biographical / New York / Non-fiction

Carlyle, or How the Other Half Relaxes

On Monday afternoon...

Julie was in town on an especially warm fall afternoon. Warm fall afternoons hold a certain novelty for people from Chicago, where summer often burns straight into the bleakness winter. Fall comprises a month of gray sky, hateful wind, sleet and roughly three hours of long-shadowed perfection. Meanwhile, records were being broken all November in New York; we were all still wearing stylish light jackets.

Still impoverished by the move–to say nothing of my acute lack of work ethic–much of Julie’s visit was spent simply walking around. It worked when my sister visited from Omaha, and even though Julie is from another skyscrapered, large city, she’s also an extremely good sport. Her visit went something like:  “Staten Island Ferry, Julie?” “Yeah!” “Um, Central Park?” “Sure!” “Dumpster diving for dinner?” “This one’s on me!” Being broke in Chicago was fairly easy and without hassle, but being broke in New York is constant source of anxiety and annoyance.

After a feast of chestnuts-purchased-from-a-hot-dog-cart, we strolled up into the park. Though it was a Monday the paths were crowded with middle-aged women walking dogs named like children and foreign-born nannies walking children named like monuments (“Please don’t drop your apple, Adler!”). One small blonde boy bound past us as we sat on a rock, complaining to his nanny that someone, “[o]nly talked about what was going on right then, and is so boring,” dragging the first syllable of “boring” and dropping pitch on the second, in a high English accent. I disliked this child immediately. I love English rock bands, love old English sports cars and, with few exceptions, hate English people. Sure it’s bigotry, but it’s bigotry my Scottish ancestors, American forefathers and Continental education can really rally around. Julie on the other hand thought the limey little prick was cute, but I cautioned that you can never be too careful. One minute he’s a 5 year old, the next he’s running a transatlantic slave trade.

With a few hours to spare before we met friends for dinner back in Brooklyn, we left the park just south of the Met. Julie called her brother to get the name of a book, while I considered transit options. As Julie explained to John that No-New-York-doesn’t-feel-like-an-Eastern-European-police-state-what-are-you-talking-about?, I discovered we were mere blocks from the Hotel Carlyle. And in that moment, our afternoon was made.

If you’ve spent any time with me in the last year, I’ve likely burst into the Cole Porter standard I Happen to like New York. That particular inflection I’m doing is an imitation of the ’70s throwback cabaret master Bobby Short. Side Three of the two-LP set Live at the Cafe Carlyle begins with Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns and ends with I Happen to Like New York, and it spent the better part of last winter spinning atop my turntable. This recording also soundtracks the opening credits of Woody Allen’s 1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery. It’s a romanticizing rendition of a song that romanticizes “the sound the sound and even the stink of [New York].” Like all good songs it is both beautiful and funny.

Note the discomfort on the face of the drummer.

The Carlyle Hotel is a beautiful art-deco building where presidents Truman through Clinton, Mick Jagger and JFK Jr. stayed. POTS JFK used the tunnels below to sneak around with Marilyn Monroe. In 1977 Allen skipped the Academy Awards to play at the Carlyle with his New Orleans jazz band, only to discover the next morning via the New York Times that Annie Hall had won Best Picture. Allen still plays there Monday nights. I assume he played later that Monday when we were there, but with an $125 cover, I can only speculate.

I, unshaven and without a collared shirt between the two of us, assumed we would be kicked out immediately, but public spaces being what they are, we were admitted to Bemelmans Bar. Low-lit, leather couches, gold ceiling, murals. I was telling Julie there was no way that that was a depiction of beloved children’s book star Madeline on the wall, but of course, Ludwig Bemelmans himself did the murals in exchange for staying eighteen months at the hotel. You know, the Madeline author, Ludwig Bemelmans? His other New York mural is on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. As a child most of my reading revolved around dinosaurs, but Julie’s love of Madeline is so deeply ingrained that it’s annually in contention for her Halloween costume and she can spot an authentic Bemelmans from across a dark, classy room.

A corner in Bemelmans Bar, with Bemelman's Central Park mural, lampshade, where a rabbit wino is sleeping one off.

After a weekend of slacking, sleeping late, brunching, etc, we decided we had earned a break and ordered two expensive glasses of wine. The pace at which we demolished the small carousel of wasabi peas, mixed nuts and fancy potato chips was at best middle class (and dangerously close to “street urchin”). I didn’t see anyone else get a refill on their snacks, and it was the kind of place were I doubt anyone else there would’ve used the word “snack.”

And with the world economy shattering around us, riots in the street–and my personal bank account acting like a sieve–it would’ve probably a good time to wonder about class in America, and whether this impulse for luxury was something worth indulging, but we were tourists. Forgive us, but what we indulged was an inherited and ingrained love of the American song and childhood literature. Every now and then when real world collapses with the deep recesses of memory or imagination, you should probably just go with it. Because by the next morning Julie waves to you from the car that is taking her to LaGuardia, to Chicago, and you’re standing on the street listening the tire shop guys swear at each other, contemplating going back upstairs to call the Erie County Executive office, and the rain comes down in sheets. So you take pleasure in the pleasurable things in life, and take “the sight the sound and even the stink” of everything else with good cheer, since it’s all connected anyway. I mean, who needs a yacht when you have a warm fall afternoon?

So over wine, we chatted about wild fantasies and practical aspirations, and I stole a pen and a napkin, and we were a little late to dinner with our friends.

Julie with castle.

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