Stardust Memories: Woody Allen's New York
The shot of the Queensboro Bridge, from a point just south of the bridge on Manhattan's eastern shore, is one of the enduring images of Woody Allen's 1979 film "Manhattan." The movie is filmed in black and white, and that, along with the hazy predawn light, gives the scene a ready-made nostalgia, the grainy wistfulness of a memory. In the foreground, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, at the end of an impulsive all-night gambol through the city, are framed on a park bench by charmingly seedy urban props: a scrubby tree in a pot; a post canted at an angle, as though someone has run into it. In the distance rises the bridge, monolithic and dreamlike, garlanded with little white lights. "Boy," says Woody Allen's character dreamily, and heaves a sigh. "This is really a great city. I don't care what anybody says, it's really a knockout, you know?"
The scene is barely a minute long, but the New York it captures -- grubby, slightly down-at-the-heel, but queerly beautiful and irrepressibly romantic -- became, for practically an entire generation of moviegoers, the quintessential image of the city. By the time I tried to visit the same spot, some 30 years after the film, things had changed. The tree in a pot was gone, as was the post, replaced by a blue guardrail; a tasteful plaque on the fence reminded patrons to pick up after their dogs. Perhaps most dramatically, the view of the river was almost entirely obscured by a scrim of sycamores, which appeared to have grown up in the interim. And the bridge? The bridge was there, of course, but barely visible through the trees and half-shrouded in great swaths of dirty white tarp, like a disheveled Christo installation.
Nothing of the previous era seemed to remain at all. This revelation was critical, I felt, to more than just this quarter-acre. It is practically the municipal pastime, mourning the disappearance of the "real" New York, but the question seemed fair: Did the "real" New York City, as Woody Allen saw it -- a place that for him always "existed in black and white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin," that "metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture," which he "romanticized all out of proportion" -- still exist? Had it ever existed at all?
To begin such a search, it seemed best to start with a place from Allen's films that was as old and ostensibly authentic as possible. Besides the streets of the city itself, one of the spots that Allen used most extensively as a setting was the Carnegie Deli, in Midtown, which anchored the plot of his 1984 film "Broadway Danny Rose."
Set in the early 1970s, it's the story of soft-hearted, small-time agent Danny Rose (Allen), who represents dead-end acts such as a woman who plays the wineglasses ("the Jascha Heifetz of this instrument," says Rose) and a one-legged tap dancer. In the film, a group of his (less hapless) peers -- aging comics with thick glasses, thick hair and plaid sportcoats -- get to telling stories about Danny Rose over coffee at the deli. The plot of Rose's most dramatic misadventure unfolds in a series of flashbacks involving a has-been lounge singer, the New Jersey mob and a tart Mia Farrow. But the scenes in the tidy, well-worn deli are the film's centerpiece, as the comedians reminisce about Rose and lament the decline of their profession.
"I don't know what works anymore," one comedian complains to another, talking about a joke he's used for years. "Last night it died," he says. "Died, I tell you, Marty; the audience sat there like an oil painting."
The Carnegie Deli today looks largely unchanged from its movie-star turn or, for that matter, from its inception. The blinking neon sign out front is a relic from its earliest days; the checkerboard floors are recognizable from the film, as is the high glass counter, piled with plates and steaming heaps of pastrami, the white-capped heads of the countermen just visible behind them. The place, on a Wednesday afternoon, was packed. But it was not packed with Borscht Belt comedians or gossipy housewives or jovial extended families with their broods of sturdy children, or any of the other old-New-York types I had envisioned at a venerable deli's tables. Instead it was doing a bustling business in tourists, people inspecting subway maps and flipping through guides to the city, the pages marked with Post-its.
The food was familiar -- the restaurant has served the same traditional Eastern European and Jewish deli fare since it opened in 1937. My matzoh ball soup came in two parts: matzoh ball, in the bowl, and soup, decanted tableside from a little metal tureen. The matzoh ball was bigger than a baseball. The sandwiches of the two diners next to me were similarly massive, and though we did our best, we left our lunches half-ravaged on the plates.
On the way out, I stood in line for the cashier behind a tall, gray-haired man in a suit, who was deep in conversation with the countermen. "There are no real Jewish bakeries anymore!" the man was saying. "They're all gone! Even in Brooklyn!" He rattled off a list of the disappeared. A guy standing at the end of the counter, gray and balding, nodded. "My high-school reunion is coming up," he said. "They want to rent a bus and tour around Brooklyn. I said, you'd better take a drive around first!"
The man in the suit handed his check to the woman behind the cash register. The wall over the register was covered with autographed head shots of actors, including one of Allen; it was slightly rippled with age, and a pink stain had spread over part of Allen's face. The woman's assistant, a young man in a shag haircut, thumbed through the man's bills. "Breaking in a new guy?" the man in the suit said amicably. "Everything changes, eh?"