The strange twinge that often comes when I leave work and head west on 56th Street is, oddly, much like the same thing that hit the center of my gut when, at 13, I rode a bike to a movie theater in South Jersey and, with my school buddies, went to see my first R-rated movie. It’s as if, confronting the vista of 56th Street, passing the apartment building on my left with its circular driveway, hearing the rush of its fountains, seeing its ordered shrubbery, I found myself, as Joan Didion wrote in her essay “Goodbye to All That,” alone and unattached, anonymous in this place after 21 years, having forgotten to call my parents, having forgotten to go home. It is as if the shock of this being my own life–whether in New York, Milan, or Los Angeles–were something always new, always unexpected. But whether I am in any of these places–the plaza in front of the Duomo in Milan, where I spent Christmas Eve this year, Los Angeles International Airport, or the street where I work in Manhattan–there is always one thing these things together: the awareness that, for the most part, the beginning of my adult life was marked by September of 1980, when I moved to New York City for the first time and took one of my first subway trips to the stop that I believed was the quintessential New York center at that time, 59th Street and Lexington Avenue on the 6 line.
With its green station markers, the corner just outside of Bloomingdale’s symbolizes an area of town that is emblematic of New York’s beauty and glamour, excitement and expectation, and to this very day, some twenty-one years later, the neighborhood where I work in the East Fifties and that place are all one: from Sutton Place on the east, moving westward towards Lex and then Park, the entire area—from the brownstones in the East Sixties to the boutiques over on Madison, and including, as far as 81st Street, the Metropolitan Museum—all have the 59th and Lex subway station as their proverbial entrance point in my eyes, and they epitomize the allure and taste that for me lie at the heart of New York.
So on that first Saturday in 1980, when a friend asked me where I wanted to go to explore the city, that was the place I put my finger on and headed towards from Astor Place, and the fact that one was brought there by a train marked in green added to its seemliness, since the old, yellow- marked double R train, sordid in my opinion, brought one towards Broadway and Times Square, while the red 7 line belonged to the intellectual heights of Columbia University.
Yet, much to my chagrin, leaving the station, I did not find Jacqueline Onassis, Liza Minelli, Warhol and Capote waiting to say hi and invite me to a party; instead, I found, merely, Bloomingdale’s and Fiorucci (still something mythic, since I’d heard it sung about in the Sister Sledge hit from the heyday of disco, “He’s the Greatest Dancer.”) And it wasn’t such a disappointment that nothing happened as I’d expected, because, looking around me, what excited me more, I think, was the endless possibility of something, a possibility that, brought back to earth by college graduation and the job fight, waned in me in the intervening years between now and then. Often, now that I work in the area, I wonder what exactly had been there geographically at the time. Banana Republic didn’t exist then, nor did (I think) Coconuts. When I pass there now, I feel a slither of condescension towards these places, as if what were there now couldn’t possibly have the quality or depth I recall from some 21 years back. In 1980, I was still part of the designer craze, and even though we were poor college students from N.Y.U. who were broke, we walked through Bloomingdale’s and looked at the names: Ralph Lauren (somewhat accessible, maybe by asking Mom and Dad for Christmas), Armani (highly pristine, not your average ready-to- wear things)… yet still, it all belonged to us because we were now part of that city that generated fashion, taste, chic. Inside Fiorucci for the first time, I remember being struck most of all by the accessories and the place’s overall scheme, although when push came to shove, the type of clothes they sold, the Fiorucci style, just didn’t fit with my personality. I remember standing there that day with my friend feeling inadequate in front of the lighting, which made my skin feel yellow, and the steel displays. It was as if all of it was an indictment of what I had on—a tan corduroy blazer over Levis—something I felt was fitting for both my personality and my status as an undergraduate. It was as if the ambience of Fiorucci were an implicit indictment of anything that didn’t come from itself: immediately I knew I didn’t have money, and that no high social caste was waiting to swoop me up into its markings, and I wondered exactly what it was that determined the separation between what I was and what those who frequented these places were; how much time, money, what kind of job I would have to obtain (this latter thing didn’t seem realistic; I wanted to be a writer) –in order to walk into one of these places and buy my niece or nephew a Christmas gift. Somewhere inside me, I knew I couldn’t have it both ways: the writing of poems and stories while at the same time the generating of the kind of money I wanted to make to live in the East Sixties somewhere.
Today, approaching 40, the anticipatory excitement of adventure and boundless life beyond the life I had always known still strikes me with the freshness it had then. I’m a romantic at heart. I return to all the places that once had significance for me in order to measure myself, see what has become of the starry-eyed eighteen-year-old with poetic aspirations.
The spring before last, I took a group of my high school students to Central Park for a picnic and a ball game, and found myself running into F.A.O. Schwartz to get a ball at the last minute because I’d forgotten one. This time, I wasn’t frequenting a place of the affluent as an observer, but as somebody who had a definitive, pragmatic need to buy something that only F.A.O. Schwartz had.
Romance had given way to pragmatism, with its responsibilities and level-headedness: I wasn’t in F.A.O. Schwartz buying gifts for my kids for Christmas, to be brought back by my driver to my Fifth Avenue duplex; I was an average Joe high school teacher who needed a ball. And yet, I was proud of myself and of the fact that I had a reason beyond mere dreams to walk into F.A.O. Schwartz and spend money; and proud of the fact that I could see reality more now —that all of this wasn ’t for a rich upper crust, that most of the people I saw around me were average, middle-class people like myself with the responsibilities of raising kids or taking care of their families, and they happened to live here and shop here. The mystique of all this was gone, although the beauty —and my love for this area of town —wasn’t. What moves me so much about it now is that what I once believed was the unattainable playland of a select social group is something that belongs to me via my career and the rights (along with duties) of responsible adult life. I teach in a school within blocks of the area, have certain needs, and so therefore am among those who frequent the area for reasons of commerce, culture, or mere interest. Many of my friends from Brooklyn, where I live, also work in the area: we meet here, shop here, dine out here, browse for the new Swatches here —and it still feels as if a gift had been bestowed upon me, that one of the most beautiful areas on the face of the earth has indeed become an area that belongs to me. Looking at the whole area now, though, I’m not so sure that it was altogether unreasonable to dream like I did when I was eighteen, since I am finding out at the end of my thirties that the promise life holds out in our youth is not exactly far from the truth; that everything we desire has been put inside of us for a reason; that the ideal of beauty and boundless abundance a city like New York can bring out in us isn’t a vain or empty one, since everything is a sign that leads us on to something else, and we need things like the age of 18 and a first Saturday morning spent gaping at Manhattan in order to sustain us as we hold out.