Once Upon a Time in New York City — Goodbye Checker Cabs, Hello NoMad Hotel
By Stuart Mitchner
There again was my lost city, wrapped cool in its mystery and promise. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
The singer songwriter Rosanne Cash was 14 when she recognized New York City in her own image. The moment of truth came at a leather goods store in Greenwich Village where she’d been taken by her father, “who had a lifelong love affair with the city and kept an apartment on Central Park South.” She was standing in front of a mirror trying on the green suede jacket he’d had made to order for her, “light pouring in the windows from busy Bleecker Street” when everything clicked. “That was my real self there in the mirror …. I belonged here. It was more than an idea; it was a sharp ache and a calling that tugged at me … until I pulled my entire life apart to come home.”
She made the move 23 years later, in 1991. She’d been living in Nashville for most of the 1980s, frustrated because she wasn’t writing the songs or making the records she really wanted to make; then she recorded Interiors, which she thought was “the best work” of her life, and the record label “utterly rejected it.” At the same time, her marriage was falling apart, she was despondent: “Only one thing made sense: New York.”
Of all the pieces in Sari Botton’s collection, Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers On Their Unshakable Love for New York (Touchstone 2014), Cash’s seems the most truly felt, the most perceptive. Her account of the lessons she learns as she becomes a loving student of New York is earnest and infectious. Looking into the history of the Washington Square of Henry James’s day makes possible the “little secret thrill” she feels when she walks through the park. She reads Jane Jacobs “who helped block the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway” and she laments the razing of old buildings and churches that came with the extension of Seventh Avenue; her visits to the map room at the New York Public Library help her develop “a growing sense of territoriality” during the decade in which she realizes “that living elsewhere was no longer even a tiny option in the farthest corner of the smallest part of my mind.”
She also remarries and raises children, doing her best to live with the changes in her Chelsea neighborhood, the demolitions, the multimillion-dollar condos, the “ultra-upscale private school.” She becomes for a time “the Disgruntled New Yorker.” When she asks younger people if they ever wonder about her New York or the one before that, or the one before that, they tell her, “We wonder how we ever found each other without cell phones.” Lamenting for lost objects like Checker Cabs, Bonwit Teller hatboxes, and the old Penn Station, “tears come,” and taxis are her “favorite place to cry,” the drivers passing her tissues through the partition without being asked. Then one day, after she’s “20 years a New Yorker,” a driver
recognizes her and says he’s been waiting decades for her to get into his taxi. “I reviewed your album Interiors for Rolling Stone,” he tells her. “It should have been the lead review.”
Only in New York, in the second decade of the 21st century when English-speaking cabbies are becoming a rarity, would you find the writer who reviewed the album that gave Rosanne Cash “the courage to come to New York.” As she puts it, “My heart swelled. Past and future came together, gleaming in the rearview mirror, powering the headlights.”
Kids in the City
Cash’s essay coincides with impressions of a recent stay at the Hotel NoMad that brought my own New York past and future together. My memories had already been stirred by the article in Sunday’s Times on growing up in New York (“What Makes a City Kid”) as well as the piece in Never Can Say Goodbye by Whoopi Goldberg, who grew up in the Chelsea Projects. On a trip to Germany when she was very young (“way before I was famous”) she realizes that she “already knew all about the area, the food, the language, the Black Forest” just from growing up in the “big, fun, exciting classroom” of the city: “I had been everywhere before I’d actually gone anywhere.”
One of the “city kids,” a 12-year-old “theater nerd,” loves Times Square “because it’s so loud.” I was a only a little older when I bonded with another Times Square. A Japanese tourist standing on the corner of Broadway and 42nd once actually asked me the way to Times Square. It seemed misleading to say “Turn around, there it is” because for me that was a half-lie. Gone were the Astor Hotel, the Camel’s sign, the automats and penny arcades, and, saddest of all, the big movie houses with their glittering marquees and giant billboards. Though many of the legit theatres on the side streets have survived, they’ve never held the same fascination for me, even though my life as a show biz nerd began with the sheer joy of watching Ray Bolger sing and dance his Where’s Charley show-stopper “Once in Love with Amy” at the St. James.
