Thursday, July 12, 2012
In a New York State Of Mind
Aren't I always? If you knew me to pick me out of a lineup, you'd know that the answer to that question is always a "yes". Out of the 2000+ books that you'll find in our home (Yes, there are that many and we even have bookcases in one of the bathrooms), you'll find a nice selection devoted to New York City. Biographies, historical studies, architectural commentary, short stories and novels...both about people who live in New York or written by someone who lives there.
You can go ahead and call it an obsession because that's probably what it is. When friends ask me where my favorite place to eat might be I'm going to rhapsodize about the steamed dumplings served in bamboo dishes at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown. I'm going to talk at length about the need to spend a good long afternoon at the Strand Bookstore on the corner of Broadway and 12th. I'm definitely going to lecture about spending a night at the Algonquin Hotel or having a drink at its historic Oak Room and imagining the conversations held there by some of the best writers this side of the Atlantic. I'll talk about the fried egg sandwiches at the Red Flame Diner and eating homemade biscuits underneath the portrait of John F. Kennedy at Junior's in Brooklyn. There are the crisp morning walks to the museums or strolls with a camera through Central Park with its obligatory pause to reflect at Strawberry Fields. Rides on the subway where you can people watch or read a book....or watch people who are reading books...only to walk up and out into a completely different place: Wall Street or the East Village or Queens if you want to go that far.
You probably are thinking to yourselves that NYC is just a city and you'd be right, technically speaking. However it is--to borrow an overly used phrase--a melting pot of everything that is or was America. Our humble beginnings as a country have roots here and it was a major gateway to citizenship for many others. From brownstones to penthouses and every majestic bridge spanning the harbor, every brick and piece of mortar has a story to tell.
Right this very minute it's all there. The food. The lights. The noise with its constant hum of humanity punctuated by honking taxis. The smells of restaurants, dusty bodegas crammed with absolutely everything, soot, exhaust, new buildings next to old ones, sidewalk tables, snatches of music, subway performers, people speaking Dutch or French or German behind you while you check out the fish market on Canal Street where a Chinese woman sells you the most amazing champagne-hued silk robe. I've been to New York nearly ten times and I know I'm bound to go ten more before I do my final back flip off of the planet.
But Nora? Isn't there anymore.
And it makes me so sad. Nora Ephron...the woman for whom my favorite city was her favorite religion...is gone. This woman who was so full of words and energy, advice and opinions (and whom I had never met...it must be said) died very quickly and quietly at the end of last month. I was devastated. I had collected and read her books back when I was a college student (and every year since then) and though some of her essays were about her own college days, I don't think I was swift enough at the time to grasp the gems of advice she was sending my way. Her novels, her movies, the sound of her very deliberate and oh-so-articulate voice as she expounded on the roles of women or the latest book, or turtleneck sweaters or how to make Yorkshire Pudding. Good God! I've don't even know what it is, but her confidence in the way things should be done convinced me that if I were ever lucky enough to wind up at her kitchen table (Oh, the thought of it!) and she pushed a bowl of it in my direction, I would take one bite and know bliss.
One of the last times I went to New York I spent a good chunk of the visit chasing really old ghosts. I photographed the door of the Algonquin suite of rooms where New Yorker Magazine creator Harold Ross spent some of his last days before dying at the Mayo Clinic during cancer surgery. I dragged my family to the house near Hell's Kitchen where Ross and Jane Grant (writer and eventual wife) brainstormed my favorite magazine which would feature the likes of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Janet Flanner, EB White and the cartoons of Charles Addams and Peter Arno. We took the ferry out of the Battery to Ellis Island so that I could see the first glimpse of America my grandfather saw as he stepped off the ship that brought him from his native Germany.
It never occurred to me to look for the living model of humor and intelligence whose creative offerings had always been such an inspiration to me. She lived and worked there in the city which--and these are her words--made the best bread on the planet. Even better than the kind you could find in France. I probably passed her on the street...me trying to cross a street while she casually munched a hot dog from Gray's Papaya. Or maybe I walked past her as I looked for the bathroom at Grand Central Station. Either way, she was a living/breathing fixture of creativity and brilliance who walked among us and now she doesn't.
After her death the internet was filled with tributes and the account of her funeral service was both hilarious and poignant. One of her sisters--in speaking about Nora's wealth of confidence in her own way of doing things...and telling others the same--said that "the universe is practically opinion-less now". There are none left.
When sweet Fred Rogers died, I made a beaded bracelet with the letters WWMRD? What would Mr. Rogers do? Based on what I've read in the last two weeks I'm certain that a similar shirt for Nora would make complete sense.
Her death seems wrong somehow and I know that's strange. Everyone dies eventually. The famous, the infamous and people like me. It is, as the say in that annoying Lion King song, the circle of life. But I always thought of her as being a part of the circle where the beginning and ending meet. Untouchable. That's what I get for thinking. New York City will always be here. Of that I am sure. And for right now? So will a little bit of sadness. Nora loved twinkle lights. The kind which festoon many downtown trees all year round now. They feature prominently in every movie she made. Maybe it's time to hang some more in the courtyard outside my house. I don't think I'd even have to ask what Nora would say to that.