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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about the once run-down blocks just west of Central Park—antique stores, barbershops, family-owned delicatessens—had been replaced by less bohemian, tonier—mind you, quite lovely—richer people’s gathering spots: the Mexican restaurant Santa Fe, Café Columbus, Café Luxembourg, Café La Fortuna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.
Copyright © 2019 by Carly Simon