Thursday, June 30, 2011

Other lives

A billboard of the High Line before its renovation (taken from the High Line). 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, June 30, 2011.

“Lust and greed are more gullible than innocence.” Mason Cooley.

Mr. Cooley (I Googled him and got Wikipedia) was an American aphorist “known for his witty aphorisms.” Mr. Cooley, who died in 2002 at 75, was an English professor here in New York at the College of Staten Island and at Columbia.

The quote came from one of the financial web sites I read almost daily called Jesse’s Café Americain which always opens with an interesting quote/thought.

Today was the Wednesday/Michael’s bit. I was surprised to see the place packed, since the long holiday weekend is only hours away for some of us. In the Garden Room there was a special lunch hosted by the cast of Damages, the Glenn Close legal show. Also present were John Goodman, Rose Byrne and Dylan Baker.
Another view from the High Line.
Around the room. Joe Armstrong with Sherrie Westin, Jon Tisch and Matt Blank, Peggy Siegal with Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Nikki Haskell, Joan Gelman and Elena Mannes, Rosanna Scotto, Lynn White, Penny Crone; Ed Minskoff and Steven Gilbert, George Malkemus, Steven Rubenstein, Anne Sutherland Fuchs, Pia Lindstrom with Liz Peek; Gerry Byrne, Roger Friedman with Larry Hackett of People; Diane Clehane with Lucy, Laura and Lori, those three marketeers -- Lucy Danziger, Laura Brounstein, and Lori Leibovich. If you don’t know who they are, it doesn’t matter: they know who you are.

Moving on: Peter Brown, Jason Binn, Elihu Rose, Andy Marks, Amy Raskin, Chris Meigher, Nikki Field, Paula Wagner (Tom Cruise’s producing partner), Alice Mayhew, Rob Weisbach, Jesse Cagle, David Sanford (publisher of the WSJ), Les Goodstein (of the Daily News).

Old friends, other lives. I was lunching with an old friend, Peter Gina (Gin-ay) whom I have known since the early '60s in New York. Peter lives out in Aspen (in Basalt actually). He is a New York boy, growing up on East 90th and Madison in a 14 room co-op which his mother and father bought in 1949 for $5300. Peter’s mother died two years ago, and he and his sister sold the apartment at a considerably higher price.

Sardi's today. New owners have expanded the restaurant space by more than twice what it was in the 60s. But the atmosphere remains.
Vincent Sardi Jr., Peter's maternal uncle. Vincent had a unique personality as a restaurant host. He was often enthusiastic giving his guest of sense of instant intimaacy. Then they would be led away to their table and he'd turn it on for the next guest. But it was total charm and cameraderie. By then the name Sardi was part of Broadway lore and legend. All opening nights were held there. It was the heart of the Great White Way.
Peter went to Collegiate, then Dartmouth, then the Marines, then to work in the family business (Sardi’s restaurant – his maternal grandfather and uncle were Vincent Sardi, Sr. and Jr.), then to Columbia Business, then to Wall Street. By that time the '60s were over, The War In Viet Nam was finally drawing to its ending, and our generation was busy Finding Themselves, with changing lifestyles and directions left and right. I was one of them although I went farther west.

In the early 1970s, Peter decided to leave the canyons of Wall Street. With a Volkswagen bus holding his belongings, a couple of cats, and a girlfriend at the time, he set out for Aspen, Colorado. Aspen was then a popular ski-community but far smaller, more rustic, and simpler than it is today. It was popular with wealthy Texans and the younger social set of New York who had the time and money to spend a few weeks of winter there on the slopes and kicking back. It was just beginning to become a destination for Arab sheiks, Hollywood cowboys and jet-setting snow bunnies with their takeover-artist tycoon husbands. Mainly it was a healthy population of women and men, like Peter Gina, who had opted out of city life.

The whole thing was a romantic notion sought by many. Freedom is the key word, whatever it might mean to each. Peter saw freedom in living in the mountains of Colorado – definitely a romantic notion if you’ve never lived there before. Once ensconced in a small rented cabin just outside town, he got a job as a waiter/sommelier in one of the town’s better known restaurants. He worked there for a number of years. In wintertime he worked Ski Patrol during the day. That’s how he supported himself. And put something aside too.

