I reached my eighty-eighth birthday – or as Everett Dirksen used to call it, “natal anniversary” – last week, and what better way to celebrate than revisiting the past with a trip to New York to see a revival of the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comedy “The Front Page”?
About the year 1928: Looking back at the 88 autumns since the play first appeared on Broadway, it was the last year of true American innocence. The next year brought the Great Depression, followed 10 years later by the Second World War, followed in the next half-century by the Cold War, followed by . . .
Still, all things considered, they were great years to have lived through; provided you were lucky enough to be an American. (Readers’ Advisory: Colin Kaepernick fans had best move to another blog since this one requires that you stand, if only on uncertain octogenarian legs, when the national anthem is played.)
But back to revisiting the past in New York City: My first visit to Manhattan came when, as a 23-year-old Army sergeant, I was sent to a training school at nearby Fort Slocum. It was the autumn of 1951, the memorable season when Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” sent Willie Mays’ Giants to the World Series and Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers to the doldrums.
Sixty-five years and the turn of a century brings cosmic change: The Giants and Dodgers are gone; Lindy’s, where I was given a late-night table next to Jimmy Durante, is gone; Birdland, where I stood in line to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, is gone; Jack Dempsey’s restaurant, where young Sammy Davis, Jr. sat at a nearby table while I heard Joe Louis tell an interviewer he was hanging up the gloves, is history.
Yet some happy relics of what Henry Luce called the American Century remain:
Times Square (though the Times has long since moved) is still vibrant, any hour of the day or night; New York theater is still alive and well (“The Front Page,” with Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and Robert Morse, will be around for some time to come); Sardi’s, the place to go after the show, not only survives but thrives, as does Patsy’s, the best Italian restaurant west of Milan according to Frank Sinatra.
And more: As a dogface soldier during the Korean War I had the impression that it was the khaki uniform that led the locals, from the doorkeeper at Lindy’s to the gatekeeper at the Polo Grounds, to treat me (and my fellow grunts) with special courtesy. New Yorkers, after all, were reputed to be a rude, surly lot. Not so. Six-and-a-half decades later and in no uniform other than casual civilian wear, I still found New York, from Penn Station to Broadway, the most hospitable, visitor-friendly city in America.
My birthday wish? That I could say what Joe Louis – the greatest heavyweight champion that ever was – said when asked that autumn evening at Dempsey’s how he’d sum up his career: “I did the best I could with what I had.”
Not true, I’m ashamed to say, in my case. But God and Geritol (if it’s still around) willing, I have rounds left to make up for lost time.
Sound bite to remember
“If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
— Jazzman Eubie Blake (1887-1983)