January 1, 2003
New Right Now
She turned left down Broadway, crossing Duane, crossing Reade, and felt the rising buzz of anticipation as she approached Chambers Street. She would be recognized by acquaintances in just the way she longed to be. They would treat her kindly and even, she imagined, with respect. Elsewhere, at theaters and saloons and ordinary shops, she […]
She turned left down Broadway, crossing Duane, crossing Reade, and felt the rising buzz of anticipation as she approached Chambers Street. She would be recognized by acquaintances in just the way she longed to be. They would treat her kindly and even, she imagined, with respect. Elsewhere, at theaters and saloons and ordinary shops, she was just another unattached young woman at large in the city, one among the new horde of maids and seamstresses, publishers’ and daguerreotypists’ assistants. But from the moment A. T. Stewart Dry Goods opened two years ago, the day after her twenty-first birthday, Polly had been a habitué. She visited at least one afternoon a week, sometimes more often, and usually made a purchase—a hair ribbon, a piece of sheet music, perfume, a pen, nearly always something perfectly inessential.
Polly Crawford was the very customer Alexander Turney Stewart created his store to attract: a pretty girl with money to spend and a perpetual fidgety interest in style. She was one of that new metropolitan breed, the quick woman, whom Stewart figured would be mesmerized by his new breed of American store—gigantic and comprehensive, an emporium as splendid as a baronet’s palace but also (here on the cheap east side of Broadway, the “shilling side”) strenuously popular.
Polly had never met A. T. Stewart, nor even seen him—any more than she’d ever spotted P. T. Barnum during any of her visits to his American Museum across the park. She was uninterested in celebrities, anywise. Her devotion was to Stewart’s establishment. She was entranced by the salesmen who stood behind the tables and display cases smiling, permitting her to stroll freely among the goods, each awaiting her choice as if he were her servant; and by the platoon of smiling matrons in shapeless gray gabardines who swarmed around the dressing rooms, ready to hold smocks or tie corsets or fetch a cup of fresh Croton. Polly was also sympathetic to the fashionable brazenness of Stewart’s—the periodic “sales” on gowns or shoes that had failed to sell, its newspaper advertisements that screamed happy promises like a campaigning politician: “One price for all! And courtesy to all, of whatever rank!”
But Polly’s greatest passion was for the building. As she paused to scrape the brown porridge of muck and chloride of lime from the sole of each boot, she looked up at number 280 and felt a pleasure akin to pride—for the five stories of white stone as rich and delicious-looking as a meringue; the Corinthian columns that framed the front door like Heaven’s own gate; and the vast planes of plate glass, more windows than wall. One night on Mercer Street, she had suppressed a snigger as she was introduced to two men, assuming the names they had given were false—Mr. Snook and Mr. Trench—but a colleague confided that Snook and Trench were the men’s real names, and that they were the architects of A.T. Stewart’s. Polly returned instantly to Snook’s side offering a brandy smash, discovering, among other facts, that the building was modeled on a particular Florentine palazzo.
The resemblance to some grand old Italian mansion was interesting—and she thrilled to hear the word palazzo spoken—but her love of Stewart’s derived from the fact that it was new, every inch bright as a brand of fire. Let other people moan and whine about the demolition of all the eighteenth century houses on Greenwich Street and the monstrous Drummond Light blazing crazily every night from Barnum’s roof; about the pandemonium of engines, foreign crowds (so many Irish, so many Germans, so many Jews), scurrilous newspapers (The Whip, The Subterranean, The Sunday Flash), and freakish coinages (“vegetarian!” “psychology!” “show business!”). Polly welcomed this age of the new, practically every bit and moment of it. In Stewart’s there were no foul-smelling old oil lamps, no soot-smeared walls, no creaky floors, no gouged wainscoting, no cracked panes, no capricious prices, no mingy storekeeper giving her the eye. It was headquarters for the New York fellowship of the new, the most democratic club on Earth: Yes, Polly imagined, here I am at my club on Broadway. She amused herself with this whimsy of a club that admitted women—let alone a young woman of bad fame, a Mercer Street whore. A five-dollar whore, Polly amended automatically, a five-dollar whore wearing an excellent dragonfly-green twilled silk bombazine dress and carrying a new copy of McCaulay’s History of England in her satinet handbag—but a whore nonetheless.
