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The Dessert Of Life Post by :58147 Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :3427

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The Dessert Of Life

Birds of a feather flock together, you can tell a dog by its spots, a man is known by the company he keeps--and all that sort of thing.

It is quite astonishing that nobody has before been struck by what I have in my eye. People go round all the while writing about Old Greenwich Village, the harbour, the Ghetto, the walk uptown. Coney Island, the Great White Way, the subway ride, Riverside Drive, the spectacle of Fifth Avenue, the Night Court, the "lungs" of the metropolis, the "cliff dwellers," "faith, hope, and charity" on University Heights--a cathedral, a university, and a hospital, "lobster palace society," the "grand canons" of lower Manhattan, and about every other part of and thing in New York except this most entertaining section which I am about to discuss.

Now, I never lived on Mars----

You know "Sunday stories" in the newspapers are continually bringing a gentleman resident on Mars to marvel, with his fresh vision, at the wonders of this world.

As I say, I never lived on Mars, but, what amounts to the same thing in this case, perhaps, I did live all of my New York life, up to a short time ago, below Forty-second Street. I gathered from reading and conversation that there were districts of the city above this where people dwelt and went about their daily affairs, just, I supposed, as fish do at the bottom of the ocean, and beasts in the jungle. But I knew that I could not breathe at the bottom of the ocean, nor be comfortable in the jungle.

However, it's this way. The person to whom I am married declared that she could not live below Forty-second Street; said that that was not done at all, nobody "lived" below Forty-second Street. So the matter was settled. I moved "uptown." Of course, by stealth I continue to visit the neighbourhood of Gramercy Park, as a dog, it is said, will return to that which is not nice.

The beauties and the advantages of the region in which I now live have been pointed out to me. It is quite true that everything hereabout is new and "clean." Here the streets are not infested by "old bums" as those are in that dirty old downtown. Here one is just between the beautiful Drive on the one hand and our handsome Central Park on the other. Here there is fresh air. Here Broadway is a boulevard, and, further, it winds about in its course like the roads, as they call them there, in London, and does not have that awful straight look of everything in that checker-board part of town. Here everybody is well dressed. And even the grocers' and butchers' shops are quite smart. All this is indisputable.

But all this is a description of the physical aspects of this part of town. What I purpose to do is an esoteric thing. Through the outward aspects of this part of town, its vestments, the features of its physiognomy, I will show, as through a glass, the beatings of its heart. I will exhibit the soul of it, interpret its spirit, make plain for him that runs its inner, hidden meaning.

The part of town that I mean may be said to begin at Seventy-second Street; it runs along Broadway, and comprises the neighbourhood of Broadway, to, say, a bit above One Hundred and Tenth Street. Now we shall see what we shall see.

You remember what a celebrated irascible character said about a circulating library in a town. Be that as it may. As you stroll along Broadway, up from Seventy-second Street, you observe, being a person of highly alert mind, an astonishing number of circulating libraries, devoted exclusively to the latest fiction. And you note that all corner drug stores and all stationers' shops present a window display of "50-cent fiction." Ah! refinement. Reading people are nice people; they are not rough people. There is, you feel at once, an air, there is taste--how shall I say?--selectness, about this part of town. It is not as other parts of town are.

You perceive, as you continue your stroll with a brightened and a more perfumed mind, that there are no shoe stores here. Shoo stores!! "Booteries," these are. Combined with "hosieries." Countless are the smart hat shops for women. That is to say, the establishments of "chapeaux importers." In the miniature parlours framed by the windows' glass these chic and ravishing creations, the chapeaux, rise in a row high upon their slim and lovely stems. This one is the establishment of Mlle. Edythe, that of Mme. Vigneau. Countless, too, are the terrestrial heavens devoted to "gowns." Headless they stand, these symphonies in feminine apparel, side by side here in the windows of the Maison la Mode, there of the Maison Estelle. Frequent are the places where the figure is cultivated with famous corsets, the retreats of "corsetieres"; this one before you bears the name Fayette; it is where the model "Madame Pompadour" is sold. And numerous are shops luxuriating in waists, "blouses," lingerie, and "novelties" of dress. Conspicuous among them, the "Dolly Dimple Shop." The many "furriers" here all deal in "exclusive" furs and their names all end in "sky."

And there are roses, roses all the way. That is to say, "roseries," "violeteries," and the like--what we call florists' shops, you know. Spots of gorgeous colour and intense fragrance, heaped high with orchids, violets, roses, gardenias, or, in some cases, "artificial flowers."

