I have a nostalgia for New York City. No, I haven't left yet, and I have had this nostalgia for some years already. It's a nostalgia for old New York. Early 20th century New York. The New York of immigrants, tenements, the Empire State Building, The Godfather Part 2. Jews and Italians and Irishmen. The first year or so I lived here, my roommate brought home a Vanity Fair article about Claudette Colbert. In it, Colbert was quoted as always crediting her famous legs to the five flights of stairs she had to climb each day in the tenement her family lived in when they came from France in 1918. The address of the building was the same as ours; we lived on the fifth floor. Our apartment had clearly never been renovated with anything more than a coat (or two, or twenty) of paint in its long decades of existence. Knowing Claudette Colbert might once have lived there made the dingy space just a little bit more romantic.
I think in some ways New York is so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness as the quintessential place where everything came from, even though so many of us didn't, that I think I would feel this even if I had never lived here. But having lived here, books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I reread a couple years ago for the first time since I was a kid) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay just have a special resonance. I hope I never lose that.
Modern New York, though, can be maddening. There’s too much daily in-your-face interaction to really inspire nostalgia. There will be things I miss, of course—my favorite restaurants, the odd little shops, the subway (yes, I will miss the subway and its ability to create a carless life)—but for the most part I don’t expect to feel the particular romance of nostalgia for the place. I am ready to leave.
This wedding planning, however, has brought me face-to-face with some of Old New York. Even as wedding planning seems so dependent on the Internet (I cannot imagine how I might have done it without access to all of the info on the web—I found my venue, my invitations, my shoes, my jewelry, my photographer, my florist, my DJ, all on the web. I even found my fiance on the web!), at the same time it taps into old ways of doing things that we never bother with unless we are planning a wedding. The most obvious of these is fretting over “etiquette,” but in New York at least, there are lovelier examples, such as the window into the world of the jewelry makers on Diamond Row that I’ve already blogged about. Sitting in their workshops, I felt I was watching jewelers working as they have worked for generations, whether fresh off the boat from Europe or off the train from Long Island.
Last night, I had an appointment with a seamstress. I bought my dress many months ago in a frenzy at the Filene’s sale (very modern New York!), but now I need to have it altered. I don’t think a great deal needs to be done, but it does need to be shortened, and the hips need to be taken in. I found the seamstress via a referral from my friend Phoebe (oddly enough, the roommate who brought home that Vanity Fair article years ago), who got maried in April. The seamstress’s name is Kiki, and she has a studio on the Upper East Side.
The Upper East Side is the Old New York, not of immigrants and tenements, but of Astors and Vanderbilts. The seamstress’s studio is less than a block from Central Park. The building is an elegant old five-story building with the kind of elevator with the grille you draw closed before pressing the button. You can watch the floors go by, if that sort of thing doesn’t terrify you. When you get to the top, you cannot open the door until Kiki comes, because it opens right into her studio.
Kiki herself was not at all what I expected. She’s an older woman, perhaps in her fifties, with an unidentified European accent. She was dressed in an elegant black pantsuit, with a colorful but tasteful silk scarf draped around her neck and little gold-rimmed spectacles. She showed me into her office, a neat space with a couple computers and a handful of wedding dresses hanging on a rack, and gave me a few bridal magazies to look at while she wrapped up with the client still in the other room.
In a few minutes, I was shown into the other room, a large, well-lit space with a hardwood floor, a couch, a coffee table, and dais in the middle of the room, facing a mirrored wall. Around the dais was a white sheet, presumably to keep your dress’s train clean. Nowhere in either of these two rooms did I see a sewing machine, or any other implements of her craft. Everything was clean and spare, and very peaceful. It was dead silent: no music, no traffic noise, nothing. Yet it was also quintessentially New York—a personalized business on the fifth floor of what appeared to be a residential building. So many businesses I’ve visited in this process have not had storefronts or signs or advertising. You find it because you are looking for it and have been told it’s there. It is the ultimate in nonsuburban living.
I put on the dress, my lovely red shoes (which Kiki exclaimed over with gratifying enthusiasm) and ascended the dais. Kiki began pinning while I admired myself in the mirror. It felt very old-fashioned, in this off-the-rack world, to have someone working to hand-sew an expensive dress to fit me and me alone. I’ve had things altered before, of course—pants shortened at the dry cleaner, that sort of thing. But this was an entirely different experience. It was luxurious. It was extravagant. In that quiet, peaceful space I could imagine myself as an Edith Wharton heroine having a dress made for the ball of her life.
I’ve been feeling a bit impatient with the wedding planning recently: I miss my sweetie and want to get on with it, already. But things like this remind me that this is my wedding, and it’s not just a giant money-suck and stress-inducer. It’s also the chance of a lifetime to do things that I have never done, and see a world I’ve never seen. Could I live in a world of couture gowns, expensive jewelry and extravagant parties every day? I doubt it. But this one time, I’m going to revel in it, and soak up as much of Old New York as I can while I am at it.