Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from New York |
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Postcard from New York

As my Pan Am Boeing 747 Clipper Bald Eagle lined up to land at Kennedy airport, it passed over a graveyard that would have been just the right size, had it not already been full, to bury the consequences if the pilot made a mistake. He didn’t, but as we rolled to a halt my paranoia was undiminished. There is an old Jules Feiffer comic strip, dating from the Fifties, in which an agonised beatnik takes a dozen frames to tell his girlfriend the shameful truth — that he has never been to Europe. My own shame was identical, only in reverse. In a state of advanced, inoperable middle age, I had never been to New York.

Had I left it too late? Nameless fears haunted the mind. Some of them were not so nameless. One of them was called Son of Sam. A killer was loose in New York, blasting people from point-blank range with a .44 pistol. He had seen the same Clint Eastwood movies as I had, but they had taken him a different way. Would he find me? Would I get mugged? And why was breathing so difficult? I had known it would be hot in August, but was it supposed to be this hot? The air was like chicken broth. Grease bubbles swam in it, and small bones.

Into a Manhattan still traumatised by blackout and looting I moved at what seemed like 100 m.p.h. in the back of a cab. The back was separated from the front by armoured glass, just as in Taxi Driver. Not good for the paranoia. As I was soon to learn, New York traffic seems to move at a dizzy pace for two reasons: (a) because it moves at a dizzy pace, and (b) because the cars are built low to the ground. A speed that would seem merely ill-advised in a London taxi feels like drag-racing in a New York cab piloted by a man who has modelled the back of his head on Robert De Niro and his driving style on Mario Andretti.

Suddenly the Brooklyn Bridge loomed from the dusk before my startled eyes, looking exactly as it had when Johnny Weissmuller dived off it in Tarzan’s New York Adventure. The tall buildings of the downtown financial district climbed on the left, rope-tricks of light. The twin towers of the Trade Center were just beyond them: boxed constellations. Uptown on the right, in the north, I could see the Empire State Building, and that art deco concoction must be the Chrysler building: absurdly familiar.

To get uptown we first had to go through the Bowery, which confirmed my worst fears. Drunks who had obviously spent years dosing themselves with low-grade gasoline lurched forward mouthing pitiful offers to clean the windshield. Mario De Niro scattered them like chaff. Lady rag-pickers who had devoted their lives to putting on clothes without ever taking them off shouted dementedly, as well they might, since it was about 90°F even after sunset and most of them had on so many sweaters they were unable to fall over. The squalor was paralysing. I arrived at the Algonquin vowing never to re-emerge until my week was up.

But curiosity got the better of nerves, even if it never stilled them. I ended up by loving New York, for all the corny reasons: Pace of Life, Energy, Creativity, etc. But not all of the bad vibes entirely dissipated and some of them are reverberating still in the shocked memory. For one thing, there are an awful lot of Crazies around. Some of the Crazies just quietly mumble. But most of the Crazies shout.

Where I used to live in Islington there was a deranged virago who was famous for yelling angry obscenities. In New York she would pass unnoticed. Taking a bus downtown to Greenwich Village I was petrified to discover the automatic doors opening to admit the most insane-looking lady I have ever seen. She was like one of those women Jack Davis used to draw for Mad magazine, with an enormous shapeless body, basketball shoes and a few pointed teeth spaced several inches apart in the gaping maw. She sat down on two seats and immediately started bellowing: ‘Ya safer up here on a bus! Ya safer up here than down there in the fuckn subway, right? Because everybody’s fuckn crazy down there, right? AM I FUCKN RIGHT?

To define the New York subway as a place where such a lady feels herself threatened might seem far-fetched, but there is plenty of evidence that it is a bad scene down there. I visited the subway car-barn on the waterfront at the north-west tip of the island, just to take a look at all the graffiti that Norman Mailer raves about. An awe-inspiring display: ego from the aerosol. One artist has taken a whole subway car to sign his name. In purple-starred gold letters as high as itself the car shouts a single word — MITCH.

But you can admire the inspired doodling of the subway’s amateur decorators without being eager to ride in the results. On the day I arrived, the city took a momentary break from talking about Son of Sam in order to give fleeting attention to some unknown killer who had stabbed a lady Spanish teacher twelve times in a subway station near Lincoln Center. She had gone there to book a concert ticket. This was one of the several topics I raised with the beautiful young actress Andrea Marcovici when I took her to lunch in the Algonquin’s famous Rose Room.

