Stuck Inside a Movie with the Woody Allen Blues (again)Joanna Colangelo
"Can you believe it? I bought the menorah at an old thrift shop in Harlem!" our host said. Nights like this, her impeccable enthusiasm for Jewish collectables dovetailed nicely with a genius for public display.
The evening was the annual cocktail party of Westchester elite, also known as the preeminent party for professionals and media-types who had left Manhattan years ago because of crime, pollution, noise and whatever other follies besides. They all blamed the Dinkins years and said the move was for the Westchester school systems. But it really boiled down to the fact that their galleries and their publishers and their universities and their corporations, or at least the sidewalks and vestibules around these bastions, were getting cluttered with the likes of loiterers and beggars. No one blamed them for deserting though, and far be it for them to blame themselves. Here at the Wilstern's house was a gathering of those who had left and have since struggled with all their might to bring Manhattan to suburbia. It was painful to watch. Despite their exertions, no one could honestly claim it added up to anything. The event was black tie. There was a small bar set up for the functioning alcoholics and Chai tea for those recovering. Screenwriters gently stroked the egos of the novelists'"I wish I touched people like you"'and novelists returned the stroke'"I wish I moved people like you." Cultural journalists got tips from the art curators as to when the next exhibits would be up for review. Host Harry Wilstern had just sold the rights of his latest mid-life-angst novel to Miramax and the result was a lovely paycheck for him and his wife, Elaine'Mrs. Harlem Menorah!'a chef.
As for me, it was a bit of a mystery how I maneuvered into this crowd and even more importantly how I managed to find myself at this party. I was a risk guest, twenty years younger than most, not nearly as successful in any sort of monetary or professional terms, and with very little to do with any of their social activism. I had met the Wilstern's years ago though. Perhaps it was a shared interest in the poetic nature of Bob Dylan that secured our friendship. In any case, I found myself swirling mediocrity in the crystal decanter of a Waterford red-wine glass, thinking about the review I had to write of whoever was the newest pop-singer on the radio. Deadline: 8 hours.
"Absolutely! I took it home and polished it and this beautiful gold was underneath the dust." Mrs. Harlem Menorah was still basking in the unpretentious 'call it "proletentious"' glory of finding an antique menorah hiding in the likes of a "hardly approachable," as she would put it, East Harlem second-hand store. The story went that Elaine was driving on the FDR Drive when her engine started to overheat. In an effort to avert disaster on the shoulder-less FDR, she exited hastily at 125th Street and found a "cultural outlet" she never knew existed. To most, that cultural outlet was Harlem; to Elaine, it was Jewish mementoes left behind during some biblical emigration to the suburbs.
"Isn't that great?" added Sylvia, the wife of Dr. Morton Gladstone, professor of history at New York University. "We were able to get a gorgeous one, too, this summer, during our trip to Israel."
"When did you go to Israel?" Elaine asked, shock and awe registering on her face.
"While we were visiting Alexander in Uzbekistan. The Foreign Service brought him there and we were able to secure a government official who was traveling to Israel for business. He assured us it was safe."
"You hadn't mentioned it," said Elaine.
"No, of course not. Morty was petrified that everyone would worry, so we kept it quiet. Only his family over there knew we were coming." Sylvia slipped gently to the bar as she spoke and poured another Martini.
I, meanwhile, was wondering how in one-hundred words or less I was going to convince an audience of young-adults that blond-haired dancers with fake breasts were somehow this generation's answer to The Rolling Stones. I had only listened to the album once before the party (to little aesthetic effect) and hoped to find inspiration in my depleting bottle of Chianti. But just as I was drifting away, the discussion dilated to a yell.
The lights in the house were dimmed and by this point the hors d'oveurs were served a convenient patsy for anyone who disliked the nature of New York politics: quietly avoid liberal-conservative controversy by gracefully placing the cheese-filled cracker in your mouth rendering you nearly incapable of speaking.
"The city is simply becoming what it once was," said Gary Putnam, the Time magazine columnist who had moved to America ten years ago by way of London. "And that is nothing good." His accent had faded greatly, but was still strong enough that he could sound smarter than anyone else in the room.
"What it was!" exclaimed Harry Wilstern. "What was it?"
"It was," declared Putnam firmly "a pit of prostitution!"
You could see rage in the Traditionalists'those who have had a love affair with New York City since its inception and always would, regardless of its many skids and slides into, well, prostitution for one, but also drugs, fake bohemia, and desecrated Dylan-esque folk music called "emo-rock." The Traditionalists are usually those who have left for one of the aforementioned reasons, none of which they could ever control, and not a day goes by when they are not thinking of moving home again. In their escapades around the world they came to the very true and perhaps urban ethnocentric (but still true nonetheless!) conclusion that the other cities of the world are merely towns and to insult New York City is a type of national blasphemy. A blasphemy which could only be excused if you were . . . say . . . British, such as the case with Gary Putnam. Still, forgiveness hardly loomed in the room.
