Friday, November 6, 2015

Why I Heart New York

RHYS BOWEN:
Until I started writing a mystery series set in New York in the year 1901, I never really noticed the city around me. I visited, took taxis, ate, had meetings, saw shows, shopped and left again.
Now that New York is the place I write about, my senses are fine-tuned. In an apparently modern city of skyscrapers and speed, so much of that turn-of-the-century New York still exists. It is exciting to walk along Canal Street into the Lower East Side, and see streets still cobbled with the old granite blocks, tenements that would have housed immigrant families, corners on which gangs would have lurked.


 I don’t even need to recreate the past in my mind. It is always recreating itself. Take the Feast of San Genaro, held in mid September on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. San Genaro, you may remember is the patron saint of Naples—the one whose blood liquefies on his feast day every year. Booths line the already narrow street, selling food and trinkets and clothing. There is even a freak show—fifty cents to see the world’s smallest woman or the snake lady! Good smells compete—huge sizzling curled snakes of sausage, frying onions, clam chowder, spaghetti and meatballs. The noise level is overwhelming as a tide of pedestrians shuffles forward, talking in all the tongues of the globe while brass bands and singers court the diners at the sidewalk cafes.


This is exactly how it would have been in 1901. My heroine, Molly Murphy, would have fought her way along this street, shopping at the pushcarts and booths, hearing a polyglot of languages spoken around her, watching out for pick pockets and feeling the life of the city energizing her. Perhaps it is a little cleaner underfoot these days. Litter is confined to fast food wrappers--no horse droppings or slops tossed down from tenements.

Recreating the past, taking the reader on a trip through time and space, is what I set out to do when I write the Molly Murphy books. In the upcoming AWAY IN A MANGER I’ve tried to take the reader back to the quintessential New York Christmas.

And since I’ve been an observer of New York, I’ve had a chance to detail what I like about it. Here are my top ten reasons for liking the city:

1.      It is a true city where living, working, eating, shopping all take place on the same block. In other cities the commercial areas are dead after working hours. Not so New York. It lives twenty four hours a day.

2.      Life is not confined to buildings. It spills out onto sidewalks and into parks. At the first sign of spring, tables and umbrellas come out onto sidewalks, people take their food into parks. They sit outside the public library playing chess. There are impromptu jazz bands and barbershop quartets in the subway at Grand Central and outdoor concerts in Central Park.

3.      It is a city of artwork. There are mosaics in the subway stations—my favorite is the Alice in Wonderland motif at 50th Street. Look up and you’ll see Egyptian temples, art deco medallions, Greek columns and marble frescos, sometimes eight or ten floors above ground level. For whom were the art deco goddesses and marble pediments intended? Certainly not the pedestrians who walk below and never look up as they hurry to the nearest subway. Not always the inhabitants of buildings opposite as some of them face blank walls. I like to think of them as a little offering to the gods above.

4.      It is a city of good smells. Every block has at least one good aroma wafting out of a cafĂ©, or from a sidewalk cart—roasting coffee, frying onions, curry, sesame oil, baking bread. Luckily New Yorkers have to walk so much or they’d all be fat.

5.      New York is a city of dogs. They are not much in evidence during the day, unless one encounters a dog walker, being dragged down Fifth Avenue by six or seven of her charges. But early evening, the dogs come out, each with his accompanying human, whom he often resembles in stature and walk. Interestingly enough, there are more big dogs than small. You would have thought that dachshunds and yorkies would have been ideal for city life, but I see more golden retrievers and labs and standard poodles, even Afghan hounds. New Yorkers are well trained too. Not a speck of poop in sight on the sidewalks.

6.      It is a city of cheap eats and cheap shops. There are coffee shops all over where two dollars will buy an egg roll and coffee for breakfast. Even sushi bars offer two for one on weeknights. And T shirts with the famous I love NY slogan on them are now six for ten dollars. Of course I also saw a T shirt for three hundred dollars in Bloomies, so I have to say also that New York is…

7.      …a city of contrasts. On the bus old ladies from the upper East Side wearing tired looking furs and smelling of face powder and moth balls sit next to young men in baggy pants, gang colors and caps worn backward. Sometimes they look at each other and smile.
The hot dog cart on the street is only a few steps away from the most pretentious tea salon in the universe. Their tea menu is twelve pages long. When I ask for a Darjeeling, I am directed to a page full of Darjeelings and a First Flush, Robertson Estate is recommended. I am so tempted to take a sip, look indignant and exclaim, “You’ve brought me a second flush, you imposter!”

