A City Debut
You can hear the music well before you reach the small club off of West 72nd and Broadway. Jagged, bluesy and improvised notes from the horn of an underpaid player leak through the windows, and the sound of bouncing ivory keys escapes into the cold Manhattan air every time someone opens the door. A small, unassuming sign with a lopsided treble clef hangs above the entrance. If it weren’t for the music, it’d be the only indication that anything at all happened within the battered confines of the place. It’s winter so you, like other passersby, choose to leave the frosty streets and step into the New York society you’ve heard oh so much about.
Nobody inside offers to take your coat because it’s not that kind of joint. Instead, eternal cigarette smoke greets you as you push your way to the bar. A rush of excitement hits you square in the chest such that your heart begins to beat in rhythm with the band — and what a band! The jazz is loud — fast as if the players were racing to fit in as many bops as possible before sunrise. The musicians play the stuff from the olden days, familiar beats that remind you of a place you’ve never been but can remember just fine. The pianist’s improvisations remind you of a nostalgic time you didn’t know you’d recognize, something you could only find in this city.
Now and again, the smell of gin and vermouth break through the smoldering fog, adding to the strange, hypnotic feeling that you stumbled in somewhere that fulfills the aesthetic that books and films always fall short of. You look around the sea of New York faces, each one more rugged, more beautiful, and more interesting than the last. There are several handsome couples at the bar, women in dark dresses and men in corduroy pants. Nearby, young people with bright faces are tonight learning to hold their liquor, and there’s two retirees who sit quietly in the back with eyes weighed down by wisdom and fingertips blackened by a decades-old cigar kick.
Immersed in the rhythms of tonight’s society, you squeeze through the dim, bustling milieu to get to the bar. Flanking you are beautiful men and women, leaning against the bar holding martini glasses. There’s an expensive-looking couple to your right; the lady wears pearls. Their clothes look expensive but tawdry, as if they were trying to dress up but also give off an air of nonchalance. Looks good enough for you, though, so you signal you’ll have what she and he are having.
The bartender — sweating like the drinks he places on the counter — gives you your glass in exchange for a credit card. He starts a tab for you without asking. You turn around from the bar and observe the scene before you. It reminds you of what magazine writers talk about when they describe a haut monde, but you know your friends in the suburbs would see it all as excess.
A drunken young man bumps into you on his way to the counter without acknowledging the dig (he’s far too busy enjoying himself). You move away from him, only to find the young man isn’t alone in his condition. Drinks all around, flowing at the beck of Manhattanites. In a moment, you remember that here in this city, especially at such superlative affairs, it was not only acceptable but stylish to show off your drunkenness.
But, when you consider it a moment more, it isn’t entirely surprising. People travel from all over to taste New York society, to imbibe in the cider and see if it doesn’t disappoint. So, standing there in the middle of it all, you shrug your shoulders and down your glass.
Soon, you’re oscillating with the movements of the crowd, drunk and smiling but still maintaining a certain seriousness because, well, this is still New York society. People here are obsessed with appearing civilized. The strong spirits, then, act as a lubricant for new friends and misremembered names, and you meet a group of happy people by shouting over the music and clinking glasses. One of the women before you says she’s 30, though another woman — ostensibly her friend — jabs her with a sharp elbow and laughs. Yeah, 30 maybe 10 years ago, she tells her friend in front of me. She looks great, you think to yourself. But the smile of the first woman fades a little; she bows her head as if to concede that the best years of her life have already come and gone.
A gentlemanly-looking chap with four eyes, a checkered shirt, and a matching scarf enters your small circle. His eyebrows are perfectly angular and he moves his hips with the comfort of a regular. First time here? he asks you. You nod, and he flashes a smile. Behind his glasses, you see dark circles that betray the regularity with which he spends his nights in clubs. In them you sense a nakedness, as if his frequent jamborees are a mask, the same mask worn by many who move in the thick of New York society. You wonder, should you don the mask too? Join the vogue, adopt the anonymity that comes with identifying with an entire city.
You scan the room. Warm bodies are moving freely with the music but their faces look guarded, as if they know someone is watching. The personas of people in the club, you think to yourself, are the same ones they carry to work, to boozy socials, to tablecloth-dinners. The only time they shed the act is if they think no one can see them — like when you ride the subway. The commute levels everyone, tames ego, and for a moment makes you feel as if you are no different from the many compromised and forgettable faces sitting beside you.
