The Catholic Thing
A Glimpse of Sweet and Welcome Death Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 09 September 2011

God prepares us for death by making everything strange to us. I lived in New York City for twenty years and spent most of that time exploring every inch of the city and hanging out in saloons. The lesson of it all never occurred to me at the time.

My first favorite saloon in is now a real-estate office. Even now I can walk past where it stood at 79th and Columbus and remember the rowing sculls they fastened to the ceiling of Gleason’s.

After that I hung out at a saloon called appropriately The Saloon. It’s now a clothing store. The third place I hung out for years and years, a restaurant called Memphis, is now, alas, a real-estate office, too.

I used to own New York City, or so I thought. For twenty years I tramped up and down its broad boulevards and narrow side streets. I knew it river to river and from Riverdale to the Battery. I ate and drank that town in noisy slurps and greedy gulps.

For most of those twenty years, I lived within a block of Central Park on the west side not far from Lincoln Center. My friends used to call me the Colossus of Columbus Avenue.

I once got a standing ovation from the entire restaurant at the Saloon Grill. We would go to the China Club at 2 a.m. and never pay. Wise Guys reeking of florid aftershave would kiss me on the cheek.

Living there was like living in a movie. I loved Manhattan and, as Woody Allen might have said, it was all mine. And I thought that was how it would always be.

I experienced a kind of death in 1997 when, for various reasons including finances, I had to leave my huge fourteen-foot-ceilinged studio apartment at 81st and Columbus and move to a third floor walk-up in Long Island City. 

I was proud to say that, up to that point, I had not left the island of Manhattan for more than a week at a time in twenty years. I mourned leaving Manhattan. I was depressed. In Long Island City, I could see Manhattan right across the East River and I lived only one stop on the Number 7 from Grand Central.

But it might as well have been “upstate.” I would go to the Upper West Side every weekend and many nights. It was never the same because I still had to get on a train and take that shameful ride all the way back to Queens.

I left New York for love and for good in 2003. It was easy since my mourning for lost Manhattan had taken place six years before. Leaving Queens for good is much easier than leaving Manhattan for good. Now when I go back, which is once a month, what I see is what tourists always see. It’s a crowded, smelly, and dirty place. It is not my place any more.

I walked around Nolita the other day. I am not even sure what this new designation is. North of Little Italy? It’s a marvel and jam-packed with incredible restaurants. I walked along lower 6th Avenue at 6 pm. In 1982 it would have been deserted. On this nights and most nights the sidewalks are crowded.

I still see places that I knew from back in the day. I saw I Tre Merli in Soho is still open, and Café Un Deux Trois in midtown. I never went to either of them more than a few times. I didn’t care for them. But seeing them in an island of strangeness was somehow comforting.

Seeing and welcoming them, though, only underscores that this is not my place any more, and these people are strangers to me. I walk around and I do not see the places I really knew. Gleaon’s gone. Memphis gone. The Saloon gone. Every other place I knew and loved, long gone, gone forever.

I see all these new people crowding the sidewalks acting like they own the place and they are strangers to me. These crowds of young people do not seem to know that this was my place; that I used to own it.

All of this happened to me practically overnight.

Some try to forestall this emotionally vertiginous feeling. Donald Trump buys or builds iconic buildings and puts his name on them. Who would have thought the GM Building at 59th and Fifth would ever be anything other than the GM Building? And now Trump thinks it will always be the Trump Building. He will find out. Not on this side of the darkened plain, but eventually he will know what I know, that no one can own New York or any other place.

God prepares us for death by making everything strange to us. There comes a time in the lives of those who live long enough, when all our friends are gone. All the places we knew have disappeared. Everything and everyone are strangers. At that point, one hopes, there is a kind of recognition and acceptance that it is time to move on, that there are newer places to see and older friends waiting for us just over there, slightly beyond our reach, just beyond our vision.

And even sweet death may be welcomed.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Dennis Larkin, September 09, 2011
While your comments on the passing of New York haunts rings certainly true, as for me I prefer to reflect on the passing haunts of small town Kansas, or Nebraska, or Iowa. For me, this is where the lessons of life truly lie. Where true vitality lives.
written by Grump, September 09, 2011
Nice piece about my hometown, where I spent the first 30 years of my life. Nothing like wandering the streets of the City, stopping in an Irish bar for a brew and brisket sandwich and watching the Yanks on TV. That was a long time ago and the NYC that I remember is but a distant memory.

Your prose reminded me of Edward Abbey's recollections of stalking the other side of the Hudson in Hoboken and occasionally finding himself in Manhattan with all its beauty and ugliness. His poignant essays can be found in "The Best of Edward Abbey."

Now that I'm old and living in a small town, I miss the vibes of the city, the hot dog and chestnut vendors, the window-shopping and the endless photo ops. At one time, I had friends and kin galore in the Big Apple; now they're either dead or scattered about like leaves in the winter.

I hope that heaven will have a few skyscrapers and some fire hydrants to accommodate my dogs, who had better be there or I don't want to go.
written by M., September 09, 2011
Lead, Kindly Light

"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life."
JH Newman
written by Austin Ruse, September 09, 2011
Why Grump, you are not grumpy at all!
written by Grump, September 09, 2011
You got me on one of my rare good days, Austin : )

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