When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, weaned on Simon & Garfunkel’s hymnal “Bleecker Street” and a healthy mid-90s diet of Friends, with some nebulous notion of someday running back to the Big Apple, the city of my birth, my parents sat me down and made me watch After Hours, Martin Scorsese’ brilliant nightmare of 1980s SoHo, which portrayed a far moodier, far bleaker, far lonelier, and far more maddening New York than Ross and Rachel’s darkest storyline had ever hinted at.
I remember, in particular, a scene where the protagonist Paul, a word processor, seeks asylum in the Club Berlin at Broadway and Grand. He dances slowly with a sad, tobacco-stained sculptress to Peggy Lee’s already too, too surreal Thomas Mann-inspired “Is That All There Is?” As an angry mob, led by Catherine O’Hara, threatens to break down the door, the sculptress, June, encases Paul in a papier-mâché prison, a replica of Munch’s The Scream.
It was half the fault of that film, I’ve been told, that convinced my parents to pack me up, age one and a half, and move closer to my father’s homeland in the incessant sprawl of a then-decrepit Southern city. (The other half lies in an incident in which, like a participant in Plato’s parable of the cave, I pointed up at the snaking pipes of our building’s dank basement laundry room and uttered the monosyllable “tree.”)
My adolescent vision of New York was, I should say, rather warped. Where others knew it to be that “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” I knew it to be a brooding, delightfully sinister city I saw a few days a year at Thanksgiving until 2002, our final holiday trip, when it took 14 hours to drive from Richmond to New York. Two hours spent plodding through Staten Island will try any man’s soul.
My mom, the consummate New Yorker for nearly four decades, hasn’t been back since. I recall the sad incredulity in her voice the time I called her from the Bowery to tell her they’d put up a Whole Foods.
For me, New York has been a sporadic vision every year or two, a strange mirage from my past I feel some odd connection to but have no resident’s memory of. No memories of my own, at least. I have instead what you might call an inherited nostalgia for the place, an inherited time capsule of memories of things I’ve never seen. Aside from Morningside Heights – the neighborhood where my parents independently lived, worked, studied, met, got married, lived together, gave birth to me, and raise me for the first year and a half – nowhere in Manhattan is that inherited memory stronger than SoHo.
In the late 1970s, after years of studying color field and hard-edge painting, after a stint as a textile designer, my mother, along with a colleague of hers, coauthored SoHo (1978), “the first published guide devoted solely” to the neighborhood. Growing up, at least a dozen copies of SoHo occupied a shelf in the living room, kept apart and solemn like the Bible. I recall a trip to Washington sometime in the early 1990s to see it in the collection of the Library of Congress.
The two of them, my mother and her colleague, scoured the warren south of Houston, conducting hundreds of interviews with artists, gallery owners, performers, performance center staffs, restaurateurs, and boutique owners, to compile the guide. The book is punctuated by my mother’s photos from that period—including a particularly arresting cover photo of the World Trade Center towers as seen from the neighborhood—as well as her pen and ink diagrams of each block, listing every gallery, every grocery, every bar, every bookstore, hardware store, and pet supply store.
When I was maybe eight or nine, so probably 1994 or 1995, my mother took me by train to New York to stay with a friend of hers a few blocks from the old Empire Diner in Chelsea. We rode in a checkered cab, saw Cats, and ordered a skyscraper of corned beef at Carnegie Deli which we ended up finishing on the eight-hour train ride back to Richmond. My mother also took me to Times Square at night, then in the death throes of its past of flop houses and peep shows and prostitutes before it transitioned to the hell of Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. She walked me through SoHo, with its new Old Navy and its polished branch of the Guggenheim but enough of its pre-Giuliani grit to be recognizable to her, and told me to take a good long look around me, to take it all in, to hear what I could hear and smell what I could smell, to absorb as much of the old neighborhood as I could, because I would never ever see it again.
And, like always, she was right.
In March 2013, I had the notion to bring along my copy of SoHo – that catalog of my inherited memory – on a trip there, to compare then and now.
And had I had the book, I could have verified that that perfectly generic Coach at 143 Prince Street had once been a sneaker and “antique clothing” store called Diddingtons, Ltd. That that very perilously suburban Chobani store down the block at 150 Prince Street had, throughout the 1970s, been Prince Jeweler, where Alex Streeter created “lovely jewelry out of brass, bronze, and precious stones.” That that American Apparel “sweat shop” at 121 Spring Street had been the original Dean & Deluca, before it became the overpriced place in Georgetown in Washington where we buy our 7.5-ounce cans of wild Burgundy snails. That that Mariebelle Fine Chocolates—a perfectly lovely shop, I’m sure—used to be the public entrance to The Kitchen, where Vito Acconci and William Wegman presented their videos and John Cage and Philip Glass performed. My mother had strained to control laughter seated on the floor at a Philip Glass concert, and I had grown up with a collection of William Wegman books—Surprise Party, My Town, Mother Goose, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Fashion Photographs—never quite knowing his more conceptual past. And that that Nicole Miller, drably fit for any mall in America, had once been Ali’s Alley, the club of influential free-form jazz musician and Coltrane-collaborator Rashied Ali. There’s a beautiful photo of Ali on page 117 of the guide of taken by my mother. He’s in overalls, seated on a steep, unadorned staircase, a can of paint on the step beside him. I remember growing up with LPs of the Rashied Ali Quintet. My father revered those albums, and Rashied was a God. My mom had met him. He had let her photograph him. My mom had photographed God.
I could have verified all of this had I not left the guide in my backpack in our hotel room on the Lower East Side – the tomb of some ex-tenement. But it ended up raining anyway, and we ended up running through darkened streets from our steak au poivre dinner, to the awning of Ferrara Bakery, where we scarfed down a cannolo and a tiramisu, and back to our posh Swedish sex chamber of a hotel room on the Lower East Side before catching a late train back to Washington.
Things change, but there’s still a romance to those streets.
But now my mother knows modern New York only through my tales and my memories. She hasn’t been back to New York since 2002, about a year after the city changed forever. She went to my cousin’s bat mitzvah in North Jersey a year ago and saw the skyline from Moonachie, but that hardly counts. I’ve tried to drag her with me, back to the place she spent the first four decades of her life. And we sometimes have vague plans to do so, but I sense a certain persistent, unabated melancholy there. Because she’d have to deal with the Coach and the American Apparel and the Nicole Miller where she watched Ali play. Because she’d have to deal with the precious chocolate shop where she had once laughed at Philip Glass. Because she’d have to deal with the quinoa at the salad bar at the Whole Foods in the shells of old flophouses on the Bowery.
And I think I get it. Not because I ever saw any of these things – by the time I saw SoHo, it had its Old Navy and the blandly mainstream edginess of its failed downtown Guggenheim – but because I’ve inherited my mother’s memories. In a way, I’ve inherited a heavy touch of her melancholic nostalgia for a neighborhood I could never have known.
But some things never change. My friend and I had gone for steak au poivre at Raoul’s on Prince Street. After all these years, the phone number is still 966-3518.
I remember going there in 1980 thinking it might be something like I’d envisioned from Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell’s music. There seemed to be mostly Yuppies walking their well-groomed Afghan dogs. Wonderful post. Thanks!