Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Columbus Circle in New York or "The More Things Change..."

It is the last day of summer in New York. I am at Columbus Circle on Manhattan island. The sky is crystal clear, sharp and joyful. There are no clouds. The air smells sweet and I am stimulated. Good old Christopher Columbus is still there, high up on his pedestal, as he was when I was a 19 year old enthusiast in the ROTC, passionately involved in debunking Communists and other enemies of the Republic. He still looks confident, even defiant, as he looks slightly south east looking for adventure and new worlds. I am sitting before the refurbished Huntington Hartford Museum building , now a classy center to Arts, Science and expensive restaurants for the uber chic. As is my custom, I, at 89, stop occasionally to “see” what goes on around me (as well as to rest a pair of creaky legs and panting lungs). Sitting here, I recall that, in the Cold War era, it was rumored that the statue of good ole Chris was the planned pinpoint target for the Soviet ICBM designed to destroy the entire Island.

How different things are now at the Circle! For example, traffic, since Rudy’s Guilani’s Mayoral tenure, goes around the monument in a one way free flow. Yet, I recall that, in my time, trolley cars, with clanging bells, went both ways around the statue. One of my neighbors, Mr. McBride, drove the trolley on the East-West axis, working his vehicle with a big iron Key. He raised 12 children on a menial salary and jammed them all into a tenement flat in our street. His kids, however, were pretty or handsome, showing no indication of the deprivation I read about in Social Worker journals.

I look at the Monument now. Instead of the plain tarred street, there is a beautiful little park, with benches, many flowers and water fountains surrounding the Great Explorer. Every night in summer, with bright lights bathing everything with artificial freshness, there is a great gathering of young people as well as contented oldsters, just hanging out, reminiscent of the Spanish Steps in Rome or the Bario Gothico in Barcelona.

My mind goes back to the days, 70 years ago, when the “Circle” was the great debating place for all kinds of differing viewpoints. This was the midtown version of Union Square where the American “Reds” were clamoring for a Second Front to relieve their beloved Mother Russia from the attacks of the Nazis. It was the counter part of Hyde Park in London where soap box orators fiercely shouted their personal and opposing agenda. We had no television facilities then. Movies were expensive for us unless one “went” before 1 P.M. when the entry fee was 10 cents. Most families had only one small radio from which came scant information with a plethora of silly serial stories like “The Life of Helen Trent. Romance Need not be dead for women over 35” Of course, home air conditioning was unknown. So, the “Circle” was a great place to spend a couple of evenings a week. It was stimulating, free and fun.

The uninformed, the uneducated, the college professors, the religious, the unbelieving, all mingled in the equality of the streets. It was sheer democracy where everyone had a voice, where any one could mount a box and proclaim his particular set of beliefs. This School of Hard Knocks offered street courses in Foreign Policy, Religion, Psychology, Ethnics, Sports, and Finance. My Uncle J.J., a regular denizen at the Circle, who might have, at most, completed six years of elementary school education was a case in point. J.J., like many Catholics, of every era, was poorly schooled in the intellectual dimensions of the Faith but completely devoted to the Catholic Church (probably without really understanding the “why” of it). Mass and confession and daily prayer and loyalty to the “Catlick Choich” were simply woven into his very being. No questions asked. One simply believed without cavil. J.J., with ease, offered his Faith viewpoint with little fear of retribution.

For him, it was simply the right thing to do. So, when some imprudent “Circle debater” made a lewd slur about the Blessed Virgin Mary, J.J. instantly confronted the unwary chap who, foolishly, challenged J.J. to physical “expression”. It was foolish because J.J. was incredibly physically powerful, able to tear the telephone directory in half. J.J. invited the lout to come behind the Maine monument (which still stands, though now gleaming white with gold gild touches, through the benefice of Public Works Programs). His challenge was accepted. So, accompanied by a large enthusiastic crowd eager to witness some bloodletting, the two gladiators strode to the designated battleground. Suddenly, the Debater saw the light and suggested “forgetting the whole thing.” Wasted words on a guy like the uncomplicated J.J. who, with one powerful blow to the head, dropped his opponent, unconscious, to the ground. In describing the event to us later, J.J. said the chap spun around like a top on his way down. Anti-Catholic criticism was rare, thenceforth, whenever J.J. was around.

