Ghosts of New York

To most people New York is a brash, vibrant metropolis. But its residents have a much more intimate relationship with their city. Here Tama Janowitz, the novelist, defines her life-long love affair with her home town

What I love about New York City is not necessarily what other people might love or even like. The things I like about New York might even be things that other people hate. And I call them my ghosts...

What I love about New York City is not necessarily what other people might love or even like. The things I like about New York might even be things that other people hate. And I call them my ghosts...

When I first started seeing my (now) husband, who is English, he came back from the local deli with a puzzled expression on his face and I said: "What took you so long?"

He explained that he had to keep asking - over and over: "I would like a ham sandwich with butter...", and the guy behind the counter kept saying, over and over: "Ju wan a jam sandwich wit' wha?" And Tim responded: "With buttah." Until finally the deli guy realised what he wanted and said: "Oooh, jous mean wit' budder!"

That story initially confused me because I thought Tim meant the guy couldn't believe that someone would want butter on a ham sandwich.

In New York it's mustard...or, okay, maybe mayo - but butter? Ninety per cent of New Yorkers are transplants from elsewhere - Haiti, Grenada, Italy, the Dominican Republic, the Ukraine - or those weird places beginning with the letter "I": Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, and, um, Iceland (those are the people who want mayonnaise on the ham sandwiches).

But since those long-ago days my husband has, thankfully, learned to say the word "budder". He still has an English accent but he has learned a foreign language. When we got married at City Hall I had to translate for him after the Justice of the Peace asked: "Do youse...Tay-ma - Jan - Jan - 'No Witz - take yous, Timoty John Hunt as yu lawful wedded..." etc. Those days are long gone.

After the ceremony I asked a City Hall worker where the ladies' room was located, only to be told: "It's one flight up - but be careful, somebody was raped in there yestiddy."

That was before the days of metal detectors in all government buildings. Still, even then they were inhabited by ghosts - the ghosts of former Justices of the Peace, and those couples married there, or those who had blood tests there and discovered their dread disease, things that once would not have been mentioned in polite society: syphilis, TB. The ghosts of the Lavatory Rapists. These city buildings were haunted; by former governments like "Boss Tweed" of Tammany Hall, LaGuardia, Ed Koch, Abe Beame; mayors whose names no one quite remembers.

And now, when with my daughter I pass the splendid wedding cake that is City Hall, she always says: "Mom, isn't that where you and Dad got married...?" So, we too have added to the ghosts of the city: this building has become ghost space for my daughter.

Although I didn't grow up in New York City, I am from a long line of New Yorkers, at least on my mother's side. And they have provided ghosts, memories, texture, not just on a personal level for me but...the ghosts of the city-at-large...

My grandfather was a parole officer and worked at "The Tombs" - the prison that was torn down many years ago, near City Hall, temporary home to all sorts of celebrity gangsters...and my grandmother sold blankets at Macy's department store for forty years. Macy's is still there, on 34th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, a department store as large as Selfridges...

In those days the escalators were made of wood, not metal, and the blankets were sold in the basement, where, now, food and kitchen utensils are sold. Nearby was Gimbels', another department store, now defunct, but still the skeleton remnants remain, a copper, Art Deco crosswalk in the sky connecting 32nd to 31st Streets...I assume - or suspect - no longer usable, still, who knows why some spots, places, things remain in New York when others are ripped down, vanished forever? Pennsylvania Station, an architectural crime of the 1960s, is gone forever, while its sister-twin, Grand Central Station (42nd and Lexington) remains intact, renovated, nurtured and appreciated...

My grandparents lived in Flushing, Queens. People think New York City is Manhattan. In fact, NYC is comprised of five boroughs, viz.: the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn - and that other place.

As a kid from Massachusetts, (not one of the five boroughs that constitute NYC but a different State) a couple of times a year I would visit my grandparents, who lived in an apartment building dating back to the 1930s. When they moved there it was new - and Flushing was a place of green grass, and trees...

On the way to them - if you took the subway - you would pass Shea Stadium, where The Beatles first played in the US, back when the Mets were a winning baseball team (note: this is a game similar to cricket only it doesn't take three days). Now, mostly, The Beatles are gone, and no one has paid attention to the Mets in years...and the subway, too, has changed, although it still takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get to that last stop in Flushing from Times Square.

No air-conditioning in the subways then! Rush hour! Kids, at home, waiting and wanting dinner! And then a mile walk. Well...it was the Depression, that's what people had to do back in those days and...still, even now. Could I do it? No...

But my grandparents were able to do it twice a day - had to - and this commute both before, and after, working eight or ten hours selling blankets, standing all day, chasing parole violators...day in and day out. So things change, in New York, but what went before still remains...and when you visit this city you must know - through relatives, through friends, through books - what went before, before you were there...my grandparents, strict Orthodox Jews, who lived in a dark apartment. In summer it was hot and in winter it was hotter... And, after fifty years, when The Tombs was gone, torn down, and my grandfather had died and my grandmother had Alzheimer's and all of her friends were gone and the neighborhood - and building - were now too dangerous for her to stay in any longer (and all of the help stole what small collection of things she had), she had to go to a retirement community...

But still, surely, her apartment after fifty years must contain its own ghosts...how could it not? Someone else, besides me, must know where the dumbwaiter in my grandparents' kitchen once was, the one that had to be boarded up out of fear of burglars...

