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I had a serious case of cabin fever here in central Vermont a few days ago. I told my wife I had to get out and wanted to go to New York, to escape the tedium of our lives. She agreed and said she would help me figure out a plan, including taking the train, finding a hotel, etc. I was very excited. I imagined going to plays, maybe a musical, eating tasty, well-seasoned food, plumping down in a huge king-sized bed and sleeping like a well-fed baby. I wanted to walk among throngs of shoppers, get a shoe shine, look at the suits in shop windows and wince at the prices. New York is not for amateurs, of course. I had lived there as a young man back in the summer of 1963 and took home a weekly salary of $48.50 after taxes. I split the rent with a high school friend and we made ends meet, or just barely. But it was great fun and we got up at the crack of dawn and tore out of our little tenement room for the glass towers where we labored until five o'clock. Life in the Big Apple! I would fight my way through a cloud of cigarette smoke each time I went to the men's room, and then stagger back in time to order my cup of coffee and a roll from the lady who wheeled around a squeaking cart at three o'clock.

            But that was eons ago, and the city had razed a lot of its old haunts. In place of those were more Bauhaus towers with vast panes of glass staring out at the next tower. Hard to imagine what the pigeons thought of all this. But I needed fury, relentless energy, traffic jams, anything to get the boredom out of my bones. First reality check was the price of round trip tickets in second class on an Amtrak express to Manhattan. Almost 400 dollars for the journey. The big hit was the hotel we found where we would be socked a tab of over 900 dollars plus for three nights. It was a recommendation from my niece who stayed there frequently. The Lombardy, in midtown, a pleasant place when we entered the doors, courtesy of a liveried doorman, an emigre from Albania, who looked a good bit like Akim Tamiroff and even sounded like him. Maybe we could break into the Top Kapi and steal some jewels. But he was very mild-mannered and dignified, and we were shown to the desk. Our reservation was good and up we went to the 20th floor to a spacious studio, big enough to play half-court basketball.

            So far, so good. We got out into the brisk night air and made our way to an Indian restaurant named Ahimsa, a word I remembered from my days reading Ghandi, a pledge not to harm any living thing in this world. It served mostly vegan dishes and was, well . . . pretty bland. But we ate enough to satisfy us and got to bed around ten. I was tired from travel, and the cold wind was a bit of a downer. In the morning, my wife pulled back the drapes onto a vast assembly of high rises, all of them with their backs to us. I studied each of them and was astonished to gaze upon various terraces and balustrades, French doors and dark windows, a wall of ancient architecture that I didn't think existed in this spotless glass fantasy of a city. But there it was, as if it were planted in the center of Istanbul. The vast structure stood on a huge square base and soared up into a tower of small windows. It was, if you can trust my memory of art history, in the style of an obelisk, a kind of temple. Everything around it was in the generic modernist mode. I stood there with a cup of coffee roaming around from ledge to ledge, fixated by the black awning that had come loose on one terrace and was blowing around like Lady Macbeth's dress. I was mesmerized by this monstrous anachronism, and fell in love with it.

            Off we went to slog through the puddles; a big storm had blown in and we were shivering by the time we got to the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History. I had to see a T-Rex in person, and it was gorgeously out of scale, with its tiny head peeking out of one doorway and its terrifying tail extending out at the far end of the hall. Lots of dioramas to walk by, and all sorts of arrows and chisels for survival in that vanished wilderness somewhere in Asia. What a place. It was crowded with school groups and old folks like us, and young, sturdily built guards to keep the crowd docile. That night we dined at a pricey Italian restaurant, the haunt of bankers and brokers, called Felice, or happiness. It was great food, with my wife savoring her forkfuls of pasta and pig jowls, dripping with a luscious tomato sauce. We slurped a chewy, resinous glass of wine, a bottle of which cost about the price of a good lawn mower. It was stormy out, and we decided we could walk home and save a few bucks.

            Our window drapes were still open and out there, across the street, was this cliff of dark windows and Turkish-looking patios and balconies. Ah yes. I was in a realm of desert dreams and caravansaries, full of Bedouins dancing for their supper. One building was all I needed to satisfy my wander lust. I had escaped my doldrums and had been wafted by a powerful wind of longing into this cascade of crumbling history and blurred lights.

            I could think of nothing else but this dowdy edifice with all its mysteries concealed behind folds of silence. When we got back to our house, I went to bed full of questions about who built it, who lived there, what was it like to walk those long dark corridors behind heavy doors. I woke at three a.m. and went down to my computer to explore the labyrinths of East 56th Street, and in the morning, after more insomniac ditherings in the night, found the Google street view app. Only my wife had the patience to find the building, which my own eyes were too frantic to identify. There it was, the tower rising above the other buildings, the front side looking very modern and nondescript, compared to the backside and its hidden Freudian depths. But I got lucky and found a broker's pitch about available rentals. It said that Henry M. Clauson had designed it and got it built in 1930. It featured palatial living rooms with 20 foot ceilings, and luxurious bedrooms. Among its famous residents was Orson Welles, who lived there from 1938 to 1941, while he filmed a good part of Citizen Kane,  my favorite movie. Five apartments were on the market, and the cheapest was a two-bedroom studio going for a mere two million dollars. God knows what taxes you would pay, and how much the monthly maintenance was, and what fee the doorman charged to open the big brass doors. But I could dream, couldn't I? I mean, there it was, this sliver of time still preserved against all the pressures of development, all the knives being sharpened to carve up another layer of the past to make way for more glass and girders. I had drunk deep out of the River Lethe and tasted Cleopatra's breath, her perfume, stroked her venomous snakes, and lay my head down in the cradle of a world in amber.

            The wind was whipping the black awning on the terrace when I took my final glance at this wall, with the sun now turning all the crevices into seams of gold and rust. I don't much like the new Manhattan, with its relentless greed turning time into cement and ephemeral desires. The pulse of this city was like the beating heart of King Midas lusting after the ruins of nature, trusting his magic to turn it all into lucre, into dim lamps and inlaid tables, into Persian carpets where belly dancers convulsed in sexual ecstasy in front of his chair.

            I'm not the only one to praise this architectural gem. In fact, all the articles I read to get background on Clawson, who seemed a bit reluctant to be a star of his trade, called it one of the great masterpieces of hotel building. That was its first birth, and then, sometime in the middle of the last century, was converted into condos, some nineteen of them among the twenty-one floors. Many others have come to the tower of no name, film makers interior designers, art dealers, who knows, a scattering of the quietly rich who couldn't afford the Dakotas but grabbed up these commodious caverns as the next best thing.

            I came home well satisfied that I had found this beauty among the unimaginative luster of mid-Manhattan. Clawson must have been a very low-key artisan, who knew what he was doing. Perhaps he saw the eventual downfall of the greatest capitalist city on Earth and wanted to leave one nearly sacred monument among its cacophony and abstract mayhem. Bless him for it.  




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