I forget who said it, Will Rogers or someone, that the definition of middle age is when every new person you meet reminds you of someone you’ve already met.
I can appreciate that. But what I’m encountering more so these days is the need to constantly ask a waitress or store owner, “what did this place used to be?” And, too often, “…how about before that?” That’s the mark of middle age for me.
I was down in the City Hall area today where I worked for years — 20-plus years ago. All my landmarks are gone. Ritzy Tribeca has completely changed the look and feel of the area, and the missing World Trade Center is like a snapped off compass needle. I needed to do two 360′s to figure out which way was north and which way was south. I was a tourist in my old neighborhood.
“What did this place used to be?”, I found myself asking again over lunch. But no one ever seems to know in New York.
It has to stink getting terribly old. It’s bad enough losing your life-long friends, but it has to be far worse losing the shared memories of the way things once were. My father just turned 88, and I often think of the New York he knew — of The Stork Club and Toots Shor’s; the old Garden and The Biltmore Hotel. There is no one around anymore to remember the glimmering nights he spent there, or at the jazz clubs along 52nd Street where Ella Fitzgerald scatted and Nat King Cole crooned, or was it 53rd? The Stork Club is a mere sidewalk plaque on an office tower wall now, marking where it once stood. But my father explains that it used to be somewhere else, when it was the real Stork Club anyway.
The cultural stuff is tough on the heart, too. Like the day a young co-worker came into my office wearing a very Mary-Tyler-Moore hat. “Who’s Mary Tyler Moore?,” she asked.
How can you explain to a 22-year-old what the Mary Tyler Moore Show was in its day? It’s not possible. Just as impossible as someone from an earlier generation trying to explain what The Shadow once meant to him.
It’s the landmarks, though, that really get to me. The physical edifices that slip from generation to generation with relentless ease. I am haunted by nostalgia around them. A lot went on in those places, when they were what they used to be.
Bill O’Reilly is a Mount Kisco resident who writes the blog The BlackberryAlarmClock.com