Just after Labor Day in NYC is a special time for me. It’s when I moved to NYC in 1983 – taking all my stuff and going to NYU, moving into the fraternity house at 3-5 Washington Place. NYU was suffering from a housing shortage and some fraternities (especially those with many members who didn’t need housing…) found themselves renting out rooms to incoming students. I was lucky enough to have my housing problem solved by the Nation’s Oldest Continually Active Fraternity… the Gamma Chapter of Delta Phi. Delta Phi was so old that fraternities only needed two letters. For a few weeks things will be confusing because I was a “Boarder”: neither a brother of the fraternity nor a pledge. We’ll cover that in another p0st, but it’s important to know I’m a boarder for a while. My first weekend in NYC was the beginning of the San Gennaro Festival. A few boarders – two were named “Joe” one with long, blond hair, and one with dark, curly hair and a beard, one was named Jordan, this guy Russ, and myself all traipsed off to the Feast. I think the in-house brothers didn’t want to be bothered with us. This was my first outing in NYC. I had been there before, of course: several times in my late teens, but suddenly I lived there! In a way that I couldn’t quite describe, I had “become” a New Yorker – although no one would say that to me for another decade. We walked down Broadway. I cannot begin to successfully describe the emotions! Leaving 3-5 and turning right, we walked past the Unique Boutique, truly a sartorial experience for a small town boy from the South, then past Tower Records – 4 solid floors of records and this new thing, the Cassette Tape in the basement. Going down Broadway we passed Canal Jeans – whose checkerboard logo was the mark of cool and cheap. Further on we got to Canal Street itself – a crazy jumble of street sellers and open store fronts, all selling “electronics” as we called ‘em then and various hardwares: speakers, boomboxes, interesting light fixtures for black lights – which one used to use to entertain people on drugs in one’s bedroom…. seriously! Right on Canal and across to China Town (that’s another post) and then south to Little Italy on Mulberry.
Just the strings of lights, alone… it was like a County Fair (minus the rides and all the animals had been slaughtered already and were grilling…) run by Italian Grandmothers. I still remember how I watched one Nonna in a black dress drop dough from her hand, tightly clenched either by age or just managing the recipe, into the hot oil to make Zeppoles: hot puffs of fried dough covered in powdered sugar, served up in a bag through which the grease was soaking. The purpose of this was to mark you: you would naturally get oil from the bag on your shirt, and you would, naturally, drop sugar from the pastry as it made its way to your mouth. It would land on your shirt and adhere to the grease. This was, like ashes in lent, a mark of you having performed the duties of a pious pilgrim. At the heart of the Festival was a Statue of the Saint covered in Ribbons to which the faithful pinned money. A happy Protestant, I found this all very confusing – but Italian Catholicism was about to take over my life in all sorts of ways since it was the dominant religion of that part of NYC in those days. I pinned a dollar to the saint and got a pin with the Saint’s image on it… I’d love to have that pin anymore, just as a mark that I was there. (I used to be a pin collector.)
Looming over all of lower Manhattan at this point in our history, were the Two Towers of the World Trade Center. They were always there… no matter where one went, you’d turn a corner and there they were. I wanted – for a decade – to catch a photo of the full moon next to the Towers looking under the Washington Square Arch but in those days to take a picture required something called a camera… and film. And timing. And you had to pay to get it developed. And then the towers came down, which also happened at this time of year. I had forgotten my first weekend in NYC until I sat down to write this essay. Nearly everything has been overshadowed by those Towers now.
We made it back to the Fraternity house in one piece (or, rather, five pieces, as there were five of us) having survived our first night out in NYC. It was not too exciting by standards we sat later, to be honest, but there was a tapped keg of beer at the house and it was free – even for us – so we played a drinking game and I fell off my chair laughing… but that’s a good story for another post. I think I’ve promised two or three already.
I find myself wondering though: 15 years after Pearl Harbor, we had destroyed Japan and helped them rebuild. We had forgiven them – and they had forgiven us. And we had even already fought a war with Japan against China who had been our ally in our war against Japan. In less than 15 years the world changed that much. What are we missing? What skill whereby we forgave the Emperor and the Generals and all the people have we forgotten now? We’ve become, I think, a different people than the nation that so magnanimously won the 2nd World War. It would be fun to blame that on the 80s or the 90s, on Reagan, Clinton, or Bush, but the reality is we are a democracy: what comes to pass comes up through the ranks. We, as a nation, have forgotten something because each of us, as persons, have forgotten it. I don’t know what it might be, that we have lost. But I am happy to explore what I remember in the hopes of finding it.
And that’s news from Lake Woebegone… ‘s neighbor to the far East, where everyone was pushy and everyone has an opinion, where a good cup of coffee with butter bagel in the morning, a hot dog for lunch and a slice of pizza for supper were all the same price: $1.