The perks of memory
Apparently they’ve given a name, or names, to that time of life when you’ve hit your late fifties, sixties or seventies and you’ve retained use of your motor skills, most of your marbles and cling to the belief that fame and fortune remain within reach.
New York Times columnist David Brooks calls it the “Encore Years”. Others refer to it as a Second Act or maybe even a third. I haven’t coined my own term yet but I experienced its peculiar atmospherics this week as I walked from the eighties on the Upper East Side to my destination just off Fifth Avenue in the Forties.
And by atmospherics I’m not referring to the weather – it was overcast in the high thirties – nor my physiology. Everything seems to be in approximate working order; it isn’t always these days. I was referring to my philosophical state of mind, and not necessarily one driven by dreams of late career triumph and prosperity, or doom and failure, but simply by treading the same streets that I have since childhood.
Rather than fight it, I’ve decided to embrace advancing age. That doesn’t mean throwing in the towel – I don’t feel any less ambitious, focused or capable than I ever did, which may not be saying that much. My ambition has taken me only so far. Focus can be self-defeating if it leads you down the wrong alley. And my capabilities are so specific as potentially to be unrecognizable in the current algorithm-driven age. A.I. might not even find it worth plagiarizing my efforts.
What I’ve decided to bask in, instead, are the under-respected gifts of memory and experience. There’s charm in having the better part of a century’s personal knowledge at your fingertips; a modest compendium of questionably relevant information. Allow me to offer a minor example. Having grown up in Manhattan certain East Side addresses that I visited frequently as a child and adolescent played a role in my upbringing, though I was raised on the, back then, far less haughty West Side.
There’s 941 Park Avenue where a family devoted an entire room to a kindergarten classmate’s model train set. Across the street, at 910 Park, another playmate’s parents created the most impressive apartment an impressionable kid had ever seen. I’d describe it as a Japanese rock garden meets The Jetsons.
The elevator opened onto a vestibule lined with polished stones and translucent sliding paper screen doors. The master bedroom featured a sunken tiled Roman bathtub. And the kitchen was a fantasia of Space Age appliances.
Both families moved out of those apartments years ago, the parents long gone. Yet I feel their absence, or at least the loss of the opportunity to visit, whenever I pass by. One could regard the sensation as sad. I prefer to treat it as a gift, a trove of easily accessible sensations. It’s a personal treasury where one can enter, pause and reflect; though my provenance would probably fail to impress the doorman on duty.
One of the virtues of a big, boisterous pedestrian city is that you can pick your poison. In other words, you can choose your route to wherever you’re going based on your mood. At first I thought I’d walk down Madison Avenue, with the conflicted allure of shops for the one-percent, to do a little window-shopping and people watching.
But Park Avenue, which I chose instead, emits an entirely different energy. It’s more lightly trafficked. You’re left to your own thoughts. If you’re not ready to submit to the tumult of midtown all at once, it comes gradually, the pedestrian traffic growing almost imperceptibly as you reach the threshold of 57th Street and suddenly find yourself careening down the rapids of full-blown humanity.
The temptation, upon reaching that location, was to head west and down Fifth Avenue. There are certain boulevards in great cities that emit majestic crossroads energy. The Champs-Elysees in Paris. Piccadilly Circus, I suppose, in London. But my reflective state-of-mind told me now to take Madison Avenue instead.
Midtown seems to have returned to its pre-pandemic commotion. I hit it just before 1 p.m. as legions of young workers, singly and in groups, were scoring their take-out lunches and toting them back to the office. Shouldn’t someone tell them that it’s spiritually unsound to eat at your desk?
Next I passed New York magazine’s former 49th street headquarters. The building’s crown was once decorated with the publication’s logo, though fashion, and perhaps more affordable rent forced the publication to move to trendier SoHo ages ago. The old address marked the location of modest career triumphs that still emit a faint firefly glow.
New construction is also continuing apace at places such as the super tall, copper colored, oppressively ugly JP Morgan Chase headquarters. I hear that it boasts impeccable environmental credentials but it’s also a wild act of faith, or maybe just poor timing, in the era of remote work.
Certain wounds never heal. For example, turning the stately Beaux Arts Scribner’s building on Fifth Avenue, where Max Perkins once edited Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and its gracious bookstore, into a Sephora in 2004. It’s had multiple other tenants since. Or Brooks Brothers abandoning its flagship store on 44th street, whose aisles the ghosts of WASP privilege, still roam. Actually, it’s not empty. A pop-up cafe has appeared where’s men’s button-down cotton Oxford shirts once sold.
I finally reached my destination, having to negotiate several more skyscraper construction sites. It’s remarkable how much building is going on, even as life feels increasingly precarious. Perhaps it’s optimism that will save us. That and younger generations striving for a foothold on the ladder of happiness and success. This is their city now. May it be as kind to them as it was to me and their memories just as fine.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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