A Glimpse of Sweet and Welcome Death Print
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 CafĂ© 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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