American Journey 1952, New York


Of course, it’s impossible to do justice to New York in a few hundred words. Its like saying the Pacific is deep or that Everest is high or that Helen of Troy was a pretty woman who ran away with another man.

For an Englishman but newly arrived in a fantastic, fabulous New World even to attempt such a thing would be supremely stupid if it wasn’t also downright insulting.

New Yorkers born and bred in the humming heart of this incredible “megalopolis” confess that the task of identifying their city is beyond them. No one has done for New York what Charles Dickens did for London or Eugène Sue for Paris.

No casual visitor can catch “the Voice of the City.” O Henry, who coined that phrase, never heard it. Nor did Damon Runyon, who knew Manhattan Island better than most. Characters like those he concocted never frequented “Mindy’s” or anywhere else. He admitted as much himself.

Of course, it would be easy to dodge the issue altogether and join the select minority who will tell you that New York isn’t even faintly representative of America. That would leave the gate open to catch the first train up to Providence, Rhode Island, where the problem isn’t nearly so involved, I imagine. But this is no real way out.

“New York is all the cities,” wrote W. L. George many years ago. And listen to John Gunther, who lives here and has made a special study of his city:

“Politically, socially, in the world of ideas and in the whole world of entertainment, which is a great American industry, needless to say, New York sets the tone and pace of the entire nation. What books 140 million Americans read is largely determined by New York reviewers. Most of the serious newspaper columnists originate in or near New York: so do most of the gossip columns, which condition Americans to the same patterns of social behaviour. In a broad variety of fields from serious drama to what you hear on a juke-box it is what New York says that counts.”

So perhaps my best way out of this would be set down as they occur to me the impressions New York made once I had recovered from the first violent impact. And it’s quite surprising how quickly you do recover

Take that first incredible heart-stopping swoop into the sky up the Empire State Building. One thousand feet in 60 seconds flat. I know, because I timed it. And then what have you got when you’re there? A lot of nursery building blocks piled one on top of the other and left standing there in an untidy, unfinished heap while the giant child is away having his supper.

Jerry F, Going Postal
The Empire State Building.
New York, New York City,
Unknown photographer via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Inside 10 minutes, I’ll wager, you’ll be sipping a beer apathetically in the Highest Bar in the World (altitude 1,050 feet and wondering how long till lunch?

I remember taking a small child to see her first elephant at Belle Vue. She was completely unimpressed. But she was fascinated by the mouse that came out and had breakfast quite coolly between the monster’s feet.

You see what I mean? Familiarity breeds contempt. And nowhere quicker than here in New York. I suppose the first men on the moon will feel as I do after the first flush of wonder has passed.

You can get used to anything in New York, given time. You can get used to walking out of the tropic heat of an office on the 76th floor and stepping right into seven degrees of frost on Fifth Avenue, so cold that for a moment you can’t breathe with the shock of it.

You can even get used to doing without sleep simply because no one here ever seems to want to go to bed. I know, because I haven’t had more than six hours’ sleep at a time since I left my comfortable little bunk on the Britannic a week ago.

Then there’s the mistakes one’s imagination can make. Because I go to the pictures two and sometimes three times a week I knew the Empire State would look like this — like a slim, silver, wonderfully beautiful hypodermic needle stabbing at the sky. I knew that all New York policemen look like William Bendix and that almost all Manhattan’s 7,319 cab drivers come from Brooklyn and talk like Lionel Stander.

I waited almost breathless for that moment just before dusk when the edges of the tall buildings melt into the sky.

But in other things I was completely wrong. The East Side, for instance. I looked for miles of wretched tenements, in which millions of Europe’s dispossessed struggle for a foothold in the Promised Land.

They tell me much of this exists still — on the Lower East Side. But the old East Side today stands for the Stork Club, the Colony, framed within a ring of frowsy tenements: it means the Chambord, where pheasant breast costs six pounds a plate. And the El Morocco, which no man wearing a sports jacket or without a tie has ever been allowed to enter.

Old New Yorkers who have been in exile for a while in foreign parts — like Chicago and St. Louis — tell me that they are constantly being confused by the changes that go on while they’re away.

The changes to the East Side became possible when the city authorities began casually to tear down the elevated railway and electrify the New York Central tracks. It opened up miles and miles of priceless property to be exploited.

And property in central New York is cheap at 1,000 dollars a square foot.

Of course, they have been buying and selling the island of Manhattan since the Dutch first bought it from the Indians for 94 dollars and a keg of rum. That was about the only time the local boys were able to put one over the city “slickers.”

Three months later the Dutchmen had to buy it all over again.

It appears they bought it from the wrong Indians. The tribe who brought off that smart deal are supposed to have come from Brooklyn, which was called Brokelen then. Hence the legend of the gullible stranger who is always prepared to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

As a matter of fact you can see quite a little of this mild social revolution quite near Brooklyn Bridge.

Not so very long ago this area was called “Hell’s Half-acre” and the policemen used to walk down the middle of its streets in pairs. Now the slums and tenements which grew like fungus in the worst “red-light” quarter of New York have been swept away.

Their place is being taken by something new in housing — Farragut Houses, 10 of them altogether, towering like Norman keeps 14 stories high, providing one, two, five roomed homes for 1,000 working-class families, none of whom pay more than nine dollars a month for a room, about £3 at the present rate of exchange, though that doesn’t offer a fair comparison.