“Welcome back to Stewart’s, Miss.” As the boy in ludicrous blue livery heaved open the big front door, she stepped in and inhaled deeply: clean dry marble, expensive varnish, Oriental rugs, cut flowers, linen writing papers, powdered starch, lavender water, the latest crinolines fluffy as pastry, hundreds of pristine first-class calicoes, cambrics, balzarines, cashmeres, and muslins—the collective tonic aroma of so many good things all here together and all brand new. She shivered. Stewart’s two dozen clocks, with two dozen slightly different bells and rhythms, began to strike five. The cheerful, hysterical discord of the chimes pleased her.
Inside Stewart’s the day always seemed brighter—literally so. Polly knew this must be an illusion, some stray romantic image she interposed from her book about fabulous temples of antiquity. But the 70-foot glass dome above the rotunda did force one to pay attention to the daylight flooding in, and all the white marble redoubled the shimmer. Fabulous, she thought as she scanned the selling floor, unsure whether she had mouthed the word or not.
Down the Broadway side lemonade shafts of afternoon light—Hudson River light—poured through 12-foot-tall windows. Polly walked slowly down the western aisle, leaning over a vitrine to look closely at a Japanese comb and then, a few paces later, an India-rubber umbrella. These inspections were pretexts. She only wanted to wade slowly through the pools of sun. She wanted to bask.
Up in the mezzanine gallery, which ran a hundred yards around the rotunda, Polly ignored the frescoes depicting Great Scenes of American Commerce and glanced away as she passed the mourning department (although she had bought a dozen pairs of $2 black gloves for her mother’s funeral here, and sometimes pictured herself packed like a doll in the coffin with the glass lid). Overhead she heard a muffled chukka-chukka-chukka hum, like a fleet of tiny locomotives, the sound of a regiment of women turning out chemises and frocks on new sewing machines. Finally she stopped. Polly stood, her hands gripping the brazilwood rail, looking out over the acre of colored boxes and bottles, trinkets and toys, blankets and gowns and shawls, assuming the air of lady of this up-to-date house. The merchandise was not shoved thoughtlessly onto shelves or hidden grudgingly in drawers but displayed artfully, like objects on a theater stage, as if to suggest lives lived. Coming to Stewart’s was like stepping into a play in which a few new characters and props appeared each time she returned; a play, Polly fancied, in which she was the restless, modern young heroine. “You haven’t the sense God gave a goose,” her mother would be saying now.
The dozen clocks chimed again, the thousand-shattering-icicles sound of half past. It was time for her to go, to catch a Yellow Bird omnibus to the foot of Broadway to meet her new English friend down at Castle Garden.
The setting sun had turned the sandstone walls a deep sparkling cinnabar. As Ben stepped from the tip of Manhattan onto the pier—into the Atlantic, he thought, back toward England—he heard the bells of Trinity Church striking half five. How unlike himself to arrive so early. And how unlike himself to be entertaining a girl he had met by chance, in a queue for a play called Fortune’s Fool, after she impertinently answered a question (“Precisely two shillings, sir”) that he had asked the ticket seller (“Precisely how much is ‘four bits’?”). And Lord, how unbelievably unlike himself to be all alone without plans or obligations, living in rooms rented by the week, in America! Fortune’s fool, indeed.
He bought his $1 balcony tickets from an old man in a white shed under the “CASTLE GARDEN” sign. The man did not remove the cigar from his lips.
“I have a question, if I may,” Ben said.
“Why was the theater built in this way—like a fortress, in miniature? It’s all very cute and authentical-looking. But I don’t understand the idea behind the military theme.”
The old man stared, puffed, then spoke: “This is the Battery. This is a fort. Built for our second war against King George. Eighteen-hundred-and-twelve?”
“Ah,” Ben said. “Of course.”
“Eighteen-twelve, eighteen-thirteen, eighteen-fourteen—you never attacked New York.”
“No,” Ben said, turning away to go in. “Thank you.”
“This fort did its job right.”
