Remembrance of places past: revisiting my Village

By Patricia Fieldsteel

I have now lived in Provence for a year. One year ago, I left New York and the West Village, the only real home I’d ever known. I have no plans to return. “My” New York is forever frozen at 6:30 p.m. July 16, 2002, when I entered the Holland Tunnel for Newark and points beyond. The day was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, a typical New York summer day.

Often now, I visit “my” New York. Of course, I walk down Jane St. Sometimes the corner garden is there and sometimes the old 1843 buildings are still standing in its space. Spyros Market is round about where the white trellis seat was when I left and Annie Shuster is keeping strict order behind the counter, pausing only to feed turkey scraps to the neighborhood dogs, breaking her stern exterior to smile at anyone buying cans of cat or dog food. Sometimes Tavern on Jane is on the corner and other times it’s still Kevin McCallion’s Jane Street Seafood Cafe, or Jerry Foley’s Bar (known as The Paddock by its mostly blue-collar regulars), the day’s special announced on a sandwich board on the sidewalk: meat loaf, mashed pots, green beans, corn, apple pie $4.95. Sometimes at night the “pianer lady” can be glimpsed through the window, sitting at her wooden upright, belting out boozy ballads, her Clairol-blonde bouffant tight on her head like a medieval helmet.

Often I sit on the wooden bench outside with one of my New York dogs — Daisy, or Sally before her — and watch the world go by from the sloping corner sidewalk.

Occasionally the thatched-roof windmill is still in the garden, its sails creaking as they turn. In winter the Christmas tree family is often parked outside, the uplifting scent of evergreens perfuming the air, mixing with the aroma of burning fireplace wood. Despite the lush summer bouquet of flowers and plants, I like the garden best during a snowstorm, the branches of the trees bowing low from the weight of pristine flakes. When I walk by at night the wind howls, rustling the trees and blowing swirling funnels of lacy snow.

In “my” New York the HIP Bagel is still on W. Fourth St., Balducci’s is on Sixth Ave. and Garber’s Hardware occupies the bright orange store on the corner of W. Fourth and Eighth. No matter what I’m looking for, Garber’s always has it and usually something else I suddenly discover I desperately must have. Several decades ago I learned never to anticipate a quick trip to Garber’s; if I resisted the unbearable temptation to graze in the narrow warren of stacked aisles, there would still be a lengthy wait, squashed amongst neighbors, strangers, strollers and dogs, in front of the high wood counter, as one of the nephews, or Hank or Helen in the old days, carefully wrote out by hand an itemized receipt, slowly sorting and depositing one’s cash in the ancient register, counting out the change aloud down to the last penny before packing everything up in a classic Garber-orange sack.

I often walk along the river in the days before the park. I especially like to go towards sunset when the World Trade Center glows golden and pink. And yes, I go back to that day. Often. It is impossible not to. Do I wish I’d left New York on Sept. 10, 2001?

That day, too, is clear in my mind. I’d gone for a swim at Chelsea Piers in the late afternoon, lounged in the sauna and steam room, showered and washed my hair. And I’d meticulously put on makeup — mascara, foundation, blusher, eye shadow, lipstick, gloss, the whole bit — something I hadn’t done during the preceding weeks when I’d been depressed.

I walked home along the Hudson, taking in the glorious skyline, the joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and Rollerbladers; the ducks, Canada geese and a cormorant or two. I passed the Gansevoort Peninsula, seeing not the garbage trucks and idle buses but rather the projected beach filled with happy New Yorkers swimming once again in the Hudson, and I remember thinking, “We are sitting on a goldmine,” those of us who live in the West Village. A magnificent future lay right before us.

I decided to splurge and stop at Pastis for a Suze, a Gentian and orange aperitif popular in the area of Provence, which in those days I still came only to visit. The bartender apologized; they were out, it was not their most popular drink, they’d have more in two weeks. Would I like a Lillet? White, with a slice of orange. We chatted, mainly about France. My mood was dreamy, carefree. I spent a leisurely evening at home with my pets and went to bed early, slept peacefully and awoke to a gorgeous day. No, if what happened had to happen, I’m not sorry I was there. I’m a New Yorker; I don’t think I would have been able to bear being anyplace else.

Now, often in my time travels, I admit, I go above 14th St.; I even go to the Upper East Side, visit other boroughs, go below Canal and above 125th. Sometimes it’s the 1990s; other times it’s the late ’40s, the ’50s, ’60s ’70s or ’80s. Wherever I go, I am always happy, curious, full of wonder as can happen only with distance and time.

My knowledge of New York is admittedly eccentric. During the 1980s, I worked with street prostitutes; consequently there isn’t a prostitute stroll in the five boroughs I don’t know. Those stories are wrenching, funny and tough. There’s also the New York of my childhood; of Saturday matinees with my grandfather and lunch in the wood-paneled Edwardian Room at The Plaza or at silk-ceilinged Le Pavillon. There are birthday parties at the Bronx Zoo for the baby orangutans and camel rides and stale popcorn and hot dogs from Sabrett’s; the sliver-thin toy store on E. 23rd near Second with the resident monkey, Bobo; and the tame black and gray squirrels of Peter Cooper Village, a brand-new housing complex when my grandparents moved in.

There’s the paper Japanese house in the garden at the Museum of Modern Art, which I viewed from my great-grandmother’s apartment across the street in the days when children under 14 were denied entry to most museums. There’s the New York City Ballet with the young and dazzling Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent. There are lunches at Schrafft’s with my friends from Camp Pinecliffe; open-faced ham and melted cheddar cheese sandwiches, hot fudge coffee ice cream sundaes. Haircuts at Best’s; lunches with my grandmother at the Charleston Gardens or the even-now still-magical Automat. Forays in the ’80s to Brighton Beach when the signs were all in Cyrillic, the prices in rubles and the sight of a newly arrived Russian was still novel and new.

My New York is vibrant, fluid, limitless, alive. Yes, I live in Provence; I adore my new home. I never want to leave. I have a frequent nightmare: I am back in New York, trapped, trying to explain I live in Provence and need to return. The nightmare is so awful I wake up; I glimpse the mountains from my bed and know I am safe. And yet, I think we all know where a large part of my heart lives.