The City at Three PM: An Essay on Writing

The bars on Ninth Avenue are empty in the warm October sunshine. If you walk along the grimed sidewalk past the narrow cross streets, you can look down any one of them and right across the fragilely blue Hudson, to the other side and New Jersey, where the trees have already turned to pastels, soft red, soft yellow.


The bars on Ninth Avenue are empty in the warm October sunshine. If you walk along the grimed sidewalk past the narrow cross streets, you can look down any one of them and right across the fragilely blue Hudson, to the other side and New Jersey, where the trees have already turned to pastels, soft red, soft yellow. If you are walking around rather aimlessly at this hour, you could do what you have done before. You could work your way over to Broadway and Times Square, cutting up 43rd Street to look at the Hotel Carter again. Because the Hotel Carter is for some reason mesmerizing, if only for the fact that just the other day you discovered that it had once been called the Hotel Dixie. The Hotel Dixie was where poor Delmore Schwartz was living when he returned to New York, half mad and broken, in his last days, after all the early success and adulation from even the likes of T.S. Eliot. Once-handsome Schwartz, of the sweeping blond hair and matinee idol’s high cheekbones when young, was by that point physically and artistically spent, convinced the CIA was plotting against him, before he died of a massive coronary (not in the Dixie but another hotel?) while taking garbage from his cramped room out to the steel-grated back landing; the body was unclaimed in the morgue for weeks, so the story goes. The Hotel Carter rises in a pile of beige brick, “Seven Hundred Rooms,” the faint paint of the lettering touts high up on one side; it is flanked by closed-down shops that are all part of the evil movie-industry behemoth’s plan to “rehabilitate” the area, and across the street are the staid white lamp globes outside the Times Building. But it is too sunny, too warm, to just stand on the pavement and stare at the Hotel Carter again, think of the sadness at the end of a truly talented poet’s life, think too about the larger question: How could anybody who knew so much about the way the heart works, in those poems and the handful of short stories, end up denied any soothing knowledge about anything, in so much pain? But, again, that has often been the, yes, larger question, and you know you should avoid being anywhere near the Hotel Carter right now. On Ninth Avenue there is a bar called the Film Centre Café. It has a streamlined stainless-steel facade and blue neon sign, taking its name from the nearby Film Centre Building, a genuine 1920s art-deco monstrosity with offices and apartments now, though somebody once told you that, years ago, it did actually have something to do with the film industry. You could go over to the café, a bar and restaurant setup, and talk to the tall, dark-haired girl from Newry in Northern Ireland who tends the bar there. She has been in the States for only three months, lives in Astoria, and has a Northern Irish bartender boyfriend here in New York (they are Catholics); she plans to marry him soon, return to Northern Ireland with him. She is that rarest of entities, a true beauty without realizing it, wearing dark turtlenecks and black jeans, makeup and lipstick that she really doesn’t need; her eyes are large and green. To talk to her is to tell her about your own time in Ireland years before when you worked for a while as a newspaper reporter, and to talk to her is to have her listen without pretense, because it is obvious she likes you, as she would a favorite uncle, maybe. And who else comes into the empty Film Centre Café in the afternoon to tell her that, sure, she could be the only 25-year-old girl in America who regularly goes to Mass, and who else listens to her go on about how all she wants to do is return to Ireland with her Sean: “I want to have a lot of babies, I suppose.” If most things in your life have to suggest some literary tie, then she is the quiet, level-headed, lovely Nora Barnacle that Joyce married, so naive that when you ask her the population of her town, little Newry, she says in the lilt with a touch of Scottish flatness that is the Northern Ireland brogue, “A million, I would guess.” So, to chat with her at the Film Centre Café now at 3 in the afternoon would be to watch the sunlight streaming in through the unwashed windows, onto the dented mahogany bar, the genuinely red-and-black linoleum. It would be to think how lucky Joyce had been to realize early on that Nora Barnacle in her apparent, and deceptive, simplicity possessed a strength that he himself never really had, that she was very rare. But it is such a beautiful day, and being indoors in the Film Centre Café might be as much of a mistake as gazing at the Hotel Carter again. You could always head up Ninth Avenue, to 58th Street, let’s say, west of Central Park.


