The Gramercy Park Litmus Test

by

09/14/2009

2 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 10010

Neighborhood: Gramercy Park

I moved into Gramercy Park through sheer dumb luck. I didn’t discover Eden with my own bumpkin nose; I had help in the form a lanky, soft-spoken boy who was returning home after living as a piste-addicted ex-pat. I met him after some of my own colossally unproductive post-college years in Colorado. We had in common a faux-elitist notion that productivity was only useful in a culture that made use of it, a convenient theory for people who spend their days sitting on large rocks drinking Moose Buttock Brown Ale. So under the guise of transitions more meaningful than switching from beer on a mountain to dainty thimbles of syruped vodka on barstools, we moved to Manhattan.

It was the nice boy who had insisted on downtown. Everything we liked soared past our means. Dejected, we walked north. The boy said, “There’s this other great neighborhood I want to show you, but just to see. Even if there was a place available, which there surely isn’t, we could never afford it.”

It was heavenly. A wrought-iron fence announced a hush, an elegiac enclave we circled in awe. Orderly hypericum cradled a bounty of peonies. The gravel of the landscaped paths shushed like a lullaby whenever a fortunate inhabitant strolled by. The grass was green as emerald; lush trees glimmered in the boundless sun.

Besides being the most beautiful sanctuary in the city, Gramercy Park validated my decision to return east. It was the epitome of a Jamesian quest for reason amid humane spirit and beauty, the antithesis of the towering menace of the Rocky Mountains, which always seemed to suggest the puny temporality of humans, even a kind of cruelty. One summer some friends and I had taken a lift to some ungodly peak and walked down, a sort of downhill sightseeing tour. It was perfectly safe, warm enough and with plenty of daylight. But I had to fight against tears of terror the whole five hours down. This was most likely because I am a ninny, but I felt there was something to my wish for a kinder earth.

I found it between Twentieth and Twenty-first Street. Strolling Gramercy Park’s perimeter, we gazed through the fence. Smitten couples sat flirting on benches beside the dogwoods. Children darted about, engrossed in games independent of large plastic vehicles requiring Buzz Aldrin headgear. Gawking at a stately, Gothic building boasting hordes of cherubim, waterspout gargoyles and two silver knights, I spied a quietly lovely Tudor building on the corner. On it was the sign: “Apartments Available Inquire to L&M Management.”

“Look!”

“No, no, they leave those signs up at all times. I doubt there’s been an vacant place there in decades,” said the boy.

“That sign is not decades old. Let’s call.”

“There’s no number.”

We went down the block and into Pete’s Tavern, past the afternoon old guard weighing down the bar with their whiskeys, and snaked over to the pay phone. The operator gave me a number for L&M Management that was not in service. Minutes later I was back at the Tudor building, ringing the superintendent’s buzzer. The boy hopped about the sidewalk like Mozart’s bird man Papageno, apoplectic at the padlock on his mouth.

The super answered the buzzer, and I asked him if there were any available apartments. Yeah, he said. He sounded tired and angry. After a long pause, I asked if we could see it, thereby establishing a pattern of dependence and resentment that would ballast a decade-long relationship. He said he’d have to get the key. Another pause. Okay, I said.

It was hard for me to beg Mr. DeBattista to call the owner for a price while I was expecting feathers to pop out of my boyfriend’s mouth, but I did anyway. We were led up to 2C. It was everything I hadn’t dared hope for. It had an actual bedroom. But what really got me were the tall French windows—they spanned ten feet of wall and opened onto a lovely English Plane tree where the boy could perch for hours during any recurrent episodes.

Somehow the owner, an extremely nice, retired NYPD investigator who had bought the apartment when he was based at the Thirteenth Precinct, was only asking $900 a month. I tried to imagine exactly what Sam Spade-ish debacle he was in when he sustained the head injury that caused him to rent this gem at such a steal. Turns out it wasn’t a head injury, but it’s closest equivalent: a daughter. His little girl was now twenty-eight, living in London, a big new city where he feared she would get emotionally, financially or physically screwed, and he hoped by behaving paternal toward some strange young woman from God Knows Where, that he might, through karmic intervention, ensure the same treatment for his own child.

The boy and I soon settled in. Unfortunately we settled heavily. I’d imagined his culinary aspirations as a sign of a creative, innovative thinker, but when he came home smelling of pungent fish—even though he worked in a fancy hamburger joint—he wanted to spend every moment immobile and mute in front of the television. Fancying yourself as Isabel Archer was hard while spending your evenings with Everybody Loves Raymond. He had also insisted that to gain a coveted key one had to live directly on the park, that our building wouldn’t have access. I took his word for it, but every time I walked by those enticing gates, my yearning rivaled that of the junkies lined outside the methadone clinic a few blocks south. Like the junkies, I tried a substitute, Madison Square Park. But it too was full of swaying addicts and I wanted to be able to sit on a bench without the jingle “Weebles Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down” playing incessantly in my mind.

