As long-time readers of this blog know, it broke my heart when, two years ago, I was forced to leave New York City for a less expensive place to live. Portland, Maine, has good things to recommend it – I especially like the quiet - but there is much I miss about New York.
Most of all, I miss walking - walking long distances, miles every day to do all the normal errands of life. Here in Portland, I drive to do everything and I must make appointments with myself to walk. I’m not good at walking without a goal and a destination.
Instead of going ten blocks out of my way and back, as in New York, because I suddenly wanted to see what’s going on in Washington Square Park or if there was a street fair on Christopher Street, I ask myself if I’ve walked enough yet and can I (puh-leeze) go home now.
I grew up in Oregon, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to live in Manhattan - an odd desire for a five-year-old living on the west coast in a family that had no connection with nor had ever visited New York. I’ve attributed it to a record album my parents had titled, Manhattan Tower, which I wrote about here several years ago.
But there is another childhood artifact that must have had some influence, a photo book titled, Peg and Pete See New York about a boy and girl who visit the sights of the big city. The text is in rhyme and at some point, I knew it all by heart. Regarding the main branch of the library:
Two great big lions sit at the door
They never move, they never roar
Over the years, I’ve occasionally looked for the book – even the New York Public Library didn’t have it – and found it at last online a couple of weeks ago. I was astonished, when the book arrived, at how familiar the photos were, even after 60 years or so. I must have pored over them a zillion times as a kid.
There was nothing as exotic as double-decker buses in Portland, Oregon, and I remember wanting so much to know what it was like to ride so high above the streets on the top level. By the time I got to New York as an adult in 1969, I was disappointed that the double-deckers were gone.
There’s an old one-liner about New York City: “It will be a great place if they ever get it finished,” and indeed, it is hard to keep up. For example, you can discover a great restaurant you hadn’t known before and when you extravagantly brag about your find and take a friend there two weeks later, it’s gone with a shoe shop or tattoo parlor in its place.
But some things don’t change. Prometheus at Rockefeller Center was a destination for Peg and Pete and he’s still there today in all his gilded glory.
I don’t remember that the subway photo impressed me much as a kid, but the subway itself was my friend in New York, zipping me to and fro around town without the hassle of street traffic. And it looks almost the same now as it did in 1939, when the book was published.
I do remember closely studying this photo of Peg and Pete in Chinatown and wishing it showed more of the neighborhood. Later, it became one of my favorite walks, from Greenwich Village, where I lived, through SoHo and Little Italy to Chinatown. I did a lot of grocery shopping there because the same fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry are about half of uptown prices, and a friend told me just a couple of weeks ago that he does all his shopping there now because of the good prices.
The final photo in the book is Peg waving goodbye. The accompanying rhyme says:
Peg’s sorry she must leave today;
She wishes she could stay - and – stay.
Me too. I wish I could have stayed in New York. But these days I think I’m remembering “my city” in the 1970s and 80s when it hadn’t yet become a town only for the rich. By the time I left, even ordinary necessities and small pleasures had become unaffordable for most people.
Still, I miss my daily walks there.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Leah Aronoff explains a language glitch in her poem, Japan in a Word or Two.]