woof, etc

I’m in the lobby bar of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, with a Belvedere on my left and a nice cigar on my right. Things could be worse.

It was not a good flight - I’d woken after just a few hours of sleep, kissed baby goodbye (sob) and sped to the airport. Penultimate row, in front of five free-spirited GALS on their way to their first trip to New York. They were . . . excited, and that’s nice, but they talked LOUDLY, all the time, about NOTHING. I could hear them over the engine - and it was an ancient plane with the engines in the tail. And we were in the tail. Man. I put on my earplugs and I could still hear them. I put on my headphones and listened to some old radio detective shows I’d digitized, and I still heard them over the gunfire. But it was a short flight, half of which seemed to be a bumpy descent - I hate landing at LaGuardia; it feels as if you’re a cart banging down 1 million steps one step at a time.

Took the bus in. The woman in the next seat asked some questions about where we’d be getting off, and I played Mr. Native. I told her to make sure she looks inside of Grand Central, and her eyes widened - really? Is it safe/ I could see she still thought New York was Kojakland, with trash everywhere and platoons of bums slumbering in a great dirty cave.

Walked to the hotel. Interesting place. Named after TR himself. One of the first big post-prohibition hotels, one of the first built over the tracks in the Terminal City project. It has a strange retail arcade in the lower level, much like the Palmer in Chicago; it was built to make up for the lost revenue from the booze. Fabulous lobby. Incredible public space - coffered ceiling, Second Empire details. Impressive. The room, however, is the size of the bathroom in my new house. It’s pathetic. The water pressure - well, picture an 80-year old man who’s been standing at a urinal for five minutes waiting for something to happen, and you get the idea.

I freshened up, walked around, then went up to Random House’s temporary home on Park. Typical unforgiveable 60s late International Style. Dull dull dull, and given what they tore down to build it, you want to just kick it. Nice offices, though. Doug, my editor, had chosen a little Spanish restaurant - when the Water For Chocolate author had come to town, he took her there, so it had to be good Spanish. And it was. Perfect fish. Perfect Belvedere. Great conversation. One of those moments where I have to stop and pinch myself, and remind myself that to my amazement it’s all worked out as I had dreamed, and now I’m sitting in New York dining and drinking on the Random House tab, and my editor isn’t just the guy who did the Onion book, but Bruce McCall’s next book, and he’s a cool guy at that.

I mean, when you’re a kid from North Dakota who wants to be an author, this is the definition of the dream. And I’ve done it, what, four times? Dutton once, Pocket twice, now this.

Gee Willlickers! Gawrsh!

Back to the hotel. Called home. Busy. Hmm. Read a little, watched the local news, read a little, called home. Busy. Hmm. We have call waiting, so it shouldn’t be busy. Well, perhaps the phone fell off the hook. Try later . . . sleep.

Woke, yawned, made coffee (damn hotel has no in-room coffee, so I’d brought an immerser and some bags) and called home. Busy.

Hmm. Now I feared the worst. When I got home I’d find everyone dead, with the walls splashed with blood, and ACID IS GROOVY KILL THE PIGS painted on the wall. I called Uncle Realtor’s cellphone, and said I couldn’t raise the home. “I know,” he said. “I tried last night and I couldn’t get anything. Or this morning. I’m on my way over there now.” Gulp. I tell him to call me. I wait. No call. I call. It rings. It rings! But no one answers. Okay, now I see it all - he replaced the phone, but he can’t bear to pick it up because everyone’s in pieces in the basement.

Then it rings; it’s my wife, and all is fine. The phone was off the hook. Whew.

Back to the publishers. Morning meetings with everyone who made the book possible. Publicity strategies planned; they’re going to try to get me back in August for some TV shows. Letterman! Let’s try Letterman! I think I have a better shot with the morning shows, but we’ll see.

I proofed the layouts for the book. It’s . . . incredible. The layout artist did a brilliant job. Every font is perfect; the colors, the layout, are just brilliant. I see my original design in a few spots - mostly the icons at the bottom of the page, and the lines that frame the page - but she’s taken my amateur attempt and just brought it all to life.

If nothing else, it’s the best looking book I’ve ever had. Hardcover, too.

So I leave the office very happy.

Off to Grand Central Station for lunch. There’s a food concourse on the ground floor, with some great restaurants. I choose Jimmy’s, which has the best logo of them all - classic early 60s jaunty-chef clipart. I figure it’s a venerable New York eatery, and the menu says it’s exactly that - Brooklyn’s Best Caterer, or somesuch underwhelming endorsement. Then again, they probably had to deliver food to mob weddings, and you don’t screw up those jobs. Unfortunately, the menu smells of feces. I put it down. Open it up - whew. Someone must have wiped it with a sour rag, or perhaps I just caught a whiff of something else . . .the waiter asks for my order, and I ask for a pastrami sandwich. On rye? he asks. No, on Wonder Bread, I want to say: of course! Rye!

