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City Slicked

The Big Apple takes a bite out of me



I did not get to New York soon enough. I got there too late in this century, too late in the year, too late in my life.xI got there when I was in my mid-20s, but, by that time, the New York I had remembered—the New York I had invented watching Movie Matinee on school-day afternoons in Alabama and reading books checked out from the bookmobile—was already gone. I was, I knew, supposed to have arrived in time to see Gertrude Lawrence wearing that amazing lilac dress and being swept around the stage in The King and I. Instead, I got there in time to see people taking their clothes off in Hair. I was supposed to be there in time to get a table at ‘21’ and go on for dancing at El Morroco. When I got there, however, the only reservation I could get was at Mama Leone’s. I knew I should have been picked up by a chauffeured car, complete with fox-throw lap robe and curly-maple wet bar, at the airport. Instead, I had to take a cab. When I got out of the cab, I had gum on my shoe. It was raining. I had left my umbrella on the back seat.

Worst off all, I was supposed to have arrived in New York in autumn, maybe late in September or during the first or second week of October. I arrived on the 3rd of December. “Think of the shopping,” said people who had never even read a bookmobile book or memorized Fred and Ginger’s “Never Gonna Dance” number from Swing Time. I had sat in Santa’s lap in a department store in Montgomery, Ala. I had no reason to suppose that the lap of a Santa at Macy’s would serve up any unexpected thrills.

I did not have the right clothes for New York in the winter. I had brought tweeds, since that was what I had seen Fred wear when he was chasing Ginger. It was what William Powell had worn too when he was pouring a second cocktail for Myrna Loy. I had brought the perfect clothes for striding along Fifth on a brisk Saturday afternoon when the sunlight was low and the trees in the park were turning orange and yellow and a sort of tarnished shade of copper. I had brought my dinner jacket, in case there was an opening night at the theater or in case of an invitation for dinner in a duplex somewhere on Park. I had brought my Brooks Brothers patent pumps, when what I needed was a pair of overshoes.

The New York I needed was all opening nights and debuts and ushers herding people into their seats just in time for the overture. It was not the New York I got, which offered Delores Gray, or maybe somebody like her, standing in for Carol Channing. It was a place where tickets were available at half-price and where people stood outside the theater lobby eating hot dogs and dodging the spume from a city bus. I had brought a change of linen; what I needed was an extra pair of socks.

I had come to this New York too late. I already had memories of the other one. It was as if I had been stood up on a blind date. It was as if I had been writing love letters for years, thinking they were being read by Lana Turner, only to discover they were being delivered to Shirley Booth. It was as if I had arrived too late for seating at dinner. It was as if all the napkins had been picked up and the kitchen staff was already running the dishwasher. It was like somebody had died.

When I got home, people said, “Did you buy wonderful things for everybody for Christmas?”

I said, “I didn’t buy anything. I caught a cold.”

People said, “Did you get to see Hello, Dolly?”

I said, “No. I had to stay in the hotel. I had a case of athlete’s foot.”

People said, “Didn’t you see anything?”

I said, “I stood in front of the place where ‘21’ used to be. I put on a suit and pretended I was George Sanders in All About Eve.”

It was almost 15 years later before I actually moved away to New York. People gave me good-bye parties and said, “New York is where you belong.”

I said, “I’m not so certain.”

People said, “Trust us—you’ll never come back.”

I said, “Every time before, I came back.”

People said, “Be sure to take your tuxedo.”

I said, “Anybody here got an extra pair of heavy socks?”

People said, “Navy blue or black for social occasions?”

I said, “I think white will probably be just OK.”

That time around while I was in New York, I did get invited to one party. It was in a double apartment, not exactly a duplex, because no one had ever bothered to unlock the connecting doors. It was not on Park Avenue. It was on a side street, somewhere in the 40s, but it had windows that looked out over the snow on the streets.

It was a party in honor of Mabel Mercer, the black woman who used to sit in an armchair and sing Cole Porter songs. Mabel Mercer had already been dead for decades, but this was a party for people who had known her. On her birthday they gathered together and had a party every year.

There was not a lot of talk about Mabel Mercer during the evening, but there were a lot of Cole Porter songs, because a lot of the people there were people who still made a living singing in cafes and wearing black tie and sitting in damask-upholstered fauteuils.

People took turns singing the Cole Porter songs; then they sang songs they had written for themselves. They drank highballs and listened to the words that were being sung; then they looked out into the night and said, “I’ve got to be going. I’ll never get a cab if I have another drink.”

In the living room of the apartment there were two pianos. As people were leaving a brother-and-sister team were playing Rodgers and Hart. Before I put on my overcoat, they asked me if I wanted to sing something. I sang, “To Keep My Love Alive.” When I finished, the brother and sister said, “We’ll have to do that again sometime.”

I said, “Thank you. This was a wonderful evening.”

The sister said, “Before you put on your coat, let me look at your jacket.”

I said, “It’s tweed.”

She said, “I can tell—it’s good old Harris.” She said, “I didn’t think they made coats like that any more.”

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