A marvelous love letter to NYC’s Upper West Side

http://www.westsiderag.com/2022/03/18/coming-home-a-love-letter-to-the-upper-west-side

Coming Home, A Love Letter to the Upper West Side

Posted on March 18, 2022 at 9:17 am by West Side Rag

Photographs by Jules Watson.

by Jules Watson

I moved to 325 W. 75th Street on a hot sweaty August afternoon in 1977 with my Mom and my little brother Michael when I was twelve.

The scent of old brick and wood and somehow a trace of French perfume enveloped the brownstone stairwell and if I close my eyes the fragrance still wraps itself around me.

The early evening light on Riverside Park, as I turned the corner from West End Avenue hundreds of times over my young life, was a wash of gold, with a hint of Willy Wonka magic thrown in.

My brother’s room had a small curved balcony and on summer evenings we would climb through the window on the third floor and listen to the wind in the trees and wonder what the future had in store for us.

The Upper West Side in the Seventies and Eighties was alive with endless enthusiasm and humor and families and food and I was instantly and endlessly in love.

From the Texas burger at the counter at Big Nick’s “rare and the egg over easy please”,

to my first taste of spicy ginger chicken at Ying on Columbus, where Tina the owner would sit with us, and tell us about her day as a head makeup artist at ABC, and then ask the chef to make us special dishes,

to dinner at the Museum Cafe under the stars seated across the street from The Great Dinosaur Hall,

to the amazing Sunday ritual, like the Sabbath, of standing on line at the fish counter at Zabar’s,

to Philly cheesesteaks at the tiny noisy dirty hole in the wall next to the laundromat on 75th Street,

to the boneless chicken with yellow rice and hot sauce from La Caridad,

Well.

It was all, the whole experience, just divine.

I got my new shoes for back to school at Harry’s, and I got an A+ on my first essay about the planetarium at The Museum of Natural History.

Wandering through Central Park on the weekends was incredible people watching;

The beautiful Europeans here on holiday, achingly chic.

The man with the cellophane iridescent balloons floating against impossibly blue skies.

And the music, oh my God, the music in the Park everywhere.

The saxophone players and the guitarists and the drummers and the pianists seduced my young being like a snake charmer.

In those teenage years we always found some excuse for a sleepover date wherever parents happened to be out of town, which meant that we would find ourselves knee-deep at the hottest celebrity hang out, Cafe Central, on Columbus Avenue and 80th, or drinking banana daiquiris at Nanny Rose.

I fell viciously in love with all things vintage at Screaming Mimi‘s and scoured the flea market on 77th St. for lace mini dresses with baby blue satin empire bows from the 60s and worn in leather motorcycle jackets.

My first Mason Pearson brush came from Apthorp Pharmacy which was a treasure chest of trinkets and beauty supplies.

I spent the majority of my time with my hair slicked back in a bun at The Gulf and Western building where I was a student at American Ballet Theatre on West 62nd Street.

Baryshnikov was the Creative Director at that time and the hot and steamy collective crush that every young student had on him was palpable.

We stared down on him in Company class and in rehearsal and if we were lucky we got tickets to opening night where he thrilled us beyond anything we would ever know.

The glamour of the fountain at Lincoln Center at night was overwhelming.

We ate warm mussel and spinach salad in Dijon creme sauce at dinner afterwards at The Saloon where the waiters and waitresses whizzed by at dizzying speed on rollerskates, with their sexy limitless energy as the music played and the people swayed.

I remember holding my breath as I saw the murals at Café des Artistes for the first time, bathed in the emerald green light they cast on the sophisticated and wildly stylish crowd.

On Saturdays,
if you timed it right, when you bought a dozen bagels at H&H they would give you the 13th bagel for free, whatever was hot.

Life went on in this way throughout high school.

My first apartments after high school were all between West 65th and West 79th St.

And then suddenly my attention shifted and I moved downtown for a long long time.

Life has a funny way of flowing, like a river, and 26 years later I am now back living on West End Avenue in a magnificent building with my amazing husband where every day, everywhere I go, everywhere I look, I see my young self and the memories flood in, and the anticipation of revisiting these places, like old friends, grabs a hold of me like the wind that whips off the river in winter.

There is Shakespeare and Co. where dozens of books invaded my virgin mind and where I can’t wait to browse the aisles again.

There is The Beacon where I will disappear into the dark once more and dance in my chair and then jump to my feet for the band.

And there is Orwashers, the land of raisin pumpernickel bread and sprouted seven grain…

And Sarabeth’s the storied brunch stomping ground with its preppy and polished crowd and perfect eggs Benedict, make sure you wear pearls.

And of course my cherished Café Luxembourg, with its feverish and sensual amber glow.

And as the lights come up and night falls the brownstones come alive and the avenues start to hum with the old but new anticipation of evening.

Suddenly I am overcome with excitement about being here now and it’s about what to explore and discover and it’s the new that lures me in, what I have yet to make familiar that has me fascinated.

The Georgian place on Amsterdam Chama Mama where I see a bread with melting cheese and a fried egg waiting to be popped.

And the endless line at Wood Thrush Farms (that I mistakenly and scandalously cut) to buy late summer heirloom tomatoes, under a pergola of leaves that cast dancing shadows in the sun, as people impatiently, but with true grit and stamina none the less, stand and wait for hours for what they want.

And oh my god, Jing Fong has closed in Chinatown but the legacy lives on around the corner from my new home? Where pillowy soup dumplings of impossible deliciousness beckon…

And here is Plantshed where outrageously gorgeous blooms are available by the stem.

Like in the markets in Paris.

Peonies and roses and parrot tulips and calla lilies in big buckets like giant lollipops.

And suddenly I realize that the pride I feel about who I am came from living up here.

That the community shaped how I think, how I behave, how I care about people and humanity.

Zabar’s is no longer the small crowded deli that it was. It has expanded into an empire.

But when I walk back in after so many years and am assaulted by Vivaldi and the smell of the coffee and the bread, as I tear off my ticket and queue up for a half a pound of nova, and stare trancelike at the brilliant fish slicers, as they let me into their magical world,

I realize how somehow this place represents what makes the Upper West Side so special.

Laughter, great spontaneous conversation, and people who really just get it.

Every morning at dawn I watch the sunrise from my terrace as the pale pink and dazzling orange light weaves it way through the majestic architecture of the Upper West Side.

What I wouldn’t give for these elegant and fabled structures with their spires and gargoyles and patina rooftops to whisper their tales of a hundred years.

I feel humbled to be in their presence.

I just can’t wait to spend the next 26 years with the love of my life on West End Avenue, surrounded by some of the smartest and funniest people in town.

It’s so good to be home.

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