Main Street is a place, but it’s mostly an idea. It’s where locally owned shops sell stuff to hard-working townies, as we used to call the locals back when I was at boarding school. The townies had dependable blue-collar jobs in auto plants and coalmines. Their sons played American football hard, cut their hair short, and married their high-school sweethearts. I went back to my old school recently with my old buddy Tony Maltese, a wrestler who never lost a match. We had a nostalgic lunch with the wrestling coach and talked about old times. The feeling was one of community and of having control over your life. I talked about Britain, and how the Brits have lost control of their lives because of open borders.
Then came the news of the latest London outrage and one couldn’t help thinking how free and safe we used to feel, and how now only Sadiq Khan and the protected politicians feel that way. Mind you, throughout the Rust Belt — Trump country — the image of Main Street is now one of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings, and Amazon and McDonald’s. Oh, for a magic wand to restore the small shops and get rid of the behemoths.
Then it was back to the big city, crossing Times Square with its overwhelming electronic ads and costumed performers who coerce the yokels into taking their picture and paying through the nose for it, or else. From Times Square it was on to Brooklyn, where all those who were once called yuppies have ended up. There is no longer a Brooklyn accent — the place is now multicultural. I remember when the Brooklyn Dodgers were still located there, and when a grammatically challenged announcer by the name of Tex Rickard reminded the customers in Ebbets Field: ‘Don’t throw nuthin’ from the stands.’ That was the real Brooklyn, a borough crammed with trolley lines and pot-bellied, cigar-chomping hobo fans whose motto was, ‘Wait till next year.’ The Dodgers moved to the lucrative Los Angeles area in 1958 and have been winners ever since. Brooklyn got multiculturalism in return. It was the worst deal since the Indians sold Manhattan to the Dutch.
It has always been thus — in modern times, that is. A small community sees conviviality vanish when the real-estate sharks smell blood. Brooklyn Heights, where my buddy Michael Mailer lives in his dad’s house, still has sedate, leafy streets, fine old homes, lush gardens and lofty harbour views, as if time has stood still since the early 1800s. Around 150 years ago, enterprising Heights property owners sold off plots for new homes to Manhattan swells, advertising them as country living. The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and the ensuing subway service saw the swells heading for Newport and the Hamptons. Rooming houses, machine shops and factories are to a swell what garlic is to a vampire. It was time for hasty migration. Large homes were subdivided into rooming houses and apartments. The bohemians arrived in force. This was the best news since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.
I can’t help writing about the social slaughter of displaced storefronts because my memories of these places are so vivid. Although they were considerably less so after the birthday party at young Bartle Bull’s flat last week. I call him young Bartle because there’s an older Bartle, the novelist, but young Bartle has a beautiful wife and five-year-old daughter, and has been described by me in the past as an adventurer, which he is but in the best sense of the word. He writes books about Africa and the Middle East and has just returned from Mosul, a place that could do with a bit of law and order but is still safer than any large city in England as I write. Bartle serves as an adviser on the Metropolitan Museum’s board for endangered monuments and places, and reports from the front on how those Isis scumbags are trying to do away with past history once and for all.
There was something about that evening, a soft Manhattan night, with a few of his friends, all very interesting chaps, that made me so nostalgic that I got thoroughly sloshed on gin. I looked down on Fifth Avenue and the park and it was sepia-toned, with Fred and Ginger dancing ever so gracefully in the distance. No one spoke into mobile gadgets, and there was a wonderful breeze coming up from the east. For one brief hour — more like five — I was back in old New York, young and ready to try my luck. Then I woke up with the worst hangover since the last one.
This is my final week in the Bagel and I am giving it my all. A dinner at Terry Kramer’s for Broadway biggies, and one with Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera and Lee Radziwill for Nicky Haslam, completed the socialising. Now it’s London here I come.
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