I walked up Madison Avenue tonight after a particularly stressful day. You don’t want to know about it. Suffice it to say I had an 8:30, 9:30 that went until noon, when we broke for a few minutes to grab some sandwiches and chips, then back to it until 2:00, after which I made calls for 30 minutes then was back for a 2:30, a 3:00 that went until 5:00, then one that took me off campus until 7:30, when I was finally deposited on Third Avenue and 52nd with nothing but time on my hands.
Most nights, I would grab a cab, but there was something about the perfect breeze, the twilight glow of the sexy mannequins in the windows, each with its own inanimate dream, that tantalized me. Amazing how big-busted some of them have gotten. A torso, turned just so, expectantly. A leg, poised in perfect hose over a tiny pinlight. Before I knew it, I was at the Carlisle.
The Bemelman’s Bar there is illustrated by the guy who wrote and drew all the books about the little Catholic novitiate, Madeline. I believe they allowed him to live in this lovely, peaceful kingdom on 77th and Madison, in exchange for his work on the walls of the bar, where it is said he kept an open tab. Sounds like a pretty good existence.
As you enter the place, there are three framed objects on the wall. The first is a large oil painting of the pianist and singer, Bobby Short, who graced the cabaret here for many years. When he died, a part of New York died with him. Down the hall, there are two photographs, one to the left of you, one to the right. The one on the left is of Jaqueline Kennedy in the heyday of Camelot, striding out of the hotel, bold, amiable, eyes deep and wide and optimistic, a tasty frock with a white belt tied at the waist, and white, white gloves. That world, too, is gone forever. On the other wall is John F. Kennedy, her husband, a complete swordsman with a virtually inoperative spine, twisting slightly as he looks off for a cab, slipping on his perfect black topcoat, black suit, black silk tie. Gone.
I go into the bar. New York as it was drawn by a tipsy artist 50 years ago cavorts across the walls. It’s not that different than now. Dogs sniff hydrants. Rabbits in formal wear perambulate. There are snakes around. Trees explode in green. The bar glows from just about everywhere, bottles of every known concoction. How can there be so many? Maker’s Mark has a nice bottle. There are so many nice bottles. Pretty. Warm colors everywhere. Brown. Red. Amber. Green. Glass, too, no plastic anywhere. The bartenders have red vests, and they don’t talk too much unless you want to. There are tidbits to eat.
What is there that distinguishes a great martini? Why should there be any differences between martinis? Gin. Vermouth? Maybe. Nice and cold. A little fruit or olive. Voila. A martini. They should all taste the same. And yet… they most certainly don’t. Most of the time now I have vodka. But for some reason tonight I sit down and tell the man to make it Bombay Sapphire, dry, with an olive. I watch him do it. I discern that the word “dry” means that there will not even be an aerosol schpritz of vermouth in it. They serve it in a pretty big glass, frosty, with a little carafe the contains a second one in a bed of ice on the side. As I drink it very slowly, I look around the room, where a small group of people are elevated by their surroundings and the feelings that the booze and perfection of the setting imparts to them.
Walking home, a Town Car pulls up to the curb where I am standing and gazing at an apartment building on 78th and Madison that looks like heaven to me, a pristine ziggurat of brick and mortar with a forest of greenery capping its upper floors. I get in. The Yankee game is on.