Dr. Gladstone had taken a second to search his historical mind before participating.
"Putnam, I'd say your flare for 19th century British drama is obscuring your view of what New York currently is. We've had some bad years in the past and we've had some triumphs, but to suggest that the city is falling into debauchery is a bit hyperbolic, wouldn't you say?" Gladstone fell back as he concluded, perhaps mixing the intoxication of his mind with the intoxication of his memories.
"Dramatic!" Putnam shot off. "Don't blame this on cultural differences, Morty. You either, Harry. You know full well what I'm talking about. Ten years ago this city was in its Renaissance. I'm simply saying it no longer is."
Elaine Wilstern chimed in this round with a low blow that any bystander could have seen coming from miles away, even if it were apropos of nothing. "Untouchable!? It was run by a fascist, Gary! Shall we require all of our mayors to cut art funding or only the good ones?"
Elaine was red and most certainly drunk off of Vodka. She had read one too many articles in the New Yorker. With any luck Putnam would have the class not to challenge her caricature of an argument. I yearned for Woody Allen to turn away from the Knicks game and deadpan, "You know, that's one thing about intellectuals. They've proven you can be absolutely brilliant without a clue of what's going on."
That was it, of course. I was stuck inside of a Woody Allen film with all of his Fellini references but without any of his humor. Where was Woody to poke fun at it all?
"Elaine, I'm not trying to suggest that everything was perfect ten years ago. In a city such as this, things never will be perfect and, yes, more often than not you need someone to make the decisions that you won't. All I'm asking is not to romanticize something that can't be romanticized. We both know without a second thought that we would take our own security over the appropriateness of social programs any day of the week." Putnam looked slightly worried as he finished his sentence, realizing that he may have, in fact, just advocated some form of hybrid elitist-fascist remedy for New York City.
Naturally, the Americans quickly took the careless European fascist bait, but Putnam was right. He had been the whole debate, only no one seemed to break down what he actually said. The sophisticated greats of New York City, those who make their livings off observations and ideas, regardless of how much they would not like to admit it, want the confirmation of their own security before anything else. It was nothing to be ashamed of, really. Anyone would feel the same way. Without securing the streets, the subways, the buildings and everything else, there would be no art galleries, no old Cinemas, only "hardly approachable cultural outlets" with undervalued Judaism. It was a realization that deep down, they surely understood, but could never admit to. Putnam was merely suggesting the cyclical nature of all things as beastly urban as New York. Was it returning to a state of chaos? Sure, there was a bit more garbage on the street these days, more cops on the subways, more graffiti on the cars. A city of greatness could fall at an exponential rate should it start to actually fall, but this was just a slide. This was normal. Putnam was right and everyone knew it. But he didn't know that the very nature of a New York Traditionalist is to love our city regardless. He didn't realize that to fiercely romanticize New York was to love it even with, or perhaps because of, its various slides and resurrections in the social spectrum. The beautiful dichotomy eluded him. He had only just moved here.
As the discussion of politics wound down, I was forced to abandon all things elite for a one-hundred word homily to the type of music that could have been made on a laptop computer. It was then that the looming threat of reality crept in: if I were really in a Woody Allen film, I would quit my job and write short anecdotes on the events of New York Traditionalists. I would move into a small apartment, join a tennis club and meet my editor for lunch once a week. But such is impossible. More than any other night, this night proved it so. The Wilstern's, Sylvia and Morton Gladstone, Gary Putnam'the characters in any such film'could not be likeable without a director who could broadcast a type of New York traditionalism that always makes New York City the heart of greatness and, if only by association, makes those of us in the city great as well.
I left the Wilstern's, slightly drunk on red wine and refreshed with a Brit's candid note on New York. It was quiet outside as I exited. Far from the sounds, ten miles away in New York City, I heard only a background noise. It could have been the voices of displaced New Yorkers squabbling over of urban politics. Yet if I listened with sonar concentration I could hear the muffled voices of screenwriters and art curators and even the low hum of a Gershwin verse or two.
Though this is a work of creative nonfiction, names and identities have been changed and any resemblance to actual people and parties in Westchester is completely coincidental.
Joanna Colangelo is pursuing her Master's degree in American cultural studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her primary writing and research interests lie in American film comedy, political satire and the reconciliation of American tragedy in American humor. In 2002, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Skidmore College with an honors degree in American Studies.