So it goes on, this passion for change, for building up and pulling down. And if you want an example of perfect nonchalance you should watch a New York demolition squad pulling down a building. They call them house wreckers over here, and they do just that.

“The trouble with you British is this — you make things to last,” I have been told more than once. Well, perhaps there is something in that — when it’s applied to a radio, or a car, or a cheap cotton shirt, which will wear out quickly enough anyway. And mass-producing industries must depend on a quick turnover.

But not, surely, when it affects that row of gracious old houses which is all that is left of Washington Square. I have wanted to see Washington Square ever since I read the play “The Heiress,” which was based on a novel by Henry James.

I saw them for the first time a few hours ago, those lovely white collonaded doorways setting off perfectly their red Queen Anne brick. I saw them just in time. They are being pulled down next year to make way for another block of luxury flats where there will be a swimming pool no doubt, and a television set in every room — just as there is in the hotel where I am writing this.

And there’s another new American fancy you get used to very quickly — waking up to find there’s a man in your room reading the news and asking, by way of intermission, if you’ve cleaned your teeth.

According to those who make a study of these things New York can change its slang and its mode of speech as often as its citizens change their shirts — which, on an average, is once a day. In normal times — but these are far from normal — the average New York family moves once every eighteen months.

I met a man yesterday who used to work as a colourist with the C.P.A. in Manchester. That was 25 years ago. He is now employed here in New York for a similar textile organisation.

He showed me a pattern he is putting out on the market — in heavy embossed gold — which was popular the year that young Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. We compared the two samples. The new copy is vastly inferior — in design, finish, and quality generally.

“But what does it matter?” he argued. It’ll be dead and done with by Easter.”

New York women are the best dressed in the world. I’ve heard that claim made over and over again. Now I’ve seen them I agree wholeheartedly. They are the best-dressed women in the world; in a city which judges by first impressions, and hasn’t time for a second, they have to be.

At lunchtime today I was served — “off the arm,” as they say over here — at a “quick-lunch” counter by a waitress who looked like Lana Turner. And might have been for all I know.

New York women are the best dressed in the world. Well, so they should be. There are 1,500 clothing factories in New York City, some of them piled one on top of another like a great shining mountain of glass. They deliver direct to 6,000 dress firms at prices within reach of all but the lowest-paid worker.

Their spy system is practically perfect. What Paris will be wearing tomorrow New York wore last week. Or so New Yorkers say.

There is even one multiple-dress shop in New York where customers can pick a new dress off the rack, slip it on behind a screen, and pay at the door on the way out.

In one respect — and one only, as far as I can see — do New Yorkers seem to remain constant. That is in their honest respect for money and the stuff that makes it.

“I’ve got a chance to make an honest dollar.” How often have I heard that phrase during the last week? The chances seem to exist all right: even if — judging by recent disclosures — some of the dollars earned in this town aren’t particularly honest.

But the search goes on, six and sometimes even seven days a week. Everybody is involved in it: from the Mayor, Mr. Vincent Impellitteri, who has to find 222 million dollars more in taxes by the end of the year, through the great department stores, like Macy’s and Gimbel’s, who, after long years of practice, have reduced price cutting to a fine art, so that they say that if you look at an article long enough you’ll eventually get it for nothing, right down to the newsboys who swing on to the running-board of your cab, missing death literally by inches, and urge you to buy three different daily papers for the price of two and so help stave off inflation, which, after Russia, Communists, and the atom bomb, seems to be the New Yorker’s worst nightmare.

The pursuit of the elusive dollar — and that other traditional American pastime the pursuit of happiness — provides a shortcut to that well-known American institution the ulcer.

New York is the only place where I have seen a man showing off his X-ray photographs in a public restaurant. I have never met so many people who are just going to have, are passing through, or are recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Said the cab driver with the heavy head cold morosely:

“I’m allergic, that’s the matter with me, bud: and the heck of it is I don’t know what I’m allergic about. I guess I’m just naturally allergic.”

One of the most common expressions overheard in New York is this one: “The doc says I’ve got to take it easy.” But, of course, none of them ever will.

Wordsworth wrote about the world being too much with us. In New York they call it simply “the jitters.” It’s a good word; it represents perfectly a state of mind brought on by getting and spending, lack of sleep, snatched meals, worry, overwork, “keeping to a tight schedule,” dodging the traffic, travelling far and fast with no very clear idea where you’re going.

Most New Yorkers seem have too much on their minds…

But let’s close this first set of impressions on a cheerful note. New Yorkers, who have a reputation for being hard and tough and bad-mannered, are really the kindest people in the world.

At least that’s my experience so far. A hotel bedroom in a strange city can be a pretty lonely place. But not this one. Within a few minutes of my arrival the telephone has been bringing me messages of welcome from people I have never seen and invitations to lunch and dinner from other people I have never even heard of.

Mysterious packages and intriguing-looking envelopes have been left outside my door.

The first thing to greet me was a bottle of Scotch whisky, the gift of a total stranger. The second was an invitation from the manager to call extension 2242 and make an appointment to have my photograph taken — free.

Of course, there may be a catch in all this somewhere. But so far I haven’t found it.

Yes, in the words of the song “New York, New York, it’s wonderful town”…

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News on 13 February, 1952

Jerry F 2024