Goodbye, 48th Street

by

07/17/2018

Neighborhood: Midtown

Once upon a time…

For my son, Silas, it was Mimi’s Pizza on 84th and Lexington. Approaching the corner location and discussing the toppings we’d put on our slices as we did every Friday on our way to his grandmother’s where he would be dropped off to spend the night, we saw not only that the gates were pulled down but that there was a sign in the window:

“It is with a heavy heart that after 59 years, we are closed for business. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are forced to close our doors. We would like to thank our customers and neighbors on the Upper East Side for your friendship and patronage. This is an extremely difficult time for our family, but we hope to see you in the future.”

I turned to Silas, who, at seven years old, didn’t quite understand what it all meant, and I at once began explaining how this was part of being a New Yorker. Without any prior notice, your favorite pizza shop would shutter. It wasn’t worth too many tears, because this was the nature of our city, his city. Despite appearances, there was no such thing as permanence. You would get used to this because you had to. And if the hurt was too much, just think of the Native Americans and what they’d experienced.

“Forget Mimi’s. Think of every felled tree which the Native Americans witnessed and try to imagine the pain that came of it. You have to harden yourself against these kinds of losses, to love your city but also learn how to move on when it changes what you love about it most without conferring with you first. You understand?”

Peering into what twenty-four hours before had been his favorite pepperoni slice in the city, with his small fingers hanging on the bars of the lowered gate, Silas, not a little downcast, said, “You mean we have to get to pizza somewhere else?”

“Exactly, my boy. Exactly.”

Thirty-nine years in, I figured I was as well-armored as the best of them to deal with just these kinds of losses. Sure, every once in a while, the plywood I’d nailed down over my heart long ago would come loose, and I’d think of Sidewalkers, which had been on 72nd Street between Central Park West and Columbus, a place my mother, brother and I would go eat crab, banging into the night with our mallets; or the Conservatory, which had been on the southern corner of the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West and 60th Street, where my mother would take me to have french onion soup after my therapy sessions following my parents’ divorce; or, of the Paramount Theater, just one block down from the Mayflower in the Gulf-and-Western Building (now owned by the President) and the time my mother brought my brother and I there to see the Breakfast Club and grabbed our hands and dragged us out during Judd Nelson’s classic “‘No Dad, what about you?’ ‘Fuck you!’” monologue. Geographically speaking, I could quit right there, but why not take a quick look over the shoulder at the old Coliseum, and mention that night during my freshman year of high school when my pals and I went to see Nirvana and the Breeders perform there. (Yes, it was as good as it sounds.) Throughout my lifetime, the Coliseum itself was always black with soot from the exhaust of cars and busses that drove around Columbus Circle. But then again, the two towers that replaced the building are now dirtied by criminals who buy up the multimillion-dollar apartments housed inside with which to launder their money.

Anyway, it’s New York, and New Yorkers are used to the wrecking ball. This city changes. What are you going to do about it? Toughen up. And remember the Native American Indians who got $24 for Manhattan (as if they had a choice in the matter) and their loss. If you want to cry, cry for them.

But then last week, I needed a piece of recording equipment. Inexpensive, commonplace, it was a small tube of metal that converted an XLR microphone jack into a 1/4 inch TRS plug-in. I
happened to be on 50th and Broadway, and I thought I’d just swing by 48th Street and stop in at one of the music shops on the block. It had been a while since my last visit. Actually ten years, at least.

I could recall purchasing my first guitar on 48th Street, a Mexican Fender Telecaster with a metallic blue body. That was back in 1992. I had gone to Manny’s, yes.

I’m sure plenty of purists might have told me back then that the block had lost its luster long before. Surely I could have rounded up a dozen nostalgic acts in under a minute who would have insisted that I just didn’t know what the street had once been like. Oh, the people you’d see! Irving Berlin doing cartwheels down the block! Frank leaning on lampposts! Miles Davis twirling his trumpet!

I had no particular affinity for 48th Street. I wasn’t the kid who sat inside music stores all day asking to try one guitar after another or whether it was all right if I plugged into a Marshall stack. In fact, I always felt uncomfortable inside those shops, as if I had unwittingly jumped into a shark tank to be swallowed whole by one of the many blood-thirsty employees.

On that day back in ’92, with three-hundred and fifty dollars safely hidden from muggers inside my sock (money I had sung for in front of a packed house at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on West 83rd, belting out one of the great Bar Mitzvah standards from the Book of Leviticus concerning lepers and leper colony), I tried to show the Manny’s salesman that I knew more than nothing about being a shrewd shopper.

“I’ve got $350. What can I get?”

The Manny’s salesman, black mullet, torn blue jeans, didn’t utter a word but pulled the metallic blue Mexican Strat from the wall-peg, plugged it into an amp and shoved the instrument in my hands.

I didn’t know how to play guitar, couldn’t form a chord, play a lick, could hardly strum. Which is to say, I couldn’t test the instrument for quality. And with the Manny’s salesman standing over me, asking, “What do you think? You like it? You want it? I’ll throw in a case. You like it?”—an urgency to close the deal, get out of the store and off 48th Street with a guitar of my own, took hold:

“Okay,” I muttered. “I’ll take it—” and I reached into my sock and pulled out the damp bills.

In truth, 48th Street didn’t win over my heart that day, nor did it leave much room for a feeling of first-guitar pride. But, as life progressed, and I played in my first bands, and then continued on in a life of music through mid-twenties, I returned to 48th street again and again to purchase equipment. And I came to respect how with 48th Street you had a street that meant something very specific. 41st? 63rd? 83rd? No. 125th, yes. 42nd Street, of course. But, no other numbered streets in all of Manhattan. Just those three. 48th Street was Music, and in New York City, where music lives and dies, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

And yet turning onto 48th Street on this hot July afternoon, I found that the entire block had been leveled. There wasn’t a single music store remaining. And what stood in their places? Construction sites, one after the other after the other, where more new large office towers would soon come to stand. I couldn’t believe it. Not one music store? They were all gone? I hurried over to 49th Street to see if perhaps one weren’t hiding there. Nope. Then I hustled down to 47th, because maybe, just maybe I’d find one of the Great Holdouts holding out there. Nothing. All the music shops were gone. There was nothing there, nothing other than these work sites enclosed in green scaffolding. And suddenly, the dark feeling that I had spent my adult years suppressing came rushing back. I was livid. How could this happen? How could they take away 48th Street? It was unjust. It was wrong. Now 48th Street would be just another street, like 16th or 29th or 53rd or 93rd, and all the other numbered streets.

I breathed out once, heavily. Then, my spine went straight, the shoulders rotated back, and with the lights of Times Square beaming down at me from above, I said, “Oh, well. I guess it’s goodbye, 48th Street. Goodbye.”

 

*

Julian Tepper is the author of the novels, Balls, Ark, and the forthcoming Between the Records, an excerpt of which appeared in the July issue of Playboy Magazine. He was a member of the band, The Natural History, and co-author of their song, “Don’t You Evah.”

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