“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” — Tim Cahill
Staying with friends was the only way I could afford to make my trip to New York in 1976 last more than a week or so, and I wanted to stay in or near Manhattan for at least three weeks. When I left for New York, I thought I had two places to stay, one in Newark, New Jersey with Dan and Janka, and one on West 83rd Street in Manhattan with Scott and Richard, but when Janka’s mother learned I was planning to stay in the area for several weeks, she invited me to use the guest room in her apartment on West 94th Street, three blocks from Central Park.
When I tell longtime New Yorkers where I stayed in 1976, the usual reaction to West 83rd Street is, “A bit edgy in those days, but not terrible,” while the take on West 94th is, “I hope you didn’t walk around alone at night.” By 1983, the last year I visited New York, West 83rd had become a chichi high rent neighborhood and West 94th was considered relatively safe, but in 1976 Richard and Scott’s old apartment building on West 83rd was guarded by a big Puerto Rican guy armed with a baseball bat and West 94th…
Imagine dusk descending in early October as young Todd enters Central Park at West 96th with the intention of walking across the park to meet a friend on the Upper East Side. A few hundred yards into the park, Todd notices two things: the back of his neck is tingling and the park is completely deserted. He walks a bit farther, but stops when his heart begins to pound and he has the distinct feeling he is being watched. At which moment, a police car comes rolling toward him on the wide asphalt path. Todd steps to one side, the squad car stops beside him, and the driver’s window sinks down a few inches so the officers might converse with our quaking traveler.
“Where you goin’?” asks the officer behind the wheel, a portly middle-aged guy.
“I’m meeting a friend on East 85th,” Todd replies, smiling wanly. “Is this not a good idea, walking across the park here?”
“Indeed,” says the officer, nodding. “Not good.”
“Not good at all,” says the other officer, shaking his head. “Where you from, champ?”
“Oregon,” says Todd, hoping the officers will transport him to safety.
“Well,” says the officer behind the wheel, “we’ve had some muggings around here recently. Exactly right here, in fact. Yesterday. So we encourage you to exit the park and take the subway or a cab to meet your friend.”
“Can you guard me until I get out?” Todd asks, nodding hopefully.
The officers exchange smiles and the guy behind the wheel says, “Sure. We’ll follow you out. How about that?”
“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” — Edith Wharton
Janka’s mother (I will call her M) was a most serious person, her pretty face carved by worry and suffering. She was a medical doctor working in a hospital in a part of Harlem so dangerous she had to be escorted to and from her taxi by armed guards; and how she came to be a doctor was a most incredible story. When she was a teenager living in a small town in Poland, the German army invaded her country, and as the German soldiers approached her town she fled on foot in the direction of Russia, following the railroad tracks. As she ran, a slow moving Russian-bound train overtook her, the cars full of wounded Russian soldiers. A nurse on the train, a young Polish woman, knew M and urged her to jump onboard, which M did.
“Now,” said M’s friend, “you must pretend you are a nurse or they will throw you off. I will show you what to do.”
“And,” said M, telling me her story 37 years after jumping on that train, “by the time we got to Russia, I was a nurse, learning what to do as we went along.”
M was given more formal medical training in Russia and sent to work in a Leningrad hospital, arriving shortly before the German and Finnish armies laid siege to the city, a terrible siege that lasted nine hundred days and resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 people.
“Many days,” said M, heaping my plate with food, “we had nothing to eat. We would make soup of hot water and anything we could find to put in, sometimes a potato, sometimes nothing but onion peel. We all expected to die. We were living skeletons. To this day I don’t know how I survived.”
When the war ended, M attended medical school in the Soviet Union and then returned to Poland to find that the Germans had killed every member of her family — grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. She practiced medicine and married a man who became a well-known economist. They had two children, Janka and Helena, and during a brief political thaw, so-called, in the 1960’s, M divorced her husband and immigrated to the United States with her teenaged daughters.
My first evening with M, she cooked enough food for ten. “I know, I know,” she said apologetically, “I have problem with food. I buy more than I need, I cook more than I need, but…when you starve for so many months and years, well…”
I liked M very much and I liked hearing her stories of life in Poland and Russia and America, and I liked her guest room and the fabulous food she served me, but I had to leave after three nights with her because she was miserable when I didn’t have supper with her, and she would wait up for me because she was worried about my safety.
On the second night I stayed with M, I came home after midnight and found her cooking up a storm. “I made nice roast and mashed potatoes and green beans and chocolate cake. You are hungry, yes?”
“Actually, I’m stuffed,” I said, hating to disappoint her. “And I’m exhausted, so…”
“Oh, stay up a little while, please? Talk to me. Have something to eat. I want to hear about your day. Did you go to Museum of Modern Art?”
