I came to be an actress, or something like that. I stayed to raise a daughter. Along the way, I grew up and lived a life.
New York, I have loved you with a wild passion since I first got off the boat at age ten, after a childhood in England, Iowa, and Germany. It was July 1968, the SDS was rioting outside the Chicago Democratic Convention, and my family was moving to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was in despair about the move, and my one consolation was Gettysburg's relative proximity to New York.
Several times a year, and always for my birthday, we made pilgrimages to the Holy City. We saw every play on Broadway, and wore our finest to the Metropolitan Opera. Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in Moon for the Misbegotten, The Great White Hope with James Earl Jones, Maggie Smith in Private Lives, A Doll’s House with Liv Ullman. We went to La Mama and the Public and stood for hours crushed together in the audience to see Amiri Baraka’s cri de coeur, Slave Ship.
We got to know Clyde Morgan and Carla Maxwell of the Jose Limón Dance Company, and were invited to sophisticated parties (or so they seemed to a thirteen-year-old) in their Soho loft—long before the gentrification of downtown New York. We spent hours at the Met, and went to “art films” at the Paris. We ate at Luchows, Gallagher’s, Pierre Au Tunnel. Although money was tight, we always splurged and stayed at the St. Moritz on Central Park South. We breakfasted at Rumpelmayer’s; processed through the The Plaza to greet Eloise; and lusted after the clothes in Bergdorf’s, the glass in Steuben, and the books in Brentano’s. My mother sewed, so every trip required a visit to Jerry Brown’s fabric mecca on West 57th. Uncle Sam’s umbrella shop was also a must.
In 1977, my father had a sabbatical at Union Seminary. He was provided an apartment on 124th and Riverside Drive, and we moved in one hot summer night, parking our beloved British Rover (purchased ten years earlier in England) on the street. The next morning, the car was gone—a fitting introduction to the New York of the ’70s. That was the summer of the great black-out and The Son of Sam. ( For a few weeks, I even suspected my then-boyfriend, who lived in Queens.) In those days and in that neighborhood, no one carried money. My parents were personally introduced to each shopkeeper and had an account in each store.
I went to the Circle in the Square Theatre School and learned how to navigate the city on my own. I knew which subway car to get on and which block to avoid. After graduating from college, I had no money and no connections, but nothing could keep me away. I found an apartment at 221 West 21st Street for $379 a month: a small one-bedroom with a brick wall. (Gosh, were we proud of that “brick wall.”) A friend from college and I moved in, sharing the bedroom. We both survived, although our friendship did not.
I got a job on East 57th as a receptionist for ICF (International Contract Furnishing), which sold posh furniture to high-end designers and their clients: Arne Jacobsen, Joseph Hoffman, Interlubke. I met gay men who took me under their wings and wealthy men who propositioned me. I went to glamorous parties at the Met and had my ears pierced. After work, I ate black beans and rice, and performed in show after show Off-Off Broadway.
When I needed a more flexible schedule, I left my job at ICF and moved next door to Oliver’s Pub. A grueling year ended one night when the bartender beat me up. To be fair, I was a lousy waitress and almost certainly obnoxious. It was 2:00 a.m. and I was closing the place. He was verbally abusive, I told him where to shove it, and the next thing I knew his fists were boxing my ears and head. When I called the owner the following morning to complain, he asked me what I’d done to provoke him.
Paying acting jobs became more frequent, but in between I worked everywhere and anywhere. I was the cheesemonger at Washington Market in Tribeca, and devised catering menus and gift baskets. One memorable Christmas, the New Yorker (back when it was still funny) mentioned my work in “Gifts On and Off the Avenue.” I spent a hellish December at Saks, and a few wonderful years at Marimekko on East 56th. I wrote middle school history textbooks, and years later, children’s books. In the meantime, I appeared topless in Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and met Paul Newman and Norman Mailer at the Actors Studio. Playwrights wrote plays for me and some fell in love with me. I received a nice review in the Friday section of the New York Times and expected the world to change overnight. It didn’t. I got married and divorced, and married again.
I’ve organized Mardi Gras at St. John the Divine, book fairs at the Nightingale-Bamford School, and sat on the vestry of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. I’ve spent New Year’s Eves with Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Brad Pitt. I’ve attended premieres with Tom Stoppard and funerals with Henry Kissinger. On 9/11, Harvey Weinstein’s driver took us home. I’ve been in a near-death taxi cab accident on East 72nd and given birth on East 76th. I buy cheese at Zabar’s, shoes at Harry’s, and lingerie at The Town Shop. I never became the toast of Broadway and have no portrait at Sardi’s, but I’m at ease in 21 or V&T’s or The Colony Club. The city is my own Proustian madeleine, and je ne regrette rien.
But the bloom is, finally, off the rose. No, I am not talking about the effects of the pandemic or the rising crime. Even before de Blasio brought the place to her knees, New York had ceased to be as compelling. A homogeneity has set in, and every day, a small store disappears to be replaced by a drugstore or bank. Charivari, Bendel’s, and Barney’s (the 7th Avenue iteration, not the lifeless imitation on Madison) are gone, Scribners has ceded to Sephora. Chain stores dominate the landscape and soulless skyscrapers throw shade on the lovely Empire State Building.
But the biggest change is in the people. Eccentrics and cranks and truly innovative artists are now few and far between. New Yorkers used to be tough, rude, and irreverent. They have become unadventurous, censorious, and sanctimonious. It’s always been a politically liberal place, but it also used to be forgiving, and tolerant of difference. There was an expansiveness and openness, a willingness to fight and make up, or go along and get along. Now it’s a bubble of progressive group-think. The New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New Yorker compete to be the most woke, self-righteous, and intolerant.
Above all, New Yorkers used to be funny. For me, that is the real tragedy. Somehow, somewhere, New York misplaced its sense of humor. Of course the same could be said of our culture as a whole, and it’s hard to know whether New York is driving the change or merely reflecting it. Either way, it’s loathsome. Laughter is a recognition of our common humanity. To laugh is to acknowledge limitations—mine and yours—and transcend them.
But in a cancel-culture world, a world without forgiveness, there can be no laughter. Give me Woody Allen over Ronan Farrow any day of the week. Anyone can tear down, very few can create. Hate is easy. Love is hard. And comedy’s even harder. Well congrats, Ronan. It’s your town now.
New York has always represented freedom. Freedom for huddled masses arriving from distant shores and freedom for a kid from New Jersey just looking to make his own destiny. Anything was possible in New York. If you could make it there you could make it anywhere. And maybe that’s still true. Maybe I’m just old and cranky. But the air I once inhaled with joy now has the faint whiff of tyranny. I’ll always be a New Yorker, but this one, at least for now, is leaving. Goodbye, New York.
Kari Jenson Gold writes from New York, New York.
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