On Nov. 14, Pilot editor John Nagy wrote his Sunday column about visiting New York City — Manhattan, at least — for the first time. The occasion was happy: his own short honeymoon coupled with attending a brother’s wedding.

His experience sounded less than perfect and rightly so: For the unprepared, New York is a jungle. Streets are crowded, though less so since COVID. Crime thrives. Prices are laughable. Skyscrapers hide the sun. People, always in a rush, seem wary.

Knowing this, I felt sad. New York wasn’t always so.

I was born there in 1939 and lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side near the tip of Manhattan until I was 11. We could see the Hudson River from the fire escape. I returned to the city for summers, during college, to work as a tour guide at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center.

What a job. At lunch, we took our sandwiches to the observation roof, where the Empire State Building, 16 blocks south, appeared almost touchable. I saw every show on Broadway — standing room only — with other college kids.

Even with World War II raging, New York in the 1940s was a glorious place to grow up. I sledded in the park, roller skated on the velvety black asphalt tennis courts. By the fifth grade, I took the subway two stops to my school, alone. Unthinkable, today.

Last week I sat in a departure lounge at LaGuardia, realizing that for me, LaGuardia isn’t an airport, but Mayor “Fiorello” (little flower) LaGuardia, who read the funny papers to kids on the radio, when the newspapers were on strike.

Moore County is the chosen home to many who share the same imprint, deep with sharp edges. Do they remember:

  • How people riding the subway to work would fold their newspapers (Times and Herald Tribune) longitudinally to take up less room?
  • What about the Suchard nickel candy dispensers on the platforms? The animated Christmas windows along Fifth Avenue?
  • Even better, the lunch cafes inside the department stores, frequented mostly by women shoppers? Bird Cage at Lord & Taylor; Charleston Garden at B. Altman.
  • How about the “frankfurters” and powdered sugar doughnuts at Chock Full O’Nuts, then a coffee shop chain, not just a supermarket brand?
  • Tinkling bells, signaling the arrival of the Good Humor man in his white truck?
  • “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” played out on the corner opposite Radio City Music Hall, where a wizened little man wearing fingerless gloves did just that?
  • Central Park’s Children’s Zoo, visited after watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was actually a parade, not a series of stages — and nobody worried about terrorist attacks?
  • The glory that was Pennsylvania Station, fashioned after Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, with 148-foot-tall ceilings? The marble floor was slippery beneath my new patent leather Mary Janes.
  • The radio shows, like “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick,” “Grand Central Station” (subtitled “Crossroads of a Million Lives,” “Mr. I. Magination,” “The Arthur Godfrey Show” and those first teenie-weenie TV screens fronted by a magnifying glass, the better to watch Howdy Doody?
  • The enormous dinosaur skeletons reconstructed from fossils at the Museum of National History, where elementary school classes flocked, in awe? Or the Hayden Planetarium which brought the sky to life? Or F.A.O. Schwarz toy emporium?
  • Going by subway to Brooklyn on Sunday to visit Auntie Sarah before all the Auntie Sarahs died and Brooklyn became trendy, artsy, rather affected? You always returned home with a box of butter cookies from Ebinger’s. The boxes were tied with blue and white twisted string. Strange, the details that stick.

Do I hear a heart beating faster?

But after the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and the Rockettes, the landmarks that long defined Manhattan weren’t avant garde Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Instead, natives flocked to Horn and Hardart Automats. These cafeterias — with self-serve sections where your pie rotates out of a little window and the woman who makes change that opens those windows can count nickels by the way they feel spraying through her fingers — are so quintessential that when the last Automat closed a piece of New York died.

Wanna see tears? Ask an old New Yorker what he liked best at the Automat. My favorites: scallops, Harvard beets, the world’s best mashed potatoes, liverwurst on a graham roll with a little pot of crusty baked beans, prune Danish, huckleberry pie. I have eaten at Maxim’s in Paris, Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach (Hemingway’s hangout), Harry’s Bar in Venice, Milos in Montreal. Not half as good.

Gone, all gone. I looked up the modest two-bedroom apartment where I lived as a child. Our rent was $70 a month. Now a condo, and it’s for sale, for $1.1 million.

Drug dealers lurk in the parks where I sledded and skated. At least the Staten Island Ferry plies the same route past Ellis Island, where my paternal grandparents arrived from Russia in the 1880s.

Does pride still reside in everyman’s New York? Did the spirit that brought people together on Sept. 11 evaporate? Or is it all “Sex and the City” and “Blue Bloods”?

I haven’t been back to New York for years. All my connections are severed. But memories of a better, safer, fun New York linger.

Go back, John. Walk the streets. Experience a real bagel. The Automats may be history but I’ll bet some character is still roasting chestnuts opposite Radio City Music Hall. Maybe you’ll cop an interview.

Contact Deb Salomon at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.

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