A few days ago, before the real cold started, I stopped at the corner of 19th Street and 7th Avenue to look at what my bookseller friend had on his table. I’m always glad to see him sitting there with his long white beard and he usually has something I want. “Hey, have you ever read this?” he said when he saw me, and he tapped Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer by Kenneth Patchen. As it happened, I had just the night before read something about the scandal that book had caused in 1945, and about how Kenneth Patchen had sprouted a mysterious black fur all over his tongue. So I bought it, and also Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, which I had read a hundred years ago but completely forgotten. On Sunday night I read it again, remembering how good it is as snow began to fall outside. It snowed all night, and listening to the plows rumbling by and the radiator banging away inside I felt very lucky because there are lots of people in this rich new city of New York who still live outside, more down and out than ever.

In the morning everything was white. I had to go downtown for an appointment and on the way I admired  ornate handrails and ornaments made of wrought iron, beautifully glazed in frozen snow.  On Lower Broadway I looked in at the gravestones standing together behind the iron cemetery gates of Trinity Church; magical and somehow innocent, and very, very old. I thought of a little book I bought from the bookseller’s table in the middle of January called Wrought Iron: Its Manufacture, Characteristics and Applications, and how curious and poetic I found the scientific analyses of iron presented in tables. Iron hardware with varying phosphorus and copper content was taken from such places as the hydraulic elevators of an office building in Chicago, the hull of a tugboat named “Margaret” in Baltimore, and an elevated train structure in New York. The iron pipe taken from the train trestle was found to be in very good shape after having been part of the old El since 1877. I read about Egyptologists discovering wrought-iron hasps and nails in ancient tombs “as lustrous and as pliant as the day on which they were made,” and I learned that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was built to “endure for centuries” using wrought iron in all kinds of places within its great structure. Buildings described in the book as “permanent” are all full of wrought iron, even if you can’t see it. And that’s not counting all the old buildings with cast-iron façades. I stood outside the old cemetery thinking about how easy it is to imagine St. John the Divine as being permanent, and the Empire State Building too, even though a plane once flew into it and made a huge hole. The Empire State Building is 84 years old, and to me it has never looked more solid and sensible.

It was cold on my way back uptown so I was glad for my woolen cape over my coat, and especially for my black rubber boots that meant I could wade through icy lagoons. Looking into the sky at the swirling snow was intoxicating. On Sixth Avenue I looked through the steamy windows of the florist where the two blasé cats live and there sat a new one, young-looking and orange, way at the back of the shop. I tapped my ring on the glass and the cat looked at me but didn’t budge. I walked through 29th Street where time seemed to slip back a few decades with all the old-style shops selling scarves and hats and wedding dresses in little buildings with warm windows and fire escapes covered in snow. Men pushed carts piled with boxes through the slush, and when I turned a corner there was the Empire State Building, regal and plain, standing behind the lovely old Gilsey House Hotel with its pretty clock. 

I’ve looked at those two buildings standing there together more times than I can count, but they've never looked as pretty or as near as they did in that moment. In the snowy light the Empire State Building looked like a lady wearing the coat she bought at Lord and Taylor in 1960 that is still perfectly good. And I was struck with a distinct impression of Old New York worrying about her memory and wondering if she has Alzheimer’s, because of the way she keeps losing things. So many things she kept for years have been disappearing, and it’s been happening for a while—a string of little buildings gone, pretty letters that used to glow at night that she can’t put her hands on—each vanished entity taking with it an invisible but palpable store of history and memory. I thought of my friend Pete, who at the age of 99 showed me the coin purse she’d had since she was no more than twenty—made of leather with a silver snap clasp—and said, “Sometimes I sit and just marvel at the fortunes in coins that have passed through this little purse.”

I felt a fleeting deep mourning for the Old Lady New York who can’t recognize herself, and for the Empire State Building who has to put up with being dressed as a giant lava lamp whether she likes it or not, surrounded by loud young buildings that stand around admiring their reflections in each other. But in that pretty moment there on 29th Street, everything looked as beautiful as an old photograph of the Old City in her prime. “Don’t worry,” I thought at her, “You don’t have Alzheimer’s. It’s just age.” Telling her the truth, it seemed to me, would serve no purpose.

Once home I was happy to find the radiator banging because sometimes, in very cold weather like this, old boilers just decide to give up.

February 4, 2015

Copyright Romy Ashby 2015


  1. I just could not stop saying 'Wow, wow. Wow.' All the way through. What a treasure, your lovely plume.

  2. What a lovely article. New York has iron age buildings! I expect London does too, it's a great thought. Now building has passed through the steel and concrete age and is in the glass and carbon fibre age.
    Mind you the Romans used concrete, I've stood under the massive dome of the Pantheon in Rome and wondered how it is still standing, reinforced concrete wasn't invented until the 1840's.

  3. If you pass Trinity Churchyard, you must know that Alexander Hamilton, his wife & eldest son, Philip, are buried there. An exciting new musical titled “Hamilton” {} is currently offered at the Public Theater. Take it in, if you like.

  4. I've been feeling a little like Old Man New York these days. Your post hit a nerve, but very beautifully, as always.

  5. How pleased I am to have found your lovely blog. Nana lived in New Your from about 1950 - 1970. I would come in from prep school in Dobbsferry and stay with her. Then I moved to Manhattan in 1965. But I have long been in the midwest now. So, you have beautifully drawn memories here that I have so enjoyed. Thank you.