Adrift and At Peace

Over the course of working ten years in Manhattan, I have spent countless lunch hours walking the streets near my office.

I should say offices—plural—as there have been five total in four different parts of the island. At each location, I spent the first few days finding the right groove for my daily walks. Once I found it, I would not alter the route for the rest of my days there. Each walk created a layer of memory that encapsulated that period in my mind.

Among all the offices, the one in Greenwhich Village provided both the most historic and scenic route.

At one o'clock every day, I left my office on the corner of West Houston Street and walked north on Hudson Street. To my right was James J. Walker Park, where a ballgame was always underway no matter the day. I frequently stood looking through the green chain-link fence that separated the park from the sidewalk. I would hang on it just to catch a glimpse of the action. To my dismay, nothing usually happened—not a goal in the soccer games; nor any kind of contact in softball. The players seemed to enjoy being on a ball field, playing a game while the rest of us worked.

Across the street stands a restaurant called The Clam. It has sidewalk tables, and one oppressively hot afternoon I watched people walked past unaware that The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, was sitting at one of them. He was resplendent in a jean suit with a red handkerchief tied around his neck, reminding us that as long as he is around we are always on the clock. I gave him a nod to pay my respects.

On the corner of Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place— a peculiarity I will get to later— is where the story of an interesting block begins. As I walked east, to my left is a row of thirteen beautiful Italianate townhouses. The first one of note, No. 5 St. Luke's Place, was the former home of painter Paul Cadmus, who lived there while he painted the controversial "The Fleet's In!," in 1934. At its entrance, the house has a beautiful staircase that was covered in ivy, which was where I always saw the same Federal Express delivery man, with his wonderful shock of grey hair, reading a book on his lunch hour every day.

An oddity about this street is that the row houses are numbered sequentially—one through seventeen—as you go west to east. The next house, No. 6 St. Luke's Place, which apart from being marked with a number on its door, is identifiable by the two lampposts on both ends of its steps. This was the home of the former mayor of New York City, James J. Walker, whose name the park across the street bears. James Walker, or Jimmy Walker, or Beau James, was a drunk and lover of chorus girls that, to misappropriate a line from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay—a neighbor a few streets over, on Bedford Street—certainly burned the candle at both ends. Walker, described as the "Prince Charming of Politics" by Robert Caro in The Power Broker, once came home so drunk at three in the morning that the cop stationed outside his house refused to let him in, not believing that the man in front of him was actually the mayor and the owner of the home he was protecting. Before being elected mayor, as a New York Senator, Walker sponsored the "Walker Law" that legalized boxing in the state. While he was mayor, from 1926-1932, Walker let his opposition to Prohibition be known; speakeasies thrived under his administration. The stock market crash of 1929, and pressure from then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, led him to resign.

A familiar sight is No. 10 St. Luke's Place, which was used as the exterior for the home of the Huxtables on The Cosby Show. A few years ago, this location would have been teeming with tourists, brought in by the busload, to have their picture taken on the stoop. After Bill Cosby's rape allegations, however, only a handful of people visit the site. 

Further along, No.'s 11 and 12 St. Luke's Place housed two former tenants who were victimized by Ernest Hemingway. Max Eastman, the editor of the socialist magazine The Masses, was the owner of No. 11. Ernest Hemingway famously slapped Eastman across the face in the office of editor Maxwell Perkins, at Charles Scribner's Sons. The story goes that Hemingway took umbrage to a line Eastman wrote in his essay Bull in the Afternoon—a take on Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon—where Eastman says, "Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you." In Perkins's office, Hemingway bared his chest to Eastman and asked him if his chest hair was real or not. He also asked him to read the lines from the essay in question to him. When Eastman demurred, Hemingway slapped him. Eastman contends that he threw Hemingway over a desk in retaliation, a claim Hemingway denies. "He didn't do any throwing around," said Hemingway. "He just sat and took it." 

Sherwood Anderson, the writer and tenant of the ground-floor apartment in No. 12, also was victimized by Hemingway. Anderson, who in 1921 wrote a letter of introduction for Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, to meet Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound in Paris, was a mentor to the young Hemingway. However, in his book Hemingway: The Writer As Artist, Carlos Baker writes the following:

Hemingway chafed at the linkage of his name with that of Anderson. In spite of his laconic letter of thanks for Anderson's having helped to get "In Our Time" accepted, he was not overjoyed to find that Anderson had written the laudatory blurb for the book jacket. To make matters worse, Herschel Brickell's review in the New York Post strongly implied that "My Old Man" had been influenced by Anderson's race-track stories. In 1923, Hemingway had specifically denied this allegation in a letter to Edmund Wilson. He also said that Anderson's later work had "gone to hell, perhaps from people in New York telling him too much how good he was."

As a way of distancing himself from Anderson, Hemingway sat down for a week, in 1926, and furiously wrote The Torrents of Spring, which is a savage satire of Anderson's book at the time, Dark Laughter. Hemingway’s book was considered "a public gesture of independence" and its rejection from his publisher, Horace Liverlight (also Anderson's publisher), allowed Charles Scribner's Sons to accept and publish it. Hemingway, on his way to stardom, had used Anderson as a step stool. The Sun Also Rises came out later that same year.

If the pool across the street seems familiar, it is because it was featured in the 1980 Martin Scorsese movie Raging Bull. Directly across the street, at 14 St. Luke's Place, is where the movie's star, Robert DeNiro, lived for over thirty years. Adorning the west wall of the pool is “Carmine Street Mural” by the late artist Keith Haring. It features fishes, dolphins, and mermaids in Haring's iconic style of drawing, each subject with the artist's signature radiance emitting from it.

I still owe you the peculiarity of St. Luke's Place. After No. 17, the street slightly bends and the numbers no longer follow the same sequence. You are now on Leroy Street. Trinity Church, which once owned this land, renamed this section of Leroy Street to St. Luke's Place. It is unique because the rowhouses have nothing opposite them; they look out on the pool and the park.

The pool and park allow for another peculiarity in the West Village: unobstructed light that hits the rowhouses. At that hour of the day, the sun starts arching west and its light shines through the trees that line the sidewalks. It gives a lovely light that bathes the facades in luminescent, almost ethereal light. And, for a moment, time seems suspended.

James J. Walker Park, now to the left, has a unique history itself. Beneath it lies St. John's Burying Ground—its headstones and ten thousand bodies still in their original place—a necropolis covered and converted to a park. A lot of the bodies that were once interred there have been removed. However, the "friendless dead" were left to be covered over. The only headstone that remains commemorates three firefighters who were killed in the line of duty more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

I stopped and watched a bit more of the game, wondering if those playing know the history of the ground they were playing on. Probably not.

My God, someone just got a hit.