Ben saw now that the walls were eight feet thick—obviously no folly. The iron stairways and ceiling, painted with cadmium yellow stars and crescent moons on a mauve field, were new additions. What a ninny he had been! Americans would never indulge an architectural fiction so elaborate and impractical. And only Americans would have the audacious, go-aheadish flexibility to turn a major rampart into a playhouse. Slowly he walked the circumference, stopping at each two-foot-high loophole for a cannoneer’s glimpse of the water. He imagined an armada of Royal Navy gun-brigs on the horizon, sailing up through the narrows, determined to reclaim the city taken from England three-quarters of a century earlier. And then, in Ben’s fantasy, once the captains reached looking-glass range they discovered the American cannons all gone, the ramparts now an amusement park teeming with unarmed men and women, jolly mechanics and gentlemen gathered together to uncork spruce beers and listen to an orchestra play native music. Blissful, oblivious, energetic America—pursuing happiness hell-bent, just as promised three-quarters of a century earlier. Ben was infatuated.
A young man wearing greased sidelocks swaggered by very close, and Ben felt a sudden wetness on his hand. Three days here had confirmed the London caricature of tobacco-mad Americans chewing and spitting, chewing and spitting in every place and circumstance, heedlessly. As Ben lifted the hand for a glance at the half teaspoon of brown jelly covering his knuckle, Polly appeared.
He whipped his hand toward the ground. The spittle glob, now a strand, clung to a finger. He jerked his hand again, then finally wiped it on the sandstone wall behind him.
“Miss Crawford!” He bowed.
“Mr. Knowles,” Polly said. Did Englishwomen still curtsy? She bowed. “Are you…well?” She had not noticed any palsy when they met at the theater.
“No, it was, I, some type of—insect. I’m so pleased to see you again.”
She slid her arm through his. “Lovely April evening,” Polly said, instantly regretting her triteness.
As Ben led her to the stairs, she was relieved; they would not be sitting on a bench in the pit, hug’em-snug with the whole world. At the top stair they paused together to register the harbor panorama. A gust rustled Polly’s yards of bombazine and floated the corkscrew curls away from her face. Ben was infatuated.
At their table, studying a list of drinks, he looked up and asked, “Have you had Matthews?”
“Excuse me?” Her cheeks flushed.
Ben read from the table card: “‘Matthews and Company’s delicious, lively, healthful carbonated water, bottled in Manhattan.’ Have you tried it?”
Polly resumed breathing. “Sometimes they make a punch with it at my boardinghouse.”
“Punch, at a boardinghouse? Is America such a gay place?”
“New York is gay.”
As he gave the waiter their orders, she looked out over the broad semicircle of iron posts that formed a queer modern colonnade between the tables and the twilight sky. “Are you a student of architecture?” Ben asked.
“I am acquainted with architects. And I do know one new building on Broadway quite well. The store they call the Marble Palace?” Ben showed no recognition. “The prototype was a certain palazzo, of the cinquecento, in Florence.”
“You must be a teacher, Miss Crawford.”
“No,” she said, looking straight at Ben but trying to avoid any hint of a look that might be considered wanton. “I am an actress.”
His eyes widened. “An actress! Scandalum magnatum! A badge of infamy! A blot on your escutcheon!” Ben ginned. “That explains your fortuitous presence at the Broadway Theater last night.”
“Fortuitous for whom, Mr. Knowles?” Tonight was no professional appointment. She was free to speak candidly, even waspishly. “I was at the theater because a friend suggested I might enjoy Turgenev’s play. And because the Broadway is not a black house.”
“Do the Negroes offend you?”
“No, no,” she said, smiling as she gestured toward Ben’s black coat and waistcoat, “a black house, a theater where women are unwelcome. And you, Mr. Knowles—are you an enterpriser here on business?”
As he prepared to tell the rather extraordinary tale of how he came to be in America, the audience hushed. Down below the conductor, Anthony Heinrich, an elderly Bohemian by way of Kentucky, stepped onto the podium. He announced that his orchestra would first play an unfinished Heinrich work entitled Barbecue Divertimento.
At this Ben briefly but loudly laughed, surprising himself as well as the people sitting nearby, who reckoned he was drunk. “Sorry,” he whispered to Polly, “but did he actually say Barbecue Divertimento?”
Polly nodded, grinning, and put a finger to her lips.