By Cecil Hoge
It has been some time since I visited New York City for more than a few hours at a time. In the last several years I have visited Chinese, Korean and other American cities more often and for longer periods of time. And that is strange for two reasons. One, I live 60 miles from New York City. Two, New York is the city of my birth.
So when the chance came up for me to visit the city with my wife for a few days, I was hoping that there might be some time to see some of the changes that have taken place…what was new and what was old. Because the primary reason for coming to the city was to be with my son while he stayed at Memorial Sloan Kettering for a few days, there would be very little time for running around and investigating the city.
The city has not really changed that much since I was born there. There are still some 8 million people living there. It is still the financial center of the America. It is still America’s biggest city. And yes, it is still The Big Apple. Of course, there are the new buildings…occupying spaces that were either empty or previously filled by older buildings. And yes, the times and the vibes the city gives off have changed.
When I was born at Doctor’s Hospital opposite Gracie Mansion, the country was already in World War II. I suppose those times must have been full of doubt and fear and for my parents, a newly married couple, it must have been a leap of faith to have a child just as the United States was getting fully committed to the worldwide war. And I suppose until World War II was resolved in our favor, there must have been a pall of fear and anxiety hanging over the city as the war went on.
I do not remember what that felt like. I was just too young. I do remember my first experiences in the city. Growing up in NYC as I did for the first 11 years of my life in a rent-controlled apartment building at 520 East 90th, life in the city was endlessly interesting. Taxi cabs, subways buses, walking many city blocks…all became 2nd nature to me, although I quickly developed a prejudice for the cabs that would scoot you around the city, even if my parents would not trust me to take a cab until I got to the ripe old age of 10.
After the first 11 years at 520 East 90th, we moved to more gracious uptown digs, 1215 Fifth Avenue. That was on 102nd and Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from where Harlem started. This was convenient because I had an aunt and uncle on 94th and Madison and another aunt and uncle at 1150 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 96th and 5th and a grandmother on 97th between Madison and Fifth. So almost all members of my immediate family were within walking distance.
1215 Fifth Avenue was pretty fancy apartment building at the time. I notice that today there are 3 pending sales for apartments in the building, all in 4 million plus range, so I guess the building and the apartments are still pretty nice. We had a 3 bedroom spread on the 9th floor, with pretty nice corner living room over-looking Central Park and a real nice dining room for entertaining. I remember a rather glorious 12th birthday when my mother hired a real live magician to perform at my birthday.
I remember trying new things in that building – one hobby that I tried was kiting toilet paper. There were some serious wind drafts coming off of Central Park and a buddy and myself got the bright idea of flying toilet paper out of my ninth floor bedroom window. Imagine toilet paper going up and down and all around, floating and fluttering like white paper dragons over Central Park. It was really quite an impressive site. This probably would be frowned on today and when my mother discovered this new hobby she abruptly shut it and me down.
Because kiting toilet paper was no longer an option, my best buddy and I got the bright idea to try dropping water bombs on pedestrians. It was quite amazing to see the reaction of pedestrians when one landed nearby. It made an incredibly loud noise and we could see some of the local New Yorkers were really frightened by this. I can say it is probably an excellent fact that none of the water bombs ever hit anyone, considering they were dropped from the 9th floor and gravity is a pretty impressive force.
Now we thought this was a perfectly harmless occupation, far less likely to get the attention that kiting toilet paper got. Fortunately, I found very quickly that it was dangerous to those below and to me personally. The very evening of the very day I learned to water bomb pedestrians, I chose to try dropping what I thought was a perfectly harmless water bomb on a cop who happened to be riding a horse. In those days, cops used to patrol the streets in the city on horses and it happened that one was conveniently riding below my window. The sound of the explosion was quite impressive, especially to the cop since it was my nearest miss. Neither the cop nor the horse seemed to appreciate my prank. The horse reared up, almost throwing the cop off of his mount. I looked down on this event and almost immediately the cop looked up. I sensed even from the ninth floor that the cop was not happy.
