Then last week I get this, his ode to a place that for as long as I can recall we've referred to simply as The Most Exciting City in the World: New York. As set-up, this, his second love letter in as many entries, should be Part I in a series. Then again that's what I thought about The Talented Mr Ripley.
While it would be impossible to compile a list of all the declarations of love for New York City that are more eloquent than my own, these words from Levon Helm, the late, great drummer and vocalist for the The Band and native of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, belong at the very top. Falling in love with New York City is almost as deeply embedded in The Great American Story as baseball, cars and rock and roll. And while New York City is, undoubtedly, America’s City, it seems to save some of its strongest magic for Southerners. The particular spell New York casts upon those from below the Mason Dixon has had the wonderful side effect of inspiring some of my favorite literature and music of all time. Despite having no such gift to share with the world, I consider myself blessed that the city that has played the muse for so many others has seen fit to include me in its ever-growing congregation of devotees.
My relationship with New York began innocently enough on a family trip at age ten. After a twelve-year hiatus, I returned on another family trip during my senior year in college. That long Easter weekend had all the makings of a clichéd Disney family movie, complete with slow grandparents, lost children, heart attack-inducing cab rides, monuments and museums, overpriced Broadway tickets and sprints through the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. The weekend was full of clean, PG-rated fun. As is sometimes the case in life, love began with friendship.
Several months later, I found myself sipping a Scotch and finishing The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille as the wheels of my Continental flight lifted off the runway in Austin, TX. A friend and I had decided to visit his sister and others in Manhattan for a long weekend. Truth be told, many of the details and memories of my first real New York weekend have been lost to time. I know the list of venues visited includes Hogs & Heifers and Naked Lunch. Drinks were consumed, laughs were had and the seed of intrigue was planted.
Over the next several years, I made a number of weekend trips to New York to visit friends. My senses began to develop a stronger definition of “New York.” As those weekends revolved largely around the city’s bountiful nightlife, that sensory definition came to include the way the sun assaulted my eyes when I stumbled out to the street after a long night out, head pounding and stomach growling; the smell of street garbage in the summer humidity; the laugh that erupted when I realized that truly, in the depths of my soul, I had no clue how to get from one location to the next (during the years before every cell phone had a GPS). But most overwhelmingly, I developed a soaring sense of anticipation that filled each hour, driven purely from knowing that within a few square miles there were literally thousands of young people who were all as excited to be in New York City as I was. The cliché of the city’s palpable energy was not a cliché to me. For somebody who, up to that point, had lived his whole life in Texas, visiting New York truly was like a visiting another planet.
During these years, as my romantic vision of New York began to take root, I found myself drawn to other expressions of adoration for the city. One of the first images of this personal New York iconography is the back cover of Dan Jenkins’ 1972 literary masterpiece, Semi-Tough. Sadly, I seem to be in the vast minority of those in my generation who are familiar with the works of this Texas legend. Jenkins, a native of Fort Worth, covered college football and golf for Sports Illustrated during the golden age of sportswriters, the 1950s to 1970s. His comedic novel tells of the adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett and Shake Tiller, best friends from Fort Worth who have grown up to become the star running back and receiver, respectively, for the New York Giants. The New York adventures of these two fictional Texans, combined with the fairy-tale life that Jenkins himself seemed to lead in New York, furthered my developing sense that New York was, simply put, the most exciting place in the world. The cover photo depicting Jenkins leaning against the entrance to PJ Clarke’s restaurant in full 1970s splendor says it all.
Around the same time, I also read Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. While my taste for Conroy has faded in the years since, I still appreciate his trademark prose, always elegant, descriptive and emotionally-charged. This prose was masterfully-used in describing New York City through the eyes of the middle-aged South Carolina football coach who escapes to the city in order to heal the wounds caused by his recent family tragedies. The notion that New York could serve as a place of personal growth and discovery, even for adults whose lives had been spent elsewhere, struck a nerve with me.
Another wonderful piece of creative work that pays homage to New York City is Cameron Crowe’s classic film from 2000, Almost Famous. Although the film is not Southern, the majesty with which the city is portrayed resonated with me all the same. Crowe makes it clear in the film that New York City is the only place worthy of hosting the band’s climactic, final show of the summer tour. More than a few times, I have stopped in the bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel at 21st and Lexington simply because of the Almost Famous scenes that were filmed there.
Of the vast universe of love letters to New York City – love letters that take the form of literature, music and movies – these just happen to be a few of my personal favorites.
Several years later, as a new resident of our nation’s capital, I found myself just a few short hours away from New York, a fact that allowed my growing love for the city blossom even further...
... so let's get into it...