8.      It is a city of haste. Everything in New York is done quickly. People leap from sidewalks to snare cabs. They run down subway steps. They inch out into traffic and anticipate the Walk sign by a good two seconds. In  Bryant Park outside the library men play chess at breakneck speed. Knight to bishop two-ding, and the timer bell is slapped, Queen to rook four-ding. The whole game is over in five minutes. A crowd of men stands around, watching.

9.      It is also a city of quiet corners in which time stands still. There is a fair being held in a churchyard with home baked cookies and crocheted potholders. I once got locked, by mistake, in Gramercy park, which is the only private square in the city when I had stayed at the Gramercy Park hotel and gone there to regroup in the calm of nature. In Central Park proud moms and dark skinned nannies watch light skinned children play in the sand or climb the rocks. It is easy to get lost in Central Park, easy to forget that you are in a city at all.

10.  And most surprisingly for one who has visited New York for the past thirty years--since 9/11 it has become a city of friendly people. These days people chat as they wait for buses. They see tourists puzzling over maps and ask if they need help. Bus drivers actually call out the name of streets intelligibly and answer questions when asked. A minor miracle has occurred—the one good by-product of a horror beyond imagining that touched every New York life and forged and strengthened it with fire.


Who loves to go to New York? What is your favorite city to visit?

And the winner of a copy of Beat, Slay, Love is Mark Baker. Mark contact Lise McClendon at lise@lisemcclendon.com


24 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

New York is truly a special place. It's always exciting . . . the museums are spectacular and the theater is absolutely amazing.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

What a beautiful post! Makes me appreciate my city.....

Hallie Ephron said...

What a rich essay, Rhys! Yes, I love New York, too. I went to college there and lived there for six years after, and I can attest that it's an even better city to live in than it is to visit (only who can afford to live there now?) I visit often since my kids are in Brooklyn and my sister in Manhattan. The subways really get you wherever you need to go. It's a pleasure to just walk around, parks with benches(!) and libraries(!) every few blocks you can wander into and rest your tootsies. There's nothing to match seeing a hit Broadway show with its first cast. Life affirming. And the food! The bagels at Zabars, chocolate babka at Arcadeor Bread, macarons at Bisous Ciao... the list goes on.

And like Rhys I've found people really are friendly! Take out a map and look baffled and within seconds someone will stop and ask if they can help you find your way.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, Rhys, this is wonderfully thoughtful!

I agree, the architecture, and the little secret things that you see if you keep an eye out.

The fashion! You will see people wearing all kinds of wild get ups, from the highest heels--how do they walk? To purple striped hair with matching t-shirt. You get a taste of it in Bill Cunningham's fabulous photo essays, but to see it in real life is astonishing.

And the fragrance of everything bagels.

And how you cannot get across a sidewalk going perpendicular to the flow of pedestrians. ANd how you HAVE to look up--and then feel like a gawky tourist. Oh--the skyline of the whole city viewed from the train window! Amazing.

Mary Sutton said...

I haven't been to NYC since I was 14. My girl wants to go for her 16th birthday next summer. She loves the city. I'll have to make a note of where to get the macarons.

I saw somewhere that a guy went to NYC intending to show how dishonest the taxi drivers were. In fact, his research showed the exact opposite, with at least 3 drivers refusing to take the fare and instead getting out to show him how close he was to his requested destination.

Triss said...

I live right here, and loved Rhys's essay. All very true. There is a surprise around every corner - good, bad, charming, disheartening, but never boring. but Rhys, please give up a name :what is the pretentious tea room? :-)

Kristopher said...

New York City is my favorite city. Every time I go there, I discover something new - and I have been there a lot. In fact, I was there two weekends in October and will be there again in November for a long weekend and January for an extended stay,

As Rhys says, it is a city that is always alive. You can feel the energy.

Ellen K said...

Like Hallie, I went to college in New York-- and also picked up a post-doc certificate in Law of the Media there a decade and a half later. Once one has lived there, one is never quite the same.