I immediately did the smart thing. I closed my window, hopped in bed and buried my head under the covers. That did not stop the cop from arriving at our apartment door along with an associate. Fortunately, my mother answered the door, assured the two cops that nobody in our apartment had dropped said water bomb. She even went on to invite the cops in and let them scan my bedroom to show that I had been asleep. Of course, my head and body was buried deep under the covers and the cops, who no doubt knew that I was the guilty party, gave up their quest to incarcerate. That experience left me with a deep appreciation of gravity. For some years thereafter I regularly had dreams of hitting cops and other pedestrians with water bombs. These dreams were quite frightening and it occurred to me that if had kept up my hobby I might well have killed someone.
Let me get back to the story at hand…our visit to New York City. We reserved a room at a comfortable, but antiseptic hotel called the Affina Gardens. It was on 64th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Since my parents had an apartment years earlier around the corner at 330 East 63rd, I was familiar with the neighborhood, even if I had not visited for a number of years.
The first thing I noticed in what I will call the new New York City is the proliferation of fast food places…little self-serve cafes where one can walk in, order a sandwich and a coffee or soda and then sit at a bare table where one can watch the passersbys. And then there was also the army of tall carts clogging up various streets selling fruits, sandwiches, Cuban, Mexican, Chinese, Dominican, African specialties. Some are truly excellent and no doubt I would test some of them if I had more time or if I was inclined to get food from a cart.
But I am spoiled former New Yorker who likes to sit down and be attended to in a restaurant or a bar. In any case, there is not to be much of that on this trip. I am here to be at the bedside of my son. The first couple of days were fully occupied getting my son checked in to the hospital, checking into the nearby hotel and staying bedside until he got through his procedure. I can say, if staying in and around a hospital is ever good, everything did go well.
By third day, I was able to take some walks each day in the neighborhood of Memorial Sloan Kettering. The particular section of the hospital where my son was located was at 1275 York, which is on 68th and York Avenue. This was quite familiar to me because as mentioned, 50 years ago, my parents had an apartment at 330 East 63rd Street, just a few blocks away.
The second thing that I noticed on my walks, in addition to the many new fast food places, was how truly universal the use of cell phones was in the city now. I know this true everywhere now, but in the city it seemed more so. Everybody was either talking on a cell, texting on a cell, carrying cell phone in their hand as they ambled down the street or accessing information on a cell phone as they were walking down the street. And the sheer number of different human body forms, male or female, was truly impressive…young, old, thin, fat, white, black, Asian, South American, Mexican, Islamic, Hindu, African. Of course, that is to be expected in this digital age. However, I remembered a time when people walked down the street without seemingly talking to themselves or pressing fingers against slim, little rectangles as they bumped into street signs or stepped off curbs or crossed in front of buses.
Now coming from the suburbs on Long Island, we of course see plenty of folks on cell phones. Mostly, we see people chatting on the their cell phones in cars, at traffic lights, speeding down the highway, motoring through school zones. Occasionally, we see ladies or guys walking along the road on their power walks chatting to someone or riding a bike with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the cell or sitting on a curb texting some lost lover. Or we see them walking through malls, guys and gals, talking to former lovers, long lost friends or everyday buddies, happily or unhappily chatting away.
What was different about cell phone use in the city was the sheer volume and multiplicity of different humans on cell phones. I noticed cell phone use seemed particularly important for cyclists. I saw bicyclists on cell phones in every conceivable condition or situation, some riding no hands on the wheel happily chatting away, leaning this way and that in an effort to steer through the crowds of pedestrians, other cyclists, cars and buses, some with one hand on the handlebar and one hand on the cell, some stopped at a light texting before it turned green, some smoking a cigarette with one hand while talking with the other hand as they yawed their way down the very crowded bicycle lane, trusting that their bike would navigate itself by their telekinetic powers. I saw cyclists with messenger bags, chatting on one cell and texting on another, weaving through the multitudes with remarkable confidence considering that were not steering. I saw bicycles attached to delivery carts powering take-out orders to their intended destinations, again, while chatting, texting, accessing ball scores, checking in with the markets. Yes, it was big doings in the big city.
