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 New York’s 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 expressionless. 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 had 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, just across the street from the Beard Foundation in the West Village.
On New York days marked by ambivalence, calamity, homelessness, deep differences 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 women 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.
Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir of Love, Redemption and the Mob, will be available from Bancroft Press in hard cover on September 10, 2019.