But since, really, you can’t know what someone is like when they are alone, you’ll have to live with interacting with their mask. Again, you shrug and down another drink.
There’s a young woman standing alone with an troubled gaze. She looks as if she’s less than a year removed from an Ivy League, liberal arts degree. Every time she makes eye contact with someone in the club, she smiles like it’s a surprise to her — as if she had snuck in somewhere off-limits and knew no one would catch her. The crowd swallows up the pretty girl and it’s the last time you see her.
Your eyes fall upon a young man with a tired face and peppered hair. He has the worn expression of a man who commutes on the subway twice a day, and endures still a third commute for evenings out on weeknights. Perhaps he’s an unpaid intern from the Times in search of a big break his editor will never let him find. Or maybe a junior banker. In his eyes you see a desire for gallantry, muddled by uncertainty as to how to achieve it. It’s the same ambiguity you imagine you’d find on Wall Street if you were to sit in a diner on Broadway and Exchange Place at midday. Over a club sandwich and pop, you could watch the lunchtime odyssey of Manhattan’s foot soldiers. The financiers, the lost souls in the suits coming off the trading floor, the high-brow columnists. A sea of anonymous black and blue and gray blazers with the same shoes and haircuts, all with the same indifferent visage. Men and women alike move in a rush as if each of them were uniquely at risk of being late. But just as apparent is the quiet satisfaction of each commuter, secure in the knowledge they are nameless among the crowd. Students on field trips and tourists wearing lanyards would trickle against the tide because they have nowhere in particular to be, but of course they smile because they know they’ve already arrived to the only city worth visiting. The locals would be easiest to spot, you guess, because they are the ones who would not slow down, would not make eye contact, and would not crane their necks to observe the skyscrapers. Denizens of the city, marching in step with the clocks and markets of every time zone — each striving to their utmost to become an authentic New Yorker.
There’s very little that appears familiar to you tonight — you arrived alone, you don’t know the place, and the city outside feels foreign. And yet, you can’t escape the feeling that, because it is New York, you’ll run into a familiar face simply by participating in society. The people around you, you think, share your ambitions, and hold the same belief that you and you alone are unique in Manhattan. You try not to think about how not everyone can actually be a star in a city of 8 million who all believe they are stars.
Regardless, it only makes sense that if you don’t encounter someone you already know, it’ll be someone you ought to know and that just might be better anyway. Like a habit, the night continues.
Several drinks later and you swear you have been in New York as long as you can remember. You convinced yourself that you’re no longer simply in New York, you are New York. By bumping shoulders with the people in the club and listening to the jazz, the atmosphere tells you that moving in these society circles is certainly the only place you could ever see yourself. Every conversation with the masked patrons is like a marriage of like minds, a fated encounter that could have never possibly happened anywhere else.
You talk excitedly with the bartender now, raptured in anticipation of your next drink, when suddenly the music stops. Conversations halt just as abruptly. The lights turn on and you feel vulnerable. Naked, as if caught at a crime scene. You look around and others, too, are blushing because the darkness had before hidden their improprieties.
We’re having some technical difficulties, the pianist announces at the front. Sorry about that folks.
You look to the exit and watch New York society begin to filter out of the room. Disappointed, you follow the outflow of sweaty bodies and begin to weigh whether to walk home or take the subway. There are no goodbyes, because you didn’t actually meet anyone tonight, and no one met you. The evening is a wash, you think. But still — a night in society! That has to be worth something. The suits and dresses and martini glasses, the jazz and the dim lighting. That’s living, you think. You feel an emptiness now, but the glow of this night will stick with you for days.
You’re excited to tell everyone about the high circles you now call your own, but you’ll leave out the part about not actually knowing anyone. You’re not sure why people clamor to join affairs where everything and everyone exists in a big, anonymous generality.
You step out into the cold. You have no idea what time it is, and the air bites your face and hands. The night sounds quiet now that you’ve exited the place, and you only hear the sounds of cars and sirens. Standing below the sign with the treble clef, you look to your left. Then you look to your right. The street looks exactly the same in both directions. You clasp your hands together and just as you’re about to start walking, you hear the band begin to play again.