And that was just people on bikes. Of course, there were also bus drivers, truck drivers, car drivers, taxi drivers, Uber & Lyft drivers on cell phones, delivery men on cell phones, policemen on cell phones, food cart owners on cell phones, construction workers on cell phones, old grandmothers and grandfathers on cell phones, American Indians on cell phones, Indian Indians on cell phones, 6 year olds on cell phones, 2 year olds on cell phones – in this case, friendly mothers usually held the cell phones while the 2 year olds gurgled and giggled and dribbled.
I saw a one-armed, one-legged black gentleman in a wheelchair on Second Avenue between 73rd and 74th on a cell phone industriously smoking a cigarette with two fingers of his remaining hand while pecking out text messages with one finger of the same hand while occasionally picking up a playing card for the solitaire card game that was laid out on tray attached to his wheelchair. How he managed all this was pretty impressive. Yes, I concluded New Yorkers are very attached to their cell phones.
In looking at the ebb and flow of humanity that walked the streets of Manhattan, I could only wonder if the city has become more or less diverse. It was hard for me to tell, remembering how diverse it was years ago and seeing the great multiplicity in front of me in the city after many a year. And while I cannot say if the city is more diverse, I do think the mix of diversity has changed.
A few things stand out. I saw more Islamic style ladies walking the streets. I also saw more Islamic style ladies in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering…some are nurse’s and doctors…some are patients. I saw more Spanish speaking folks. I saw less hippies – in fact, I can’t recall seeing any hippies. No, the folks of today’s New York City are much more buttoned up. Much more together.
I do not remember seeing Moondog. For those who don’t remember, Moondog was an interesting presence on the city scene, standing as he would on 54th and Park in Viking helmet with a giant spear humming eerie dissonant sounds. In fact, I do not remember seeing anyone who even remotely looked like Moondog, but I can only guess that the city still has some strange and interesting characters. That said, I sense the city streets were missing the outstanding weirdos of days gone by. It seems to me that the city has gentrified itself in the years since I stopped living and visiting there.
I did see a lot more Chinese ladies and guys both in the hospital and out on the streets. Some, I suppose some of them are long time residents of many years…others seem to be newcomers…either urban professionals working in business and finance or young doctors, some or many, perhaps, students.
Whatever the reason, there does seem to be a definite increase in Chinese folks, which if you ask me, is a benefit. I also think it is quite logical since Chinese are the most populous people on the planet and now have surpassed Americans as the greatest travelers on earth. You even see a few old Chinese guys who look like they worked in the fields in Shandong province picking apples, gnarled and thin from years of labor in the fields or a long life of smoking opium. Then you also see elderly Chinese men in dark, well-tailored business suits with expensive understated ties, sometimes accompanied by their wives walking one or two feet behind them.
Then there are the smartly dressed sporty Chinese guys in pressed and new cleaned jeans and snazzy multi-colored sneakers with their cells either close at hand or in a nearby pocket. Let us not forget the striking and beautiful young student Chinese girls and professional tech ladies…they are on their cells scanning markets, accessing Google on all matters of interest, doing studies on the decadent American culture or living the decadent and free American life, studying their contact list for ditched or retrieved lovers. Whoever they really are, they all seem very aware and energetic and on top of their game.
Then there are the huge numbers of Indians (not American Indians, but Indian Indians) and again they have population on their side. They come in all sizes, all ages and all professions…little hunch-backed Indian ladies, prosperous business suited doctors, young students, tall, stunning young Indian ladies, with sharp elongated faces framed with dark straight hanging, meticulous groomed hair. I saw many Indians on the first few days of walking around the East Side of Manhattan.
After the third day in the city, our son was feeling good enough for my wife and I to go to lunch at some of the local places and me to branch out on my walks in this city of my birth.
My wife and I had lunch in an Irish pub called Sullivan’s. It was only a few blocks from the hospital. For some reason, my wife was looking forward to a Shepard’s Pie. Having had that delicacy about 50 more times than I ever wanted to in boarding school, my dislike of that delicacy had not waned. I opted for a flat iron steak. I can verify that the use of the word iron was well chosen because my steak was definitely on the tough side. My wife did not have much kinder things to say about her Shepard’s Pie, although she did say the beer that came with it was excellent. The fault was ours of course – who goes to an Irish pub to eat?