New York is the home of the ONLY place I will allow to cut my hair (George Michael of Madison Avenue, a place that caters to those who want long hair). I go back to college reunions just to be in NYC, and really didn't mind it when my flight was cancelled for two days the last time I was there (I got to spend them IN NEW YORK!)

But what I like best is the mix of ethnic people striding along those streets and avenues. Before it went white, my hair used to be black, with a tendency to curl (or frizz). And I'm sort, and curvy. In the midwest and in California, I never had the right look. I could never be the leggy blonde with straight hair that fashion demanded.

But in New York, I look like everybody else. I love it. And I'm delighted when I arrive after a too long absence, and people stop ME on the street for directions! Either I look confident, or I look native, maybe both. Viva New York!

Jungle Red Writers said...

Hank, I can't believe you should notice women wearing high heels. You wear the highest heels of anyone ai know, my darling.
And Triss, I was told the other day that the tea shop had now closed. It was on E 20th - a victim of its own pretentiousness, I fear.n

Karen in Ohio said...

Ha,ha, Hank. I agree about the heels. You have mad heel-wearing skillz.

New York is such a great place, and I discover something new and different about it every time I go. In the 70's, when I was a buyer, we used to get egg creams at a little dumpy diner across from Madison Square Garden. When I took my mother and three daughters to the city, in 2000-something, I asked our lunch waiter where we could find a place that still served them. He whipped out a Zagat to look it up, without luck, so the chef made us one to share!

My family was astonished that people in NYC were so friendly. We had a wonderful time. The last time I was there I went to the (free) exhibit at FIT. They always have a free one, and a paid one. If you love fashion, I highly recommend this as a stop.

People are the same everywhere, there are just more of them, and from more places, in NYC.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Oh, was the tea place Lady Mendl's Tea Parlour? I went there a few times and thought it was lovely! (Although I am often too clueless to recognize pretentiousness.)

I go through phases when I want to live somewhere else, but I really couldn't imagine it.... I'd miss the dance and ballet scene too much!

Mark Baker said...

I have never been to NYC. Someday, I hope to fix that. But in the mean time, your love shines through in the Molly books, and I feel like I've been there.

And thanks for drawing my name. I'm very excited!

Kathy Reel said...

Rhys, what a great essay on NYC! You really made the city sing for us. I haven't been there since my senior trip in high school, so it's been, let's just say decades. But, it's one of the places I so want to get back to and wish I lived closer to. I'm so envious of those of you who can just slip into the city for a Broadway show or other exciting event. When I'm asked on a quiz what type of place I'd rather live, a bustling big city or a small quiet town, I'm torn. So, it would be perfect if I could live in a small town near a big city.

Favorite cities for me are D.C. and Key West, vast worlds apart, but with the same flavor of always something to do. When my husband was at the Pentagon, I made it a goal to do something different, even if I did some of the same things, each trip I made there. The National Gallery of Art is probably my favorite place in D.C., and I sure wish I were going there now before the Vermeer exhibit closes in December. And, I love going to different sections, like Dupont Circle where I visit Kramer's Books and listen to some street music. Of course, Key West is my get-away to complete relaxation and live in the moment. Just walking the streets is full-time entertainment for me. And talk about a dog city, Key West is so dog friendly that the dogs probably think they own it.

Rhys, one of the aspects of your Molly series that I love the most is how you take us through her New York City with her walking the streets of diverse neighborhoods. You do such a superb job of relating that time period to your readers. Oh, and my favorite line from your post is, “You’ve brought me a second flush, you imposter!”

FChurch said...

One of my aunties, now in her late 70s, moved from the 'city' (pop. 25,000) to return to her roots in eastern Kentucky in the mid-1970s. Recently, she traveled with a sister to visit her nephew--a college student in NYC. She loved it! Said she'd move there if she could afford it. She loved walking out of her apartment and finding everything she needed within a few minutes' walk--loved the energy, the people, the things to do--places to see. Who'd a thunk it?

TFJ said...

I've only been to New York twice: once in the mid '80s and then again in 2003. World of difference between the two visits, both good and not-so-good. But that's life and Rhys, you made all excellent points about the uniqueness of this city. Hope to return soon. Thanks for this motivation.