It was in the Rose Room that the legendary Vicious Circle used to meet and trade witticisms — Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the rest. It was in the Rose Room, today still as celebrity-packed as it ever was, that your reporter wined and dined Miss Marcovici, who first sprang to notice in the film The Front and in October will star as Nefertiti in a zillion-dollar Broadway musical. The killer, she told me firmly, had undoubtedly known the victim personally. A visitor was perfectly safe in New York.

Young, beautiful and strong-minded, Miss Marcovici made me feel old, jaded and overweight. Not yet fully famous but plainly on her way up, she had more than enough cachet to raise my stock at the Algonquin a mile. After my dazzling companion had swept out, the maître d’hotel and the bell-captain wanted to know my secret. ‘Dat’s de guy whut wuz in here wit’ Angela Muggervoochie,’ whispered one porter to another. In New York everybody wants to be somebody. If you aren’t somebody yourself, knowing somebody helps. For the rest of my stay I bathed in reflected glory.

The bigger the heap, the more people there must be who are not at the top of it. Life at the bottom in New York looks vividly nasty. You don’t have to have Son of Sam after you to feel deprived. When the lights went out, Manhattan turned into two different cities, the one that behaved itself and the one that didn’t. Law-abiding New Yorkers were shocked by the looting, but few of them saw it. They only read about it. Territories are sealed off from one another by invisible fields of force — one end of a street can be safe and the other end not. Bordered by haves on the East Side and have-nots on the West, Central Park is safe by day, dangerous by night.

But more New Yorkers live outside Manhattan than inside it. Brooklyn, sometimes called Manhattan’s bedroom, would be the fourth largest city in the country even if the rest of New York did not exist — three million people live there. They get more peace and quiet than most of the inhabitants of Manhattan. (Certainly they do better than anyone in the South Bronx, which is currently being burned down — some say by children, some say for the insurance, some say both.) Yet for all but the wealthiest, the restful life is hard to obtain in New York. For the professional classes the thing to do is commute.

I visited one indefatigable commuter, Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s justly celebrated film critic. She lives in Stockbridge in Massachusetts. Instructions arrived at the Algonquin telling me how to get there. A 100 m.p.h. cab to La Guardia airport. Then a tiny twin-engined Beechcraft airliner for a one-hour trip to the Berkshires. We flew through a storm all the way. Lighting his cigarette one-handed, the pilot did a no-sweat Buzz Sawyer routine while his co-pilot made a great show of understanding the map. The aircraft behaved like a pair of underpants in a washing machine. Nonchalant, I occupied the time by reading. I was reading the safety leaflet, but at least I was trying: New Yorkers are strong on cool. As we raced the rain toward the ground, it was becoming clear to me where Miss Kael gets the toughness of her prose style. Just making it to the office every week must hone her nerve like a hunting-knife.

In the Berkshires I was taken to Tanglewood, Music Inn and Alice’s Restaurant, where we ate a superb omelette and met Alice. I got to meet Alice because I was the guy with Pauline Kael. Reflected glory. These are the places forever associated, in the minds of my jazz-reared generation, with the MJQ, Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Giuffre. I heard a beautiful saxophone as I passed the door of a bar. I opened the door. It was Jimmy Giuffre.

The pilot climbed aboard after burning incense to his ancestors, and as the diminutive figure of Miss Kael waved bravely in the prop-wash I headed back to New York thinking that I had seen the good life — to live in the loveliest of all countrysides and work in the most stimulating of all cities. If you’re doing very well indeed, of course, you can have it both ways without moving off Manhattan. Stephen Sondheim, for example.

I called on Sondheim at his house in the East Side of midtown Manhattan — a fashionable district where a quarter of a million dollars down plus crippling rates will buy you the chance to live within spitting distance of Truman Capote. Here Sondheim lives with his mind-boggling record collection and the knowledge, which would drive a less self-questioning spirit to the sin of pride, that he is by now universally regarded as the lyric poet of latterday New York. Sondheim’s house has a back garden, joining up with the back gardens of the other houses on the block to form a sheltered square of greenery. It’s a common enough arrangement in London. Here it costs a fortune. Katharine Hepburn lives next door. Only the householders can roam in the vegetation. I asked Sondheim if Son of Sam could get in. The answer was that he would have to buy a house.

Son of Sam was arrested the next morning. The New York Post gave the impression that it had more or less brought off the coup all by itself. ‘CAUGHT!’ it screamed. The Post is owned by my compatriot Rupert Murdoch. All week long it had been running an artist’s impression of Son of Sam. When Son of Sam was finally arrested, other newspapers were not slow to point out that he looked nothing like the artist’s impression. Undaunted, the Post ran Son of Sam’s photograph beside the artist’s impression, defiantly instructing its readership to ‘compare the sketch and the man’. The sketch looked more like Rupert Murdoch than it looked like Son of Sam.