It was at Sullivan’s that a fortunate thing happened. You may not consider it so and certainly my wife did not consider so, but as my wife was digging into her not very tasty Shepard’s Pie, she realized that she had lost her cell phone. In this day and age, the loss of cell is almost equivalent to the loss of a close personal friend. The remorse, the recrimination and the investigation that followed to determine what happened caused quite a few tense and troubling hours for my wife.
And then a miracle occurred. We reported the loss of the cell phone to an Apple app for that and lo and behold, that evening, I got a call on my cell from an AT&T office. It turned out that my wife’s cell phone was now residing downtown at 82 Wall Street. How it got there is anybody’s guess. The best we can figure is that my wife dropped it on the street outside the hospital and then some bystander picked it up, perhaps, on their way to Wall Street, perhaps, hoping to access some secret information that would impoverish my wife and reward the hacker. Anyway, whoever picked it up ended up dropping my wife’s cell phone off at the 82 Wall Street AT&T office. If they were a hacker, they were a very considerate hacker.
That necessitated a trip downtown the next day to retrieve my wife’s cell. Testing my memory of where Wall Street was, I got to direct a Spanish taxi driver down the FDR Drive to Wall Street – I was very proud. Because it was Saturday, there was some kind of street fair selling various Spanish, Korean and Middle Eastern delicacies. For that reason, Water Street was closed. 82 Wall Street happened to be at the corner of Wall Street and Water Street, a few blocks away. So I got out of the cab.
That required me to walk a few blocks on Water Street to Wall Street. I passed dozens of Chinese, Korean and European tourists taking selfies of themselves, with numerous family members feasting on delicacies from carts parked on the closed street. Wall Street was just a few blocks down, so I kept walking by the assorted tourists. This gets me again asking myself if New York is more diverse today than it was when I grew up in the city.
I still have not made up my mind on that question – the best I can answer is it is diverse in a different way.
I got to the nearly empty AT&T office at the corner of Water Street and Wall Street where 3 young sharpie salesmen seemed eager to sell me a new cell phone. Their enthusiasm diminished when they realized that I was there to collect a lost cell phone. That said they helpfully suggested it must be in safe Number 1. A young man went off and looked in a room off to side suggesting I stand by the door to be out the rush of real customers who were nowhere to be seen.
He emerged to announce that it must be in safe Number 2 which unfortunately was locked and could only be opened by the nice manager lady who would arrive around 1pm or in about two and half hours. That seemed disconcerting so I ask the salesman to check with the other two sharpie salesman where my wife’s cell phone might be. He went away, asked a few questions and came back to announce no luck…then he tried to reach the nice manager lady by phone – she apparently was employing her cell phone’s power off feature.
I then called my wife to announce the three possibilities:
1. Hang around Wall Street – I was already forming a plan to use the extra time to walk to the new World Trade Center – and bring back the phone after 1pm.
2. Take a cab back and then take another cab back three hours later, pick up the phone and take a 3rd cab back – as you may understand that was not my favored option.
3. Give up the effort and come back to the hospital in defeat. While perfectly all right with me, I was pretty sure this was not an option that would fly with my dear wife.
Given the above, I gave my wife a summary of the 3 options while I plotted my visit to the World Trade Center which I had not seen since it collapsed. Halfway through the call an ample young black lady walked out a back room asking,
“Did I hear something about a lost cell phone? I have it.”
The story ended well, although I would have not minded checking out the new World Trade Center and the memorial to 2001. The last time I had visited that area, I stayed at a Marriot hotel a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My brother came in to the city and we had some giant steaks at Morton’s. Coming back from dinner, I walked in the small city below in search of socks and a shirt. Six weeks later the hotel, Morton’s, the World Trade Center and much of the underground city below had collapsed from the 911 attack.
In any case, on this trip I would not have an opportunity to check out the reconstructed World Trade Center and the surrounding area. Within in minutes I back in a cab with my wife’s cell phone and an Islamic cab driver who was either getting instructions of how to take me to 68th and York Avenue or plotting some terrorist attack or considering whether I was kidnap material. The cab driver happily conversed throughout the trip back in some Middle Eastern language that I did not understand or recognize. However, he delivered me quickly and efficiently to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital without kidnapping or proceeding with some terror plot. I was most happy.
