Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Waldorf

by Dick Mac

As a boy in the mid-1960s, I occasionally patronized a cafeteria on Huntington Avenue, in Boston, near the YMCA where I learned to swim. It was the most modern restaurant I had ever seen, and I was fascinated by the self-service method. Walking along towards the register, sliding a plastic tray on the three metal bars that made-up the counter, and gazing at the rows and rows of food and snacks: meatloaf with mashed potatoes, salad with fruit and nuts in it (whoever heard of such a thing), diet plates of a plain hamburger patty with iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato alongside a scoop of cottage cheese), I imagined that I would eat an entire meal in this wondrous place one day.

Instead, with a quarter or a dime in my pocket, I would make my way to the desserts at the end of the line and take a cup of pudding or a slice of pie. I would ask if it was OK to take a glass of water, and I would eat as quickly as I could and rush out of there with the sense that this was a place I did not belong; that this was a place for people with more money than me, a place for grown-ups.

I was eventually introduced to other cafeterias. Some in the basement level of department stores, Hayes-Bickford, Waldorf, hospitals, museums, and other public buildings. Then I found an automat at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital! Oh, the ways that food could be bought and sold!

And then, the New York City-style delicatessen with a turnstile and a cardboard strip that would be punched as you selected each item. You couldn't get out of those delis without a punched card! Though I never saw it myself, I was told that you needed to pay a dime to get out if you didn't have a card and you didn't eat anything: no free ride here.

I have always been a fan of restaurants.

Always, though, the Waldorf was the restaurant I thought of as the quintessential modern restaurant.

Later in life, I learned about the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and was confused about the connection between the restaurant and the hotel. I learned that the Waldorf-Astoria was a very nice hotel and that many famous people stayed there, and some even lived there. I always thought of Buffy and Jody and Uncle Bill and Mr. French living in the Waldorf.

It's a hotel that's always been mysterious to me. I still have never stayed there, and although I have been in the cocktail lounge and in some of the rooms.

Today I work three short blocks from the Waldorf and I often pass by. Working in Midtown Manhattan will always continue to amaze me. Commuting is sort of like being in a constant television show. Each block feels like, looks like, and in many cases really is the set of a sit-com, drama, news program, or movie.

The downside to this fascinating dynamic of being a New Yorker is that these blocks often ARE being used to film sit-coms, dramas, news programs, and movies! Then there is the United Nations. God bless the United Nations. This venerable institution invites all the world's leaders to New York City each autumn for a big meeting.

Of course, they choose New York City! It looks like every TV show and movie these world leaders have ever seen! Who doesn't want to be in New York City for awhile?

Especially if you can stay at the Waldorf-Astoria!

The popularity of Midtown Manhattan, including (especially) The Waldorf, raises security concerns, and many blocks are often closed to all traffic (vehicular and pedestrian), and those of us trying to get along in life are required to find another way from Point A to Point B.

This is one of those weeks.

I needed to get from 53rd and Lexington to 50th and Sixth. I make this walk pretty regularly, and I often choose the route that brings me past The Waldorf (the back of which is at 50th and Lex), across Madison Avenue, towards Saks and St. Patrick's Cathedral, and into Rockefeller Center. This is a quintessential New York walk. There is nowhere else where the world looks like this, passing so many landmarks in such a short distance. If I am in a hurry, of course, I do not take this route.

This week, however, it is a walk to avoid! Why? Because of The Waldorf. The esteemed hotel, with its address on the East Side, is the residence of choice for the sitting American President. During the week of the UN's General Assembly to which all sitting world leaders are invited, the area is cordoned off differently (it seems) each day (hour?).

I found myself being herded into a runway and across Lexington, downtown on the wrong side of the avenue, past 50th Street. As I saw this developing, I attempted to turn around to go back the way I came, but alas, the crowd was being funneled in so quickly that the police were not allowing anyone to turn back.

Instead of being a care-free, sophisticated New Yorker, I was now part of the unwashed masses, a nobody who was inconveniencing the police and the President and my neighbors. I was in the way, and puny. I was an irritant.

And is there anything more irritating than to be thought of as an irritant?

Well, no. Still, I made my way south to 48th Street, and west to Sixth Avenue and decided to make the best of my detour and walk to Bryant Park before getting on the F train towards Brooklyn.

It's good to be a New Yorker, even when the President is in town, because I get to walk from once famous location to another, and escape into the urban (and urbane) beauty that is Midtown Manhattan.

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