Memories and New York Stories

BACK in the '50s in the small city near Chicago in which I lived, it was something of an event when any of the local gentry went to New York. Chicago was "everyday," we all went there. The truck from Marshall Field's was a common sight in the neighborhood, delivering everything from stored furs to laundry soap to those who used Chicago as their consumeristic Mecca.

In fact, there really was very little of the ordinary and even extraordinary stuff that could not be had in and around Chicago. But it was still the "second city" in the mind of those whose imaginations had a national scope, including some in our own small city, including my family.

When my parents and another couple decided to go to New York for a week, there was a small notice in the society section of the local newspaper about their journey and the fact that they would be staying at the Pierre Hotel. This little clipping was saved, and I remember it and the constellation of images that came into my mind when I saw it years later in a scrapbook with other pictures of that trip: Mom and Dad at the Stork Club, Mom with her hair in a fabulous hairdo created by a Caruso at the Waldorf , Dad looking especially pleased to be with her that night.

They also went to "21." It was the stuff of legend, this old speakeasy turned magnet for postwar New York chic. After that first visit, Mom and Dad were hooked on "21." They opened a charge account.

I went to school near New York in 1966. Every Thanksgiving my parents came to New York to spend the weekend with my brother and me. We always went to "21." I noticed that they never brought a check to the table at the end of the meal. Dad had a "charge" and it was all "taken care of."

I wanted to do that, too. Without much coaxing, I got my parents to let me take a friend to lunch in 1968 at "21." We never saw the check. We thought that was very cool, just as I was amazed that whenever I ate a roll, another appeared miraculously without my ever seeing the waiter bring it.

My friend and I saw a bottle of champagne with a little note on the bottom saying that it was reserved for President Nixon. This was the height of the Vietnam period, and I had a pen in my pocket. I took it out, looked around, and put a peace symbol on the champagne bottle. A reporter from New York Magazine who spotted this during his research on an article on "21" cited it as "guerrilla warfare" to the delight of my friend and me. That little mark made more public noise than any of my marching and shout ing in those years.

Later that year, I went with the same friend into New York. I was supposed to stay with him and his mother at his uncle's apartment. But when we got there, it was clear that a mistake had been made. My friend was unfamiliar with the apartment; it was a studio. There was no place for me to sleep.

His mother was unaware that we had expected me to stay there; I could tell that right away. So I nonchalantly spoke of my hotel room and left. I had $20 and had no knowledge of any place to stay except the Plaza Hotel, where I had stayed with my parents. I knew somehow that they had $18 rooms which had been servant's rooms in the old days.

I went to the Plaza and they refused to let me in; I was under 18 and there was a law about that. Then I remembered my dad's words about getting into trouble in New York, "If you ever get into trouble, just go see Jerry Berns at the `21.' He will help you out." I needed help but I didn't want my parents to know that I had gone to the city without their knowing. I decided to take a chance; maybe at "21" they could get me a hotel room and then I would just disappear into the urban twilight.

I went to that familiar entrance with the statuesque jockeys and wrought-iron gates guarding the portal of this ex-speakeasy. I went in. I asked for Jerry Berns. He came and I told him who I was, my need, and what my dad had said.

I did not know what to expect, but even if it was a rebuff that would at least eliminate one option. Instead, he called some other men over and told them the story. They agreed that it was one of the highest compliments that their establishment could be paid that someone with a "charge" would also consider "21" a safe harbor for my kind of waif.

Jerry Berns said, "Look. That guy over there runs the Plaza. He'll get you your room, no problem. Don't give it another thought. But say, have you eaten? No? Well, we can't send you out of here hungry. Come on in. I was just starting dinner with a friend."

I went in. The friend was Colonel Sanders. So there I was in "21" under the ceiling covered with toy planes and trucks having the biggest cheeseburger on earth with Mr. Kentucky Fried and with this Santa named Jerry Berns.

Word came that my room was ready. No one said a thing about paying for dinner so I didn't ask.

I left and went to register at the hotel, ready to turn over my money and not eat again until the next evening, since I would not have had enough left for the train. At the hotel desk, I was told that, "It has all been taken care of." I was amazed. They really did take care of me at "21." They even paid for the room!

A month later I was talking to Dad. He said, "By the way, we got a bill from `21' for your dinner and hotel room." I grabbed for words and decided the truth would do since he was the one who had told me what to do when I got into trouble. We agreed that I had done OK, but that there was really no need for me to keep my parents out of my adventures in New York; they had had theirs and it was fun, back in Illinois, to be part of my life elsewhere.

My parents live with me, my wife, and children now. Daily lives that were "elsewhere" for over two decades have now come close again. Life has changed for them and me. But memory keeps distilling the past for what was both fun and meaningful, and as I share what I remember with them, they share what they remember with me. ("Oh yes, Bruce, that was something when I got my hair done at the Waldorf. I called for an appointment and Caruso said he could fit me in after the Duchess of Windsor. I told him I tho ught she wore a wig!")

Dad no longer has the charge account at "21," and now I write his checks for him. That is life, now. But the fabric of our lives still includes memories, and tomorrow will include the memories we are making now. They give what is the luster of what was and help keep life whole.

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