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City Desk: The Boulevardier in Winter

by Richard Brookhiser

Richard Brookhiser parties on Park

My friend’s book party was in a wonderful venue — a Park Avenue apartment. Luxury accommodations have sprouted up all over the city in the Bloomberg years, from Wall Street to Loisaida, but only on Park Avenue do they have the solidity that comes with oldth. The elevator opened into the foyer; not much chance of Chinese menus being slipped under this door. The lid of the baby grand was a parade ground of silver-framed photographs, the household gods of the urban bourgeoisie.

The owner was a gracious hostess, inviting her guests to circulate through the apartment, asking only, if they picked anything up, to put it back down. I saw all the people I always see at holiday functions: my fellow members of the city’s tiny caste of winger writers. I had a thoroughly modern conversation with a colleague about her recent appearance on C-SPAN/YouTube; 200 years ago she would have appeared at the Pump Room at Bath. There was a well-filled holiday bar with what looked like champagne; in an access of scrupulosity the bartender told me it was sparkling wine from some other sunny place, California or Italy; I told him if it was chilled and bubbling I would have it. Other staff circulated with hors d’oeuvres of the modern mashup variety: chickadees in sticky rice, caviar-covered bananas, if not those precisely then that kind of thing; it’s not your father’s pig-in-a-blanket.

The author said a few gracious words; a point and two anecdotes are what we writers should stick to on these occasions, and he delivered like a pro. There was farewell yak; picking up one of the new books and having it autographed (this was grand: I stopped displaying new books at my book parties when I realized everybody thought of them as freebies; let my friends shell out, is my attitude); then down the elevator batpole to the lobby. I had to meet my wife in half an hour, 30 blocks south. A brisk walk would do it.

It had been dark for hours. The approaching solstice and the end of daylight savings time sped greedy night along. In response the city broke out in lights: headlights, taillights, traffic lights; soft lights in fifth-floor living rooms, bright lights on fiftieth-floor setbacks. Druids coaxed the dying sun-god back to life with bonfires; secularism, Christianity’s wayward child, snaps its fingers. What dying? Time to party. Midwinter is a blip in the temperature-control system; sundown is our reveille.

The only way to move down Park Avenue at this time and in this season is by foot. The street is a glorious angry stasis, throbbing and immobile. The jam of the traffic heading east for the 59th Street Bridge is matched by the jam of the traffic peeling off to the west to look at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The pedestrian makes excellent progress; when the red crosswalk light tells us to stop we weave between the stalled bumpers that are as fixed as glacial boulders in Central Park.

You might think that parties would have more impact if they were spread evenly throughout the year. There is no special assistant in the mayor’s office to arrange such things (yet), but even in a free-for-all you would expect some party planners to schedule counter-cyclically. It doesn’t seem to work that way; corporations, promoters, even purveyors of niche-market artisanal items (like books) aim for that yawning fall-winter sweet spot that starts after the lip of Labor Day and plunges into the vertigo of year’s end. I have just come from a party, and my private stroll, undertaken for a conjugal purpose, becomes a parade of parties. The avenue is my moving reviewing stand; the functions float past me as I head south.

Residences give way to office buildings; vast windows open onto the sidewalk like prosceniums. This one is a showroom for cars; that one, I think, flogs cosmetics. The set-up inside each is similar: name-checker at the door; coat-checker inside; long slab of a bar, bristling with bottles and glasses like the teeth of a comb; men in suits, women in legs; test-drive the face powder, rub the fenders. If a fast walk beyond a pane of glass is too short and too distant for much enjoyment, fear not, here comes another one.

At 46th Street, the avenue weaves through the great complex of buildings that sits atop the Grand Central ganglion of train and subway tracks. The pedestrian experiences deferred gratification: a tunnel, a cross-street, some jumbled lobby space. It probably seems dull before you reach Niagara Falls too. Four escalators, two up, two down, signal the final dive into the main room of the terminal. Here as if suspended in air is one more party, on the loggia that runs around the vast space, one storey above the scurrying commuters: glasses in hands, name-tags on suits; off to the side, two people in director’s chairs being interviewed on television. The best parties are always televised, or at least the best televised parties always are.

At the bottom of the escalator two Lubavitcher boys eye the descending humanity. It is the second night of Hanukkah; one of them carries a shiny metallic balloon shaped like a menorah. Their mission is to spot Jews less observant than themselves and urge them to some deed of holiday remembrance. Their theory of evangelism is catholic, almost universalist: Any good deed, or mitzvah, they can get any Jew to do, however small, is one more step toward bringing the Messiah. As I slip past them, one asks, “Are you Jewish?” With my punim? Your Jewdar needs a tune-up, kid, but thanks for asking. Behind them, by the information booth under the little gold clock, sits an impromptu circle: some more kids and two young Lubavitcher men in their trademark black fedoras (the only people outside of Mad Men who still wear hats). They were spinning dreidels, little Hanukkah tops. The last party.

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