The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from The New Yorkerby Maeve Brennan
From 1954 to 1981, Maeve Brennan wrote for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” department under the pen name “The Long-Winded Lady.” Her unforgettable sketchesprose snapshots of life in small restaurants, cheap hotels, and crowded streets of Times Square and the Villagetogether form a timeless, bittersweet tribute/i>… See more details below
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From 1954 to 1981, Maeve Brennan wrote for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” department under the pen name “The Long-Winded Lady.” Her unforgettable sketchesprose snapshots of life in small restaurants, cheap hotels, and crowded streets of Times Square and the Villagetogether form a timeless, bittersweet tribute to what she called the “most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities.” First published in 1969, The Long-Winded Lady is a celebration of one of The New Yorker’s finest writers.
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They Were Both about Forty
Somebody said, "A full-grown child is five-sixths memory." It was half a joke, I suppose, but last night, at a quarter past nine, I saw two full-grown city children -- middle-aged people walking together on Sixth Avenue, and in each of them memory was quite suspended for the sake of the moment they were spending together. They were engrossed in each other. He was besotted. She was proud. She was far gone in hauteur, but her disdainful expression was alien to her harsh face. He was different. The state of beatitude was natural to him, and his expression would normally change only to become more or less intensely pleased with the world and with his own condition. He was from one of the Spanish-speaking countries, and I think he had been here only a very short time. She was showing him her neighborhood Sixth Avenue in the Forties, where furnished rooms and cheap hotels are still to be found, in spite of the enormous amount of demolition that has taken place around there this year to make way for the new skyscrapers. His hair was black and dense and glossy, like boot polish, and he had big, soft brown eyes and smooth skin. He had a little half-moon mustache. He was a Latin type, and she was Hogarthian, with Plantagenet features. Her forehead was big, and she had small blue eyes, a domineering, bony nose, and a thin mouth. Her upper lip made a perfect cupid's bow pale pink, no lipstick but her skin had the bad, stretched look of the white cotton hand towels they give you in poor hotels. Her hair had been bleached and dyed so often that itwas weathered to a rough rust-pink, and it hung stiffly down her back like a mane, or like wig hair before it has been brushed and combed and curled into shape. They were both about forty, and they were the same height (five feet four or so) and about the same weight (a hundred and sixty pounds), and they both had short legs and barrel bodies and short necks. His left arm and hand were locked in her right arm and hand. They paced along together exactly as though they were walking down the long, long aisle leading from the altar where they had been married. To look at them, you could imagine throngs of friends and relatives watching them and waiting to follow them out of the church. When I first saw them, they were approaching the northeast corner of Forty-fourth and Sixth, and were about to cross the street and continue their perambulation downtown. There were numbers of people on the sidewalk, and the full-grown children emerged from the crowd, but, more than that, they emerged from the long, dark distance beyond them. The night view up Sixth Avenue is eerie now that the blocks on the west side of the avenue are half broken down and half gone. It is as though the area had been attacked and then left in pieces, and there is a clear view all the way to Fiftieth Street, where the shimmering cliffs of the Time-Life skyscraper stand up to be seen in their entirety for the first time since they were built, nine years ago. I noticed the two people because of the deliberate way they walked, close together, and because the hem of her dress was about three inches below her knees. She wore a sleeveless, buttoned-down-the-front dress of pale pink cotton printed with green foliage and cream-colored flowers, and it hung straight down from her shoulders to end in a deep flounce. Her bare legs were heavily marked with spots, bruises, and swollen dark-blue veins, and she wore flat brown moccasins embroidered in white and gold, like bedroom slippers. She carried no handbag, not even a change purse no luggage at all. She was close to home, out for a few minutes, taking a little constitutional with her friend. He attempted to match her informal attire by going tieless and coatless. He wore navy blue trousers, buttoned tightly around his middle, and a plain white shirt with the sleeves folded back to his elbows, and open-toed leather sandals that showed off his striped socks. When the two had crossed Forty-fourth Street and were proceeding downtown, she was attracted by the model kitchen on display in the Hotpoint showroom in the corner building, and they went to the window and stood, side by side, looking in. It was a very fancy kitchen in chocolate brown and ombré yellow, and the flowered partition that served as a background wall had a "window" in it showing a summer sky and branches of dogwood in bloom. "I don't really care for that color scheme," she said, and he moved closer to her, so that their bodies were touching from their shoulders to their knees, and he turned his head and beamed into her eyes. He nodded admiringly, but he said nothing. They looked at the kitchen for a minute, and then she stepped back, and so did he, and they looked up and she read the sign over the window. "`Hotpoint Kitchen Planning,'" she read. He began to spell out the first word. "Hotpoint," she said. "Ottpoyn," he seemed to say. "No," she said. "Hotpoint." It occurred to me that they might turn around and find me staring at them. His expression would hardly change, but hers would, and I didn't want to get in its way. When the hauteur slipped from her face, what would I see? Despair, I imagine. Not the passive, withdrawn despair that keeps itself in silence but the raging kind that incinerates all before it. I turned away and went home, leaving them to their English lesson.
