As a San Francisco sports columnist it is my fortune from time to time to nip back to the East Coast of America to see what's with the provinces and the sporting life therein. For us athletic authors this is known as getting perspective. It is also a handy way to get out from under the boss's eye for a spell. When you return, too, you can show travel by telling the boys at the Buena Vista Caf� how things are in what is laughingly called the Sports Capital of the World. They won't be jealous.
This time my assignment was simple enough. Look at New York in general, doss down for a couple of weeks, have a few drinks in the fancier traps, peck at the high cuisine insofar as the old liver would allow and give deep scrutiny to the New York Mets, a baseball team and seemingly the only game in town. Also construe that figurine from the commedia dell'arte, Mr. Casey Stengel. Not to speak of that other figurine, Mr. Yogi Berra.
I've lived in San Francisco in recent years, but I also speak as a bucko who was born in Roosevelt Hospital on the West Side, grew up in Hell's Kitchen and lower Harlem and got my schooling in academies from Riverdale all the way down to Second Street and Second Avenue. This last-mentioned institution was across the street from Rumshinsky and Kalich's Yiddish theater, usually starring Molly Picon.
One quickly was aware, upon returning, that some changes had been made. The streets were now about as safe as the back alleys of Port Said or Marseille. The subways were being used as abattoirs by drunken teen-age louts. A girl could get raped at Columbus Circle while several thousand alert citizens walked by muttering, "Never volunteer." The whole place, it occurred to me on Fifth Avenue one day, is the town of Tawdry, on the port of Pinchbeck, in the borough of Brummagem. And though one knew it was coming, it was still hard to get used to the drubbing they give you. It was no consolation to know that people get pushed around only if they let themselves be pushed around. Too many had already capitulated to make resistance to the Big Gouge effective.
New York is an adulterated city, and in many ways a sick city. But the word that most frequently comes to my mind is the epithet from the harsh lexicon of baseball: bush. The word has a flexible but unmistakable meaning, ranging from what won't cut the mustard to what you wouldn't be caught dead doing. There was a time when bush, almost by definition, meant anything that happened outside the city limits of New York. Bushville started in Hoboken. Now, it seems to me, it's getting to be the other way around. And fast.
When I got to town this summer a funny thing happened—an establishing scene right out of a well-made play. It told everything, almost. I was to stay at the New York Hilton, one of the new excrescences on Sixth Avenue. I looked with wry affection at the street signs, still gallantly protesting that I was on the Avenue of the Americas. Fiorello La Guardia christened it that in the '40s. He also said at another time that when he made a mistake it was a beaut.
I strode into the lobby of this tower of irrelevance. It was busy as a gelatin-slide culture of bugs. I asked to pick up a reservation that had been made four months earlier. It had been confirmed a few days before. It had been confirmed again that very morning. A smiley clerk with a mouth full of lovely white teeth listened as I told my name. He darted into the crannies behind the welcome desk. He was back in a minute, the smile subdued like an oath in a tearoom.
"I'm sorry, sir, we're filled up."
I said, "The reservation was made four months ago by one of your most valued clients and confirmed twice, and on your promise of a place to sleep I have traveled over 3,000 miles."
The mortuary manners continued, "I'm so sorry, sir...."