In those days, people changed their directions and lifestyle more than once or even twice. Peter, however, stuck to his decision. What he got from it, by my observation has been: living the simple working life, working day and working night; living for a long time even with just a bicycle, no car. From the looks of it, it’s been frugal but not generously so, and his set of needs – that which satisfies – are basic and require nothing outside of his own ingenuity (and assets accumulated and acquired).

Over the years, Peter also purchased a little property from time to time, with an eye on building a house some day. Eventually he accumulated about 60 acres on a mountaintop in Basalt.

In the late '90s he decided, as long planned, to build on the land, overlooking his perfect view. And so he did, doing much of the construction himself (when humanly reasonable). By the time he got his house – which is very environmentally practical and sound – he got the icing on the cake. It’s quite an achievement, to my way of thinking, and on many levels.

He comes East once a year to see his sister and brother-in-law (who was a classmate at Dartmouth). When his mother was living he came twice a year. He’s now what could be termed “retired” – no more tables at night and slopes by day – and donates his working time to helping out others in the community, such as the elderly, the infirm, those in need.

Apple Cube under construction. It is now completely covered from view by that white siding.
When he and I get together on his annual visits, that is the only time we communicate during the year. Doesn’t matter, we talk about the same things we always talk about with each other – politics, the financials and the personal side of all that. After lunch I walked with Peter for a few blocks up Fifth Avenue which was of course bustling on this beautiful summer day. He still wanted to soak up the city life.

There was the always busy thoroughfare in front of the Apple Cube in front of the GM Building (briefly the Trump) between 58th and 59th. The Cube is undergoing some kind of refurbishment or repair as it is entirely cubed in white.

Peter had never been in an Apple store and doesn’t own a computer. I’ve been telling him for some time that he’d love the access to news and financials that can be found in such wide array on the web, including all of the independents who are often far far superior to the mainstream media.

I suggested we go inside the Apple store so that he could see what a hive of activity it was. So we did. He was amazed and marveling. Soon he was discussing with a staff person what to get for his circumstances and needs. The staff person was very helpful in steering him to the right product for him and his needs. I can see one of these days we’ll have email conversations.

I didn't bring my camera along today so I'll have to run this photo I took of Peter when he was in New York last year. On his last day he always goes and buys something practical and necessary (like a bathrobe) at Bloomingdales and then carries it in a recyclable sack. As you can see by his facial expression, he is full of good cheer; an optimistic outlook comes naturally to him.
When Peter was a New Yorker, and working at Sardi’s and later downtown, he only wore Italian bespoke suits from Dimitri. Far from a dandy, but he was a thoroughly well turned out young New Yorker. In the decades he’s lived in the Rockies, it’s been the obvious switch – jeans and open neck shirts, sneakers. Back in New York it’s the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t own a jacket, or one that’s not 35 years old.

When we were young men in New York, I, the country boy, had a certain awe for my contemporaries who grew up in Manhattan. They seemed more self-assured about the ways of the world, and getting around. And indeed they were. Yesterday I saw the converse. My former New Yorker friend, now a man from the mountains, was the country boy, and I was the city boy. Or city slicker as they used to say.

It was through Peter Gina during that decade, when I was briefly pursuing an acting career in New York, that I got a part time job at Sardi’s. I worked the door as assistant to Jimmy, the maitre d’ -- 4:30 to 7:30 for the dinner hour, five nights a week, and the two matinee days, Wednesday and Saturday from 11:30 to 2.

Peter’s uncle Vincent owned the place and ran it. Vincent had a world class personality, a celebrated charm and the restaurant that was legendary in Broadway lore. The world came to dine and lunch. All. The. Time. Streisand was still on Broadway, Hello Dolly was at the St. James. Fiddler at the Majestic, Cabaret, Albee, Neil Simon. A Funny Thing Happened, Sondheim, Rodgers, Jerry Robbins. David Merrick had three or four shows running at a time. And they all came to Sardi’s. Every lunch hour and every dinner. Hollywood came too. And Wall Street and Park Avenue. Anyone who was going to the theatre that night.

It was the beginning of my education as a New Yorker with all its bright lights. Sardi’s was a little epicenter of enormous talent and celebrity to awe the kid, and awe it did, as you may have noticed at times, dear reader. But that’s for another Diary.

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