Friday, September 24, 2010

In the land of the urban logjam

Looking west across Central Park South from the penthouse terrace of Denise Rich, high above Fifth Avenue. 9:00 PM. Photo: JH.
September 24, 2010. Beautiful sunny first day of Autumn in New York; yesterday that is. Warm but not too; the connecting moments to when the air turns chill in the late night and the early morning, when the Sun’s light brings a richer (chillier) shade.

Today is, I believe, the last day of UN Week.
Yippee! Among other things. It has been very difficult for the city because of the mania for “security” that surrounds this now annual affair when the hundreds (or is it thousands) of diplomatic figures and their spouses, friends, families, partners, assistants, aides, whatever descend on New York and the UN.

Yesterday afternoon and last night in various parts of the city, depending on the government, but especially in midtown, the logjams of traffic often turned to complete stasis. Hearing about Ahmadinejad’s rambunctious remarks are heard out on the pavement as Whatevers. Blocks were cordoned off for reasons unknown to the average citizen.
Park Avenue north looking down to the Waldorf-Astoria on the 49th-50th Street block. All of the cars and motor vehicles are official, taken from the island on 51st, mid-afternoon Thursday. On an ordinary business thousands of cars move through these blocks every hour. Those cars were still in New York but they probably didn't know how they would get to wherever they were going, thanks to this and many other official detours to someplace else.
About six-thirty or seven I was trying to make my way over to Doubles at 59th and Fifth for the Quest 400 party. I had been sitting in a barely moving cab on East 57th Street for more than a half hour until I finally paid the fare (40 minutes in a cab -- $17.40 plus tip to go not very far) and got out and walked. Park Avenue north, as far as the eye could see – both north and south lanes – was virtually empty. Empty. NO VEHICLES. This, I was later told – true or not I don’t know – was because of Obama. Park Avenue as far north as the eye could see was vehicle-less for Obama who evidently was going over to the Museum of Natural History (on Central Park West)(?) to “raise money.”

I am not incidentally, one of those people who blames Obama or any President for that traffic arrangement. It is something the man will encounter as soon as he takes office, no matter who he is. Because the bureaucracy that is called Security is the administrator.
59th Street taken from Madison Avenue looking west all the way to Sutton Place at 6:50 pm Thursday evening. No, the town not been deserted. It had been detoured.
Looking up the empty avenue and the parking lot called East 57th just behind me, and thinking of all the other scenes of black vans and limos and escorting NYPD squad cars, transporting the Whomevers to their wherever’s, or blocking off blocks once they’re there, I could only think one thing:

This is why our world doesn’t work. I don’t know “why” that is but I know it’s true. There it is in front of you: a mess.

There is apparently a popular presumption among people who plan these things that when there are convocations of political VIPS convocating at places like the United Nations, the other 17 million New Yorkers can just step aside and/or out of their daily (workaday) lives and move over for the anointed few. The anointed few who seem to be good for only one thing: not getting along with each and not making the world a safer place for all of us. Oh, and living it up when they come to New York with no problems getting around.
Madison Avenue at 59th Street, same time, looking south filled with traffic as far as the eye could see both north and south.
So, in the meantime, we New Yorkers who just want to get on with our lives in this high energy city, step aside. And chaos is our reward. All in the name of someone’s idea of an imagined catastrophe. But it’s an actual disaster.

On a lighter note: today is the 114th anniversary of the birth of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the of the immortal The Great Gatsby, and the Jazz Age celebration of New York. Many a time have I passed the Pulitzer Fountain, especially at night, in front of the Plaza, when I’ve thought of Scott and Zelda’s legendary champagne-fueled splashing around, after a hotel party or a local speakeasy, bequeathing us a romantic moment of reverie of New York, of another hour, of our dreams, and our fantasies of life in the city.

Today, of course, those two would be a security risk.

Ann Jeffery and Emilia Saint-Amand
Karen LeFrak and Sharon Hoge
Denise De Luca, Di Petroff, and Gigi Stone
Jacques Leviant with Emilia and Pepe Fanul
Amy Hoadley and Gillian Miniter
Daniel Benedict, Elizabteh Meigher, Andrew Saffir, and Elizabeth Brown
Grace and Chris Meigher with Wendy Carduner
My final destination for the evening was the Quest 400 party at Doubles. This is an annual event that marks the appearance of Quest Magazine’s annual Quest 400 list, which is interpreted by some as a century later edition of Mrs. Astor’s original 400 list. It is also interpreted as others for what it is, an effective marketing curiosity that also articulates the New York social atmosphere. If that sounds like too much hifalutin folderol, well, be my guest.

