don’t even want to see that neighborhood again, because if I did, the present reality — the uppermost layer of the time stratum of the island of Mannahatta, as Walt Whitman, that time-traveler, insisted on calling it — would intrude on my imaginary Manhattan.
On the other hand (and here I’m at last coming around to my main point), I am only too happy to revisit Midtown. I will never see another youthful dawn in Alphabet City, but there will always be Macy’s.
The department stores of Midtown have a sentimental hold on my heart. I’ve always loved the old-fashioned splendor of Macy’s in Herald Square: the wood escalators, the Flower Show in spring, the gift-wrap department, the U-shape lunch counter that used to be in the back of the eighth floor behind Santaland, and where I always tried to sit at the station of an elderly waitress who wore a uniform with the name tag “Bess” pinned to the front.
When I first came to the city as a freshman at Columbia in the mid-1980s, some of my first forays downtown by bus were to buy Christmas presents at these already antiquated department stores. I remember choosing lined leather gloves for my mother at the glass-fronted glove counter at B. Altman — so 1940s. Which store had lilacs on the shopping bags? I do remember the red tea roses on the shopping bag at Lord & Taylor, although I arrived too late to experience the tea rooms at their Sixth Avenue emporium. Even Bloomingdale’s holds a nostalgic place in my velvet-lined memory vault, carefully tucked away alongside Fiorucci, as the kickiest destination for high-school shopping expeditions, during a brief period of relative Rattray affluence. I’ve always thought whichever Bloomingdale’s executive named their cafe 40 Carrots was a genius.
I’m not afraid to touch that soft spot: the Midtown Manhattan of Jack Lemmon, shopping bags, and lunch on a swivel stool. Indeed, Midtown has become a new family tradition. I trundle my kids onto the Hampton Jitney each December with a boxed holiday lunch on their lap, to see “The Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City, like good out-of-towners, and then a walk over to Broadway, to Macy’s, to elbow our way through the holiday displays, sneezing at the perfume.
This past weekend, I took the kids to New York City for the first time in nearly a year, to stay in a hotel overnight as a treat for my son, who was turning 11. Pandemic tourists is what we are now, turning our faces up to the boarded windows on 57th Street with awe.
Friends had told me that sidewalks on certain blocks downtown are once again clogged with goods, flotsam and jetsam splayed out on the concrete for sale, like it was in the 1980s, but somehow I hadn’t quite realized that a large proportion of businesses would still be shuttered, eight months into Covid-19.
New Yorkers smoke way more pot in doorways than they ever did in my day. “Is that weed? Is that weed?” my 13-year-old kept asking as we waded through the skunky air, waving our arms to clear a path.
There are definitely more homeless men and women sleeping rough and panhandling than there have been since the early 1990s.
Of course, the homogenizing devastation of the chain stores doesn’t even bear mentioning. It’s blatant how bad the chain stores are, although, to me, a non-New Yorker for 14 years now, it remains disorienting and deflating to note the metastasizing of a Michael’s Crafts where there used to be a Gray’s Papaya.
Also disorienting was the sensation of being able to drive around in the family Honda and park wherever we wanted, because residents and customers have fled with their cars, leaving an incredible number of parking spaces open. I kept pronouncing to my kids how stunned I was that we appeared to have parked ourselves legally. We parked directly across the street from our hotel, on 58th. We drove up to Storm King, and then back to the city, and down to 23rd, and parked right outside a dumpling restaurant, ate far too many steamed dumplings, and then drove back to the hotel, passing Macy’s on Saturday night around 9. We gazed up at the plate glass of Macy’s upper stories, wondering if it might be open. We could see people silhouetted inside. It looked like maybe they were cleaning.
Is Macy’s Herald Square open? I think so?
I want Macy’s and its wooden elevators to survive.
Maybe next Christmas.
Next Christmas, in Santaland.