The Carnegie Deli is gone.
Jamie and I ate there all the time when we were first dating; we alternated going there with the Chinese place next door. It was quick, relatively cheap, and close to my apartment on West Fifty-eighth Street (my first apartment; the one with the nudist neighbors across the courtyard).
New York was different then. It didn’t seem to try as hard, or maybe its inhabitants didn’t feel the need to try as hard. It was the New York of the old Playboy Club where I met Rod Stewart by laughing at him posing in an electric blue satin suit before a tinted mirror, surveying his reflection critically, and fluffing his pineapple haircut to greater spiky heights.
It was the New York of Lamston’s and Strawberry and Woolworth and Chock Full o’ Nuts; no Starbucks or Baby Gaps sprouted on every corner. Mama Leone’s was the tourist dinnertime haunt because Guy Fieri was still learning how to bleach his hair in CA. Pickled egg Irish pubs like McSorley’s lined Ninth and Tenth Avenues since the Westies drank there and they sure weren’t wearing Hell’s Kitchen, NY t shirts; the tacky tourist shops that I passed walking home from my ballet class at Carnegie Hall wouldn’t have even sold such things then.
Hilly Kristal still owned CBGBOMFUG: It was dark inside and the floors were sticky with God alone knew what; nobody asked. NYU night classes at 15 West Fourth Street rarely ran past nine pm because the building’s walls reverberated with the music from The Bottom Line where everyone from Lou Reed to Eric Clapton to Hall and Oates played after signing albums at the newly-opened Tower Records.
Pre-Disney Times Square was still a peepshow play land of ramshackle buildings owned by some of New York’s wealthiest families. Getting felt up (now referred to as “sexual assault”) on the subway home from Macy’s after Thursday late-night shopping was so common that women barely mentioned it to one another.
I think I am becoming one of those cranky old ladies who cannot accept change. It isn’t as though Needle Park on the Upper West Side was a destination, but it was there and real and part of life and you grew up knowing it, just as you knew that you took the bus to the floral district for Christmas and Easter plants and to the fabric district for buttons for the clothes your mom sewed for you and to the Garden for concerts. Things just were; they had always been and seemed as though they would remain to be.
While New York has always been a Mecca for wannabes from the Midwest and Long Island, it has also been home to generations of ordinary people like my family, not just the very rich and shiny and the extremely poor and disenfranchised who populate it now. Maybe I just miss being young and fearless and unencumbered by a career and a mortgage and a 401(k), but New York City isn’t mine anymore.
Jamie and I returned to the Carnegie Deli before it closed. We ordered pastrami and corned beef and potato pancakes and extra rye bread; we had to order everything that we remembered because it was our last time there. Walking through the door to the street was painful, like saying goodbye to an old friend. The Chinese restaurant next door is long gone. Tourists still clog the streets but they carry shopping bags from Nike Town instead of Bonwit Teller and Forever 21 instead of Lerner Shops. The Westies are gone, dead or in prison or hidden in witness protection. The garment district is gone, too, packed up and shipped to China and Sri Lanka, its destruction commemorated by a giant needle and thread. The only constant is the streets remaining in a state of being dug up, with steel plates and steam pipes jutting out at odd angles.
My grandfather used to say that New York was a great city, one that would be greater if they ever finished building it. I kind of wish they would stop. I liked it the way it was.