And someone else, besides me, must know how each year the neighbourhood changed: one year Indian people, the next Chinese, then Korean, depending on what ethnic group was arriving. We would walk a mile to my grandparent's synagogue for the Jewish holidays, and the old people - well, the men, at least - gave sloppy wet kisses.

And on the way we would pass a fantastic castle that was a convent; behind a beautiful wrought iron fence was a huge lawn, a vision of paradise, with the most beautiful plantings: lilies, irises, daffodils, lilacs, and a marvel!

And then it was torn down and instead a hideous Korvette's department store was erected which quickly went out of business. Oh, so many stores, people, places that were once...emblems of New York...have gone out of business, there was Korvette's and Alexander's, and Gimbels, there was the New York of F Scott Fitzgerald: "Meet me under the clock at the Biltmore".

And there was the Horn and Hardart Automat, which had little stainless steel drawers where for a nickel you could get a sandwich or a sliver of pie, so clever and so pre-computer age! And there was the cafeteria: Chock Full o' Nuts and the walnut cream cheese sandwich which my mother would get as a kid for a nickel.

This store (which was a NYC chain) was in existence when I was grown, lasted until well after my college years (I went to university in New York, to Columbia, the same university my grandfather attended - and I even lived for a year in the same dormitory room!)

At Chock Full o' Nuts you sat at a counter, and though, by the time I was grown, a sandwich no longer cost a nickel, you could still sit at the counter and watch the world go by. Which, in New York City, really is the whole world.

Oh, I wish Chock Full o' Nuts was back. And my grandparents. And these other worlds, which I know are still there, only invisible. The old steeplechase ride at Coney Island that burned down before I ever got to see it or go on it. (Though once at auction those peculiarly elongated metal horses were for sale.)

The New York of George Gershwin, of Stephen Crane. The New York of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning; of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Andy Warhol. Yet, although the people and places may be gone - Allen Ginsberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat - they are still, in some way, here.

Every city has its ghosts but I would argue that New York City has more of them, because here nothing is sacred, everything changes every single year and the people who have come here from all over the world have arrived because they are desperate - for money, fame, a better life, a decent job, to send money home. The people who are desperate make the city go at a desperate pace.

And so the turnover is faster and the ghosts are prevalent.

The ghosts of buildings of restaurants and stores where someone's life dream was a success or failure. Buildings, by famous architects or brilliant architects only now they are gone or changed or altered.

The ghosts of beloved dogs whose entire life was lived out on one square city block, each crack in the sidewalk sniffed, gone but not their ghost, and the ghosts of trees that year after year die and have to be replaced; and of doormen. Of Chinese dry cleaners and Greek coffee shops. The streets where movies were shot; those who were victims of gangsters, or drugs. And those who died of Aids - of whom there have been so many - and of course the World Trade Center victims.

SLEEP IN THE CITY THAT NEVER DOES

The Carlyle (001 212 744 1600; www.thecarlyle.com), a New York City landmark since 1930, has rooms from $620 (£364).

An Art Deco landmark, the Waldorf-Astoria (001 212 355 3000; www.hilton.com) has rooms from around $419 (£264).

The Pierre (001 212 838 8000; www.fourseasons.com) on Central Park - grand and with the charm of a European residence - has rooms from around $365 (£214)

The Wolcott (001 212 268 2900; www.wolcott.com) has rooms from $150 (£88). Centrally located with a grand lobby, it offers a cheaper alternative to Manhattan's high-priced hotels.

The Plaza (001 212 759 3000 www.plazahotel.com) on Fifth Ave cost $12m to build back in 1907. It has rooms from around $460 (£270).

Habitat (001 212 753 8841; www.habitatny.com) has rooms from $95 (£56).

Dozens of booking agencies can offer substantial discounts on published rates for New York hotels. They include: Hotel Reservations Network (0800 917 4996; www.hoteldiscount.com), Express Hotel Reservations (001 303 440 8481; www.express-res.com) and Central Reservation Service (001 407 740 6442; www.crshotels.com).

Jonathan Howie

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

London Heathrow to New York JFK is the busiest intercontinental route in the world, with frequent flights on American Airlines, British Airways, United, Virgin Atlantic and others. There are also flights from Gatwick, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester to Newark on Continental; and from Manchester on BA and Pakistan International.

Fares fall significantly in autumn, and are usually cheapest through discount agents. The headline fare this autumn is London to New York for £199 on Virgin Atlantic or British Airways. For key Christmas shopping weekends, seats on flights are scarce and hotel beds may be hard to come by. The cheapest and most flexible tickets are likely to be on Air India and Kuwait Airways. Low fares from other UK airports may be available for flights via Paris on Air France or Dublin on Aer Lingus.

RED TAPE

British passport holders travelling on normal return air tickets to the US do not require visas - so long as they have never been arrested for any offence, anywhere in the world. If you do not qualify, you must pay $100 and attend an interview at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate-General in Belfast.

From 26 October, everyone entering the US under the Visa Waiver Program (which covers the vast majority of British travellers) will need a "machine readable passport" - but most of us have them.

On 26 October next year, the Department of Homeland Security insists that anyone with a passport issued after that date must have a biometric version or they'll have to go through the complex and expensive business of getting a visa. From the end of this month, everyone will be photographed and fingerprinted on the way into the US; at present only those who need a visa are in this position. For more details call the premium-rate number 09055 444 546 or visit www.usembassy.org.uk.

GETTING AROUND

New York's subway system's flat fare is $2 (£1.25), though a one-day "Funpass", price $7 (£4) is better value if you plan a lot of travelling.

Simon Calder

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