I hate to say this, but the quality of life in the Bagel has crashed in a Harvey Weinstein-like downfall. The city has always had a sort of roller-coaster feel, its ups and downs following Wall Street and budget cuts, but the present state is by far the worst I’ve ever experienced. When I first came to New York it was the true center of the world. It was following the war, Europe was in ruins, and what glamour existed worldwide resided in the city. People dressed to the nines, women wore hats and gloves, and manners were far more important than money. One’s eye didn’t know where to settle: Rockefeller Center and the chic crowds who skated on its ice rink, the beautiful women shopping on Fifth Avenue, the black-tied swells emerging from the Stork Club and El Morocco, the preppies and Joe Colleges under the clock at the Biltmore. Palimpsests of the old place survive and revive memories of youth. A lonely steel diner here and there, an old cigar shop in Brooklyn still advertising five-cent smokes, tenement neighborhoods still crowded with pushcarts now selling halal food. Chinatown still stinks of garlic and the Diamond District is still crowded with Hasidic Jews plying their trade, but Tin Pan Alley is gone, as is the music. Now and then a street corner evokes memories of past loves, but the city that was gritty and glamorous is no more.
On the Upper East Side, where I live in a 1920s building, things are as bad as they are downtown or over on the West Side. It’s the people, stupid, not the place. Never have I seen a less glamorous or worse-looking bunch, at least not since I was in Tirana back in the early ’70s. Women and men are short, squat, and rather brown. Women wear leggings and trainers, and men sport ghastly docker shorts, tight sleeveless T-shirts that accentuate their obesity, and fat calves that bulge and descend into very large trainers. It is a horror show like no other.
Fifth Avenue is now a no-man’s-land because of the gawking tourists. Further west, the sleazy shops that sold cheap sex magazines and videos and made Times Square naughty and unique have been replaced by giant Apple Stores and megashops that sell paraphernalia with professional team insignias on it. Peep shows and cheap movie houses are gone, as are fast-food joints like Horn & Hardart. Ads are everywhere, deafening and blinding in intensity where once upon a time the Camel man would exhale a ring of smoke under the logo “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” Cabs are cramped and impossible to see out from, and cabbies don’t speak English. But Urdu will do, or pidgin French. The place is hell.
Glamour aside, what I mostly miss are the chic restaurants and nightclubs. The latter no longer exist, the former are packed with badly dressed people whose manners are even worse. New Yorkers have always been loud, but they used to be loud in a sweet, drunken Irish way. Now the street is loud in an aggressive, menacing way. The jungle has come to the city. Bookstores are no longer to be found—except a few places I’ve marked down—all replaced by shops selling lingerie, or whatever women are never seen wearing nowadays.
Once upon a time the city was a place where people who wanted out from small towns or suburbs moved to. There were bookstores galore, sidewalk cafés, interesting people to meet, even jazz bands playing down in the Village. One could go and tango, for God’s sake, right in the middle of Times Square, and after meeting at the Biltmore with some Southern belles, I’d always go up to Harlem where after-hours clubs existed and treated us with special care. (That’s where I smoked my first joint, when the penalty was probably ten years in the pokey.)
Now all this is gone. Finished. Curtains. Minorities are the majority in the Big Bagel and everything is done in their name. City payouts on lawsuits and claims have topped $1 billion a year. People have collected on their civil rights violations, medical malpractices, police wrongdoing, city-vehicle collisions, defective roadways and defective sidewalks, water-main breaks, and, of course, being sent to jail. As I recently wrote about gigolos, we’re in the wrong business. All one has to do is stop speaking English, fall down on the sidewalk, and claim 5 million for their troubles. (That’s what the daughter of African-American civil rights leader Al Sharpton did, despite the fact that she was photographed hiking in the Himalayas the following week.)
And speaking of jail, Bartle Bull III, as he’s know over here, has made a great documentary about the Golden Gloves tournament, which amateur boxers compete in each year, that’s called Cradle of Champions. It involves more than 500 mostly black and Hispanic youngsters who are coached by great ex-Marines or firefighters, who teach them never to say the N- or F-word. Ironically, almost none of the tough kids ever land in jail or get into drugs. They live clean productive lives, and it’s boxing that makes them do it. More ironic is the fact that the city is closing down the gyms where these youngsters train. I think it’s time for me to return to London. If Brexit takes place, I’m back in a jiffy.