High life

The lost talk of old Noo Yawk

Red brick tenements, gangsters and genuine working-class accents are a thing of the past in Manhattan

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

New York

‘Gimme a BLT on rye and hold da mayo’ is a great Noo Yawk sound. So is boid for bird, and toerty-toird for 33rd Street. True working-class accents no longer exist in the Bagel, and one is far more likely to hear ‘Deme un BLT y guarde la mayo’ from our Dominican or Puerto Rican cousins. The fire escape is also going fast, and as some wit pointed out, the next time Tony woos Maria in West Side Story he’ll have to text.

The outdoor fire escape is a classic piece of Noo Yawk architecture, especially in the tenements of old in the Lower East Side, now the playground of billionaires of the Arab, Chinese and Indian persuasion. Those tenements were dark red brick and served as background to some of Edward Hopper’s paintings. When I was still in school I met a lady who lived in one of those red brick houses down in the village. After each sporting meet we’d be allowed to spend Saturday night in the big city, and as my parents kept a flat at the Sherry Netherland hotel, on 5th and 59th, Saturday night became the highlight of the week.

Her name was Peggy Y, and she was not always available. Nor was her apartment inside the red brick three-storey house very nice. She drank rather a lot, and used to take it out on me at times. ‘You and your fancy clothes…!’ I was just 16 and dressed preppy, but she thought I was putting on airs. She also had a very violent boyfriend who must have been a gangster but talked real Noo Yawk stuff when once I rang from school 65 miles away and he answered. ‘Next time you call I’ll shove the telephone down your throat you little punk,’ or words to that effect. I thought of the physical impossibility of this happening, but didn’t call back for a while.

At times Peggy would sport shiners, real beauts, and one didn’t need Delphic oracle powers to guess why. She was tall and blonde and the gangster boyfriend thought of her as a society dame — which she wasn’t — and she hit the bottle hard. I was 16, horny as hell, and could sign for the bill at the Sherry Netherland. There was a wonderful restaurant next to the lobby, where Cipriani is located today, and a nightclub below, the Carnival Room, where Doubles is now.

Happiness, then, was Saturday night after a wrestling meet or a tennis match, with Peggy ordering whiskey sours galore and me counting the seconds, minutes, hours until she’d had enough and I could either drag her upstairs to bed, or take a cab downtown to her less than luxurious apartment. When my parents were in town, which was almost always, we’d use downtown, which was scary but necessary.

And it finally happened. The gangster showed up just as we were preparing to do what comes naturally. Peggy had a shiner given to her by him couple of nights previously, and the bum had come back to apologise. He was a married man, naturally, from Brooklyn. I had quickly come to terms with the fact that I was going to die or be grievously injured, and had covered myself up with a sheet in order to look less ridiculous while meeting my maker. Then the gangster, or George, as Peggy called him, ‘Now don’t do nothing foolish George, he’s just a kid —’ did a strange thing. He began to cry. I was averse to drama even back then, so I figured it was a good time for hasty migration. The last thing I saw was George begging Peggy to forgive him and stroking her face. It might be hard to believe but I never saw or spoke to Peggy again. A couple of years ago I went down to the village, crossed over to 2nd Avenue and looked for her red-brick tenement. It had gone the way of all nice red brick houses. A ghastly glass structure had replaced it.

Bars and nightclubs nowadays have velvet ropes in front, a pretence for keeping people out and making those allowed through feel special. What utter crap and bullshit. A nightclub conveying social status is an oxymoron at best, especially when those allowed through would be unwelcome as too downmarket even in a Mafia hangout. Mind you, the good old Mafia no longer exists except in da movies. Technology begat the end of people with nicknames like Greasy Thumb and Harry the Horse. These guys were not very smart to begin with. They didn’t exactly hit the books a lot, but they sure did talk. Their capos had warned them that the Feds could listen in on them. The soldiers didn’t believe them. ‘How da fuck can dey hear once we sweep da room?’ But the Feds did hear from way up above, like God Almighty, and put them all away one by one.

I don’t know if George and Peggy are still around, but I doubt it. He was mixed up to his ears with the waterfront back in those wonderful days when gangsters sported fedoras and talked Noo Yawk. She was a lush but a real looker. Nowadays girls like her end up on reality shows and strive to be celebrities. Poor Peggy. All she liked was to drink and the other thing. And George showed his Catholic nature when he cried and asked forgiveness. And I have stayed lucky ever since.

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Show comments
  • Gerschwin

    Good story, but how many pinches of salt?

  • Simplisticus

    Great story – well told!

  • 1664averygoodyear

    This is a great article – full of humanity. Dont show this to a Guardian or New York Times columnist because they may well die from shock, having never really lived at all.

  • Malus Pudor

    He should have been back in his school dorm, spanking the monkey, like most self-respecting teenage boys !

    • Malus Pudor

      Sorry, self-abusing….

  • GenJackRipper

    What an awesome article.
    Call me crazy but Taki is the best writer around today. The width of subjects can’t be found with anyone ells I know.

    • little islander

      hi, crazy.

  • edithgrove

    The accent exists still, but it moved to Broad Channel, Queens.

  • John Hampden

    Sounds similar to what happened to the Cockney element of East London.

    • therealguyfaux

      As the scales fell from the eyes of the man, who may till that point have been wondering why Mr. Theodoracopoulos was writing about such a subject in a UK publication….