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An Empire State of Mind



By Andrew McCarthy

GO NEW YORK: As New Yorkers get to grips with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, actor, director and writer ANDREW McCARTHY takes us on a tour of his favourite places in the resilient and remarkable city he calls home

I’VE BEEN IN this relationship for 32 years. I was a wide-eyed youth when it all began – a fresh-faced punk, awed and thrilled and a little fearful of her power. She was terrible beauty like no other, but going through a rough patch. She had a bad reputation and was nearly bankrupt – even the President of the United States had publicly tuned his back on her. It didn’t matter. When I took a one-way trip across the Hudson River from New Jersey, settled into a fourth-floor walk-up off Washington Square in Greenwich Village, it was love at first sight – this was New York City.

Over all these years my relationship with the Big Apple has waxed and waned, soared and plummeted. I’ve felt completely understood by her and also so utterly alone in her belly. I’ve never been happier, or more desperate. I’m one of eight million, but my relationship with the city,like everyone’s, is unique.

Places that might mean nothing to you are filled with resonance for me. All these years later I still can’t walk past the anonymous corner of 9th Avenue and 47th Street without remembering the lobby of a rundown office building I was in when I heard the news that President Reagan had been shot.

That building is long gone, torn down when Hells Kitchen began its transformation from Irish American slum into one of the city’s hipper areas more than a decade ago, yet the memory lingers and informs my relationship with the neighbourhood, enriches it. And just down the street, you might walk past Rudy’s Bar and not look twice. But it was the first place I took a legal drink in New York. Back then Rudy’s was what we called “a bucket of blood”. The place hasn’t changed much over the years, it’s still a “dive,” but the crowd has softened and today you’re as likely to see bridge-and-tunnel tourists as you are to meet the surly old codgers nursing their scotch.

Like all relationships, things evolve and change over time. The funky Greenwich Village of my youth has morphed into one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city, pricing out the artists and oddballs. Places I relied upon have closed and left me wanting – only to reward my exploration and deeper investment. When my favourite diner closed down I felt betrayed, until I found the Lexington Candy Shop Luncheonette further uptown. The burgers are even better, and the chocolate shake richer than any I’ve had in the city.

As with any deep attraction, core attributes abide – dinner at Joe Allen on Restaurant Row is still my favourite way to cap a night at the theater (and their unadvertised Bar Centrale upstairs behind an unmarked door is even better). And Sunday brunch at Balthazar, a big boisterous bistro in Soho, never disappoints.

Yet the obvious charms outsiders adore, locals often take for granted. I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, but I’ve repeatedly taken the (free) Staten Island Ferry at sunset and watched the sky turn purple over the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan.

I never went up to the observation deck in the World Trade Center, yet I’ve been to the site of Ground Zero numerous times since 9/11, and recommend it to every visitor. And only once have I been skating at Rockefeller Center beneath the giant Christmas tree – the idea of coming to New York to go skating is like going to Las Vegas for the fountain displays.

Yet there’s no denying certain attributes of beauty, they are apparent to both the casual acquaintance and intimate alike. An hour walking the spiral at the Guggenheim Museum always leaves me shaking my head at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s genius – no matter what art is on display.

Nor can I walk past the Empire State Building and not crane my neck and marvel. It took less than one year at the height of the Great Depression to create what was then the tallest building in the world.

Then there’s the ever-growing farmers’ market that transforms Union Square from an impersonal, chaotic crossroads into a swarming, global, local village several times a week.

And the only thing better than a new flame is the fresh thrill of discovery in an old love. I thought I knew all about the staid and buttoned down Upper East Side of Manhattan, until I discover the rooftop bat at The Surry, a posh uptown hotel with a downtown sense of chic, just off Madison Avenue. And just recently a friend led me uptown to Harlem, to the Red Rooster on Lenox Avenue, not far from the famous Apollo Theater, and the corn bread literally melted in my mouth.

Then there was the day I stumbled upon Ireland in downtown Manhattan. Just off the Hudson River, the Irish Hunger Memorial is a nation in microcosm, with stones from all 32 counties, the remnants of a cottage from Carradoogan in Mayo, and wild and rolling turf. It’s a haunting, evocative tribute to the three million who died in the famine – surrounded by the soaring buildings of the densely packed Battery Park City.

When the crush of humanity is finally too much, a walk through Central Park on a fine day is both a respite from the city’s throb and a distinctly New York experience. Since my recent move uptown, my discovery of the often-deserted North and East Meadows in the park’s upper reaches have me falling in love anew with the ultimate urban green space.

As with all long-term relationships, over the years things are said that one doesn’t mean, and I’ve occasionally threatened to leave. But then I wonder where I would go. There’s nowhere like New York in America – there is nowhere like it in the world. It’s a singular place that welcomes us all with its brashness. Come – the stark and sentimental skyline seems to beckon – reinvent yourself here, make of yourself what you can, others before you have done the same, but no one exactly like you; your relationship with the greatest city on earth is like none other.

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Tuesday, March 28 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Union Square In conversation with Gayle Forman 33 E. 17th St., New York, NY 10003 Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Vernon Hills Shopping Center 680 Post Rd., Eastchester, NY 10583 Thursday, March 30 at 7pm Books & Greetings 271 Livingston St., Northvale, NJ 07647 Saturday, April 1 Texas Teen Book Con | Houston, TX Sunday, April 2 Alamo Drafthouse | Austin, TX Monday, April 3 at 7pm Books, Inc Opera Plaza Not Your Mother’s Book Club 601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94107 Tuesday, April 4 at 7pm Book Passage 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925 Wednesday, April 5 at 8pm Live Talks LA In conversation with Pico Iyer Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404 Thursday, April 6 at 7pm Elliott Bay Books 1521 10th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122 Friday, April 7 at 7pm Powell’s Books 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, OR 97005 Sunday, April 9 at 5pm Politics & Prose 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 Monday, April 10 at 7pm Boswell Books 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53211 Tuesday, April 11 at 7pm The Book Stall at Chestnut Court In conversation with Betsy Bird 811 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093 Wednesday, April 12 at 7pm Talk of the Stacks Series Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central Library 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 Thursday, April 13 at 6:30pm Parnassus Books Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center 3900 Hillsboro Pike #14, Nashville, TN 37215 Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30pm Rainy Day Books At Woodneath Library 8900 N. Flintock Rd., Kansas City, MO 64157 Wednesday, April 19 at 7pm St. Louis County Library With The Novel Neighbor 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63131 Thursday, April 20 at 7pm Georgia Center for the Book With Little Shop of Stories Dekalb County Public Library 215 Sycamore St., Decatur, GA 30030 Friday, April 21 at 7pm Books & Books 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134 Tuesday, April 25 at 7pm Barnes & Noble Market Fair, 3535 US-1 #400, Princeton, NJ 08540 Wednesday, April 26 at 7pm Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446 Monday, May 1 at 7pm Darien Library In conversation with Dani Shapiro 1441 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820