My wife was also happy to have her cell phone a few minutes later.
The next two days were uneventful. My son was getting better every day and every day I took a somewhat longer walk to investigate the old streets that I used to know so well. And my wife and I would end going to dinner together after our day at the hospital. In this way we got to taste some other non Irish spots. We found a very nice Italian restaurant where we had some pretty decent Italian fare. The next day we ended up in a very simple, but quite decent American steak house that does not seemed to have changed since it opened in 1950. The food was not great but the wood paneling and the close musty atmosphere made swear I had gone to this same restaurant with my parents in the 1950s.
That nostalgic dinner made me decide to cruise by my father’s old offices the next day. That was 699 Madison Avenue. In the 1950s he had an advertising agency called Huber Hoge & Sons that occupied the top 3 floors of the building. At the peak of its prosperity, my father over 100 people working for him. I remember as a kid visiting those offices quite regularly.
The high point of each trip was a pass through visit to the Gabor jewelry shop which located on the bottom floor to the left as you came into the building in a space now occupied by Jimmy Choo shoes. If my mother was dragging me along on a visit to my father’s office, we would always take a quick detour into the Gabor sisters shop, my mother checking out the latest offerings from the Gabor sisters and getting their advice and wisdom on marriage – a subject that the Gabor sisters were in a good position to opine upon. I did not know it that time, but my father’s marriage was on rocks and about to explode. On those visits, I was not concerned with the state of my mother’s marriage to my father which I thought had been ordained in heaven. Rather, I was too busy checking out the ample and lush figures of the Gabor sisters, which even from the point of a 12 year old, were very impressive.
Upstairs in the offices of my father’s advertising agency, everything was organized chaos. People were going in and out of offices, taking the elevator to different floors, sometimes running up and down the stairs if there was not enough time to take the elevator. My father had state of the art offices with people busily doing layouts, pasting down type and photographs. Everything was done at the last minute, even though everything took far longer to do, so ads that took two weeks to complete would be messengered across town to make some magazine or newspaper deadlines minutes before they closed. For those interested in such things, I can say it is almost the same today, although it often only takes minutes to complete an ad and e-mail a PDF minutes before various publications or websites needed the artwork or info to close or to make a post.
There were two machines that I rather liked in my father’s offices. One was the Dictaphone which was on my father’s desk. It recorded letters that my father spoke into it. It had some kind of flat paper-like material that went around in a circle and recorded his voice. It was beauty of a machine and my father would have used it a lot more if he wasn’t always in such a rush. So, most of the time, rather using this state of the art “time-saver”, my father dictated to poor Millie Clock, who was my father’s secretary, because usually my father could not spare the time to separately record his letter.
Another nifty device that my father had and I thought was the Cat’s Meow, was a tube transport system between offices. It worked like this. My father would try to call some employee who was on another floor and invariably the phone would be busy because even in the 1950s people loved to talk on the phone. No problem, my father would scribble some little note, usually no more that three words (i.e. “come to me”). He would tear off the note from the yellow pad that he was invariably writing on, roll up the ragged strip of paper, insert in a nearby tube and then plop the tube into a nearby hole in his desk and press a button with a number denoting the destination.
It was then that the magic began. The tube would suddenly disappear with an audible “whoosh”, sucked away to some unseen destination by some unseen entity. And then, if all went well, some fellow would appear in the office in a few minutes, usually carrying wide mechanicals for some desperately needed ad. My father would glance over mechanicals or rough layout or type-written documents and hand them back with further instructions. Now, sometimes something even cooler would happen. Another tube would come rocketing back with some short scribble inside like “see you in 20”. I thought it was all magic and wonder.
Flash forward 63 years later and what do I find?
Not only does the building still stand but the front entrance is just down from Hermes with Jimmy Choo occupying two storefronts on either side of the entrance. Things must be good at 699 Madison Avenue. Down the block are a whole bunch of very uppity stores in either direction. It is all very She-She with world famous high end brand stores as far as the eye can see…I am sure that the Gabor sisters and my mother would totally approve, although my father might have had something to say about the excessive and unnecessary display of useless wealth. Not so my mother, whose favorite store was Cartier and her favorite bar the Carlyle. Some things never change.
