I learned that early in my Manhattan tenure. On my very first solo walk around the city, I came around a midtown corner to face the Algonquin Hotel.
It’s hard to explain the simultaneous resonance and disconnect of this. I had spent the last five years steeped in American writers of the 1920s, and here was one of their nerve centers. (Scribners would prove a greater let down.) I pushed through the doors into blended fantasy and reality.
In truth, it was just a hotel, though gracious, and, after a brief stroll through dining room where the Round Table once held sway, I found myself in the beautiful Blue Bar to the right of the lobby. On the walls hung framed napkins decorated with James Thurber doodles. I sat at the bar itself, alongside an elegant couple, and feeling very much the West Coast pseudo-hippy, in long hair and beard, Frye boots, beat-to-shit blue jeans, pre-Cobain flannel shirt, and black leather motocycle jacket. The barman asked me what I wanted. At the time, my drink of choice was a margarita (Cuervo on the rocks, never blended, with salt). But, without hesitation, I said: martini.
Wet or dry, sir?
I ordered dry as it sounded a tad more sophisticated, but in truth I had no idea of the difference. (I later came to prefer wet, and always with gin. I see absolutely no value in a vodka martini, other than the olive’s tasty. I’ve also since had martinis both shaken and stirred, and I see no difference there either–sorry Ian. The gin seems no worse for the supposed bruising.) The drink was perfect. I chatted with the beautiful couple, who were rather charming once you punched through their haughtiness, and ordered another round.
The real magic came when I left the bar. I’d been there a couple hours. The sun had gone down, and New York’s lights swirled, slightly gauzy in a light fog, amid honking horns seemingly playing the intro to Rhapsody in Blue, and pedestians all hustling, gruff or laughing, and graffiti, and madmen trying to sell you watches strapped up and down their arms. And it was all…perfect. Utter insanity, with it’s own kind of logic–a beauty I’d never seen before. A line broke in me: I dropped my guard and let the city in. I became a New Yorker.
For several years, every payday post-work, I would saunter to the Algonquin, find a seat at the Blue Bar, order two martinis, and have the most stunningly fascinating conversations with strangers. Once I was there reading D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” and a pair of out-of-towners pointed to Lawrence’s picture on the back of the book and asked if that was me. Unfortunately, I fought off the impulse to say yes, yes, and autograph the copy for them. (“Look, Alice. We met Mr. D.H. Lawrence in New York, and he gave us one of his books! He said we should check out this ‘Lady Chatterly’ book of his. It’s about gardening.”)
In perfect New York manner, I regularly rediscovered my sanity at the Algonquin by temporarily puttting it aside for an evening.