When I get my sandwich it’s about six inches tall. Good. I pick it up. The bread’s so stale it falls apart. The pastrami is mostly fat. It’s inedible. I ask my waiter for help, and he refers me to the headwaiter, who refers me to the manager. Korean to Hispanic to Pakistani. Sigh. When it comes to a pastrami sandwich, I want it to be delivered by an old sour Jewish man with a towel over his arm. The manager looks at my plate - a mess of crumbled bread and glistening meat - and says Can I Help You in a tone that blames me for living. I explain the problem. She walks away. That’s it. Words in the kitchen. She comes back and asks if I want anything else. I say no. I leave. And because I’m a good Lutheran boy who waitered for seven years, I leave a tip.


I go over to a Hispanic booth, order in best imitation Spanish (I can order any meal in Spanish, because for some reason I can pronounce the words correctly; I know my r’s and ll’s. The previous evening I had a conversation about tequila with the waiter, and I’ll be damned if I knew what I said, but he seemed to know exactly what I meant) and get a wrap of smoked chicken and tomatillos. It - is - unbelievably good. I nearly weep. I went back and thanked them. They looked at me as if I was nuts.

Spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, taking pictures, shooting movies. Reshot the Dun & Bradstreet building, something I’d originally put up on this site two years ago. Walked 50 blocks north to the Met, and shot video until they yelled at me. Looked at the Roman section - not enough of it, there never is - but found a bust of Caligula that makes me nervous even from a distance of 2000 years. Years ago I would have spent all my time in the Renaissance era, but I’ve really lost my fascination for that period; the 19th century appeals to me more now. Drank in the Davids, yawned at the Corots, grinned at the Cezannes, left the Monets for a day when they’re fresh again. There was a Balthus exhibit, which served to confirm that he was, when you consider it all, a creepy hack. I always end up in the Armor room, which gives me the clownies - all those empty suits of armor like implacable robots from the past. Always glad to return to daylight.

Supper at my favorite Indian restaurant, then an evening walking around Times Square, filming the lights. The clutter has become so overwhelming that it’s losing its impact; everything is everything and everything is everywhere - instead of ten great signs there are 50 lesser signs, and the overall effect - particularly on 42nd street - is like hearing the Hallelujah Chorus performed by a hundred Gilbert Gottfrieds. Back to the hotel; downloaded the photos into the computer and sifted through the day’s work. Now I’m here at the bar. There are several tables of couples; no one is talking to anyone. Everyone has just gone ten rounds with New York, and no one’s answering the bell.

Tomorrow : round eleven.
.. ..
So last night I ask my waiter if he knows anything about this hotel, and he grins and squares his shoulders and tilts his head as though he’s about to burst into song. Uh oh, I think: Another Kansas lad who came here for the theatah, another greasepaint junkie with a trustfund and a sub-sub-lease on a rent-controlled closet.

“There’s a tunnel to Grand Central station,” he said, “a secret tunnel that’s no longer in use.” I nod, having read this in the pamphlet the desk clerk gave me upon check-in. He tells me a few other tales, none of which are news, but he’s game for it and enjoys relating the history of this famous pile.

“If you need to know anything else,” he said, “just ask! I’m a total New York history maven.”

“Really! Me too - I mean, I like New York history. Here’s a question for you -’ “

“Uh oh,” he said with a nervous laugh; “I probably won’t get this one.”

“What’s the original name of the Flatiron building?”

He gave me a look of small horror: you mean it had another name? his expression says. When? Who knew? I told him the name (Fuller) and said, okay, your turn.

“Did you know that the wind coming off the Flatiron -”

“Twenty-three skidoo!”

“ - used to lift up ladies’ skirts, and men would hang around waiting for a glimpse of ankle?”

“I know - 23-skidoo!”

He peered at me, confused. “Cops would give guys the old move-along,” I said, “and since the Flatiron’s on 23rd, it was known as the 23-skidoo.”

Now he looked at me as though I was some sort of 33rd Degree Master of Arcanity. I felt bad. He was a nice guy. I let him give me one, and I answered it correctly, but he had another explanation. Sigh.

