There was first the ferry boat moving softly out from the Jersey shore at dawn—the moment crystallized into my first symbol of New York. Five years later when I was fifteen, I went into the city from school to see Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl and Gertrude Bryan in Little Boy Blue. Confused by my hopeless and melancholy love for them both, I was unable to choose between them—so they blurred into one lovely entity, the girl. She was my second symbol of New York. The ferry boat stood for triumph, the girl for romance. In time I was to achieve some of both, but there was a third symbol that I have lost somewhere, and lost forever.
I found it on a dark April afternoon after five more years.
“Oh, Bunny,” I yelled, “Bunny!”
He did not hear me—my taxi lost him, picked him up again half a block down the street. There were black spots of rain on the sidewalk, and I saw him walking briskly through the crowd wearing a tan raincoat over his inevitable brown getup; I noted with a shock that he was carrying a light cane.
“Bunny!” I called again, and stopped. I was still an undergraduate at Princeton while he had become a New Yorker. This was his afternoon walk, this hurry along with his stick through the gathering rain, and as I was not to meet him for an hour it seemed an intrusion to happen upon him engrossed in his private life. But the taxi kept pace with him, and as I continued to watch I was impressed: he was no longer the shy little scholar of Holder Court—he walked with confidence, wrapped in his thoughts and looking straight ahead, and it was obvious that his new background was entirely sufficient to him. I knew that he had an apartment where he lived with three other men, released now from all undergraduate taboos, but there was something else that was nourishing him, and I got my first impression of that new thing—the metropolitan spirit.
Up to this time I had seen only the New York that offered itself for inspection—I was Dick Whittington up from the country gaping at the trained bears, or a youth of the Midi dazzled by the boulevards of Paris. I had come only to stare at the show, though the designers of the Woolworth Building and the Chariot Race Sign, the producers of musical comedies and problem plays could ask for no more appreciative spectator, for I took the style and glitter of New York even above its own valuation. But I had never accepted any of the practically anonymous invitations to debutante balls that turned up in an undergraduate’s mail, perhaps because I felt that no actuality could live up to my conception of New York’s splendor. Moreover she to whom I fatuously referred as “my girl” was a midwesterner, a fact that kept the warm center of the world out there, so I thought of New York as essentially cynical and heartless—save for one night when she made luminous the Ritz Roof on a brief passage through.
Lately, however, I had definitely lost her and I wanted a man’s world and this sight of Bunny made me see New York as just that. A week before, Monsignor Fay had taken me to the Lafayette where there was spread before us a brilliant flag of food, called an hors d’oeuvre, and with it we drank claret that was as brave as Bunny’s confident cane—but after all it was a restaurant, and afterward we would drive back over a bridge into the hinterland. The New York of undergraduate dissipation, of Bustanoby’s, Shanley’s, Jack’s, had become a horror, and though I returned to it, alas, through many an alcoholic mist, I felt each time a betrayal of a persistent idealism. My participation was prurient rather than licentious, and scarcely one pleasant memory of it remains from those days; as Ernest Hemingway once remarked, the sole purpose of the cabaret is for unattached men to find complaisant women. All the rest is a wasting of time in bad air.
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