In his 1946 essay Why I Write, George Orwell fused a writer's development with his personal experiences, and in particular, the times he has lived in.
I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
Orwell was only partly right, of course. Not only should a writer not seek to escape all early influences - it is impossible do so, shy of serious brain injury. The energy used in attemping to flee the past (and I speak of childhood, family, friends, and places) is wasted, and the writing is flat and little more than advertising copy. That kind of forced detachment simply denies too much; it denies biology and experience and living memory, and it denies faces and smells and visions and dreams. It flattens the landscape. It ruins the work.
No writer doggedly spending decades in New York committing millions of words to paper, Linotype machines, newsprint, and various hard drives and blogging platforms can hope to achieve anything while annuling the past. In New York, the past may be the remnants of meal consumed at dawn that has been spectacularly regurgitated upon the downtown subway platform at Union Square. Or it can be the spot just up on the street corner above the station, where the body of President Abraham Lincoln passed in review down Broadway, as young Theodore Roosevelt watched from a window in his grandfather's house just above the procession. In my wanderings in that same vicinity, the deli at 213 Park Avenue South offers more than a quick meal - it's the former Max's Kansas City, headquarters for stripped down rock and bands that never made it big, but certainly made it loud three decades ago. That pungent memory, which may still grip the staircase on the left side as you face the building, cannot be detached from the rows of Snapples and chips. After all, the great Cheetah Chrome once sat slumped on the curb right there.
Around the corner to the west on Broadway is the giant home goods emporium, ABC Carpet and Home, where my wife worked for many years in the antique furniture department and where the Santa Claus who patroled the first floor in those early years wore a regal and very real Yuletide beard. During her time on those wide old factory floorboards, she worked with a team of brilliant Polish carpenters, canny antiquties importers, and decoraters to the stars. And sometimes the stars themselves: DeNiro, Springsteen, and Streisand all darkened her door. Down the block on 18th Street is the Old Town Bar, where I passed an enjoyable evening just last week with journalists and labor organizers, taking a lively discussion organized by the Sidney Hillman Foundation to a tavern that opened in 1892, when Teddy Roosevelt was a civil service commissioner. The too-youthful ghosts of regulars Frank McCourt and Seamus Heaney lingered nearby: "between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests."
This is a neighborhood of regulars: well-worn native paths and favored spots at the bar or in the dining room. On 16th Street just in from Broadway is the Union Square Cafe, the mid-80s reinvention of New York cuisine by Danny Meyers. It remains an unfussy and crisply professional restaurant with the best ingredients served simply, and in the far corner table by the front window is the spot one those regulars, a place where I have met Andrew Rasiej for quite a few lunches. Andrew is a restless autodidact, an entrepreneur who is drawn to civic engagement and driven by his own curiosity. In classic New York terms, he is a good man to know because he knows everyone and remembers his friends. Not long after my father died, we sat in that corner table discussing our particular stage in life and the pain of losing a family member and he said something I've thought of often since, just simple advice quickly dispensed but also wise: "It never goes away, Tom, not really. Just carry it forward and keep it with you." And so I have.
Like me though in more prominent fashion, Andrew has had several discrete New York chapters - founding companies and nonprofits, running for public office, and serving as a public intellectual - and we've known each other since the mid-90s and the time when the city's technology sector grew from a few tiny scattered digital seeds. But in an earlier era, he ran Irving Plaza, the former Polish-American veterans hall across the park at Irving Place and 15th Street that became a rock venue in the late 1970s. In 1981, I was standing outside on the line to get in, when the evening's headline act walked down the block greeting the waiting kids. Jim Carroll was tall, thin, and had the lean and austere cheeks and penetrating eyes of an aschetic poet from central casting - which, in many ways, he was. The author of the The Basketball Diaries, his tale of playing ball and hustling in an earlier uptown Manhattan, Carroll had formed the Jim Carroll Band the year before at the suggestion of Patti Smith, and cut Catholic Boy, a truly classic album of verse set to a driving rock beat. Its big hit was People Who Died, the tale of picaresque New York characters who'd passed on, in mostly violent ways. So here came Carroll walking along the line of fans, a semi-reluctant rock star and a punk hero to all the Catholic books lined up in black jeans and sneakers. In the words of his editor Gerry Howard: "Tall, slim, athletic, pale, and spectral as many ex-junkies are, Jim was a vivid presence in any setting. He was a classic and now vanishing New York type: the smart (and smartass) Irish kid with style, street savvy, and whatever the Gaelic word for chutzpah is."