Saturday: nice and slow. No more the death-hikes up and down the island. Today I walked down to Chelsea to visit the flea markets. I love nothing more than spending a Saturday afternoon in New York City, poking around the detritus of a dozen different decades. It’s all there. Old broken fishing lures from the 50s. Autopsy photos. Pinup calendars, baroque gilt clocks, knock-off Lalique, beer memorabilia. World’s Fair tickets, Father’s day cards from 1947, shirts. Shirts. Shirts and ties, dresses, shirts and suits and slacks - lots of 80s stuff. The 80s look was in part based on a thrift-store chic; now the recycled gets recycled again. I saw a kid with a tongue stud poking through a bin of skinny ties, and I thought: there’s hope.

Didn’t buy much. Postcards - a few. (One of the creek by my house, oddly enough.) Bought a photo of a woman standing by a car in 1941 on some smalltown street - no ID on her or the town. It was stuck in among the postcards, and I wanted to give it, or her, a home. There was a story behind the picture I’ll have to make up some day. In fact there are thousands of untold tales in the garage of the Chelsea antique mart; bins and bins of family photos. Who would sell such a thing? Who would buy them? There are no names to any of them, of course - no one writes the names on the back, because you always think everyone will know who they are. The old old studio photos might as well be Renaissance portraits - the joyless expressions, the heavy clothes date them way past your mother’s mother’s day. But the black & white shots with the scalloped edges just overwhelm you with the sadness that rolls over everyone - all these faces, cast adrift; all these moments, scattered; whatever these people meant to the person who pushed the shutter button, it wasn’t enough. It’s a bin full of clappers ripped from their bells.

I can’t stand to look at them.

But. I was walking back from lunch, and I saw a photo scoot across the sidewalk. Picked it up. Two kids. Two happy kids. Two boys, two brothers, giggling, grinning, giving their best. Fifties photo - Disneyland, Fess Parker, Sputnik still to come, either boy possibly Nam Spam if things didn’t fall their way - you imagine this happy lad or older brother clutching a stump on a Medevac chopper -

OR, or, living happily ever after in Queens with his wife who’s still the best cook in five boroughs, and when she roasts a bird for Thanksgiving and all the kids and grandkids pack into their tiny kitchen, humid with stove-heat and stuffing and warm brown smells of simmering gravy, well, he’s as happy as he can be, and he always gives his brother a little wink: life’s good, eh? Who could complain?

I put the picture in my pocket; a corner flaked off. All these pictures are close to vanishing, cracking in half, then in half again. The flea market is the last stop for all these items. Last chance to belong; last chance to go home.

Besides antiques, I had two other goals for the afternoon. Two other things I need to do in New York. I need to have a Krispy Kreme, and I need to have a Boylan Root Beer. If you’ve had either, you know why. There’s a KK by NYU, but when I saw a big fat antique dealer working on a dozen from a Krispy Kreme box, I asked where the nearest one was: 23rd, by 8th. So off I went. Hit the intersection where I’d stayed for a week back in the summer of 84 - I’d come out to visit a girlfriend who had an internship in Manhattan, and she’d been housesitting for a co-worker in an apartment building next to the Chelsea hotel. Pathetic place. Oh, it was clean and safe and all that, but the room was the size of Rosie O’Donnell’s brain; you coudn’t turn around without banging your nose on the back of your own skull. Hotplate kitchen. There was a coffee shop around the corner whose sign proclaimed WORLD’S BEST COFFEE, and I thought: that’s a patent falsehood. Without ever setting foot in that place I know it’s a lie.

It’s a nail shop now. Anyway. I walked until I found the place. Great little store - these guys have the whole retro look down cold, and it’s 1937 retro, proto-retro. I order one glazed: I take it outside: I walk, and eat, and oh, man, that’s a doughnut. Check. Now, the Boylan’s Root Beer. I know where I got one before - little deli by the Hasbro building, on the old department store territory on 23rd and 6th, but I’m already moving north. I check one deli - nix. I check another, another: no. No Snapple, even. Barbarians. I try CVS Foodmart: nada on the Boylan front. I give up, figuring: out of business / mob ran them out of distribution channels / too chi-chi for high-volume Korean markets. I finally break down, get a Diet Coke at a nice little grocery. Of course it’s lukewarm; there are two things you can’t get in New York, the first being cold pop. Every cooler is old, overworked, and opened 90 times an hour; between the asmathic machinery and the high product turnover you’re lucky if the soda’s colder than room temperature. (The other thing you can’t get is good pizza; Manhattanites believe that a layer of wet newspaper smeared with ketchup, spackled with flavorless cheese, studded with dead sausage and left to tan itself under a heatlamp for seven hours is pizza. It’s not.) I’m behind a very, very, very fat gentleman. He has a cane; he’s thirty. Jaunty beard, jaunty hat, but he moves slow and waddles side to side like Foucault’s Pendulum as he makes his way to the cash register with an enormous sack of food. At the register he selects three cookies the size of scooter wheels, and a bag of Jelly Beans, and just to complete the sad cliche he asks the clerk if she could get him a Diet Coke.

