Sunday on New York City’s Upper West Side

Central Park in New York City

(Longtime CTN columnist Bob Vickrey ushers in a fresh new voice to this site by way of introduction to his talented writer friend Ken Williams, who takes us on a cultural stroll along the Upper West Side of Manhattan.)

By KEN WILLIAMS

The Upper West Side is the

quintessential New York

neighborhood– a tree-lined

enclave bordered by Central

Park on the east and Riverside

Park on the west. Dense with

universities, schools of art,

music, theology museums,

houses of worship of all faiths,

Columbia University, Julliard

Jewish Theological Seminary

(largest in the world), Union

Theological Seminary (home

of the social gospel — the belief

that there is Christian communal

responsibility to provide for the

dispossessed. MLK studied

here, as did the Berrigan brothers,

Bonhoffer (the Lutheran pastor and

martyr who stood up to Hitler)

This, the intellectual heart

of NYC, and one of the world’s

most important centers of

learning and culture

Columbia University

To walk these streets is to

walk in the footsteps of countless

luminaries from every walk of life–

the Gershwins (George and Ira),

Lenny Bernstein, Bogie and Bacall

This is where the Roosevelts (both

FDR and Teddy) studied law at

Columbia. The list is endless.

 

All thìs is a prelude to what at

first may seem a rather pedestrian

occurrence — grabbing a cup of

coffee on Sunday morning.

But stick with me here. We are about

to enter a world of wonder–a

nirvana– for the inveterate reader

and writer.

 

Every Sunday in the cafes and

coffee houses on the Upper

West Side, a ritual is performed–

a secular ritual as solemn as

the religious services being

held in the churches, synagogues

and mosques that populate the

area.

To walk into any of these

establishments is to observe heads

lowered, fixed concentration,

while encountering muffled silence.

Although there are laptops

and cell phones aplenty, the single object

of this self-absorption is a newspaper–

The New York Times.

The primary sound heard is not

the clicking keyboard or

a cell phone conversation,

but instead, the rustling of paper being

folded, or a prized article being

torn from the paper to be kept

for future reference.

It seems a cross-section of

NYC citizenry is represented here.

The crossword enthusiast

suddenly shouts “…an eleven-

letter French word for nonchalant”

The crowd– almost on cue–

shouts “insouciance.” The 20 year-

old trust-fund baby–blue-haired with

piercings– is discussing abstract impressionism

art with a retired Jewish couple.

The cabbie is checking results

from the Aqueduct race track.

A drama student from Julliard

is reading the review of her

Off-Off Broadway play (her first)

with her fusion-rock guitarist

boyfriend, who that night will

have his first solo performance

in the Village

 

A young architect is passing

around a five-page spread

in the Times on the 100-year

birth date of the Chrysler building.

A quick conversation ensues–:

Pick your side: NY City’s greatest

building — Empire State or the

Chrysler? The discussion gets

lively. The will to power right brain–

Empire State. I am reminded

of the movie The Fountainhead

with Gary Cooper as Howard

Roark, whose inspiration was the

Empire State. OR, the poetry

of the Chrysler versus the prose

of the Empire State?

Whimsy of the Chrysler or the

cold logic of the Empire State?

 

Then the conversation evolves

into the Times best critic of

architecture — Paul Goldberger

or Ada Louise Huxtable. You’ll notice,

not one– but TWO– Times

critics covering the Architecture

beat. While I found this level

of sophistication stimulating, I

needed to come up for some

air. But I am not complaining,

having just escaped Greg Abbott’s

Gulag (once known as the great

state of Texas)– if only temporarily,

I gathered my wits and jumped

back into the fray.

 

Ah, the New York writer–the

coffee shops chock full of

writers– aspiring playwrights,

Ph.D. students polishing their

thesis, the professor proofreading

the rough draft of his textbook

proposal.

 

This neighborhood seems to

breed the novelist who is haunted

by the spires of the great publishing

houses of New York, which can

be seen over the treetops of Central

Park. So close–a twenty-minute

walk away, but the distance is

infinite to the unpublished.