See! the luscious wax busts in the window. With their grandes coiffures. And their pink and yellow bosoms resplendent with gems. It is a hair-dresser's, just as in London, with a gentlemen's parlour at the back. "Structures" are made here in human hair, and "marcel waving" is done, not, however, we may suppose, for gentlemen. Here may be had an "olive oil shampoo," and a "facial massage." One could be "manicured" in the stroll you are taking every ten minutes or so, if one wished. And "hair cutting" is done along this way by artistes from various lands. There is, for instance, the Peluqueria Espanola. "Service," too, is offered "at residence." Beauty here is held in esteem as it was among the Greeks. Upon one side of the "chemist's" window "toilet requisites" are announced for sale. The "valet system" is extensively advertised. The industry of "dry cleansing" nourishes, and the "shoe renovator" abounds. And hats are "renovated," and "blocked," and "ironed," in places without number.

What a delightful tea-room is this! With its woodwork, its panelling, and its little window lattices, all in beautiful enamelled white. That is not a tea-room! I'm 'sprised at you. That is a laundry. A laundry? Shades of Hop Loo! It is even so. There are a variety of types of laundry in this part of the world, but the great point of them all is their "sanitary" character. All things are sanitary here; the shaving brushes at the barber's are proclaimed sanitary; "sanitary tailoring" is announced; and the creameries of this district, it would seem, go beyond anything yet achieved elsewhere in the way of sanitation. It might be imagined from a study of window signs that a perverse person bent upon procuring un-"pasteurized" milk in this part of town would be frustrated of his design.

I was sent to what my understanding conceived to be the "bakery" in our immediate neighbourhood, on an errand. This place, I found, was called the "Queen Elizabeth." I was dreadfully abashed when I got inside. I was afraid that there might be some bit of mud on my shoes which would soil the polished floor; and I became keenly conscious that my trowsers were not perfectly pressed. I should, of course, have worn my tail-coat. There were several ladies there receiving guests that afternoon. I had a tete-a-tete with one of these, who gossiped pleasantly about the cakes--I was to get some cakes. The nicest cakes at the "Queen Elizabeth," it seems, are of two kinds: "Maids of Court" and "Ladies in Waiting." Our neighbourhood is rich in shops given to "pastry," "sweets," "bon bons." Shops of charming names! There is the "Ambrosia Confection Shop," and the place of the "Patisserie et Confiserie."

In our neighbourhood there are, too, a vast number of "caterers" and "fruiterers," and, particularly, delicatessen shops. Delicatessen shops in our neighbourhood are described upon the windows as places dealing in "fancy and table luxuries." I have heard my wife say that many people "just live out of them." They are certainly handsome places. Why, you wouldn't think there was any food in them. Everything is so dressed up that it doesn't look at all as if it were to eat, it is so attractive.

Restaurants hereabouts are commonly named "La Parisienne," or something like that, or are called "rotisseries." There are some just ordinary restaurants, too, and many immaculate, light-lunch rooms. "Afternoon Tea" is a frequent sign, and one often sees the delicate suggestion in neat gilt, "Sandwiches." Grocers in this part of town, it would seem, handle only "select," "fancy," and "choice" groceries, and "hot-house products." There are a number of fine "markets" in this district, very fine markets indeed. In the season for game, deer and bears may be seen strung up in front of them; all their chickens appear to come from Philadelphia, their ducks are "fresh killed Long Island ducks," and they make considerable of a feature of "frogs' legs." These markets are usually called the "Superior Market," or the "Quality Market," or something like that. Great residential hotels here bear the name of "halls," as "Brummel Hall" on the one hand and "Euripides Hall" on the other.

You will by now have begun to perceive the note, the flair, of my part of town. Its care is for the graces, the things that sweeten life, the refinements of civilisation, the embellishments of existence. Nothing more clearly, strikingly, bespeaks this than the proofs of its extraordinary fondness for art--I have mentioned literature. Painting and sculpture, music, the drama, and the art of "interior decoration," these things of the spirit have their homes without number along this stretch of Broadway.

"Art" shops and art "galleries" are on every hand. In the windows of these places you will see: innumerable French mirrors; stacks of empty picture frames of French eighteenth-century design, at an amazingly cheap figure each; remarkably inexpensive reproductions in bright colours of Sir Joshua, Corot, Watteau, Chardin, Fragonard, some Italian Madonnas; an assortment of hunting prints, and prints redolent of Old English sentiment; many wall "texts," or "creeds"; a variety of the kind of coloured pictures technically called, I believe, "comics"; numerous little plaster casts of anonymous works and busts of standard authors; frequently an ambitious original etching by an artist unknown to you; and an occasional print of the "September Morn" kind of thing; together with many "art objects" and a great deal of "bric-a-brac." Upon the windows you are informed that "restoring," "artistic framing," "regilding," and "resilvering" are done within. And, in some cases, that "miniatures" are painted there. There are, too, a number of "Japanese art stores" along the way, containing vast stocks of Japanese lilies living in Japanese pans, other exotic blossoming plants, pink and yellow slippers from the Orient, and striking flowered garments like a scene from a "Mikado" opera.

