Wednesday, January 16, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 60 - The Way It Was
Walking down the short avenue called Irving Place one evening ten years ago – so full of color suddenly where once there had only been one public place, Pete's Tavern, the place where O. Henry drank – only Pete’s where now there were layers of places, mirrors and sharp colored lights, like Tokyo, vertical now, upstairs and downstairs, wine shops, a wine bar, a plush coffee house, two layers of northern Italian restaurant, a store with a walk-in humidor for costly cigars, the kind you knew a real cigar person would enter knowing that in the mix of Honduran and Jamaican there will be, hidden somewhere, illegal Cuban too – and a Japanese restaurant, or was it two Japanese restaurants on top of each other? And an array of take-out places – caviar in one, delicate dumplings in another - and shiny, fashionable, new hard-core bars filled past capacity with pretty girls and carefully tailored conventional young men all standing and all talking at the same time. And then a place called Friend of the Farmer.
Almost overnight this had happened, it seemed. During the previous decades that I'd had known Irving Place nothing had changed, though in memory it had always been full of color – from the Gramercy Square Park end, with outside gas lights at the Player's Club and people heading into the Ben Sonnenberg mansion, and the more solid and safe it a little dull National Arts Club – down to 14th Street, where Luchow's had been – in the days still of the bock beer festivals, and also an old second story dime-a-dance hall with low colored lights, powder and perfume smells of hustling, aging girls – with a dance band so wonderfully dispirited the drummer had just enough energy to lift his drum sticks and hold them lightly as they fell down.
And in between Gramercy Park and 14th Street those quite solid old buildings, none except Pete’s commercial – and none of them tall – brownstones and other kinds of stone, and some Georgian – where for a time I'd stayed with Anne Marie – a willowy girl who stopped traffic and was Haitian besides – lay with her in a front room that had French doors leading out to a narrow balcony. Very late at night, coming in through the open doorways, there would be the clip clop of horse hooves on the still remaining cobblestones as still remaining mounted police returned to still remaining stables.
And Pete's with its outdoor tables in summer back when outdoor café life was usually only for European summers, and we'd all meet there at Pete's each hot summer night, back when no one had air conditioners – meet there, walking up from our floor-through tenement flats with bathtubs in the kitchens.
As I walked down Irving place, passed beneath that remembered balcony, I would always imagine as it was back then when it never changed – wild and colorful in my mind if calm and silent and without the colored lights and mirrors – still feel it even this time while working my way through this new Tokyo version.
Kept it intact until later that evening when I started to write about it – for as I wrote, the color went away – as it sometimes did too when I wrote about that same time period in Paris and Bangkok and Dubrovnik.
Turning to gray as if the color had never been there –
Maybe never been there,
Maybe it was something I had to leave behind.
And a few years later after that first walk down the new Tokyo version of Irving Place it was not that the deep past time had really been a time done in black and white, but rather that there was some reason later that – like other things – like supposedly happy childhood summers and some young lover affairs and some carefully constructed ambitions - it had become necessary to see those parts as less than they had seemed – side with the New Tokyo version and erase the other versions if not just leave them behind. Turn them into black and white. Erase them.