When Carroll died in 2009 from a sudden heart attack at age 60, still productive but worn down by the hard years, I wrote a remembrance that his editors kindly included on his website: "For a bridge and tunnel kid in 1980 New York...check that...for a Catholic bridge and tunnel kid in 1980 New York, Jim Carroll's Catholic Boy was canonical, a bass-charged liturgy of the word - if the word descended from the Beats and Allen Ginsberg, its bearer transfigured into a poetry-pouting punk rocker with an angry hit record. ... Jim Carroll Band shows always brought out the punk royalty, from Patti Smith to Stiv Bators to Richard Hell. At least in my (somewhat gauze-wrapped) memory, they were real events and Carroll - who couldn't really sing per se, but still knew how to sell the story - was treated like an archbishop. And based on that one record, it didn't seem too much to bend and kiss the ring." Thinking about these New York paths and those who have traveled them, I looked into Carroll's verses again recently and was struck by these lines from New York City Variations:
I have walked these streets so often I could
forge the shadows of skyscrapers as they fall
to rest between the sculptured air of midtown.
I feel that way on these blocks, and there on Irving Place where I shook Jim Carroll's slim hand as a young Catholic boy ("Redeemed through pain/And not through joy") the shadows are long ones, even if the building heights are more modest than in midtown a few blocks north. Greatest among those is the Knickerbocker himself, Washington Irving, for whom the short avenue between 14th Street and Gramercy Park was named in the 1830s by developer Samuel Bulkley Ruggles (who drew up plans for the entire neighborhood, including Union Square, which he owned) while the famed author, perhaps New York's most revered personage, was still living. Ruggles is one of the great forgotten New Yorkers. He was born in 1800 in Connecticut, went to Yale, and made a successful law career in New York, working as a developer and part-time politician and serving in the State Assembly, as a trustee of Columbia, and on the Canal Commission governing the Erie Canal. He was a friend of Irving's, as well as philanthropic industrialist Peter Cooper, and it is Ruggles who is responsible for the keys that govern entrance to the still private Gramercy Park, but also the trees and paths of Union Square. He was the Robert Moses of an earlier century, blending public interest with his own Whig politics, proclaiming, "Come what will, our open squares will remain forever imperishable. Buildings, towers, palaces, may moulder and crumble beneath the touch of time; but space - free, glorious, open space - will remain to bless the City forever."
The Irving Place environs had a literary pedigree from the start. While Irving himself never lived there, his nephew did and he certainly trod its cobblestones. Up on Gramery Park, the Players Club was founded by a group of glitterati headed up Mark Twain and Edwin Booth, with a promise to promote "social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts." Later in the century, the prominent lesbian power couple of actress-author Elsie de Wolfe and theater agent Elisabeth Marbury - dubbed "The Bachelors" by catty scribes down on Park Row - hosted a literary salon on 17h Street that attracted regulars like George Bernard Shaw, Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore and Oscar Wilde.
Next door, my good friend the journalist Pamela Parker hosted her own salon in a postage stamp apartment with a huge terrace festooned with whimsical gargoyles overlooking Irving Place in the early 2000s. At one gathering thick with bloggers and techno geeks, Jason Chervokas and I used the music sharing service Napster to dial in a virtual mix that was heavy on old school R&B, 70s soul, and sides by the Ramone and Beastie Boys, who used to hang out at Carmelita's Reception House, a former bridal reception house turned hipster bar, around the corner at Third Avenue and 14th Street just above the Disco Donut. I met Pamela when I was an adjunct professor at the Columbia J-School and she was a student, and she later worked for Chervokas and me as a skilled and prolific assistant editor for @NY, our Internet startup in the 90s. When she met a young Scottish lad named Michael Caird she thought was a keeper, I snarkily wagered that if they married, I'd wear a kilt to the wedding. Happily, I lost the bet and donned the tartan.
