By Matt Cutugno
New York, NY, USA
Matt Cutugno on the High Line (2013)
I used to think that if someone ever asked me "What is the greatest thing about New York City?" that I would answer "Its people." And that's a safe response, since any city (especially the most culturally diverse in the world) draws strength and appeal from the lives of its citizens. Now living in California, my relationship to my hometown has changed. The greatest thing about New York is its tremendous effect on its citizens. For those who lived in the city, say, thirty-five years, any return visit comes with more than normal nostalgia. A street corner in a neighborhood is not a simple locale—rather it is a personal memory frozen forever in time.
When I'm in Times Square nowadays, as I stand in line to get into Carmine's, I'm hardly aware of those around me. Instead, it's New Year's Eve 1979, and I'm welcoming in a new decade. I have the widest smile on my young face as the famed ball drops accompanied by chants from a million voices. "10. . .9. . .8. . ." And as I presently take a morning walk around the reservoir on Central Park's Fifth Avenue side, I'm unaware of the myriad joggers. Rather, it's 1985. I look ahead on the path and spot none other than Madonna in a flashy running outfit, jogging toward me. She wears large headphones and she's accompanied by a young man who is ostensibly her fitness coach/bodyguard/lover.
NYC Skyline (1990)
Matt Cutugno and Caris (1980)
When I'm in Greenwich Village, I move past an unoccupied storefront on West 4th Street, and recognize it as the former location of Jimmy Day's, where I waited tables in the early 80s. I gaze into the abandoned space and my mind's eye sees Dustin Hoffman, Billy Idol, and John Phillips. I'm serving them beer, burgers and onion rings. After I take a train down to Canal Street, I surface at the head of an alley. It's 2001, days after the terrible attack of September, and my wife and I are speaking with two policemen from upstate Albany. They came to the city to aid in any way they could and were told to go to Chinatown. We spoke for a good while, the four of us profoundly sad.
Now it's May in New York, tourist season. The downtown streets are filled with eager citizens from many of our states and diverse nations. They take pictures, line up for tour buses; they array themselves in a winding queue to see the new Trade Center and its memorial. They are invisible. I walk past storied edifices like St. Paul's Church; past dry cleaners and pizzerias, banks and clothiers. I am transported. It's 1994 and I'm working on Wall Street for J.P. Morgan Bank and there I am marveling at the steel and glass beauty of lower Manhattan. How easy it is to close my eyes and picture the Twin Towers pressed majestically against the horizon.
Ghosts follow me to the East Village, where I lived for 13 years. Not much is as it was then. Gone is Palermo's Bakery, where I used to buy fresh dough for 50 cents and make my own pizza, gone is the Bini Bon restaurant on First Avenue where, in 1981, ex-con and would-be author Jack Henry Abbott knifed and murdered a waiter. The sidewalk in front is clean enough now but when I look down I swear I see a pool of blood in tragic testimony.
Nearby on Second Avenue I don't acknowledge the usual activity on famed St. Mark's Place. I note instead what is not there—the Arcadia, a wonderful Italian-Hungarian restaurant closed in the mid-80s to make room for a Steve's Ice Cream. Further along the avenue, I pass the tenement of my dear friend Caris, a fine actress, who died too young. She and I frequented the Russian bars and Indian restaurants on nearby 7th Street. We were young and our nights were filled with laughter and good times. Now her memory touches me, and I smile.
My ghosts are always with me, from Battery Park to Van Cortlandt. They are benign spirits. Over the years I've made friends with all of them.