Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 7


1978. Was it a good year? Was it a bad year? Depends on whom you ask. Other than Jimmy Carter being the U.S. president, it was, at least for me, a pretty good year. My father was still alive, although beginning to show the alarming symptoms of the leukemia condition which would do him in a few years later. Barbara and I were dating, and we would wind up deciding to get married, one of the better choices of my life. Asa result, I was soon to conclude my second and final tour of duty as a denizen of Manhattan's Upper West Side, moving from W. 104th St. to Jackson Heights, Queens, the first of many moves away from the places I had come to know. This past March, after a week with Barbara's mother in Maryland, we would have the chance to spend a few days staying with Frank and Abbey, my fraternal twin brother and his wife, in their apartment on 94th St and Columbus Ave. We would really be in that part of the city which used to be home.

My memories of this area go back a long way, say to the 1960's. It's not something you might notice in the hustle and bustle of living your life, but if you hang around Manhattan long enough you can watch neighborhoods change before your eyes -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The first thing Barbara and I noticed that March day when we alighted from the #2 train at 96th Street was the redesigned train station -- complete with an elevator. Just the thing when you've got all those suitcases which otherwise would have to be dragged up two flights of stairs. I understand it took only three years to complete the work, all the while making a generalized mess, which compares with the six plus years to build the light rail system here in Jerusalem. We walked from there the two blocks to the building in which they live. The second thing to catch my eye was the redesigned entrance. Unlike the pre-war apartment apartment buildings with their elegant lobbies that graced the surrounding avenues, a Mitchell-Lama co-op on Columbus Ave. hadn't seemed to need anything so snazzy. It was as if the residents were trying to hide the fact that they were middle class by having the entrance of the building look like it was a welfare hotel. All that, however, was history. A new set of doors with electric eyes that would open by themselves, paneled walls, a user-friendly inter-com and bell system. What will they think of next?

My brother was continuing his own set of shiputsim (renovations) to their apartment. Years before, he had surreptitiously removed an interior wall, turning two small bedrooms into a bigger studio, so that Abbey would have as much room to paint as she did in their country place. Now Frank was redoing the spare room where they kept the Apple computer and the futon on which Barbara and I would sleep the few days we would be staying there. A new wood floor and bookcases. Looking good, but I was more interested in whether he was looking good.

About eight years ago, my fraternal twin brother was diagnosed with what was essentially the same medical condition as our father had. Fortunately for all concerned, the possibility of treatment had increased tremendously in the intervening twenty years, and Frank was able to "buy" seven good years with massive chemotherapy that would either have killed him or cured him. Now the condition had reappeared and he was back in treatment. So he had been having good weeks and bad weeks, and my concern had been that we would arrive at their doorstep at a time when he wouldn't be up to having visitors. But no, he was in the best of spirits and keeping busy, which my brother is very good at. So the four of us got to hang out together, doing as thorough a perusal of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art as time permitted. I will never again be able to spend as much time in a cultural venue as I have spent in these two venerable institutions, each of which has gone through at least three renovations in the time that I can remember.

The Metropolitan has bulked up in size, started to charge an entrance fee, and begun hanging banners to advertise their "blockbuster" exhibitions (there was a time when that term meant neither a place to rent videos nor an exhibition for which they could soak you to get in). It is no longer a place where a solitary art lover can wander around unimpeded, without being trampled by a tour group doing more listening than looking. Nevertheless, the grandeur of the original building remains, and their collection is unmatched; so you can never go wrong by showing up and paying them whatever you feel like it -- which is what we always have done.