Today, my eyes wander to the gleaming, sparkling, splendid Time-Warner building, a miracle of architecture filled with super chic shops equaling the haute couture of La Rue Ste. Honore in Paris. The upper floors are apartments owned by the very, very wealthy of the world, Arab emirs and high profile athletes and Rap entrepreneurs. Its two glorious towers could meet every fantasy of contemporary Terrorists of the Middle East. What a target for a high jacked airplane! The previous occupant of that site was the Coliseum, a complex of offices, garages and media centers. It was then considered the absolute top level for modern urban buildings. It, in turn, had replaced the west side of the Circle of my youth.

My Circle, (of 1940) had a Chinese Restaurant called “The Far East” where our crowd went to dine (with our limited incomes) on very special occasions. It had a vast supply of Chinese tea and offered us the fun of trying to eat with chop sticks. There was the Circle Theatre where we could live out the fantasies of Hollywood while getting some relief from the economic harshness most of us endured. The jewel of the Circle, however, was a hardware store with a huge sign declaring: ‘Handy Harry’s. I can Fix Anything.”

My Irish Grandmother who apparently felt that part of her life mission was to charm every male on the West side, developed a laughing, pragmatic relationship with Harry. She would bring over to his (nearby) shop anything in her flat that needed “fixing.” She often tried to disprove his self proclaimed “omnipotence”. He always won. But, apparently, Harry thoroughly enjoyed her visits even if he was just one more of her conquests. Such an anachronism like Handy Harry’s is unthinkable today—at least in locations like today’s Circle.

Instead of Handy Harry’s on the Circle, we have Trump International Hotel soaring into the sky, all glitter and glitz with snooty doormen and imperious reception clerks. Near that site stood a building with the B and O railroad Office and the WINS radio station from which I used to broadcast. Just beyond the hotel begins the posh row for Central Park West, loaded with mental health practitioners, the rich and famous, and stars from the entertainment world. The entrance to beautiful Central Park, our playground and vacation place, is still there, untouchable and assuring. There still stands an apartment building, beginning the exclusive Central Park South section, which was erected around 1940 and described in those days as the ultimate in luxury. It was a point of great pride for the parishioners of St. Paul’s parish that Judge James McNally of the State Supreme Court, a daily communicant, lived there. The Judge was an outspoken Catholic, non-hesitant to articulate Catholic values in the Public Square. And, besides, he wore a fresh carnation in his lapel every day. Wow!!! Were we impressed! And he had a bald head as clean as a peeled egg.

So, apart from the Park itself, the 1940 building and the statue of “Cristofo Colon,” the “Circle” is unrecognizable to an “eye” which had been formed by the Depression, World War II and Joe diMaggio. Oh, how it has changed! But at the same time, there is a factor of permanence and sameness which is palpable. What is it? It has to be people. Human nature never changes. Human needs and human wants transcend all historical periods.

People! People! People are the same under it all. I see them rushing by my observation post. They are young and aging. They are all colors. Some smile and laugh and look around. Some look harried and worried. I see a few “street people” using their skills to sense the “pigeon” who might supply some Moola for a needed fix. A few are dressed with pride and class. Others are the slobs one meets in any era. Yes, my mind runs back 70 years and I see the same crowd. A little more frenzied looking. A little more harried and worried looking. But underneath it all are the same Joes and Janes.

Yet, I see all of us, today and then (and centuries past), needing and wanting to find love and intimacy and security and joy and meaning and trust and authentic laughter. Catholic anthropology over arches it all. The ancient truth shouts out! It all can be found in St. Augustine’s incisive prayer. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord and our hearts are restless until (unless) they rest in Thee.” Everything ultimately founders. Everything but God, the Changeless. Strange although there have been enormous cosmetic changes and changes to make life smoother and easier, it is still the same old “C’est la vie”.

Funny but a guy like J.J. who was almost illiterate knew this clearly while the literati and the illuminati are still thrashing around looking, looking and looking. I guess brains and education are not always the way to personal happiness. Well, I am rested now. Might as well get up off this bench and stagger over to the Paulist Mother House. Hope it’s a good lunch.

2 comments:

John W said...

Wonderful piece - you led me by the hand back in time and I could see Columbus Circle (as well as life in NYC)70 years ago through your clear eyes. And the wisdom about human nature was a bonus.
Thank you. John G.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great description of Columbus Circle. I have a picture of the area from 1932 and from it, it appears a certainty that your Far East Restaurant was the location shown in Edward Hopper's Painting Chop Suey. Could you take a look at the painting and compare it to your memories of the place? Thanks
John B. NYC