Talk of a Sad Town

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” department, a space set aside when Ross founded the magazine as a smart-aleck local, survives as a vacuum maintained in case someone has something to say. When, a dozen years ago, I served on the large team that labored to fill each week this frontal void (a task that White and Thurber had performed with the aid of a few legmen), the problem was to perpetuate a cozy tone about a city that had ceased to seem cozy. We were, we “Talk of the Town” reporters, a sallow crew-cut brigade fresh from Cornell or Harvard, sent forth into the mirthless gray canyons to attend a mechanical promotional exhibit or p.r.-pushed pseudo-event, battering out upon our return six or seven yellow pages of rough copy to be honed into eight hundred gay, excited, factually flawless words by veteran martyrs like John McCarten and Brendan Gill. Some of us did not even live in the city, but had already established families and golf memberships in Bronxville or Rye, and even those who, like myself, did live in Manhattan had their hearts set on the green pastures of Fiction and the absentee ownership of Literary Glory. We were not avid to extract from the Eisenhowered, sullen if not yet apocalyptic metropolis of those years the enchantment of the Baghdad-on-the-Subway celebrated by O. Henry, by Scott Fitzgerald and Edna Millay, by Dorothy Parker and Benchley and Woollcott—whose chairs were still warm in the Algonquin lobby. It is to Maeve Brennan’s credit that she, with the device of her letters from “the longwinded lady” has helped put New York back into the New Yorker, and has written about the city of the sixties with both honesty and affection.
Not that the pieces, as collected here, without most of the italics that gave them on first printing a comic breathlessness, entirely escape the “ Talk of the Town’s” way of making too much of too little and of being complacently, exhaustedly flat. She gives us John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s entire credo as chiseled into Rockefeller Center, and the menus of a lot of meals she happens to eat, and the names of everyone present at a New Year’s party at the Adano Restaurant. And the long-winded lady, read in bulk, reveals certain personal eccentricities. She tends to rise at dawn, to read while she eats, to like street music, to liken real streets to stage sets, to plug her favorite restaurants, to Ire threatened by large people and animals and loud noises—we deduce that she is small. She walks a lot but her range is curiously restricted; she never strays south of the Village, north of the eighties, and rarely east of Madison Avenue. Her favorite region, dismally enough, is the West Forties, those half demolished blocks of small hotels and cellar restaurants and old coin shops between Fifth and Eighth Avenue; she most frequently strolls on Sixth, which she never calls the Avenue of the Americas.
Within these limitations she is constantly alert, sharp-eyed as a sparrow for the crumbs of human event, the overheard and the glimpsed and the guessed at, that form the solitary city person’s least expensive amusement. A little boy crying, a bigger boy greeting his father, a young man courting over the telephone, a middle-aged couple enacting their estrangement across a restaurant table, an old lady flipping the pages of a letter from her hotel window as she reads—these vignettes are well realized, and need only a touch of padding and bluff to make them short stories. Miss Brennan does not blink when, surveying the cityscape, she sees drunks and crazy men and prostitutes with “the eyes of satisfied furies or unsatisfied prison wardresses,” costumed in miniskirts “designed to show even more leg than they had.” She is an unfussy but formidable phrasemaker, as in her long poem to the ailanthus (which she never calls the tree of heaven) or in her image of “daylight streaming like cold water" over the curved staircases and papered walls of roofless brownstones. A melancholy picture of New York’s streets accumulates:
The night view up Sixth Avenue is eerie now that the blocks on the west side of the avenue arc half broken down and half gone.
[Charles] is an attractive street, except that, like all small New York streets, it takes on a dead, menacing air at night, because of the lines and lines of cars that are parked along its sidewalks—cars jammed together, bumper to bumper, stealing all the life and space out of the place.
Broadway is dying, but the big street still looks much as it has looked for some time now—a garish architectural shambles with cheap shop fronts and a few movie houses.
At the moment, the dark shadow in New York is cast not by the past but by the future, and too many streets wear a dull air of “What’s the use?”
Our cities, not too long ago the farm boy’s dream and the place where every girl with a straight nose was advised to find her fortune, have become the national disgrace, the huge proofs of our greed, haste, and callousness. Who wants to live in them? The long-winded lady admits, “New York City is not hospitable. She is very big and she has no heart. She is not charming. She is not sympathetic. She is rushed and noisy and unkempt, a hard, ambitious, irresolute place, not very lively, and never gay.” Yet she has lived there, during this slum of a decade, and also testifies, “In fact this is a wonderful city. It is always giving me something to think about.”