On Saturday afternoon I went to Studio 54, where I saw Alan Cumming and Nellie McKay in The Threepenny Opera. Then I strolled down to Penn Station and boarded a train that whisked me away to New Jersey, where I spent most of the rest of the weekend visiting another country, the land of babies and backyards and Weber grills, whose citizens commute to “the city” and work at nine-to-five jobs, then come back to the suburbs and their families. Except for the commuting part, it might almost have been Smalltown, U.S.A., the place where I grew up.
Once I expected to live a life like that, and even after I moved to Manhattan I thought I would someday return to a world not greatly dissimilar to the one into which I was born, the same way that so many of the people I met in my first years as a New Yorker ended up doing. It didn’t occur to me that I was committed to a radically different way of living, or that by the age of fifty I would have traveled so far down another road that it was no longer possible to go back.
It’s been a long time since I paid an overnight visit to suburbia, and I happily admit to having found it pleasant. I sat on a patio yesterday morning, sipping a drink, basking in the sun, and looking at a pair of robins. Then I came back inside the house, where two small children were sitting patiently in front of the TV, waiting for their mother to pop Alice in Wonderland into the VCR. I glanced at the screen and saw the quivering, slightly fuzzy image of a half-dozen ballet dancers.
“Huh,” I said out loud. “That’s ‘The Unanswered Question.’ It’s from George Balanchine’s Ivesiana.”
“How’s that again?” my hostess asked.
“Oh, nothing,” I answered. “It’s just a ballet I like.” It was as if I’d been handed a telegram: COME HOME ALL IS FORGIVEN. She started up the movie and I drifted into the kitchen. A couple of hours later I made my way to the train station, full of home cooking and feeling unexpectedly wistful.
I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that I might move away from Manhattan someday, and it’s even possible that I might take up residence in the suburbs, but neither course of action seems at all likely at this point. It appears that I’ve found my niche: I am a boulevardier, a middle-aged aesthete who lives in an art-crammed apartment half a block from Central Park and spends his weekends sitting on the aisles of Broadway theaters. Instead of raising a family, I write books. Would I have it any other way? No, though it might be more exact to say that I can’t imagine it any other way–except when I catch a glimpse of the the life I might have lived. I doubt that very many of us are unselfconscious enough to be altogether free of second thoughts at times like that.
Even Louis Armstrong, a profoundly unselfconscious man who loved his life and had every reason to do so, sometimes wondered what it might have been like had he gone down a different road:
I’m always wondering if it would have been best in my life if I’d stayed like I was in New Orleans, having a ball. I was very much contented just to be around and play with the old timers. And the money I made–I lived off of it. I wonder if I would have enjoyed that better than all this big mucky-muck traveling all over the world….You know you don’t have no fun at all if you get too famous. I mean, for a lot of years now, I don’t have but a few nights off, and I can’t go no place they don’t roll up the drum, you have to stand up and take a bow, get up on the stage. And sitting in an audience, I’m signing programs for hours all through the show. And you got to sign them to be in good faith. And afterwards all those hangers-on get you crowded in at the table–and you know you’re going to pay the check.
If Satchmo could think such thoughts on occasion, surely I can be forgiven for admitting to harboring similar ones after spending a weekend in deepest New Jersey. But even though they crossed my mind yesterday afternoon, I still took the 3:50 back to Penn Station and returned in due course to the Upper West Side, where I spent the evening curled up on my couch, reading about Bertolt Brecht and listening to the Schumann D Minor Piano Trio.
That’s my life, and I’m sticking to it, even if I never mow another lawn or own another car. You can’t have everything–and I have enough.