Owning the New York Post has given Murdoch the chance to do what he is best at — making life sound like a bad movie. For endless weeks, as the Post played detective, it was like Dana Andrews and Ida Lupino on the trail of the Lipstick Killer. A better technique for encouraging copycat crimes couldn’t be devised. The New Yorker, from its dusty offices — I visited them and measured the dust on your behalf — has dustily told Murdoch where he gets off. He won’t get off: he’s selling papers. The New York Times is standing on its dignity and adding a new supplement for every day of the week with the prospect that the weekday editions will end up weighing as much as the notoriously massive Sunday edition. (It is on record that once upon a time the Sunday edition, air-dropped to a subscriber in Texas, killed a cow.)

Profiting from the momentary hiatus between Son of Sam’s arrest and the inevitable advent of Grandson of Sam, I walked that evening to the Music Box theatre and paid $15 to see Side by Side by Sondheim. Broadway theatre tickets are expensive (although in other respects London has become just as costly as New York) but in this case it was money well spent. New York potentiates music the same way that alcohol potentiates certain pills. Old hits by the Lovin’ Spoonful sound richer than ever when they pour from your radio on a hot night. On a cross-town bus from the 42nd Street pier to the United Nations I passed a black gospel revival choir singing in a car park. The electric guitars set the whole bus dancing. 42nd Street! And somehow Sondheim, with his vast, unforced scholarship in both music and lyrics, has got all that into his songs. The show is a smash hit. Presenting it, Ned Sherrin is on top of the world. So guess who I took to dinner at the Algonquin?

As Sherrin tucked into the steak tartare, I put to him Miss Marcovici’s proposition that the Spanish teacher had been murdered by someone who knew her. Munching elegantly, Sherrin agreed that this was statistically probable. Official Police Department figures showed that murders of strangers by strangers were decreasing, while murders of acquaintances by acquaintances were increasing all the time. ‘One concludes’, Sherrin summed up, ‘that New York is becoming a friendlier place.’ Having been seen in the company of Ned Sherrin, Broadway star, my prestige in the hotel was enhanced even further. ‘Remember the guy what wus wit’ Anthea Magnavootl? Tonight he wus wit’ Ed Sherman.’

As a city, New York is broke and seems determined to stay that way. There is not much that the people can feel they own. Even the great art museums — the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art — constantly remind them of what they owe to private benefaction. But irritation is easily allayed, when you are regaled with the lyrical wit of the Klee exhibition currently running at the Guggenheim; or the Picasso etchings at the Museum of Modern Art; or the retina-searing riches of the Metropolitan. The best museum of all is the Frick Collection, where you can contemplate the Vermeers and the Memlings to the restrained music of a fountain burbling in the courtyard. Peace, quiet and civilisation — it took a multi-millionaire steel baron to buy them for the people. The city could never have raised the scratch.

Everything I had ever heard about American hospitality turned out to be true. Nor is it an empty gesture, since it costs time. In New York time is money and money burns. If your car is towed away it will cost you $25 for the traffic violation, $65 for the towing fee and $5 a day for every day the car is in the pound. People wait for the police auction and buy their cars back, or else just forget about them. In New York there is not much that can’t be thrown away — including, alas, people. Grand Central Station was saved by public outcry but public outcry is a fickle jade.

The city is infinitely mutable. Looking back on it from the Staten Island ferry on a rainy day, you can see it dissolving in the clouds. The island Peter Minuit conned out of the Indians is more substantial than what has been put on top of it. The rock removed to make way for the foundations of the Empire State Building weighed more than the building.

Leaving from Kennedy, I marvelled all over again at a city that could so blithely discard the airport’s original, beautiful name — Idlewild. Nor could I ever be quite comfortable in a town where the index of all achievement is to have your name in lights. Lights can be switched off. But a whole week after leaving New York I am still high as a kite on adrenalin. Even in the hottest, flattest month of the year, so much happened so fast.

I even got mugged. At the corner of 44th and Broadway, just off Times Square, I was pinned against a wall by a black man as big as Woody Strode. My life flashed by between my eyes and his belt-buckle. I had only $75 on me — how could that be enough to appease his ethnic fury? His hand closed around my shoulder. This was it. ‘Hey man,’ he growled, ‘I hate to ask you this, but can you loan me 25 cents for a hot-dog?’

— August 28, 1978