Having spent altogether no more than four years of my life actually residing in the city, I’m not fully qualified to say I grew up there, but what Rosanne Cash terms “the calling” began tugging me during my ninth-grade year at McBurney School. Weekday mornings it was the rush-hour subway crush from East 53rd to Columbus Circle with a change at Seventh Avenue, but walking home I could fill my eyes with Times Square. On winter evenings the lights of the Great White Way would already be aglow.
Everyone and Anyone
Rosanne Cash’s love letter to the city reminds me of one of the essential elements of the New York mystique, which is knowing that Everyone who was Anyone has walked these streets, whether it’s Jackie Gleason saying “Hi kid” to me once on my way to school or Johnny Cash living on Central Park South. And it’s fun to think that Johnny’s city-wise daughter could be in one of those Yellow Cabs passing by. Not that “everyone” has to have been famous. All you need do is look through Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York to see how many people no one ever heard of help make New York New York. Like my mother riding the El to her job with the N.Y. Crime Commission at 15 Park Row, and my father riding subways west and uptown to study a medieval manuscript at Columbia’s Low Library.
Meanwhile it’s best to keep in mind the present-day reality of a Manhattan occupied in all senses of the term by one-percenters and developers putting up banal high-rise living spaces for the rich and famous. If you want to live at 15 Park Row where my mother used to work, known in its 19th-century day as the tallest building in the world, you can apparently rent a one bedroom apartment for $4,995. The apartment we rented for $125 a month at 224 East 53 appears to be going for around $7,000 these days, assuming you can get on the waiting list.
From Biltmore to NoMad
This writer’s New York story began with my wide-eyed first look at the concourse of Grand Central Station on the Christmastime morning my parents and I arrived from Indianapolis. I was 10. We spent a week at the Biltmore Hotel, all 22-plus stories of it — a very New York play on words when you think of it — stories you can read and stories you can live on. My literary range at the time being somewhere between Freddy the Pig and the Hardy Boys, it didn’t matter to me that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had honeymooned at the same hotel (until they were thrown out for disruptive behavior) or that Holden Caulfield, who would change my reading life five years later, met his date Sally under the Biltmore clock. In 1981 when the Biltmore was gutted in spite of its landmark status and concerted protests by preservationists, I felt something like what Rosanne Cash felt during those tearful cab rides.
I’ve lost count of the New York hotels I’ve stayed at since that Christmas week at the Biltmore, but nearly all of them have literary/show biz associations, not only the obvious ones like the Chelsea, the Algonquin, and the Warwick, but Kenmore Hall where Nathanael West was the night clerk; the Gramercy Park, where Humphrey Bogart lived with his first wife; the Library, where my wife and I celebrated an anniversary on the Paranormal Floor, and the Walton, where we spent the weeks before our marriage chasing cockroaches out of the oven. While there have been numerous convention stays at Hiltons and Sheratons over the years, our choice for special nights in the bosom of old New York was the 110-year-old Belleclaire on Broadway and 77th, and just two weeks ago the relatively new NoMad on Broadway and 28th, which has brought new life to a French Renaissance limestone building with a Beaux-Arts cupola from the same period.
Drinking at The Library
The Library at the NoMad merges the mystiques of the book and the city, of literature as life-form unto itself. Here you can have drinks in a bibliophile’s dream where a spiral staircase leads to softly lit tiers of volume-laden shelves aglow behind glass panels, book-filled walls rising in spacious heights and depths of elegantly bookish ambiance.
In the NoMad’s lively, cozy, convivial, anything-but-silent Library, drinks and talk and motion are the story of the hour. While the hotel’s other bars are open to the public, this atmospheric enclave is for guests only. To be enjoying so special a space you have to be actually putting your head on the pillow at the NoMad and maybe dreaming dreams of old New York or perhaps Paris, given Jacques Garcia’s guest room decor.
The NoMad’s Library is a microcosm of the city itself if you think of buildings as books and vice-versa, old and new, some rare volumes side by side with shiny new ones, still there to be read, or, if you can afford the hotels, lived in. Even if you’re not among the one percent, you can splurge for a suite at the No-Mad, as my wife and I recently did. Next morning it’s only a short walk to the Yorkshire moors and Haworth where the Brontë sisters are in residence at the Morgan Library and Museum. In New York, there’s still and always room for Anyone and Everyone, any time and every time.