One day, walking by the gates, trying not to lick the wrought iron for a quick fix, I saw our neighbor Susan exiting the park. She told me that our building had two keys we could check out from Mr. DeBattista, just like library books. I ran home and rang his buzzer.

“Hi Louis! It’s 2C. Is there a key to the park available?”

“Yeah.”

“May I check it out?”

“You’ll have to sign it out on the sheet.”

“Okay,” I said.

He disappeared for a while. I rang his buzzer again. Is his buzzer louder than every one elses? I wondered.

“Yeah?” came his voice.

“May I check it out today?”

“Yeah.”

Another very long silence. I rang again. His buzzer was louder.

“May I check it out now?”

The manna of the key was the end of me and the boy and the beginning of me and the park. Some less admiring family members implied that I’d used him just to get my footing in New York but I felt that his insistence on keeping life small barred me from a nebulous fantasy that involved great books, artists and thinkers, who, had I ever met them, would’ve asked me to spit out my gum and corrected my pronunciation of words like cacophony, which I had only read in books and never heard spoken aloud. The mental and emotional leaps I sought weren’t satisfied by contemplating the socio-cultural differences, although admittedly vast, between Lucy Ricardo and Mary Richards. Getting the key had been so simple, and somehow the boy complicated everything, or maybe diluted is a better word.

Soon after, he moved out. It was a surprisingly simple transition except for when he drunkenly returned a week later and, convinced I wasn’t alone, kicked in the door. Once I realized he wasn’t going to kill me, I had the tiniest tinge of regret that I’d missed out on a hidden passion. But it was just a tinge compared with the splendor of park.

I reveled in the glorious green. I would go as often as the key was available, and earned yet more of Louis’ somnambulant vitriol by failing to return it until harassed. If it was already checked out, I gave the hairy eyeball to whoever I imagined had usurped my playground. It was a holiday every time I entered. I soon learned that I could procure my own key with a letter to the park’s board. Once I had the key, I would sometimes walk through the park pretending it was the grounds of my own palatial home. The other residents were an army of groundskeepers keeping the tulips a perfect hue of yellow. Flight of fancy became a turbo-jet tour de force.

I immersed myself in fantasies of turn-of-the century gentility. If I could’ve found whale bone corseting I would’ve worn it. I made do reading Anthony Trollope novels and imagining myself in 1850s haute couture pagoda sleeves, which had I actually worn them, would’ve only terrified the squirrels.

In retrospect, I see that my fantasy was armor against the mating wars of the city. After all, my appeal as a non-Ivy educated, non-wealthy, non-properly compensated drone at an auction house didn’t reach everyone. I was also beginning to take on the mannerisms of Emma Thompson. Since the appeal of the park had jettisoned one mate, I developed a syllogistic theory to test a replacement by his response to it as well.

The Gramercy Park Litmus Test started innocently enough. If a date went well enough and I wasn’t sobbing to my cat by 9:30, I’d invite him downtown for a nightcap. Not in my apartment, mind you. Margaret Schlegel would never have a man she didn’t know up to her rooms. I’d take him to what I considered my extended living room, the Gramercy Park Hotel Bar. This was before Ian Schrager got hold of it, when it was a lovely dive that served stomach-burning whiskey with peanuts and still had stains on the mottled carpet from the Eisenhower administration. If we lasted until they closed, we would stroll out of the bar and into the park, a kind of holding pattern before seeing if it was safe to land. Getting blotto and carousing outside at 2 a.m. wasn’t particularly Jamesian, but here’s where I let my Lucy Honeychurch sensibilities come into play.

One date, a real estate developer, wasn’t sufficiently impressed with the opulence of the park. He walked in casually, sat on the nearest bench, and tried to neck. I suddenly remembered I had to go sell ashtrays from Camelot in the morning.

The art dealer genuflected too strenuously. He sprinted in and exclaimed about the zinnias so loudly I worried the that knights guarding the cherubs to our east would come to life and spear us. I couldn’t help but suspect him of using me for the chance to bask in weekend sunshine and greenery, or being a Judy Garland fetishist, or both.

The investment banker just wanted to go into my apartment. He told me he had a Hampton house with grounds four times this size minus the rodents. I said goodbye to him at the bar, and watched his cab lurch toward the Upper East Side.

