A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition. While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth. Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg. And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.
Yes, Second Avenue (pictured) is looking rather worse—and far less flashy—than it did when the street was lined not with gold, but with gals who may or may not have a ticker made of that precious metal; you know, ladies whose line, like the subway’s, is well below. Wonderful Town is not without hints of darkness, but, as in many musicals of the 1940 and ’50s, the shadier urbanites are colorful caricatures rather than delicately shaded characters. And if Wonderful is now not as well liked as it was when it premiered, this may be owing to the fact that, even though the characters are based on real people, the assembled Christopher Street portraits are cleaned up so thoroughly as to make them look like stock figures in a formulaic pastiche. That said, the musical still offers a glimpse at life during the Great Depression and remains translatable—and relatable—to anyone who can read between all those half erased lines of none-of-your-business.
Not that I need to step out of my old apartment to get that sinking Ruth and Eileen feeling. The two women struggled to find work and put up with a lot while waiting for a break, a wait that, in Eileen’s case, ended at the age of 26 in a fatal car crash. Journalist Ruth McKenney immortalized her sister and saw—or made us see—the bright side of their hardship and the squalor down in their dingy, downstairs domicile. Indeed, when I first caught up with My Sister Eileen, sitting in an Upper East Side park listening to a 1948 radio production starring Shirley Booth, I assumed it to be a comment in the post-Second World War housing crisis. And it is this crisis that hits home today.
If ever I write another autobiography—the one I penned somewhat prematurely at age 14 was discarded once it had served its purpose of communicating my pubescent angst to the girls in my class, whom I knew it was pointless for me to pursue—I might take a lesson from Ruth and look on the proverbial if sometimes elusive silver lining when I reflect on this morning’s knock on the door. An eviction notice was posted on it and my old apartment is once again contested territory. I am writing this—while culture beckons unheeded—sitting at the shaky dinner table that, for many years, was stacked with books, student essays, and the drafts of my MA thesis and PhD dissertation. No, this town would not feel half as wonderful to me if it weren’t for that table, this apartment, and for the friendship that made it possible—and indeed desirable—to come back for a visit, year after year . . .