I am standing in the rain at the intersection of the Mythical Avenue and Ordinary Life Street in New York City. If there’s a map at your side, look for where E. 92nd Street crosses Park Avenue. That’s where I am standing, safely protected from the speeding traffic, on the landscaped Mall that separates the uptown two lanes from the two downtown lanes. In the Spring and Summer, the various block associations would pool their resources and have the Mall planted with thousands of flowers, usually tulips…so red and so yellow that your eyes would water. During the holidays, the small trees would be lit up in beautiful lights. All along a quiet oasis of real earth on a strip that extends for fifty blocks to the south and another hundred-fifty blocks to the north…give or take a few. You’ve got a map, count them.
It’s a mid-January afternoon and the trees are bare and the planting areas are mulched. I saw several faded and broken blue holiday lights remaining on one of the trees.
When I was growing up, I loved to watch old movies…those set in the ’30’s and ’40’s and New York City was the backdrop. Park Avenue became for me, as well as with much of America, the “street of dreams” where the rich lived in enormous apartment houses. “Penthouses” and “Park Avenue” were one and the same. No wealthy person lived in a penthouse on First Avenue…at least not in the movies. In these old films, the limousines would pick up the Cary Grants, the Ginger Rogers, the Ray Millands and the Grace Kellys and whisk them away to the Stork Club or the Copa. No matter what time of day or night, the men wore tuxedos and the women carried themselves like goddesses in satin gowns, boas and ermine.
I am standing in the rain and looking south. I can barely make out the ghost of a 50+ story building in the mist. Once upon a time it was famously known as the PAN AM building. Now, giant letters spell out MET LIFE. The building sits atop the renowned Grand Central Station. I’ve heard that Peregrine falcons nest in nooks of the giant neon letters.
South of Grand Central, the avenue becomes Park Avenue South and then ends around 14th Street. I turn around and look North. In only four or five blocks the avenue looses its famous allure and continues onto the upper reaches of Spanish Harlem, ending abruptly at the Harlem River Drive. Much of the northern length is made of three or four-story walk-ups. But, like most other sections of Manhattan, the luxury high rises are springing up everywhere. The rentals, co-ops, and condos are growing like ferns on a forest floor. The cost of a one-bedroom would choke a horse.
But, I’m standing along its Gold Coast. I watch. People on corners stick their hands out from under their umbrellas to hail a taxi. The doormen hail cabs for their tenants. They help unload the kids from the backseat of a giant S.U.V. or the bags of groceries from Whole Foods. Sometimes a doorman will sneak away from his post to grab a coffee from a deli on a side street. The deli displays pastries that would make anyone crave gluten.
A small group of high school girls cross the Avenue, talking so fast it may have been a different language. At least they’re talking. Not one of them is on her cell phone. The girls are in identical kilts and knee socks…the school uniform. They wear bright pink or green backpacks. Three teachers lead nine children to an after school program. The kids are holding a loop on a length of rope. They are in pairs. The ninth child is holding hands with the last teacher. I hope she wasn’t left out. I prayed she was not excluded from the other eight. A group of five high school boys, passed the high school girls. Their pushing and jostling stops for a few minutes. They’re thinking of the soccer game or the rugby game…or the girls in the kilts. One or two boys turns to get a last glimpse of the strange group of creatures…these girls.
One of the girls glances back.
There were quite a few school kids on the streets. I checked on a street map later and found that from where I stood, there were at least 22 schools (mostly private) within an 8 to 10 block radius. Somewhere I read that the Starbucks on the corner of 96th and Madison was centered in the largest cluster of private schools in America. Of course. I remembered that at least two of the girls were clutching a mocha.
A police car, with lights flashing and siren blasting is heading west on 87th. An ambulance, with lights and siren wailing is running the lights northward to Mount Sinai. Another, smaller ambulance, no siren and no lights is going south to 76th, toward Lenox Hill Hospital. I hoped it was empty. Was it traveling slowly because the occupant was beyond an emergency?
School buses of all sizes crept along the Avenue.
I looked down the Avenue and saw hundreds of red tail lights of cabs attempting to run the stop lights. The red dots seem to go on as far as Ohio.
It came to me that there were no public buses on Park Avenue. The only trucks were moving vans. I surmised that this had a lot to do with the amount of rent along the Avenue and the fact that buses and trucks were not in keeping with the quality of life along one of the richest thoroughfares in America.
I thought again of the old movies. Those were the glory years of this part of Manhattan. The glory is still here…for those who can afford the extortion rents (or the condos or the co-ops). The S.U.V.’s have replaced the Lincoln Town Cars, to some degree, anyway.
When I lived in Manhattan, I was an Upper West Sider. But the private school I taught in for almost 13 years was on the far east side. My school was so far east that the East River flowed a few meters below my home room window. I could see Queens from that window. I could see the abandoned asylums on what is now Roosevelt Island.
I often walked home and my walk would always take me across Park Avenue. I would cross slowly, absorbing the history of the fabled avenue. I was never envious of those who could afford to live in that area. I knew that no matter who they were or what their portfolio contained, they all had their own broken hearts, pains, guilt, and illnesses everyone else had. The people had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, the box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. These were movie producers and actors. I would see ancient ladies with their nurses who were mostly black, being pushed or helped along the Avenue. This did not surprise me. There is a great deal of “old money” here and it was for most of its history, a white persons world. People of color came from the Boroughs as maids and care-givers, nannies and companions. Many of those old folks probably have forgotten where the family fortune came from in the first place.
Park Avenue is a symbol of all that is dreamy, wealthy, opulent, poor, class-ridden, lonely and depressing in the Greatest City in the World.
Yes, I would cross nearly every school day, wiping sweat from my forehead on warm summer afternoons. On harsh winter evenings, I would wish for a longer scarf while wading through a foot of snow and small ponds of frozen slush at the corners.
But, in the Spring, I would always stop and smell the flowers–those tulips–those dazzling tulips.
Today and for the next few days, my home was a hotel room. It’s only a few blocks from the corner of 86th and First Avenue, where I would stand to catch the cross-town bus…when I taught here…when I called New York City my home.
I held firmly to my new blue umbrella as I stood under dripping clouds and watched life happen around me.
On Park Avenue. On a rainy day.