 

Probably few places in the

world where “words”– spoken

and written– are so important.

Has the battle between print

and pixel been lost? Book

sales are strong, so I hear.

Glutton for punishment that I

am, I will be going to the Strand

Bookstore tomorrow (18 miles

of books). Alas, it is time we conclude

our pleasant little stroll as I reluctantly

make my preparations for return to the

dreaded Gulag that awaits me in Texas.

 

Ken Williams has also written travelogues about London, Paris and the Galapagos Islands. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University and has recently been accepted by the Rice University Masters of Liberal Studies program. He lives in Houston. 

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6 Responses to Sunday on New York City’s Upper West Side

  1. Lynn Hylen says:

    Gulag? Please enlighten us as to which of your rights have been restricted in Texas, such that you would compare it to a prison. And why would you think that your political opinions of the Governor of Texas are relevant in an article about New York City? Yawn.

  2. Fay Hetzog says:

    Thank you. I love this essay and New York

  3. Nelson Haver says:

    As a good friend of Ken and having him read all his writings on all subjects it’s nice to read his writen words. I normally get a paragraph or two before we together are down a rat hole about any subject that either one of us think about. It makes for a lively if not schizophrenic conversation.
    Well done Ken. You really paint a beautiful picture.
    Nelson

  4. Earl Ellisor says:

    “Gulag”? You’re being so very kind to our home state. And it’s Paxton and Patrick who’ve trampled on Texas’ rights as much as Abbott.

  5. Bob, Ken is as good a writer as you are. What a wonderful insightful description of my hometown. Mary and I lived on West 72nd street in the Sixties, the same street as John & Yoko’s Dakota building, the oldest apartment building on the Westside. It was called The Dakota for when it was built in the 1980’s on the dirt road that was Central Park West, it was so far from sophisticated “downtown” it might have been in the Dakotas. But what struck my nerve was his commentary regarding the Chrysler Building – Mary’s favorite. She was enamored by its design beauty from bottom to the gleaming top. It figured strongly in our choice of a purchase of a “love nest” pied a terre. When in 2004 we went looking to purchase a small place in the city of our birth we stumbled through several unimpressive pads with no true view of the Big Apple until we entered the one south facing apartment on East 51st Street (on the other side of Manhattan). Mary walked immediately to the window to look out of the 6th floor window and gasped. “Chuck!” She called out. I drew alongside her. There, above the rooftops cross the way was the gleaming top of the Chrysler Building. From that viewpoint, we knew we were in New York.

  6. TAMMY says:

    As a fellow ex-pat New Yorker AND ex-pat Texan, now living in PA, I enjoyed this take on an Upper West Side morning very much! I was 18 years in Texas (then a blue state!) and 20 years in NYC, much of it spent on the UWS, so I appreciate the narrative portrait of coffee and NY Times comradery. And I get the jab at our home state, even if the word “gulag” was an exaggeration and triggering to some. (The cultural and intellectual playground off the UWS coffee shop is quite the contrast
    to Abbott’s book-banning, gender-shaming, gun-promoting landscape.) Loving NYC’s UWS doesn’t make you a traitor to Texas, which has been many things and has many different kinds of people, including–yes–intellectually curious, progressive, free-thinkers (in Austin and Houston, at least.)
    Spend an evening in a downtown NYC piano bar, and the crowd knows all the words and melodies to every show ever on Broadway. Hang out in the right Midtown joint, and you can converse at length and in-depth about the theatre. I remember an afternoon bagel run on West 46th Street, where I sat across from a table full of old men talking “shop” and laughing about old vaudeville sketches. Turns out it was Fyvush Finkel and a bunch of old Yiddish Theatre actors I recognized from various roles on TV shows over the years. Their shirtsleeves were rolled up, jackets hanging on the backs of their chairs. This was their spot–where they met weekly or daily, next door to the Actor’s Equity building. So much to love about NYC! Thank you for a great read!!!

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