Just down the block after the turn of the 20th century, former banker William Sydney Porter of North Carolina built a new persona after a five-year stretch for embezzlement in Ohio. He wrote under the name O. Henry, lived at 55 Irving Place and (perhaps apocryphally) wrote his best-known short story The Gift of the Magi in a booth at Kenealy's bar, later known as Pete's Tavern, one of New York's oldest watering holes and the spot where my lifelong friend Doug Tween had his bachelor dinner in an upstairs room two decades ago and more. Porter was a drinking man (he drank himself to death) but he liked company and not darkened empty streets. “Pull up the shades so I can see New York," he wrote. "I don't want to go home in the dark.”
The oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the United States, The Nation, a bastion of the American left, is published on Irving Place these days, across the street from Washington Irving High School. The redoudtable editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel looks down on Ruggles's old lane, carrying - if she will forgive me for observing - a name that would slide with ease and authenticity into the Knickerbocker tales of the street's literary namesake. In Irving's time, two bedrock institutions graced the southern terminus of the block. Tammany Hall opened in 1868 on East 14th Street, the home of New York's regular Democratic organization, a post Civil War successor to the old downtown Tammany and controller of city elections until Jimmy Walker was forced to resign the Mayoralty in 1932. Across the street was the Academy of Music, a grand opera hall that seated 4,000 people in its heyday and later scandalized the city's upper crust with the "French balls" held by the Cercle Française de l'Harmonie, which featured partially clad courtesans mingling rather closely with men in Victorian dinner dress. The opera house gave way to a large movie theater under the same name, and that Academy of Music was later renamed the Palladium, which became a prime venue for rock and roll, where I saw sold out shows by Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Squeeze, and others.
"Hey where’d you get that beat?" asked Sylvain Sylvain on his eponymous post New York Dolls record in 1979. "I got that beat on 14th Street." That Sylvain should pen the anthem to the street, which crosses Manhattan at its widest part - from Stuyvesant Cove on East River to the Hudson sixteen long blocks west - is somehow fitting. Born to Egyptian Jewish parents, Sylvain Mizrahi fled anti-Semitism and arrived in New York City via Buffalo in the 1950s. He formed the New York Dolls with David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Billy Murcia and Arthur Kane in 1971 and when the Dolls went the way of all flesh and most rock bands in 1977, he became a solo act as well as the omnipresent raconteur of the city's homegrown rock scene. Sylvain's 14th Street Beat opened with the squealing sound of the subway train under Union Square, to this day perhaps the loudest stretch of underground track in New York, where a curve in the Lexington Avenue line forces a grinding of wheels and brakes that makes platform denizens hold their ears to stave off the pain.
Union Square itself is not named for either the labor movement or the American republic of states, though it has served as both a headquarters for labor rallies and blue-backed Union troops in its history. The name actually has more rural origins, from the days when urban New York lay well to its south and walls and fields and the occasional house and hostelry graced the neighborhood. It is merely the intersection - the union - of two main roads, the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) and Bowery Road (now Park Avenue South and Fourth Avenue). The public square part came from Sam Ruggles, who also foresaw the real estate benefits of building elegant houses around the parkland. The layout these days owes its landscape architectural bones to the work of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, when Union Square lay a block east of Ladies Mile and featured some of the city's most expensive homes on its edges.
In the late 1970s when I first ventured through its paths, drawn to the music scene at Max's and other venues, Union Square Park was something of an outdoor drug supermarket, in the evenings a place of occasional menace or opportunity (depending on your viewpoint or habit), very much like Washington Square Park to the south and Bryant Park to the north. The northeast corner was a biker hangout in summer, with rows of motorcycles lining the pavement. That block between Park Avenue South - the former Fourth Avenue, renamed by value-seeking real estate boosters after the Second World War - and Broadway to the west should carry some recognition for the artist who walked it often. Between The Factory in the Decker Building near Broadway and the back room at Max's on the east side Park Avenue, Andy Warhol trod between salons of his own creation and influence.
