Nostalgia for times I never knew: New York City, 1940s

I sit here on the sofa, in a late Victorian terraced house in Wood Green, a suburb of a very 21st century city. I’m far away from many places, and as I’m sat here listening to Tom Waits on Spotify, I’m far away from a time and a place that he conjures up better than anyone I can think of.

Certainly, I can break out Kind Of Blue and am drawn into a smoky den filled with sharp suited afficionados – and when I’m there I’m always sharpsuited too, perhaps looking like Robert Duvall in The Godfather, waistcoat and all. Or perhaps I’m more like Michael Corleone: understated, yet endlessly elegant in that late 40s way. But that’s not really the point: the point is that everybody (or so I understand it) looked like that; everybody was elegant in those days, whether serenading their long-held loves in deserted restaurants (as per Bobby De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America) or propping up the bar as in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Hopper’s scene was inspired by a now-demolished corner diner in Greenwich Village. It was begun amidst the shock, fear and gloom immediately after Pearl Harbour and has become the epitome of that era of Americana: post-Prohibition, post-depression; but pre-McCarthy, pre-Kennedy, pre-rock’n’roll. A city in the thrall of jazz, soaked with refill coffees and fed with pie; drowned with whisky, topped off with a smart trilby. The diner with its gleaming chrome counter and soda-stream and white-coated attendant, or the home with untouched front room and aproned wife, or the bar with golden liquids in tumblers with ice. All slightly melancholy but with that almost English reserve and stature.

This is the world in which Tom Waits slouches at the counter hoping that he doesn’t fall in love with the dame the other end, or depending on his mood, exchanging bittersweet witticisms with Bette Midler. He’d be eating eggs and sausage, with a side of toast; and even late in the night when his words were sloppy and his manner slurred, it wasn’t him drinking: it was the piano.

Of course, I know, these bizarre nostalgias are never the whole picture: after all, this is the New York City of Last Exit To Brooklyn, and I know I’d feel out of place amongst Hubert Selby Jr’s teamsters, trannies and junkies. It’s the US surrounded by a world either at war or dealing with its aftermath, yet strangely isolated from the rest of the planet. Not fitting in, though; I can deal with that, and I can deal with sitting at a diner not really knowing what to do but sit (this is the days before internet messageboards, after all). So I’ll keep my nostalgia, thanks, I’ll run with it – elegantly of course, lest my hat and coat come out of place.


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