So we stayed up until two, and before she left for work early the next morning, she wrote me a long note describing what she was cooking for supper, though I had told her I was dining with friends. And when I came home that night, she was waiting for me with mountains of food and insisting I eat and stay up with her; and if I hadn’t already made other plans, I might have stayed with her for weeks and months and grown tremendously fat, but that was not why I thought I had come to New York.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber
I thought I had come to New York to immerse myself in what I imagined would be a scintillating literary scene, and to make friends with other people passionate about writing. So when my agent Dorothy Pittman invited me to a party at her Greenwich Village pad and said she had invited writers and editors and theater people, I felt certain I was about to walk through some magic portal into a world I had long dreamed of inhabiting.
This would also be my first meeting with Dorothy in the flesh, though we had spoken on the phone and exchanged many letters. I had no idea what she looked like, this being long before the advent of computers and Google and sending photos in emails; and I’m fairly certain Dorothy didn’t know what I looked like either, so there was excitement about that, too — finally laying eyes on the great advocate of my writing.
Dorothy’s husband John — a handsome man recently transplanted from California — answered the door and ushered me into their crowded little flat, the air dense with cigarette smoke. “How you holding up?” he asked, giving me a knowing smile. “This city can knock the shit out of you.”
Which was true. I’d only been there five days and I was totally worn out and longing to do nothing but sleep for a day or two.
And here was Dorothy, tall and slender with short silvery hair and shining eyes — a radiant being illumined from within — beaming with pleasure. “Well there you are,” she said with her marvelous Georgia drawl. “I am so happy to see you.”
She took my hand and led me into their little living room and introduced me to the dozen or so men and women gathered there — every last one of them smoking a cigarette — and I was sure I was going to pass out from lack of air. But worse than the smoke was how deeply uninteresting I found these people — save for Dorothy — and how obviously disinterested they were in me, so that when the party was over, I rode the subway back to M’s place feeling downright sad.
Nearly all the talk had been about money and who had gotten how much of an advance and how much someone else hoped to get for an advance and how big a paperback sale someone else had made; and when they weren’t talking about advances and sales they were talking about, I kid you not, cigarettes and where they bought them and how they were going to quit smoking or how they had given up trying to quit smoking — and nary a word about the books and plays I hoped they were writing or reading, works of divine imagination that had conquered their psyches and taken over their lives.
“A wise traveler never despises his own country.” — William Hazlitt
The next day I had lunch with my editor from Seventeen magazine in a swank restaurant a few blocks from the towering office building wherein Seventeen shared a floor with TV Guide, both magazines owned by the same massive media conglomerate — our lunch costing that conglomerate more than I spent on groceries in a month. My editor was an attractive, fast-talking woman with short blond hair who surprised me with a beautiful color proof of the delightful illustration for my upcoming Christmas story.
“Everyone loves your story,” she gushed. “Isn’t this picture a knockout?”
“I love it,” I said, glad I didn’t have to lie. “Perfect.”
“So, listen,” she said, taking a deep breath, “there was a problem with space. Some big last minute ads came in so…I had to do a little cutting. On your story.”
“Oh, well I’m sure…”
“Just eighty lines,” she said, smiling and wincing simultaneously. “I don’t think the cuts really hurt the story, maybe rushed things a little here and there, but…”
“80 lines? How many words in a line?”
“Six to eight,” she said, giggling nervously. “I took out about, oh…six hundred words, but it’s still great. You’ll see.”
“Out of three thousand?” I was incredulous. “How could…” And then I caught myself, remembering how lucky I was to be published at all. “I’m sure you did a fine job. Can’t wait to see it.”
After lunch we returned to Seventeen and a young intern took me on a tour of the editorial offices. The intern turned out to be Howard Cosell’s daughter (you remember Howard Cosell, the famous sports journalist); and she did, indeed, look very much like her father. We peeked into the mail room where two young women were rifling through the several hundred unsolicited manuscripts they received each week, and then we came to a big room where the magazine was laid out (remember these were pre-computer days) and I was amazed to see the walls adorned with dozens of lascivious photos of scantily clad young women in highly suggestive poses — outtakes from Seventeen fashion shoots — worthy of the most risqué Playboy spreads. Now there was a bestseller waiting to happen: Nasty Seventeen.
“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” — Danny Kaye
On my sixth day in Manhattan, I went to stay with Scott and Richard in their commodious rent controlled apartment on West 83rd Street, Scott being one of my very best friends since Fourth Grade, Richard his longtime partner. In 1976 Scott had yet to come out as a gay man to any of his old friends or to his parents and siblings who lived on the West Coast, though I had known he was gay since we were teenagers, and I am fairly certain he knew I knew. Even so, this was a big deal, my staying with them and being shown that they shared a bed and the physical intimacies of a sexual couple.
When I set my suitcase down in their living room and Scott dashed to his grand piano and started playing Willkommen from Cabaret and belting out those welcoming words in his best imitation of Ethel Merman, I felt I had finally and truly arrived in the Big Apple.
Todd Walton can be reached through his website underthetablebooks.com.