"Sometimes the little times you don't think are anything while they're happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life," wrote Warhol in 1975, and I believe that's true. A small episode in the Union Square Barnes & Noble, next door to the old Factory headquarters, has stayed with me this last decade or more. In 1999, I went to see the great author Patrick O'Brian read from his latest novel Blue at the Mizzen at the Union Square store. To me, O'Brian was no more a nautical writer than Jane Austen was a society writer. Like Austen, his literary hero, O'Brian worked in human relationships. That those relationshops are set amid a constrained, regimented social order - British warships in the age of sail - was his greatest homage to Austen, who also set her stories within a tight social order. At their heart, O'Brian's volumes in the 20-part Aubrey-Maturin series chronicle a deep friendship, one that is not the cartoonish type usually found in historical series, but a detailed, nuanced, portrait - to my mind, one of the finest in English literature.
O'Brian's rapidly-expanding popularity in the last decade of his life, and the posthumous depiction of his characters in a raucous Hollywood epic, may lead the unitiated to relegate his work to that of the pulp paperback writer or the creator of historical pageantry. It is not to insult those genres to say he was neither. Indeed, when I briefly met O'Brian before his last public appearance in New York, browsing quietly amidst the ground-floor shelves in Union Square before the reading, it felt to me like shaking hands with Charles Dickens. O'Brian had a strong sense of time and the nearness of history, of the paths and routes traveled only very recently but seen by contemporaries as very old. "The tale or narrative set in the past may have its particular time-free value," he wrote in one of his introductions, "and the candid reader will not misunderstand me, will not suppose that I intend any preposterous comparison, when I observe that Homer was farther removed in time from Troy than I am from the Napoleonic wars; yet he spoke to the Greeks for 2,000 years and more.”
And we are closer to the culturally formative Knickerbocker days of Irving than we feel, more proximate to the great political rallies of organized labor and radicals and Fenians in Union Square than we think, and nearer to the art scene of Warhol and the punks at Max's than we realize. And much, much nearer to the massive missing persons bulletins of September, 2001 that grew along Union Square's southern edge in the aftermath of horror when much of the city south of 14th Street was closed off for recovery of the dead. Union Square was the closest large public space still open, and the statue of George Washington - the first erected by New Yorker since the one depicting George III was toppled in 1777 - became a locus for missing persons flyers bearing the faces of New Yorkers who would never return home. Those posters quickly grew into a spontaneous memorial of flowers and candles and home-made art of the kind that now graces every public tragedy. I remember both the concentration of grief at that site, and the unity of those brief times, when "New Yorker" became a badge defiantly worn. Never has the communitarian impulse that binds millions to live so closely together been more evident to me.
Last year, I was walking to the subway station after teaching my class at New York University's graduate school of fundraising and philanthropy with Marcia Stepanek and Howard Greenstein, and saw the crowd across 14th Street. I walked across and worked my way through the crowd. In my reporting days, I carried a press pass issued by the NYPD allowing me to "cross police and fire lines wherever formed." But now I was merely an intinerant blogger, consultant, and part-time professor seeing what was going on - scoping the latest in the legacy of protest that constitutes so much of Union Square's political and cultural history. As I turned and shifted through the hundreds pressed in tightly by the park's south end, I recognized the woman holding a microphone, which was plugged into a portable loudspeaker. It was Trayvon Martin's mother. "My son did not deserve to die," said Sybrina Fulton. "Our son is your son."
I was transported along the pathways and karmic lanes to the mourners of a decade earler. Orwell was right; we are determined by the age we live in, and if we writing, that work is not detached but rooted in fields ploughed by others, along ways worn down by our younger footsteps. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York, where so many come to find their way, make their case, write their story, sing their song, find their justice.
"My heart is in pain," said Travyon Martin's mother into the microphone. And the crowd responded in solemn unison amid the ghosts of this city.
"You are not alone."