In the very early sixties I paid fifteen dollars a week for a furnished room on West 95th Street. In June, the temperature began to rise and there was a riot on the block. Plant pots and garbage rained down from the roofs prompting a massive police response. I moved to the Bronx. Immigrants don’t start out in Manhattan and then move to the Bronx. It should be the other way around. This was a double dislocation.
On the radio the sounds of summer music, surfing, all-American music, were a constant. Those summers brought a yearning. Like Truman Capote’s character I was standing outside, looking foolish, with my nose pressed against the glass. Then I was drafted. During weekends on a beach in North Carolina, in the company of a fellow troop and a couple of Waves, I got a foot in the door of Americana.
Back in New York after two years and feeling insecure, I took the first job I could find, as a midnight security guard in the new Lincoln Center, the white elephant. No one will go there, it was said.
“Oh, I only go to the West Side when I am embarking for Yurrup,” declaimed the grand ladies of the East Side.
I found an apartment on West End Avenue and a new job, working nights in a restaurant and bar, over on the East Side. I was spending too much money on taxis, so I moved east. But the West Side always beckoned. (The Berlin Wall came down later but Checkpoint Charlie still stands, in my mind at least, at the West 65th Street entrance to the transverse).
In 1974, about to be married, I came back, to the West Seventies, among actors, singers, musicians, writers and composers. Our street rejoiced to the strains of piano and violin practice, vocal and dramatic exercises. Windows were left open, lending life and a sense of community — even an annual block party. By 1977 I was in partnership in a Mexican restaurant on West Seventy First Street. “An Irishman with a Mexican restaurant?” people remarked, and laughed. “I’m a late blooming mick,” I said, “and an early Mex.”
Some years later a young man from Brooklyn, in describing his childhood, told me that all the action took place in front of the houses. Open fire hydrants allowed the kids to run through and cool off, while they played stickball and stoopball. An adult, an aunt or grandmother, always kept watch. He got married and moved to Syosset, or some such place on Long Island, where the children play at the rear of the house. Family activities, parties and barbecues, all take place there. Streets and front lawns remain undisturbed.
And so it is, now, with our streets on the Upper West Side, the UWS. (UWS puts me in mind of a neurological disorder, something I may have and don’t yet know about. Or a rare form of schizophrenia, brought on by the conflict between the flood of high-end stores and our West Side Mom and Pop mentality. Could be worse, I suppose. We could be DUMBO). UWS or no, children do not play on the sidewalks, never mind in the streets. In the age of the predator they cannot go without supervision.
In summertime young parents, with their children, head for the country house. Middle-aged people seem to disappear for the season. Summer in the city, I have concluded, is for the old and the young. Old people, wrapped in sweaters to fend off the air conditioning, take comfort in complaint. To their mates they complain, to the ceiling, to the offending air conditioner itself. Young people take their bikes to Central Park to ride round and round at breakneck speed and, with any luck, to kill off one or two wandering complainers.
In July of 2013, on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, our friend Joe Hurley and the Consul General of Ireland, Noel Kilkenny, mounted the Ourland Fest, outdoors, at Lincoln Center. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was the inspiration. The mainstream coalesced with an echo of the counter culture as people brought their own lands and their songs, a fabulous afternoon of spoken word and a feast of music, Ourland lasted well into the evening. It was my birthday and so I got to sing two songs onstage. Thanks to Jonathan Morehead and his wife, Jeannine Hannum, a cake appeared. The whole audience sang Happy Birthday. With my nose no longer pressed against the glass, I am happy to be here, on the good old UWS.
(And I only go to the East Side when I’m heading for Kennedy.)
Alphie McCourt is a writer living on the Upper West Side. He was born Ireland and follows in the literary footsteps of his two older brothers, Malachy and the late Frank.
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