Gotham Diary:
Once Upon a Time
21 April 2014

When I woke up on Saturday morning, I wished that everything scheduled for the weekend could be postponed until next weekend. It had become clear that the rheumatologist was right to put me down for an infusion eight weeks after the preceding one (not that I ever disagreed with him). Kathleen noticed a day-by-day recession that couldn’t be attributed entirely to my immersion in Hannah Arendt, and on Friday I was actually in a bit of pain owing to the kind of spontaneous inflammation that would be my lot without Remicade. By next weekend, I should have the infusion behind me (I’m on for tomorrow morning at 11:30, just confirmed), and I’d be in better spirits for the festivities of Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday.

But Kathleen’s birthday and Easter Sunday could not be postponed, so I rose to the occasion, and found that it was not very difficult to do so. Now I am trying to deal with the slight malaise that always follows a bit of having too much of a good time.

The cuisine at La Grenouille, the last but also the greatest of the grand French restaurants in New York, is superb — of course it is! But it is also something of an excuse, giving the patrons something to do while they sit in this corner of heaven. For me, the experience is rendered slightly peculiar by my spinal immobility. I can hear the people at the adjacent tables, but I cannot, without calling a great deal of attention to what I’m doing, get a look at them. Meanwhile, I can’t hear a thing that the people ranged along the opposite wall are saying. What with the famously immense arrangements of budding boughs and flowers, the brocade wall hangings, and the thick carpet, the restaurant is not noisy, and yet the atmosphere is very lively. The bustle of the staff — the maître d’, the headwaiters, and the waiters, in dark suits and bright ties; the white-jacketed servers and busboys — is ceaseless, but not at all agitated. The purr of discreet voices and the flash of sparkling jewelry, the ectoplasmic delight of all that good food — I have never experienced a more refined degree of exhilarating jollity. Kathleen, as (almost) always, had the Dover sole, and it made for a very happy birthday.

We were addressed by name as we walked in. We were reminded that it had been a long time since our last visit (four years!), but without a trace of scolding. Kathleen chalked our welcome up to my lavish tipping practices, and I’m sure that smiles might have been a shade brighter for that, but no, such crassness is inconceivable. La Grenouille is simply but extraordinarily a very pleasant place, much too relaxed for its comforts to be an illusion.

Asked by her granddaughter about the array of silverware at each place, the matron sitting to the left of Kathleen advised beginning with the pieces farthest from the plate and working in, “as they do on Downton Abbey.” That, and a lot of other things that the old lady had to say, brought a muffled laugh to my lips and Kathleen’s elbow to my ribs. Whenever we dine in high style, Kathleen and I shamelessly violate the categorical imperative. Aside from the sporadic exchange of muttered commentary, we say almost nothing to one another, offering nothing to be overheard. Talking would distract us from the feast of eavesdropping.


Meanwhile, a very different scene was plying out only yards away, out on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue — Fifth Avenue in midtown, that is — is a memory to me; it hasn’t existed for decades. The people who now patrol it prevent its revival. What they’re doing there, I’ve no idea. Calling them “tourists” seems overconfident; they almost make one believe in zombies. New Yorkers themselves, and snappier visitors from out of town, have recreated something of what Fifth Avenue used to be in Soho, especially along Broadway. Down there, pedestrians are stylish — and they’re shopping. The parade on today’s Fifth Avenue’s sidewalks is inexplicable. It is a horde of colorless, shapeless people who exude no sense of destination. They are merely moving along in great blobs of unconvincing humanity. Seeing them from the car as we waited for an opening through which to turn into Fifty-Second Street, I felt that I was confronted by Mass Man, that bogey of 1950s. This is what Communism looked like — shapeless, colorless, pointless, and astonishingly indistinguishable. This was why we must win the Cold War. What an ironic taste of our victory it is to witness such a massive display of the lack of self-respect.

Kathleen said, “You don’t get to midtown much. I see this every day.” That might explain why I don’t go to midtown much.

Once upon a time, the pedestrians on Fifth Avenue wanted to look as much like the patrons of La Grenouille as possible, and they dressed accordingly. You might say that the times we live in are more relaxed, but I don’t. La Grenouille is relaxed. The pedestrians are manifestly demoralized. Thank you, commercial broadcasting.