Though Leonard Quart expresses disdain for the infirmities of old age, his determination to march on and prosper — in spite of the time of year and of life — show us the way forward. Don’t die till you’re dead!
I am suffering from neuropathy. Since last June my feet have been giving me a hard time. Walking long distances has turned out to be more arduous than it once was. And the bone-chilling, snow-ridden harsh winter has only added to the strain of getting about.
But I am not yet ready to become a recluse. I don’t hide away in my too-warm apartment screening DVDs or watching repetitious news analyses on CNN or MSNBC for hours, while periodically peering out at the unrelenting horrific weather through a blurred window.
On the contrary, I persist in roaming around Manhattan, observing the state of its various neighborhoods — the parks, street life, shops, and housing. The walks provide me aesthetic pleasure, insight into the nature of the city’s constant flux and drama and, most importantly, a sense that I am still physically able, slower pace and all, to move about with some ease even in dreadful weather conditions. There has also been encounters with strangers, mostly idle talk about exercise bikes and broken elevators, but a few can be revelatory in some way.
One bitterly cold but sunny day my wife and I set out to visit the Chelsea art galleries. Before we arrive there we have two chance meetings with strangers — one with a waitress after escaping into a small SoHo café to get warm, the other with an old woman at a bus stop as the brutal wind whipped around us.
In a brief conversation about the great Czech filmmakers of the ’60s, she also spoke without affection or nostalgia about the grayness of Czech cities. Her memory of the exquisite Prague, with its medieval Old and New Towns, was primarily focused on the neighborhoods outside the center filled with grim, characterless apartment buildings. The waitress, a smart, articulate woman in her late 30s, turned out to have come to the U.S. 21 years ago from Ostrava, a large industrial city in the Czech Republic. That’s about all the personal detail we gleaned, except that she attended CUNY and lives on Staten Island.
I too remembered as not so different from a large portion of the ’50s Bronx. It was also clear that she had embraced America and an “exhilarating” New York, and had lost interest in visiting the Czech Republic to see her family, who instead came here regularly to visit her in the city where she had re-established her roots as a New Yorker and American.
A DYING SPECIES
The old woman we waited for a bus with was a funny, feisty native New Yorker, who still lives in a rent-controlled, third-floor walk-up apartment in the South Village near St. Anthony’s Church (once the center of the community) that she has inhabited for 60 years. For many years she was part of a thriving community of Italian and Irish families, but her husband died a long time ago and that working class, ethnic world has almost disappeared. They were bought out, left for Florida or the suburbs, or died — replaced by overpriced, tarted-up tenement apartments filled with young singles and couples.
But she conveys a strong life force and isn’t planning on being pushed out yet. She also speaks in a tough, knowing New York vernacular about how landlords and developers have made it impossible for people who are not affluent to live in the Village any longer.
It struck me that a vital, smart woman like her was once the backbone of the city, but has little place in a New York where the big money has triumphed.
She is not the only victim of gentrification. It’s clear that in recent decades small mom-and-pop and small specialty businesses are disappearing, replaced by ubiquitous drug store chains, banks, and big-box stores.
The issue is how to save these stores, and maintain some of the unique character of the city. It wasn’t always this way. From 1945-1963, New York City’s businesses had rights and protection when they went to renegotiate their commercial leases. This occurred because of excessive speculation in commercial real estate caused by WWII. So, it’s possible. More on this in another column.
Our third chance encounter of the day took place at Pace Gallery in Chelsea on one of the last days that a striking Louise Nevelson exhibit entitled “Collages and Assemblages” is being shown. It’s rare that strangers speak to you when wandering around an exhibit, but this time a personable, art-aware black architect began to share with my wife a mutual sense of astonishment and joy about this exhibit of some of Nevelson’s mostly late-life small collages — brown and gray wood pieces on wood, delicately composed. He also had memories of Nevelson dramatically dressed and theatrical looking (her face a mask), scavenging for materials near her home in Nolita years ago. We all shared our excitement about her work and the pleasure of encounter.
These accidental meetings would never have occurred if we had allowed the weather to stop us. I feel a need to repeatedly murmur the mantra that I won’t allow either age or illness to prevent me from living as fully as possible. Up to this point, it has worked.
This column was published on March 19, 2015, in The Berkshire Eagle.