In this part of town photography, too, is made one of the fine arts. You do not here have your photograph taken; you have, it seems, your "portrait" made. "Home portraiture" is ingratiatingly suggested on lettered cards, and, further, you are invited to indulge in "art posing in photographs." The "studios" of the photographers display about an equal number of portraits of children and dogs. The people of this community take joy not only in the savour of art, and in taking part in its professional production, but they would themselves produce it, as amateurs. The sign "Kodaks" is everywhere about, and "enlarging" is done, and "developing and printing for amateurs" every few rods. So we come to the subject of music.

Caruso, Melba, Paderewski, Mischa Elman, Harry Lauder, Sousa, Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms, Grieg, Moszkowsky, the "latest song hit" from anything you please. Ask and you will find along this thoroughfare. There are no more prosperous looking bazaars on this street than those consecrated to the sale of "musical phonographs" of every make. And if the name of these places is not exactly legion, it is something very like that. Besides every species of Victophone and Olagraph, the music lover may muse upon the wonders and the variety of "mechanical piano players." All of de luxe "tone quality."

As for the drama. The brightest word at night in this galaxy of ultra signs is the gracious word "Photo Play House." Deep beyond plummet's sound is the interest of this part of town in the human story, as revealed upon the "screen." Grief and mirth, good and evil, danger and daring, and the horizon from Hatteras to Matapan may be scanned upon the poster boards before the entrances of these showy temples of the mighty film. Here one is invited to witness "Carmen," and also a "drama of life," "Tricked by a Victim," and also "a comedy drama full of pep" entitled "Good Old Pop," productions of the "Premier Picture Corporation." Announcements of scenes of tornadoes, the Great War, of "Paris fashions," and, ah, yes! of "beauty films" line the way.

To turn to the home. The people of this part of town dwell, according to their shops, entirely amid "period and art furniture." And it would seem, by the remarkable number of places in this quarter where this is displayed for sale, that they dwell amid a most amazing amount of it. These marts of household gods are of two kinds: ones of imposing size, with long windows stretching far down the cross street, and dealing in shining "reproductions," and the tiny, quaint, intimate, delightful kind of thing, where it is said on a sign on a gilded chair that "artistic picture hanging by the hour" is done.

The fascinating places are the more alluring. Herein rich jumbles are, of tapestries, clocks of all periods--including a harvest of those of the "grandfather" era--fire-screens, brass kettles, andirons, stained-glass, artistic lamps in endless variety, the latest things in pillow cushions, book racks, wall papers, wall "decorations" and "hangings," draperies, curtains, cretonnes. The "decorators" deal, too, in "parquet floors," and flourish and increase in their kind in response, evidently, to the volume of demand for "upholstering" and "cabinet work." And the floors of this part of town must hold rich stores of Oriental rugs, as importers of these are frequent on our way.

The higher civilisations turn, naturally, to refinements of religious thought. What the Salvation Army is to Fourteenth Street, what the Rescue Mission is to the Bowery, the Christian Science Reading Room is to this stretch of Broadway, and there is no trimmer place to be seen on your stroll. Then, one of the marks of our culture to-day is the aesthetic cultivation of the primitive. Our neighbourhood is invited, on placards in windows, to assemble "every Sunday evening" to enjoy the "love stories of the Bible."

For the rest, you would see on your stroll, for man cannot live by taste and the spirit alone, sundry places of business concerned with real estate, electrical accoutrement, automobile accessories, toys, the investment and safeguarding of treasure, and so on, and particularly with ales, wines, liquors, and cigars. Each and all of these, however, are affirmed to be "places of quality."

Now, the social customs of this part of town, as they may be abundantly viewed on our thoroughfare, are agreeable to observe. At night our boulevard twinkles with lights like a fairyland. The view of across the way through the gardens, as they should be called, down the middle of the street, is enchanting. All aglow our spic-and-span trolley cars--all our trolley cars are spic-and-span--ride down the way like "floats" in a nocturnal parade. Upon the sidewalks are happy throngs, and a hum of cheery sound. The throngs of our neighbourhood are touched with an indescribable character of place; they are not the throngs of anywhere else. They are not exactly Fifth Avenue; they are not the Great White Way. They are nice throngs, healthy throngs, care-free throngs, modish throngs in the modes of magazine advertisements. And all their members are young.

You will notice as you go and come that you pass the same laughing groups in precisely the same spot, hour after hour. Those who compose these groups seem to be calling upon one another. Apparently, on pleasant evenings, it is the form here for you to receive your guests in this way, in the open air. And you jest, and converse, and while the time amiably away, just as many people do at home. "Well," says my wife, "the rooms in the apartments in this part of town are so small that nobody can bring anybody into them."


(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: Dessert Of Life

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