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Carriage Rides and Matinees
BY THE LATE 1980S, the Upper West Side of Manhattan had lost some crucial part of its innocence. The remainders of its old-world heritage had grown to accommodate a newer kind of tenant. That isn’t to say its charm was lost—not completely. But in the past decade, many of the things I’d loved most about the once run-down blocks just west of Central Park—antique stores, barbershops, family-owned delicatessens—had been replaced by less bohemian, tonier—mind you, quite lovely—richer people’s gathering spots: the Mexican restaurant Santa Fe, Café Columbus, Café Luxembourg, Café La Fortuna … and Café des Artistes, where I was headed one slushy, wind-pummeled early afternoon in March.
During the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the apartments along the western stretch of Central Park in the Sixties and Seventies were comfy and unconventional, crammed with bookshelves and proudly shabby furniture. But gone were the days when artists could survive in rent-controlled spaces, immigrants ran mom-and-pop businesses, and psychiatrists nodded behind double-thick doors in roomy suites whirring with white noise. Some tenants held on to their rent-protected apartments, and couples could still be glimpsed on fire escapes drinking wine out of paper cups at dusk. But in general, the gentrification of the Upper West Side north of Lincoln Center had come on pretty fast.
Almost overnight, doormen with spiffier sartorial upgrades appeared, opening the just-cleaned-and-polished brass doors of impressive prewar buildings like the Dakota, the Kenilworth, and the San Remo that looked out over Central Park. At the start of the twentieth century, these lonely outposts stood at the desolate edge of the Park. But by the early 1980s, their co-ops and rentals were fresh on the market and in demand. Rambling, tall-ceilinged suites of rooms were being snatched up like Billboard ads by show business and music mogul folks. Other than parts of upper-crust Fifth Avenue, these majestic Beaux Arts–style buildings became some of the most desirable residences in New York. I lived in one of them: the Langham, between Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth Streets.
It was March 21, the first day of spring, but you would have never guessed it. I’d read recently that the ancient calendars pointed to March 21 as a magical day, one blessed with hours in equal proportion—twelve and twelve—of light and dark. Did a certain balance prevail? I wasn’t feeling it. From Seventy-third Street, I began making my way south. The wind coming in off the Hudson River, five blocks to the west, was slashing, and with each gust I was forced to alter the position and the angle of my now nearly pointless scarf. Again and again the fabric of my clothing became untethered from my body, exposing triangles of my neck and chest to the buffeting will of the wind. Then came the snowflakes, fat, freakish, and out of nowhere. As I struggled pointlessly to keep myself covered, I wondered why, like me, no one around me was dressed for the weather. But back then, we didn’t know everything the way we do now. Weather reports were still excitingly unreliable.
It was 1:25 p.m.; I was already nearly half an hour late for my lunch date. I bumped into people who held their umbrellas down low to fend off the western winds at cross streets, releasing them only when tall buildings could shield them from the wildest gusts. Soon the snow turned to sleet. Snubbing our umbrellas and hats, the needles of ice hammered our heads as we prepped for the next cross street and the next whippingly windy onslaught. Closing in on one intersection after another, we were a synchronized swarm, tightening our collars and scarves around our necks and faces like sailors reefing their sails against an approaching squall. It isn’t the wind but the setting of sails that keeps you out of harm’s way.
In the end, I decided to run the remaining distance to the corner of Sixty-seventh Street and Central Park West, and from there to Café des Artistes, which was in the middle of the block. It was the most French of all the cafés, and the one where today I was having lunch with the Bouvier in my life, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
* * *
AS I APPROACHED the entrance, I saw that Café des Artistes’ definitively lush holiday window boxes were still in place, clustered with Christmas greens and fairy-garden white lights. Considering it was the first day of spring, I understood that this sparkly gesture belonged somewhere in the category of “keeping love alive.” Hold on to the spirit of Christmas until you stumble into a tulip on Park Avenue.
I was late, very late, and the only thing left was for me to come up with a little white lie. Was that permissible? What would be my excuse, or excuses? Jackie was never late. By then I had known her, better and better, for two years, and never once during that time had she ever shown up even a few minutes after she said she would—not at a dinner at my house in Martha’s Vineyard, not at my apartment in New York, not for a publisher’s meeting, not for a scheduled phone call, not for a shopping trip, not even for the movies we went to on so many Thursday afternoons when she took off a half day.
As the wind blasted me through the swinging doors and into the lobby of the des Artistes building, I remembered advice attributed to W. C. Fields: if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. Could I even manage to baffle with bullshit? What would my little white lie be? I felt so awful. Oh, Jackie, how could I leave you waiting for more than half an hour? It was unacceptable. Even knowing her as well as I did, she was, for me, still at that juncture more a black-and-white photo than a confidante and close friend—not someone with whom I could be casually tardy.
But she hadn’t arrived yet. Had I gotten the hour wrong? The day? The week?