The Modern.......that's a horse of a different color........ It used to be a little kind-of-welcoming place, in a sense a 'temple' for modern art, which in the 1930's started with the Impressionists and included Picasso and Matisse as well as others from the turn of the 20th century onward. At a time in the 1960's, when I was making $8,000 a year, I could afford a membership which might have cost $25 each year, meaning I could hang out there a lot. There were times when I went in just to use the 'facilities.' More often than not, after a perusal of some part of their collection, I would wind up whiling away a good hour, sitting with a cup of coffee in the little cafeteria overlooking the sculpture garden -- an island of tranquility with sparrows chirping in the trees. I had not been back to MOMA since the latest reconstruction;for one thing, the admission charge is up to $20 per, more than Frugal Fred is prepared to shell out. As Frank and Abbey have a membership, we were able to get in as guests for a more reasonable price. Their collections are as fine as ever, but I have seen office buildings and airports with as much charm and aesthetic appeal as their newest structure, a definite triumph of function over form.

I began by alluding to the changes that have occurred in the Upper West Side over the decades. There used to be a slew of movie theaters that would show old films; next there were video stores which then more and more stocked DVD's; finally there was nothing. There used to be more little stores that would sell or fix whatever you needed or provide personal services at affordable prices because the rents were reasonable and the store owners could make a living. Now the area is being swamped with larger, impersonal chains. The problem is, you are less likely to buy a new mattress than to need a haircut or to have your shoes re-soled; so the commercial changes are probably not for the better.

On the other hand, there wasn't that much going on Jewishly when I lived there. Yes, the shuls remained open, although business generally wasn't booming; and you could find kosher food, if you worked at it. But you wouldn't describe the Upper West Side in 1980 as a happening place for the Yidden. Over the years, the situation slowly improved, so that in the last ten years the place is crawling with yuppified Orthodox members of the tribe. Along with the general trend of replacing Comidas Criollas joints with quasi-quaint bistros, little places serving exotic cuisines from around the world, and other assorted watering holes for the young and up-and-coming, there are a growing number of kosher eateries, from a Dunkin' Donuts on up. One place I fondly remembered -- although in a different location -- was Casbah, a Moroccan restaurant on a little side street in the West 70's. My suggestion to have our belated birthday celebration there was accepted, and Frank and Abbey, Barbara and I headed over there, now a fifteen minute walk from their apartment. We went down the few steps to enter, and I looked around. On my right, was a stand with three Japanese guys making sushi. Above them on the wall, as well as on the opposite side were large TV's showing home videos of various farbrengens (I guess you'd call them "gatherings" held by the late Lubavitch rebbe) which kept being repeated, so as we sat and enjoyed a meal fit for a rebbe, we could watch the same kids wandering around 770 Eastern Parkway over and over again. A steak house with sushi in a place called Casbah run by Lubavitch. Only in New York!

One task I neglected to mention, a most important one at that, was the purchasing of suitable whiskeys to bring out to New Jersey and to add to my stash back in The Land, as paying the confiscatory VAT there is only done when you're really desperate; and I don't intend to get really desperate. There I was, standing in the back of the Gotham Wine and Liquor Store on 94th St. and Broadway, eying their impressive collection of Kentucky's finest. Soon I was joined by a woman employee who, it turned out, was in charge of ordering the same. Although she did not come right out and say so, she assumed I was in the wrong section, as all her other customers who were identifiably Jewish headed straight to the single malt scotches. I patiently explained to her that there were plenty of nice Jewish guys and gals both in New Jersey and The Land who had a liking for a good bourbon, and that I, being a man of peace, took both sides of the argument, drinking either distillation with equal gusto. My main concern was finding a good bottle at a modest price. My favorite bourbon, Elmer T. Lee, was not on the shelves; a serious omission, which I was not reticent about pointing out. What else did she have? Without blinking and eye or hesitating for even a fraction of a second, her hand grasped a bottle of Buffalo Trace and handed it to me. How could I quarrel with this personal assurance? I could not; and I did not, heading straight to the cash register, credit card in hand. Sitting here months later, all I can say is this: if you are anywhere near 94th St. and Broadway in NYC, and you're considering getting a bottle of something, walk into the store, head to the back and wait for this woman to tell you what to buy. If there is a buffalo on the bottle, you're in business.