March 29th, 2007 05:56 EST
Progress at Union Square
Union Square has a dog park now. Fritzy would have hated it. He hated organization and contrivance of any kind. In this way he hardly lived up to his name. It was bestowed on him by a bunch of kids in boarding school in West Islip who concluded he’d been born in the uniform of an SS general. Fritzy was Border Collie, Springer Spaniel and God knows what else. He had the general demeanor and attitude of a Panzer division commander, but he didn’t like taking orders from Berlin or anywhere else.
When I was in high school in Manhattan in the late 1940s and early 50s Fritzy and I would set out every night after homework and follow roughly the same route. I should say I followed Fritzy, who preferred to go west on 19th Street through the Block Beautiful from Third Avenue to Irving Place, south on Irving to 14th Street, which divides uptown and downtown, west on 14th to Union Square, clockwise around the park, and then east on 14th to Second Avenue, north on Second to 19th and our home, a brownstone between Second and Third on 19th.
I thought of valiant Fritzy the other day as I walked this old route. Block Beautiful is still there, posh as ever. Pete’s Tavern at 18th and Irving is still there, still looking like O. Henry’s watering hole. But the tacky movie house on Irving where my mother and I on 14th is gone, and Ohrbach’s and S. Klein, those venerable watched Soviet propaganda films is gone. The Academy of Music department stores, they’re gone too. Ohrbach’s on 14th was genteel and moderately priced, but S. Klein’s on Union Square East was savage and discounted. You could always count on being discounted and elbowed by somebody’s grandmother at S. Klein.
Conspicuously missing is Luchow’s, that legendary 14th Street restaurant that my stepfather, Dominick Guccione, from his tenement flat on Elizabeth Street, thought of as uptown. Before World War I, when he was still learning English with the concentration of a brain surgeon, he sold newspapers in front of Luchow’s, and on cold winter nights he kept himself warm by signing arias. He had a following and was known as the Street Caruso. By the time I met him on a stoop on Second Avenue when I was nine he could recite poems by Andrew Marvell and John Donne in perfect upper-class New York English. (Is there still an upper-class New York accent?)
I miss the stench
The odor of food in the today’s pizzazzy square is dizzying. Eateries seem more common than trash bins. But I miss the stench of stale beer and mustard coming from the old arcade with its hot dogs, goofy game machines, carny music, pickpockets and grifters. In fact, there aren’t enough grifters. I miss their stories, their loony cons. There are many more vendors, musicians and artists now, all of them properly sited and licensed on Union Square West. And the park and street signage is sprightly.
But the Irving Trust to which I made regular cash runs for Dominick is gone. I remember the day we stood there stuffing cash into brown bags to bail somebody’s son out of the The Tombs. The Irving Trust looked like a bank. It looked as if you could trust it. These days most banks look like Au Bon Pain.
The new buildings look like gift boxes. They lack the character and substance of their demolished predecessors. They seem cautious and anonymous, as befits a society loony about exotic dangers. The former buildings had a sense of thereness, of belonging, but these buildings could be anywhere. They’re interchangeable, and they rebuke the bravura efforts of the city to make the square festive.
Het up old men
The park in my youth was dowdy, peopled by groups of curdmudgeonly old men from Eastern Europe who were permanently het up about something, usually with good cause. There were lots of speeches, most of them leftist, and serious chess by men who seemed to hold the world in their hands. Today’s chess players don’t look like Doctor Strangelove and nothing seems to depend on the outcome of their concentration. I wouldn’t say the old park was in disrepair or disrepute, but it was nothing like the vibrant, upscale venue I strolled the other day.
Fritzy wouldn’t have liked all the well-bred dogs in the park nowadays. They actually obey their masters, or at least they pretend to. Fritzy always wondered why I was loathe to obey him. He had the name, the uniform and the bark, after all.
The park still has its merciless mow-you-down socko beauties, more dazzled by their own looks than you are. They strike me as lacking the leisured panache of former times. They seem a bit forlorn without store windows to admire themselves in.
The codgers of yore, always quick to label moderates Nazis, wouldn’t have liked the Stroller Nazis blitzkrieging the park these days—you know, those grimly affluent mommies who use their babies’ strollers as battering rams, forcing even the elderly on canes out of the way. Who knows what has made them so angry and imbued with their silly sense of privilege? They clearly need to get over themselves, but I haven’t a clue how they might, busy as they are spending in support of the City of Lucre.
Subdued and prosperous
The crowd is more subdued and prosperous-looking now, and while it’s more ethnically diverse and younger, it seems at once more homogeneous, more assimilated.
There were no boom boxes when Fritzy and I patrolled Union Square, and I saw none the other day, but it seemed to me that fully a third of the people were wired for sound, and everywhere cell phones flashed and played their various tunes. The wiring of so many heads gives the false impression of introspection.
The requisite number of wireless heads listening to their own voices still wander around, but they seem less intent on pursuing an agenda.
There seem to be fewer of those people who just have to be where you happen to be standing or crossing your path with the intent of an F16. And I didn’t see as many exhibitionists as I remember from the old days. People seem more taken up in their own business, less interested in being interesting. I call this progress.