Inside the restaurant, the concierge, headwaiter, and coat girl greeted me simultaneously, asking in melodic, crisscrossing French if they could bring a glass of wine, some hot tea—a cup of cocoa, perhaps—to my table while I waited for Ms. Onassis to arrive? They must have sensed how much I enjoyed the attention, but from years of being on both sides of that experience, I knew enough to see through any shows of Uriah Heep–like deference. Hadn’t my own mother taught me the words “sycophant” and “obsequious”?
“Ms. Onassis generally likes this back table”—the headwaiter led me to a corner of the restaurant—“and you can get a nice view of the snow and also be out of the draft.” I sat down, and a moment later a basket of breads arrived—sourdough rolls mixed with breadsticks, mostly, a delicious combination of sweet and savory, hard and soft. I took a sip of my wine, which had come to the table heated, with a cinnamon stick as a stirrer. “Détendez vous, Madame,” murmured at least two of the waiters, one after the next, as they swiveled through the crowded room. Just maybe, they imagined, I would praise their service to Ms. Onassis. Certainly I saw no other cinnamon sticks in any other glasses of wine.
Café des Artistes was my favorite place to eat whenever I was fulfilling a desire for something expensive and slightly formal. As usual, I became transfixed by the murals covering nearly every wall, the same ones I’d admired through so many years of dining there—those dependable, beautiful girls, hazily elastic on their swings. The mural girls might just as easily have been glimpsed along the pathways and lawns of Sarah Lawrence, which I attended for two years in the 1960s. I was not jealous of those mural girls. I knew they posed no immediate threat. I couldn’t be appreciably jealous of a painting of a woman, however translucent or curvaceous she might be. Nor did I wonder if these rosy girls went to college. I had, but I still couldn’t figure out when to bring the zero down and move the decimal point to the left.
The mural girls were all so blissful; their navels—a feature always favored by their painters—looked like pale green kiwis just bitten into. Up close, you could peer way down deep into their mysteriousness. The more imaginative could go for a drifting, lapping paddle alongside these cherubic lasses and hear a new kind of song. No chirping birds, just lengthy, sustained watery sounds or, better yet, melodies that rode the surface of the rocks, every note soaked, pushing and pulling against the chord of the water.
Compared to the murals’ sun-sprayed and -streaked, orchid-y lavender, the tablecloths in the room seemed like mundane burnt-out fields; the diners caught up in a gauze of yellow, filtering to baby blue suffused with sun—or was it more like butter carried by starlight? I was lost in my rosy-mural-girl fugue, but I stopped short and was reassured that I hadn’t actually said that out loud—that bit about the butter! (Maybe something for a song later.)
* * *
IT WAS TEN MINUTES before two, and I was starting to get alarmed. It had gone way past the point of This isn’t like Jackie. Nor were there any whispered messages from the concierge or the waiter, who kept refilling my drink and my bread basket. Every time one of them came back to the table with the diversion of a few pickled herring, or another touch-up of warm wine, I asked them first in words and, after the fourth round, with my eyes and then eyelashes only: Have you had any word from Ms. Onassis? Their answers were consistently comforting: “I’m sure with this weather she couldn’t find a cab.” “Ms. Onassis isn’t the kind of lady who demands a limousine to take her around town.” “You don’t worry, Mrs.… ah yes, Msss … Mademoiselle.”
The final time, as the waiter walked away, my heart began to race. Then, a moment of clarity, and another voice: I am nothing. I do nothing. I mean nothing. So why don’t I just order some really expensive brandy and Jackie (if she ever comes—oh, God, where is Jackie, anyway?) will see it on the bill and frown with disapproval? I’ve always felt safer when I was out of earshot of this voice: the observing ego, the judge, the gavel, the authority on my failures, the feeling of un-belonging, the carbonation that is my anxiety. What triggered it in that moment? A memory of being locked in my mother’s car when I was five while she, unbeknownst to me, was waiting in line at the bank? Or just the fear that Jackie had changed her mind about me, had stood me up, decided I wasn’t worth knowing further? This voice, which plagued me all my life, was coming more frequently these days.
Overly conscious of my heart beating in my chest, I tried to refocus on the swinging maidens, but in my consternation, their bas-relief sexy white swan persona wasn’t working for me anymore. I signaled to the waiter and ordered two brandies. After taking a big swallow from one, the room in all its colors and appliqués began closing in on me. I was the girl on the swing, I told myself, just the girl on the swing, my legs pointing off to the east as another girl sent me further sailing into the damp secret worlds of the mural girls. But I couldn’t quite find myself among them. I was just a watcher, not one of, not a member of, or a part of as I had recently felt, but a lone observer of the smiling, posing, perching, prancing, insouciant, nubile, lovingly painted girls all around me. I spent the next hour or so perched on one of those swings, feeling drunk-ish. The brandy had begun to relax me, and I sat in the garden until it became a part of me.
Copyright © 2019 by Carly Simon