“Diet coke?” she says.

“Yes.” He pauses. “And also a regular coke, too.”

Total bill: $47. It’s a tough city for someone with food issues. I feel bad for the fellow - summer looms, it’s already 60 plus outside and hell is going to start pounding on his head and heart very soon.

Twenty blocks by side streets; I take pictures, walk, whistle, enjoy the view. I realize I haven’t had coffee since I grabbed at cup in the morning, so I go into Starbucks. Of course, Starbucks is the Great Satan to True Urbanists, driving out Authentic coffee shops with their cookie-cutter shops (none of which ever look the same as others, but YOU KNOW what I mean . . . the wood’s the same color! And so are the decorations!) I don’t subscribe to this view. I’m glad Starbucks owns Manhattan. Let me tell you about coffee in the days pre-Starbuck: you sat at a counter, which, I’ll grant, was an authentic old formica counter with the ribbed metal edge, and yes it had the holy grouping of the salt / pepper / ketchup / napkin dispenser, placed every three feet, encased by aluminum arms to keep them from dropping on the floor. But. Your coffee - when it finally came - consisted of a tepid ration that was one quarter milk, served in a wide-mouthed cup that was cold by the time you got it, and half of it sloshed into the saucer by the time the waitress got it to you, and GOD FORBID you’d ask for a refill. Now for a buck and a half you get a good, strong, fresh cup of coffee, and you sit at your own table and no one makes you leave.

All hail Starbucks.

So I walk in, order my coffee, and examine the pastries.

They have Krispee Kremes.

I examine the bottles of soda.

They have Boylan’s Root Beer.

It’s ice cold.
.. ..
Penultimate New York day. Supper at Smith & Wollensky’s. The waiter is a little too callow to be working here - usually I get guys with thick necks and Irish twinkle in their eyes, gray-haired buzzcutted fellas named Charlie wth blown busted noses who give off an air of bonhomie and street-smart meat-skills. USMC tattoos under the starched white shirts. This guy belongs anywhere, nowhere; could be a waiter at Tofu Burrito. I order a Cajun Strip, just out of curiousity, and a side of steak fries. Eight bucks for one potato. I also ask for steak sauce, and Boy Waiter has the nerve to raise an eyebrow.

“It’s for the potatoes,” I tell him. He’s relieved.

Ten minutes after I order, a different waiter comes by and places That Knife on my table. The famous S&W knife. Just seeing it makes me happy. It cheers a man to see this knife on his table. It portends great things. The steak turns out to be so tender it makes veal feel like a mouthful of glass. It’s the best steak I had since the last time I was at this place. I read the new Ellroy novel while I eat. Man: life is good.

I walk outside. The sun has ignited the tops of the skyscrapers: the old RCA building,, by which I mean the old old RCA building, not that Rockefeller Center newcomer, is bright gold; the Chrysler Building shines so bright it pierces the eye; the verdigris duet at the top of the Waldorf glows green. I light a Partagas and walk down Park.

I’m a very happy man.

And, I’m alone. Now. Without family waiting when I return, none of this would be the same; without wife and baby and dog, this would all be ashes, really. This would be cold stone and indifferent glass. I remember the trip from ‘99 - felt busy and aimless. So many visits, so many trips, all of which added up to more of the same of the same: is this the rest of my life, then? Every year the same routine: day one, thrills; day two, feels like home; day three, it begins to drag; day four, fleeee fast & fleet for the ordinary life in the middle of the nation. Last year - trepidation, wondering what fatherhood would be like, feeling as if I was playing out the old New York routine one last time before EVERYTHING CHANGED -

Now, everything’s changed. I have my own furrow, finally. I have my own place in the world, and it has nothing to do with when or where, but who: her. Now that I’m HER father, every other tent stake I tried to pound into the hard-packed ground seems like an amusing waste of energy. I spent most of my life waiting for things to cohere, add up, reach a certain point where I could apprehend the world and my place in it; hence the necessity of knowing New York, knowing all the buildings, and who built them when, and what was there before that was there. I felt proud that I knew this place. That meant something.

But it doesn’t. It’s nice to know it; it’s a good thing to fit in and know the ropes. This is the most American of American cities, and I’m privately pleased that I feel at home here. But I’m just a corpuscle. I kept waiting for New York to say something to me, but it never does. Now I know what I want to say to it:

Here’s my daughter. I’m back to show her what I know. Turn on all your lights. Push all the clouds back, summon every flower, and for God’s sake, learn how to make pizza.