As it happens even Mrs. Astor’s list was not all it was cracked up to be. There weren’t even 400 people on it. The modern list probably has 4000. I’m exaggerating, but it’s a lot more than 400. Nevertheless, like all lists you find in newspapers and magazines, it holds its own kind of fascination, mindless and otherwise.

I started this list sixteen or so years ago because I didn’t have anything to sell to Quest’s then-owner/publisher at the time, Heather Cohane for the next month’s issue. And I needed the money. Trying to think fast on my feet, bearing in mind Caroline Astor’s list of the last quarter of the 19th century, the said-to-be number of people she could fit into her private ballroom (“and to hell with the rest of you riff-raff” — I’m making this up), I decided in 1994 New York could have a new list.

“But who?” Was the question. In those ancient days Heather kept her photo archives of party pictures in a series of old shoe boxes on the uppershelves in her magazine’s little office which was located over what is now the Occitane store on 80th and Madison. The photos were all black and white and the cameras were not digital. And a lot of the blondes were still brunettes and no Botox. Nada.

Heather and I got down the shoe boxes one rainy afternoon and started going through the pictures of people we’d seen out and about. We started piling up images according to the number we had of each individual. If there were five of you, then you were on the List because that meant you got out and about where the swells were swelling.

I’d arbitrarily decided that the “400” would be made up of those four hundred individuals whose pictures we had the most of, including members of the well-known prominent families, and those who were most often seen out at cocktail parties and charity events. Plus give or take a few local celebrities or New York fashion or finance legends, as well as a few heirs, heiresses and pretty girls.

From poor little writer’s acorns into big monsters do the trees often grow in lucky media land. Or something like that. I was actually surprised that when the list came out, to learn that people took it very seriously. That probably makes me sound naïve, looking back on it. However, I was naïve. Now of course I’m a hardened, cynical, beady-eyed city boy, so I know better.

It was so successful that it became a “natural” for an annual, making one month’s assignment not only a sure thing but a cinch. Each year, add a few more, subtract the dead or divorced or left-towns, throw in the boy-and-girl of the moment, and voila, taking all of 15 minutes.

One of the first years we numbered the names. John F. Kennedy Jr. was number one on the list. However, he was number one on the list only because he was the first name we could think of that we knew people would want to be associated with anywhere, even a measly list of party-goers. Attract attention.

When the list was published, many read that to mean that we thought John-John was the Number One Man In New York Society on the list. They accepted that supposition, incidentally because ... why not? Young John Kennedy was a very much liked individual not only in his public image but in his private life. His friends and acquaintances always really liked him. In fact almost anybody who came in contact with him really liked him. It wasn’t so much because he was John F. Kennedy Jr., or even because he was so goodlooking in a movie star handsome way, but because he was friendly and present with others, and kind -- strangers or friends.

I think if he were alive today, John F. Kennedy Jr. would still be at the top of the list for the above-stated reasons. The new 2010 list has a lot more than 400 names. It has now for many years. If you want to number those New Yorkers who fit into the original requisites, the number can run into the thousands. The social life has grown exponentially because of technology’s effect on the media of the past decade. Put to the task, for example, because of my line of work, I could easily name 2000 prominent New Yorkers to fill the aforementioned categories.

I don’t know how the list is compiled anymore
because I don’t have anything to do with it. However, it remains a popular item, an entertainment really, to distract us from other matters at hand which we cannot solve or comprehend.

Last night’s party which I hosted along with Quest’s owner/publisher Chris Meigher, at Doubles, was one of those cocktail parties where everyone is happy to be there to see familiar faces they haven’t seen all summer, or faces they hadn’t seen in the city all summer, as well as faces they’ve never seen, faces they’ve seen but don’t know. This is the best kind of party anywhere and when it’s in New York, there’s an extra spark to it.

About three or four hundred filled the rooms of the club, helping themselves to Doubles’ famous hors d’oeuvres including hundreds of pigs-in-a-blanket, quaffed down by champagne, sparkling water, and cocktails. As cocktail parties go, it is one of the better ones in New York because it’s big and energetic and friendly, and a merry welcome to the social season that is upon these New Yorkers.

I was busy with my Digital. We’ll run the lot of them on Monday’s.
Melissa Berkelhammer, Dennis Cusack, Lionel Larner, Roy Kean, and Ann Rapp.
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