What can startle you on a weekday afternoon is the sheer number of black limousines and executive town cars, chauffeur driven, in a pocket of the city like that. There are the usual posh apartment buildings, some baroque-trimmed and some more modern, and then the new offices, glass-and-steel high-rises, but on a scale much smaller than those in the heart of midtown. In fact, all of it contributes to a distinct eeriness, and maybe a distinct calm, too, being so empty; the air smells half of damp masonry and half maybe the imagined aroma of tobaccoey leaves turning—imagined because it surely can’t wait waft from the few scrawny sycamores planted in the neat, tailored sidewalk and ringed with fan-patterned, rather Parisian grates, their thin leaves uniformly gold. The street is shadowed and cool, but looking straight above, you see a sky that seems enameled, so blue you think that somebody is putting you on and no sky is that blue. And along the no-parking-zone curbs, and in the alcoves for the stilled parking ramps where a day’s parking can easily cost you what you would pay for a good motel room in any other American city, are the big cars. Some of them are genuine stretch models, Cadillacs with tinted windows and chrome grilles that manage to grin every Cadillac’s richness and confidence and sense of superiority. Others are boxy Lincolns that, even without being stretched, offer an evening-carriage coziness, what makes them very good limousines indeed, and others are the inevitable Mercedes, the three-pointed star on the hood; to look at a Mercedes with that particular rock-hard enamel it has and that particular craftsmanship in the way the seams along the fenders and trunk blend so tightly, almost invisibly, is to know why the Germans for years made the best binoculars, the best cameras, as well. True, it is a street of limousines. And in almost every one, there is sure to be a chauffeur sleeping. Because these are the men in dark suits whose job by definition is probably more waiting than driving, and how lucky they are to be dozing soundly in the sun-fading afternoon. So, you do walk along 58th Street, and you walk by the parked cars of the many chauffeurs sleeping, the windows there on the driver’s side down like that. They appear entirely content in their slumber, and it is enough to make you ask yourself when you yourself last had a night’s sleep that was really deep, for theirs is wonderful sleeping; it is as if to sleep would be to be sure of everything you were always very much unsure of, would be to know the atomic weight of all the elements on the ancient wall chart at school and to know the important poetry of the very names of the different clouds, cumulonimbus, or better, cirrostratus. In one car a chocolate-skinned man in a gray suit leans his handsome head against the leather rest atop the seat, and close to him like that, as you pass, you feel that you almost know what he is dreaming. Or you know the dream of the Latino man with a pockmarked face and dark sunglasses in another car, who isn’t in New York City at all anymore. He is walking as a child down a red-dirt road in one of those Caribbean villages with a whispering name, San Pedro de los Caballeros or La Barranca; there in a tiny house of white stucco and a crumbling terra-cotta roof, the bougainvillea cascading, his brother, who died very young, is still strong and alive, his grandmother, who raised the two of them, is waiting there, too, able to tell him at last about his father, the stevedore he never knew, tell why his mother ran away with a Trinidadian fisherman not long after that, and how in her heart of hearts, the beautiful young mother didn’t mean to abandon two young sons to be raised (lovingly, nevertheless) by their grandmother. It would be something like that, because sleep as sound as all these men are sleeping can only generate flowering benevolence, can only heal. Until you move on, leave the dreaming chauffeurs. You head back down Ninth Avenue in the warmth and you feel at last ready to return to the roomy subleased apartment you have taken for a few months on West 55th, where you wrote well that morning.

Return there to read, even write a few more paragraphs more of the short story, before dinner later on.

About the Author

Peter LaSalle

Peter LaSalle’s latest book is a short story collection, “Hockey Sur Glace” (1996), and he has contributed fiction to Paris Review, “Best American Short Stories, and “Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.”

View Essays