~Tricia

Deborah Crombie said...

What a lovely essay, Rhys! So many of the things you love about New York are the same things I love about London--which is, you might guess, my favorite city. London is clean--especially compared to Paris-- and green, and amazingly friendly for such a big city. Last trip I was lost in the rain, in very central London, and at least half a dozen people stopped to ask me if I needed help or directions. I love the ethnicity, and the different character of the neighborhoods, and the food, and the liveliness of it.

I have loved New York, too, when I've been there as a visitor, but it's been much too long. I need a trip to NYC! And next time I visit I'll appreciate the city even more, having seen it through Molly's eyes.

Libby Dodd said...

A marvelous tribute to an amazing city.
Be thankful that the pooper scooper laws went through and are observed. Summer in NYC before them was pretty nasty!

S. E. Warwick said...

Rhys,
You forgot to mention Ellis Island. In2013,Almost a century to the day after my maternal grandfather arrived there, I sat on a bench in its great hall surrounded by people from other places speaking languages I did not understand, and got a hint of what it must have been like for those arriivng in America for the first time.

Jungle Red Writers said...

Ellis Island? Definitely one of my favorite places. In fact it was a visit there that started the whole Molly Murphy series, because of the intense emotional I,press ion it made on me

Kait said...

I have always loved New York. I was born in it's shadow and spent a lot of time roaming those streets, in a good way. I have always been attracted to Old New York. Must have been the Henry James I read as a child, and if you ever have the pleasure, New York in a snowstorm on a holiday weekend is an experience not to be missed. The town houses in the Village, some of the few existing mansions that remain in the most unlikely places (all converted to apartments or co-ops now, but you can still see what used to be). Yes, it is an amazing city. Thank you for taking me on a great tour. And your next book, about Christmas in NY. Oh, I am so there.

Judy in Owego said...


Mary Sutton – YES! New York for a 16th birthday is perfect. My mother took me on the Saturday closest to my 16th birthday. We saw Camelot with the original cast – a real treat. At the last minute my parents realized that it would be the same day as the St. Patrick’s Day parade, so my mother worried at bit about crowds; but we saw no sign of the parade and had a wonderful time. And the train ride from Philadelphia to NY was fun in those days.

storytellermary said...

I visited New York as a student activist, no budget, sharing cheap but good meals with friends and sleeping on church floors -- and enjoyed it. Then I went back in tourist mode with a teen-age niece, tickets for Broadway plays, dessert at Sardi's, visit to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and enjoyed it even more. I keep thinking I'd like to go for Thanksgiving one year, see the parade in person.

Christopher Lord said...

Rhys: I've pre-ordered the Xmas Molly from the Evil Empire because I know that helps those all-important opening week numbers...I'll have it right after my 60th birthday, a nice belated present, although I'm sure I'll have it read before Thanksgiving.

You know I like a good holiday mystery, but I don't see how you'll best Georgie's Twelve Clues of Christmas, which I adored as one of the most audacious and shameless wool-over-the-eyes tricks since the best of Christie... (I hope you know that is the highest praise I have...)

And BTW, I love New York. I'd be there for my birthday except for foot surgery. I'd be in line to see Cicely Tyson and Marlo Thomas and so many others...I'll be there next in March for a wedding. And maybe a spring jacket from Bergdorf Goodman and lunch at Eataly and drinks at Marie's Crisis, and...so on and so on.

Best wishes. And some day I'm going to write that modern take on The Spoils of Poynton that I still believe the world needs.

Christopher

Susan said...

I was Raised in NYC and Brooklyn and So many Special Memories... Rhys Your "Molly Murphy" Series (I read book one) was a perfect Discription of how NYC was...Always fascinated by every time period in NYC... The Museum of The City of NY was always a great place to visit... I went to The New School for Social Research and The School of Visual Arts... I lived in Greenwich Village(lots of Ghosts;) and TUWestSide... My Parents took us everywhere in NYC... So Gratefull to them... Unfortunately I can't go back there yet... 9/11 Still lingers in my Brain... My 1 Favorite Place out of 100's is 5Th Ave.. Christmas... Rockefeller Center.... The Window Display's on 5th Ave... And the Best Christmas Eve at ST Johns The Devine... Sorry such a Long Post,I Do Love NYC.....