When a born and bred New Yorker leaves New York City permanently, they spend a good chunk of the rest of their lives asking themselves why they ever left. And so it was with Jimmy and me.
When I left New York City for good, it was difficult to encapsulate in words the loss I felt. How could I live somewhere else after all the neighborhood connections I had made? The Greeks who owned the local diner knew to tip me off when the split pea soup was just right. The guys who worked in the old Jefferson Market for a generation would run forgotten ingredients to my apartment and proudly refuse a gratuity. Where would I find another hardware store owner who could tolerate my ineptness?
When I first moved to the West Village as a twenty-something, I would food shop in the very early mornings for a date that night. I didn’t have the money to eat out, so I cooked in the hopes of impressing my guest.
The famous chef and author, James Beard, lived on my block about ten doors west. He, too, was an early shopper and would make goo-goo eyes at me in front of the butcher while I tried in vain to remain stoic. He was so over the top, though, I had to laugh, and we became passing acquaintances from then on. He addressed me as “Jimbo-Man.” I, of course, called him “Mr. Beard.”
Some years after he died, I was invited to his foundation—located in the same townhouse where he lived—and couldn’t help but marvel at how his oversized presence was in such contrast to the mornings when he and I alone dueled with the Jefferson Market butcher. My first two children were born in the now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital—literally across the street from the Beard Foundation in the West Village.
On those days marked by the ambivalences driven by calamity, homelessness, the deep divisions in economic status, and bouts of weather that make one feel more rhinoceros than human, all of us have thought about quitting the Big Apple. Invariably, though, that “magic” day would arrive when your car is waiting for you at the parking garage just as you stroll up and you chase the deep, beautiful rivulets of early sun that crease through the buildings from the east as you fly uptown. The bank manager greets you by name and facilitates your deposits, and pretty girls in swingy dresses bounce with life and limitless expectations on the way to the subway. FedEx has already delivered the checks you had been awaiting, and your freshly ironed shirts are hanging in the closet when you arrive home. Everything in the world is going your way, and you ask yourself rhetorically, “Where else on Earth could I feel like this?”
When the day came that it all stopped mattering, no one was more shocked than me. For those first few years in Los Angeles, I ached for New York. Random conversations with other New York refugees left me so empty that I stopped even mentioning my origins. Out of sight, alas, out of mind.
Los Angeles is a city of contrasts to those of us who did not grow up here. To “inherit” an infrastructure of family and friends is not an easy task. In terms of sheer human contact, I make more conversation in an hour at a New York diner than in a month of tooling around the City of Angels. There is an inherent suspicion here. Striking up a random conversation with a stranger seems to elicit the unspoken question of “What do you want from me?” I surmise that this attitude is also the reason that people spend so much of their income on expensive cars. These vehicles are not only a status symbol but are places to hide. I have met people that drive $200,000 Bentleys and live with three roommates.
No matter where Jimmy and I went, when we defined ourselves as born and bred New Yorkers, that definition was met with universal admiration and envy. The lyric “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is part of the fabric and myth of The City. No one would deny that Dad had certainly “made it.”
Jimmy and the great chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten had been friends since the chef opened his first restaurant. Jean-Georges’ partner, Phil Suarez, and his wife, Lucy, were close family friends. I have an amazing picture of my kids swinging in a hammock in Phil and Lucy’s awesome compound on the island of St. Bart’s.
Dad was recognized in virtually every fine restaurant in NYC, and could walk in without a reservation and a table would magically appear. Leaving the limelight and notoriety of New York like Dad did overnight was a life and death decision that we planned to the utmost detail. There was no denying our fate—we did what we had to do. New York is a blood-borne state of mind, however, that never leaves you, no matter how you might try. It sounds dramatic, I know, but that’s the price and there’s no getting around it. So we did what we could to live our new lives with a sense of contentedness. Often, we would fall into each other’s arms at the close of the day, like two loyal soldiers holding down a mythical fort.
Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir of Love, Redemption and the Mob, will be available from Bancroft Press in hard cover by spring, 2019.