I am no Miniver Cheevy, pining for days gone by. Not usually. But having just signed piles of paper before a gaggle of lawyers to get a relatively simple transaction done, I am thinking of Wally, if that was his real name.
Wally was a New York City entrepreneur who brought competition to off-track betting and markets to the distribution of theater tickets. In short, he was a bookmaker and ticket scalper. Wally always wanted to own a restaurant, partly to have something he could claim as a “visible means of support,” partly because the legend of Jilly’s, Frank Sinatra’s hangout, Toots Shor’s Restaurant, and other night joints drove him on. So eventually he opened one, in the heart of the theater district.
No sauces or anything fancy: huge steaks served on sizzling platters, five-pound lobsters, martinis, and anything else that you might want before or after a Knicks game or Broadway musical. And a proprietor who would sit down and chat for as long as it suited you, even if your date wasn’t interested in the line on the weekend’s football matchups.
At the beginning things went poorly with the restaurant, and Wally was one step ahead of his creditors—not those to whom he might owe something in his main lines of business, since nonpayment there could be health-threatening, but food and linen suppliers and the like.
I had been using Wally’s to entertain clients, feed my son and his pals before basketball games, even play host to some of my more effete friends who were visiting New York. For them, the Wally’s scene was as exotic as the scene at their Knick—the Waspy, private Knickerbocker Club—would have been for me and, I suspect, for Clyde Frazier, Patrick Ewing, and the rest of New York’s real Knicks. When Wally told me he might have to close, I asked how much I had spent there every month and offered to pay him a year’s worth of dinners in advance in order to help him out and keep me in steaks. He accepted. No witnesses. No papers. Just a deal between an academic economist and a man who everyone in town knew kept his word.
The good news is the restaurant took off and became The Place to Be for a certain sort of high-rolling New Yorker.
Flash forward a few years. I am on the West Coast on business and am taken ill. I call my then fiancée, now wife, Cita in New York and ask her to come help me get home where there are doctors with Park Avenue offices proving their competence. But, being frugal, she has neither cash for a ticket nor credit cards.
I tell her to go to Wally’s, ask for him, explain the problem. She does. He whips out a roll of bills and puts it in her hand. She starts to commit the unpardonable sin only a bona fide member of the Junior League would think of: She begins to count the money. Wally stops her. He knows how much is there, will tell me when I get back, and knows I will take his word. No witnesses, no lawyers, nothing to sign.
The lady flies out to the left coast and helps me get back to New York, where doctors pronounce the ailment a one-off with scary symptoms but little consequence. So to Wally’s for a celebratory dinner and repayment in cash, then some show or other for which Wally has obtained tickets by introducing an innovation later to be adopted by the airlines: He has stood in front of the theater and offered a $200 per ticket premium plus free tickets for the following night. He’s chosen the best seats from the many offered, ignoring the fact that New York’s attorney general was cracking down on scalpers that month. Bureaucrats do try to snuff out markets wherever they rear their democratizing heads. But the AG was a longtime Wally’s client.
I have never figured out whether the difference between the 21st century and the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s is the difference between Washington and New York or the difference between now and then. I like to think it is different cities, different ways of doing business. But deep down, I suspect that the times have changed—and, in this regard, not for the better.