Across the street a very nice looking restaurant, Nello, seems to be occupying the space that I remember Hamburger Heaven. The restaurant looks very nice with outside tables and some kind of parking attendants. I did note a very pricey looking sports car out front, so I am guessing this restaurant commands pretty robust prices. I would also guess the food is better than Hamburger Heaven, although those hamburgers truly were heaven.
My trip to New York was significant for all the places I did not go and for the fact that most of the time I was just in the 60s and 70s on the East Side. This is understandable because I was on hospital duty with my wife and my most important mission was to see that my son’s procedure and treatment went well.
So my wife and I did not take a Sunday walk in Central Park – I would have been curious if steel bands still played on Sunny fall days and whether the smell of marijuana would confront us every now and then as we walked through the park. I think that if I did go for walk I would have found serious joggers and bicyclists plying their healthy arts and absence of the scent of marijuana.
I would have liked to go down the village and see what was like. I would have liked to drop into McSorley’s to check out the local ales. I would have liked to go to some of the city’s museums and see what was on offering (maybe, Tutankhamen was coming back for a re-run). I would have liked to walked on the High Line. I would have liked to listen to music at some of the city’s many venues, I would have liked to explore some late night clubs and see what celebs were hanging out. Alas, it was not to be…there would be no Stork Club, no El Morroco, no L’interdit, no Ondine’s, no Max’s Kansas City, no CBGB, no Mudd Club…and I would not have time to check out their replacements.
That said, I did get some time to continue my wanderings in the East 60s and 70s. Along the way, I stumbled across a long lost and favorite restaurant. Alas, it was closed or no doubt I would have taken my wife there the very evening I re-discovered it. But closed it was. Forever, I was told. A very well heeled young man saw me taking the above picture and took upon himself to hand me flyer from Cushman Wakefield. He thought I might be interested in purchasing the brownstone which included the restaurant. Even better than that, he informed me, the adjoining brownstone was also for sale – I could get a two for one price. I handed him the flyer back and told him not sell the two brownstones for a penny less than forty five million. I could not tell from his expression whether he was heartened or disappointed with that figure.
I did get to ask the young man what had happened to il vagabondo? It had closed in June he told me and now the building was for sale. I asked him if the bocci ball court was included. He began to get reanimated and said, yes, of course, the bocci ball court was included. You could turn the whole thing into your personal pleasure palace with the next door brownstone and after twenty or thirty million of fix up costs you would have yourself some boss digs. And then sensing that might be a little out of my budget range, he suggested a lowball alternative where I could have some nifty apartment above the restaurant and get some new trendy restaurant to take over the restaurant area. He was so convincing, I almost made an offer.
Anyway, he seemed like an exceedingly nice young man, wearing a suit and tie that cost no less than four grand, no doubt brought up by a very good family, who must have thought if he was not going to be a billionaire Wall Streeter, he could always sell some property in the city. I wished the young man well, while I lamented the plight of the bocci ball players who would now be forced to play in some local park where it might rain and where there were no lights to illuminate their evening games. I also would miss the wonderful waiters from il vagabondo who would come up to you and recite the whole menu without giving any opportunity to read a menu. It was always very impressive and the food was always good.
I walked around a little more the last two days before we went back to the country. The bars and restaurants…Friday’s, Maxwell’s Plum and yes, il vagabondo were all gone. It seemed their replacements had shifted a little closer to the Queensboro Bridge. There was a trendy looking Mexican place around 65th where people seemed to happy to wait outside for the next shift – I am thinking either the food or the tequila must have been very good. Friday’s, as noted at the beginning of this story, had morphed in The Baker Street Pub. From the outside it looked less crowded and more, how do I put it, authentic…no that is not the word. I suppose it does good business.
What was left of the old neighborhood that I remember? I can name one structure that seemed to be identical. It is not actually that impressive, but it was something that did not look like much had been done with it. Without further adieu, here it is: