New York — Winter arrives with below freezing weather and a sheet of slippery snow, and I try to work out my lower back pains at the gym. It’s that time of year when I vow that my getting older and the usual obstacles created by wintry weather will not force me retreat to my apartment, and I will live as full a life as possible.
What does it mean to live fully? Of course, I can write, read, and watch Netflix without ever leaving my apartment. But for me one key to living fully is embracing the outside world by wandering the streets, and observing the daily.
So on a gray afternoon I meet a friend at Caffe Reggio on MacDougal Street a few blocks from my house to talk for an hour. There is nothing that intellectually demanding or personally revelatory about our conversation, but I like sitting in a Village café engaging in intelligent talk about politics, films and even the Yankees’ prospects next season. I like this café because it’s the only one in the Village that has endured from my college years when I sat in coffee houses for many hours talking in a more intense, self-conscious and pretentious manner to friends than I do these days.
Reggio opened in 1927, and against the back wall, there is still the original espresso machine, made in 1902 that the café’s founder, Domenico Parisi, bought with his savings. The café’s customers are now mainly NYU students and tourists. For the days are long gone when it was a hangout for bohemians or the many young people who were merely playing at being one for a brief time in their lives. But the café’s dark, claustrophobic, lush interior still looks like it did in the 50s, and that satisfies my need to relive the memories of those years when I felt I had to escape the Bronx and become in some undefined way part of bohemia. I feel I fulfilled that goal in spirit, but never in actuality.
On another winter Sunday I meet a friend at a diner on the Upper West Side in the 70s. I walk past the Beaux-Arts Ansonia — built in 1904 as a grand residential hotel. It has gone through many changes, but in recent years it has been converted into expensive condominium apartments. I have always been struck by the Ansonia’s ornate architecture — its round corner turrets, its balconies, and its elaborate detail. It becomes even more unique and luminous, given that the buildings that surround it are solid and comfortable, but architecturally of no interest.
The poet of the Ansonia was Saul Bellow who depicted it in his great novella Seize the Day, as a Baroque palace, “with towers, domes, huge swells and bubbles of metal gone green from exposure, iron fretwork and festoons.”
The 70s are a prosperous, lively slice of the Upper West Side, and on a Sunday its streets are bursting with people — even the unremarkable Greek diner we eat in has long lines. In this instance I don’t mind the crowds, for an urban neighborhood barren of people loses its vitality and character, and these streets swarm with life.
I take these walks each day, sometimes with a destination, other times just for the sake of gaining a fresh insight. For there are times the walks stir my inner life — past memories and self-exploration — other times I gain insight into the city’s texture and even its problems, and still others I feel numb and just drift about seeing and feeling nothing. I know how aging erodes our capacity to do things we once did with ease. But I am not ready to acquiesce, and passively spend my days in virtual reality. An apt quote from Thoreau — sums up what I feel: “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”