The New York Times Building as seen from the Mannionmobile in May 2008.
Six PM. Tuesday. May 1, 2012. At the Times Center for the Hillman Prizes. I'd driven by the new New York Times building a few couple of occasions, but tonight walking over here from Grand Central was the first time I was confronted with the fact of its actual location, which is nowhere.
Technically, the address---620 Eighth Avenue---is in New York City, and I could see I was in a city. I just didn’t see anything particular to tell me for sure what city it was and what part of it I was in.
Not a neighborhood or part of a neighborhood or a place where neighborhoods bleed together. A space between neighborhoods that got filled up with buildings and businesses that could have been commuting in from New Jersey along with the people who work in them.
The facades and storefronts were characterless, charmless, indistinguishable. Signs on windows and over doorways identified this place or that place as a restaurant or a bar but for all I could see of them or into them they might as well have been office supply stores, chain store pharmacies, or banks. The exception to all this apparently deliberate anonymity, as if all the businesses here are hiding from people who want them to loan them money, is Beer Authority, which I suspect of being part of a chain catering to blazer-wearers desirous of spending a few hours after work reliving their frat boy youth and anyway it sits on top of a bank.
The only thing iconically New York in view was Port Authority, which isn’t really part of New York. It’s the rabbit hole through which the unsuspecting fall in and out of New York.
What I’m saying is there’s not enough of a there there to tell you what there there is there.
It's on the back end of the theatre district. The theaters where Newsies and Mary Poppins are playing aren’t too far away, the Nederlander around the corner and up 41st, the New Amsterdam’s backstage door across the street from that. But I don’t imagine many actors, stagehands, Stagedoor Johnnys, if there are any such characters left worthy of the name (or deserving of the insult, depending on how your sympathies distribute themselves), and other hangers see any reason to wander in the Times building's direction after the curtains fall.
Members of the audiences for those shows likely do not wander in any direction except that of home, especially if it’s a school night. After matinees if they linger it’s to take the kiddies over to the amusement park once known as Times Square.
What’s left of Broadway as Damon Runyon's guys and dolls knew it is easily visited if you make the time and take the effort. It should not require of you either time or effort. It should not be a visit---because you work there.
Looked to me, Times reporters don't work in the City, just sort of near it. New York City isn't right there. You have to make a special trip.
What I was looking for and what the the area seemed to be most egregiously lacking, considering that it’s home to a newspaper, is a place where the people who read that newspaper or who grace its pages, to their pride or chagrin, can be found at all hours going about the business of living the lives that newspaper is supposed to record.
What I was looking for, then, was a Mindy’s.
But of course if a guy is looking for trouble on Broadway along towards four o'clock in the morning, anybody will tell you that the right address is nowhere else but Mindy's, because at such an hour many citizens are gathered there, and are commencing to get a little cross wondering where they are going to make a scratch for the morrow's operations, such as playing the horses.
Mindy’s you know if you know the musical Guys and Dolls. Mindy’s is where early in the commotion Nathan tries to get Sky Masterson to bet on if Mindy’s sold more cheesecake or strudel that day. Mindy’s is frequently the setting of Damon Runyon’s short stories the musical is based on and Mindy’s is based on one of Runyon’s favorite hangouts, Lindy’s, which is not to be confused with either Lindys doing business on 7th Ave today. Those are named in memory of the real Lindy’s and they sell cheesecake they are proud of, like the guys and dolls used to eat. But they are owned by the same corporation that runs TGIFridays and Pizza Hut and therefore respectable in a way that would have made Runyon’s citizens uncomfortable about openly discussing plans for making a scratch for the morrow's operations. Also I do not know either joint is yet open at such an hour as four o'clock in the morning.
The one at up at West 51st is at least located where some action is. There are citizens to be mixed with if not day and night than as early in the day until as late into the night and into the next day as the proprietors allow.
At Lindy's, the old Lindy's, the real Lindy's, gangsters, gamblers, actors, journalists, poets, singers and songwriters, ballplayers, storefront preachers, politicians, and salesmen would mix over their cheesecake and racing forms, along with the more respectable citizens who worked in the neighborhood, shopgirls and countermen, clerks and telephone operators, truck drivers, barbers and hairdressers, the occasional priest, minister, nun, and rabbi, even families in town to see a show who'd heard about the cheesecake or read Runyon's syndicated columns in their hometown papers.
Just a quick impression. Anyone who works at the paper or in the neighborhood can probably rattle off the names of ten bars, stores, or lunch counters where the citizens congregate at all hours. What’d I miss? Should I have given Schnipper’s a chance to show off the quality of its kitchen? They close at ten, you know. I didn’t have time for a long explore, but I was on the scout for such a place as Mindy’s as a destination for after the ceremonies in case the reception failed to deliver as advertised in the way of refreshment and going by what I didn’t see, if you work at the Times and aren’t chased out of there by your editor, you could spend the whole day at your desk without being tempted to venture outdoors.
Nothing to see, hear, or engage the imagination within a few blocks. Nothing right nearby to pull you away from your computer screen. No place for Times staffers to run out to to down a quick one, buy some smokes, or place a bet. I know. Hard to imagine any of this generation of journalists drinking anything more potent during business hours than iced lattes, needing to indulge a filthy nicotine addiction, or even knowing how to read a racing form---we're talking about people who think they're raffish when they fill out their brackets for March Madness, after all. That’s a bum rap. It’s unfair to judge the whole profession by a few tassel loafer-wearing bad apples. Organic bad apples from Whole Foods.
The habit all the newspapermen and women I know need to indulge is the habit of mixing with the citizens on a familiar basis with notebooks closed and eyes, ears, and minds wide open.
An excuse to mix and mingle and spy and eavesdrop and be a general busybody and get paid for it is what they went into journalism for.
Born snoops and gossips in honest and honorable ways, cynics who are secret romantics, their job is to laugh at the human comedy and weep for its characters while standing center stage and writing it all down.
They live for the company of other people and thrive on telling their stories which they do because it’s fun but also because they know a lot of people whose stories need telling can’t tell them for themselves.
Like the people in the stories the journalists who reported them were receiving prizes for tonight.
A story about the children of undocumented immigrants rounded up and deported lost in the system.
A story about the rise and fall of a labor union.
A story about a woman in jail for twenty-six years for killing her husband who was trying to kill her.
A story about a whole city’s school system shattered by massive cheating on standardized tests…by teachers and administrators!
A story about workers essentially shanghaied from the Indian subcontinent to work on military bases in Iraq where they were starved, raped, robbed, and otherwise exploited and abused.
When the journalists came up on stage to accept their prizes and talk a little about these stories, their voices were on the verge of cracking and not because they were choked up by the honor of You like me, you really like me.
The stories broke their hearts, the cynical bastards.
Photo of Damon Runyon by Jack Manning, courtesy of the New York Times.