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Moral Rest in Old New York

Joseph Epstein loves New York

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Tourism, it has been said, is a condition of moral rest. On a recent trip to New York—where I was lent a two-room time-share apartment on 56th Street across from Carnegie Hall—I invoked this maxim time and again. I ate what I pleased, saw what I wished, did no work of any substance, and achieved nothing whatsoever in the way of self-improvement. 

New York

Michael Sloan

I enjoy New York’s hum, the cacophony of foreign languages I hear on its streets, the high quality of its food, the frankly sexual get-ups of its female denizens. For these reasons, and for the wondrous variety of its shops, New York is one of the world’s great walking cities. Walk in it I did, every chance I got, yet scarcely able to take in all the rich tumult—the rhooshey-booshey, in a fine neologism of my mother’s—there on display. 

Moral rest includes cultural rest. One of the things I did in New York was drop my highbrow standard and take myself to a musical comedy. I saw Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, which has been running for five years. Without a dead moment, the show is well-made, which in part explains its long run. The music isn’t my music—I am of an age that puts me well on the other side of the rock ’n’ roll divide—but not without its charms: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Silhouettes,” “Walk Like a Man,” and the rest. 

The great moment in the show for me, though, was the quiet one when the actor who plays Frankie Valli announces that the Beatles came along and wiped every other group out, but not the Four Seasons. The Beatles, he says, made music for people who protested war; the Four Seasons made music for people who went to war, for the soldiers and the truck drivers and the hamburger flippers. What made this all the more interesting was that the people in the audience, many now in their fifties and early sixties, were preponderantly these people, now grown older but still enamored of the music. 

To rinse the Four Seasons’ songs from my mind, the next day I took myself to the Metropolitan Museum. I spent my time there in the Greek and Roman collection, at the end of which was the installation of the third-century a.d. Roman floor mosaic found in Lod, Israel. I ended this with a quick walk through a small collection of Cézanne drawings and sketches for his famous painting “The Card Players.” Still, all this high culture could not stop me, once I hit the street, from humming “Silhouettes.”

Food in New York is as good as it is because of the sheer demandingness of New Yorkers. Poor restaurants die quickly there, where in other cities they live on for three generations. I stopped to pick up a salad at a place called Chop’t on West 51st Street, the unrelenting energy of whose workers, servicing a perpetually lengthy line of harried lunchers, is of a kind difficult to imagine encountering most places in America. I had two lunches at Cellini, on East 54th Street, my favorite restaurant, where even the water tastes good. One, accompanied by much laughter and rich gossip, was in the company of two old friends, one a native New Yorker, his wife a naturalized one. 

I could have become a naturalized New Yorker myself. I lived there, in my middle twenties, for a few years. When I was young, if one felt one had talent, New York was the only place to test it. Certainly this was—and remains—true for the performing arts: acting, singing, dance, classical music performance. One night I attended three ballets put on by the Juilliard School and was impressed by the professional level attained by its young dancers in works by three very different choreographers: Nijinska, Eliot Feld, and Mark Morris. Nowhere else in America but in New York was this possible. 

For writers the beneficence of living in New York is less certain: So much energy is used up in the sheer exercise of living. Nor is it clear that the city is the best place to find the ripest material for either fiction or nonfiction. New York, in a strange way, isn’t really America at all; it has been described—not inaccurately, in my view—as a European city but of no known country. 

Had I remained in New York, I would have got less work done. Whether the quality of what I have written would have been better under the forcing house of endlessly vibrant New York is not something I can judge. 

I remain, then, a visitor, a man come to see the sights and seek the odd week’s necessary moral rest.

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