Photos: Beatitude in New York
I’ve always loved books that blend fact and fiction to create a heightened, altered reality where stories are more epic, characters more archetypal, feelings more raw. I especially love when those books are set in New York—like Time and Again by Jack Finney, Forever by Pete Hamill and Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin—where the city itself becomes a character. My own novel, Beatitude, is set in the New York of 1995, where fictional characters occasionally interact with versions of real people in very real locations. Here are a few from my favorite iPhone app, Instagram.
1. New York Public Library
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, NYC
We entered the beautiful Beaux Arts building through the main doors on Fifth Avenue, passing between Patience and Fortitude—the most famous pair of marble lions on the planet—and pausing just inside the magnificent vaulted entrance hall to inquire at an information desk how to get to room 316.
The twin lions that flank the entrance of the New York Public Library’s magnificent marble headquarters are as symbolic of New York as the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia provided their nicknames in the 1930s, dubbing them Patience and Fortitude in honor of the qualities New Yorkers needed to navigate the Depression. In Beatitude, Harry and Jay visit the NYPL for a private viewing of Jack Kerouac’s legendary On the Road scroll, then on loan to the Library. Though the scroll is no longer in the Library’s holdings—it was sold at auction in 2001 by Christie’s in New York and won by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay for a record-setting bid of $2.43 million—the NYPL has since acquired the Jack Kerouac Archive, open to scholarly research, which contains more than a thousand manuscripts, notebooks, journals, diaries, correspondence and publishing contracts. The lengthy evolution of On the Road can be traced through three notebooks and six drafts, starting with Ray Smith Novel of Fall 1948.
2. The On the Road House
454 W. 20th Street, NYC
“He wrote it up there,” she said, pointing to the window above the door. “In the second-floor front apartment.”
In 1997, when I first visited the four-story red-brick row house at 454 W. 20th Street where Jack Kerouac wrote the 120-foot scroll version of On the Road, the shabby exterior sported a For Sale sign. Shortly after, the house was sold for $1 million. A very good investment, in retrospect. Though the neighborhood was decidedly blue-collar when Kerouac and his second wife, Joan Haverty, lived there in 1951, it’s now home to boutiques, bistros and the High Line, a spectacular park built on an abandoned elevated railway. The scroll house was sold again, in 1999, for $1.9 million and once more, in 2005—after a complete renovation—for $5.4 million. There’s no plaque noting the building’s literary significance though the real estate listing for the most recent sale did mention the Kerouac connection. Nearby, at the corner of W. 20th Street and Seventh Avenue, is where Sal and Dean say their final goodbye in On the Road: “Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he bought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again.”
3. Rudy’s Bar & Grill
627 Ninth Avenue, NYC
“Do you feel like going someplace crazy?” he asked.
To celebrate their viewing of the On the Road scroll at the New York Public Library, Harry and Jay spend a night downing pitchers at New York’s quintessential dive bar, Rudy’s. Even as the surrounding neighborhood—and the rest of Manhattan—has slowly lost nearly all sense of atmosphere, the infamous Hell’s Kitchen hole-in-the-wall has stubbornly held on to its Beat ambience. Every night at Rudy’s, an eclectic crowd of slackers, suits, sailors, hackers and hipsters consume vast quantities of cheap beer and free hotdogs while vying for one of the red-vinyl booths. The only concession to changing tastes and times is the jukebox. Once named best in the city by Rolling Stone for its collection of classic bebop, the jukebox now also plays classic rock. Miles now mixes with Mick and Ella flirts with The Edge, but it’s still NYC’s best place to get lost.
4. Westway Diner
614 Ninth Avenue, NYC
The Westway Diner was nearly empty, save for the usual nighthawks who roosted at odd hours in twenty-four-hour eateries and dreamed of better lives over blue-plate specials and bottomless cups of questionable coffee.
You can get just about anything you want, anytime you want it, at the Westway. Harry and Jay devour burgers and fries over a heart-to-heart at four in the morning, but their conversation follows another momentous one that occurred in the classic diner. The Westway is where, in 1988, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David first discussed the idea of creating the television show that became the television phenomenon Seinfeld. “The thing I remember most about that night at the Westway Diner,” Seinfeld once told New York Magazine, “is that I had two cups of coffee. And I don’t drink coffee. So I remember sitting there, having a second cup of coffee—and that was kind of an indication that we were onto something. Maybe that’s where the whole show came from—too much caffeine.”
5. Coffee Shop
28 Union Square West, NYC
“It’s where all the unemployed actors and models hang out,” cracked Jay.
Jay sums up the clientele of the Coffee Shop as Harry heads off to a press party there for a new television series starring poets and poetry, but Jay’s observation about the Coffee Shop of 1995 is still true today. New York Magazine praises the inexpensive eats, sidewalk seats and “surprisingly good drinks,” but points out that visitors face “a high risk of poor service and unpleasant encounters with attitudinal (but often pretty) people.” In the same vein (vain?), the Village Voice named the Coffee Shop “Best Bar for Modelizers” in 2010. Be sure to bring your indifference.
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