The Mythical East Side

April 8, 2007

When the Metro-North Rail Road began considering eliminating the bar carjohntra.gif earlier this year, the various New York media outlets reacted with not unexpected nostalgia for this Westchester rite. The New Yorker included an article as part of its “The Talk of the Town” section, evoking the poetic, cultural history of New York’s northern suburbs. They quoted a poem by Robert Penn Warren, a founder of New Criticism, “Caleb Winthrop, Harvard ’53, crew, Porcellian /Sits in the bar car of the 5:02, Grand Central, and / Shuts his eyes, and / Shudders,” as evidence for its vast cultural import. To them, and many others, the bar car is as much a part of Westchester lore as trying to swim across all the swimming pools of Westchester county or the cold-parenthood of the cocktail party (both Cheever stories). Indeed, The New Yorker ended its piece with this quote from a bar-car-activist: “Pally’s Prohibition,” Shea said, “will turn the Scarsdale Galahad into the Scarsdale schlemiel.” (Full article)

“Schlemiel,” of course, comes from Yiddish (probably via Hebrew), and its English meaning is “An awkward, clumsy person, a blunderer; a ‘born loser’; a ‘dope’ or ‘drip’. Also attrib.” It’s very unlikely that this statement is intended as an anti-Jewish remark, even though the growth of the Westchester Jewish community has been coincidental to the decline of the mythic Westchester culture. Our dear alcohol advocate almost certainly has the dictionary definition in mind, however it is also quite possible that his reading of the term Schlemiel is influenced by Ruth Wisse’s argument in “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.” In Wisse’s conception, the schlemiel type is representative for Jewish entree first into modernity, and then into other cultures. Here too the schlemiel marks the loss of the mythic (galahad’s chivalry) and the entry into more routine life; the dehumanization of the gallant commuter.

Today’s Times featured a similar article to the piece on the decline of the bar-car, a piece about the history of Eggs Benedict. Though the dish would seem to have been created ex nihilo sometime on the first day, it was most-likely created by eminent New York stockbroker and dashing man about town, Lemuel Benedict. Like the bar-car piece, the Times article on the history of Eggs Benedict evokes a lost New York, a time when all the papers were filled with society pages and anyone who was anyone dined at the Waldorf or the Astoria (not yet merged). Other origin stories (in particular, one about a Financial District restaurant) are recounted in the Times article, but, given its presentation alone, it can be said that the article sides with Mr. Benedict and a more refined, less monetary more monied, New York. It’s an article just like their article on the Knickerbocker Greys (TimeSelect required), a history of an Upper East Side children’s cadet core; more New York nostalgia.

I have nothing against these pieces, in fact I quite enjoy them. I simply wonder why they are so readily printed. Are there no chroniclers of today’s New York, no authors capable of crafting something as magical as Cheever’s Swimmer or Salinger’s Glass family? Is there a modern New York to be chronicled? Salinger’s Glass family is especially interesting as its particular spin on New York was channeled by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson for “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Although their story ostensibly takes place in the present day, its aesthetics are equal part Salinger and 80’s graffiti. It’s a New York incredibly familiar, intimate and yet non-existent. Like Salinger, Anderson and Wilson were New York outsiders; their 375th street Y is based more on the myth of the 92nd street Y as cultural landmark than it is on its actual lectures. Perhaps the problem is that outsiders who move to New York today are more welcomed as New Yorkers. The New York institutions thus become less mythic and less prone to literary commemoration and nostalgia. Nowadays, New York’s “brightest” authors are more likely to turn their nostalgic attention to imaginary shtetls (Safran Foer) or invented ex-Soviet states (Gary Shteyngart). The literary depictions of New York that came to embody its culture were of closed worlds determined by birth and club membership. Today’s chronicles of New York of which Sex and the City seems the most dominant, are defined by money, knowing someone, and sex.

Sadly, it would seem, embracing the cosmopolitan has been the loss of the Tom Collins.

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