The politically charged artist raged about the bourgeois pigs who would cordon off a section of the city green for private use. It was criminal, and how could I willingly partake in such an elitist affront? He wanted to set up a protest in the park. I showed him to the gate.

Yet another investment banker decided to jump the gate when I realized I’d left my key at home. I tried to dissuade him, saying I could be back with the key in minutes. He struggled for a good five minutes, and eventually toppled over. I felt assaulted and ran home. He then discovered that one needed a key to get out as well as in.

There were more dates, more failed take-offs. There were a few who happily acknowledged the worth of the park, and sometimes, me. But most of the attempts to land in the apartment were averted. Wind sheers I’ll call them, like the man I quite liked but who had mysteriously taken months to call after getting my phone number. When he finally called, he felt compelled to share with me the information that the delay was due to a horsy heiress he tried to land before bothering with the chick in the imaginary plumed hats. Or the hapless preppy who would vanish every time he got an invitation to a ball, fundraiser, gallery opening, club opening, drum circle, knitting class or dog show where he might meet someone else. Which was often.

Then there was the mid-air collision with the gallery owner. He adored the park and me, he said, which I believed until I learned six months in that he had a gardening-mad wife who would adore the park as well.

I was walking around the park one day, shaken after crawling out of the incinerated wreckage of this affair, when I saw the Old Crazy Lady. She was always stationed outside painting beautiful but incoherent images that resembled what might have happened if Bonnard had gone through a Cubist phase. I’d offered to let her in the park so she could render the likeness close up, but she always refused. She never spoke to anyone. Until that day, when she smiled.

“Hi. How are you today?”

“Horrific,” I said, thinking I didn’t need to stand on Austen manners with a fellow loon.

“What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth,” I replied.

“Saint Elizabeth. She was mistreated by her husband, but accepted her lot and is now a celebrated martyr.”

I’m doing something very wrong, I thought.

Although I had made some friends there, the neighborhood began to change as well. The revamp of the Gramercy Park Hotel turned my holy dive into a lounge indistinguishable from any other cosmo-spewing establishment below Twenty-third Street. I don’t like my alcohol to come in colors louder than my underpants. Around the corner, Park Avenue South suddenly became a daytime conglomerate mecca and nighttime tourist trap, and it was hard to pretend it’s 1850 when drunks walked around the park bellowing “Bootylicious” at the top of their lungs. Along with these changes, traffic increased. Sometime after 2002, cars inexplicably kept plowing into the park’s North Gate as if the enormous display of orange lights flashing in their face didn’t signify the end of Lexington Avenue.

Although I still loved Gramercy, I gave it up the second my husband asked me to move in with him. He had attachments of own: his neighborhood, the West Village, and the idea of himself as a flaneur whose unspoken duty it was to observe this particular epoque of the city. I didn’t put him through the Gramercy Litmus Test. I was too busy reveling in my reaction to him, and especially his reaction to me. Someone found parasols amusing, rather than reminiscent of Miss Havisham and dusty old houses smelling of cat urine! It turns out my husband and I share, if not the same neuroses, then complementary ones. Our mutual delusions are part of a bonding elixir. The first morning we spent in the park, he simply strolled in and sat imperially, as if he were a baron surveying his domain.

Reality has, however, pulled us into the modern world. Some delusions shatter after the arrival of a child–niggling little things like jobs and space for a family have propelled us out of both the West Village and Gramercy Park. It’s impossible to be in the nineteenth century when your two-year-old daughter tries to swing her hips like Beyoncé whenever she hears even the crudest of beats. My husband can’t fancy himself a flaneur when faced with the un-princess-like contents of a pink Princess Potty.

Thankfully the boundless love for an adored child is more than enough compensation for one lost suit of armor. We assume an air of pragmatic adulthood for our daughter, so she can hopefully build imaginary tenets of her own, strong enough, improbable enough to buffer, and just able to be sewn into the real world. Because a little bit of denial is what it takes in life. Of course my husband and I build other delusions together because, frankly, we’re good at it, and it’s a prerequisite to loving as we do our current neighborhood in New Orleans, a city that sits somewhere between six to eight feet below sea level.

But sometimes when we go visit our friends on Gramercy, I’ll peek across the street into the huge French windows and picture myself in crinoline, my husband in a cravat, and our pinafore-clad daughter heaving tea and scones before an afternoon spent strolling those hallowed grounds.

Elizabeth Beller is a writer who has worked at Sotheby’s auction house and as a reader for Miramax films. She lives in New Orleans and New York with her husband and daughter.

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