SEPTEMBER 28, 1968
A Mysterious Parade of Men
There are more parades in this city than any of us know about. There was one yesterday that went unwitnessed and unadmired except by two policemen and me, and it was a real parade, with marching men, all in line and all in step, and martial music. This was about a quarter to eight in the morning, and it was Sunday. I was thinking about coffee, and I was standing in the middle of the block on Forty-fourth Street between Fifth and Sixth wondering whether to go along to the Algonquin, which is so small and familiar, or to walk a little farther, and east, to the Biltmore, which is so large and familiar, when I heard the music striking up on Fifth Avenue, and I hurried along to the corner to see what was happening. I can't say how many men were marching, but there were enough of them to fill the avenue for a block, leaving good margins of space all around, and that is how they were marching neatly, keeping their margins straight. They were all dressed in dark suits, and they went shoulder to shoulder along the empty avenue, with the empty buildings and the empty windows keeping them incognito. In all these buildings, there was nobody to hear them and nobody to see them. They were passing Forty-fifth Street when I first saw them, moving along uptown at a steady tread. At that distance, they were geometric, private, and solemn, and I thought of funeral marches, drummings out of the corps, hunger marches, executions, revolutions, conscription, and strikes. One of the two policemen I had noticed was on the opposite side of the avenue at Forty-seventh Street, but the other was quite close to me at Forty-fifth. I walked along to him and asked him what the parade was. "I don't know," he said. He was very tall and pink-faced, with a cheerful smile. I said, "Have you really no idea what it is?" and he shook his head and said, "No idea." I said, "But it could be anything," and I thought of nuclear weapons, the Russians, conspirators, political plots, assassinations, and Trojan horses. The city seemed more deserted than ever, with everybody asleep, and I thought, It is just a step to chaos. I was wondering about the policeman. Then he asked, "Are you thinking of going after them?" and I said no, and turned back down the avenue and decided on the Biltmore and went over there and had coffee. The reason I had to make that choice between the Algonquin and the Biltmore is that Schrafft's is closed on Sundays.
JULY 14, 1962
The Solitude of Their Expression
Yesterday afternoon I was in a taxi I watched a very tall old man walking north on Seventh Avenue. He was passing the Metropole Café, which is almost directly across the avenue from the Latin Quarter and Playland. The Metropole is a Twist palace, and it has huge glass doors that reveal its shadowy interior. There is always something going on in there, but I have never been able to make out exactly what, because of the crowd that collects in front of the doors, people peering around each other's heads and necks and shoulders to see what they can see. Even in the furnace heat of yesterday the crowd was there. It was a dreadful day. There was no air except what was left over, and in the heat the big pictures of the Metropole's next-to-naked performers glowed with even more than their usual fleshiness. The old man walked past all this damp confusion as though it did not exist. There was no contempt in his indifference. He lives around here, and I imagine he takes Broadway for granted. I have seen him before, but like many very old people he looks more isolated and more fragile in this oppressive weather. Yesterday he had left his jacket at home, and he wore no tie. He wore a white shirt that was buttoned up at the neck and wrists, and his trousers, which were roomy, especially around the waist, were held up by dark striped suspenders. His hat was made of cream-colored straw, he wore big black boots, and his walking stick would have marked a very firm track in the dust if that overworked Broadway concrete ever had the chance to collect dust. He walked in his usual way, holding himself as straight as he could, and not going very fast. You could see his knees working. He paid no attention to anyone and he asked for no attention. You would think he relied on the solitude of his expression to get him to his destination. There are a good many very old people living in this highly charged part of the city, which you would never think of as being residential. The shabby side-street hotels and rooming houses are camping grounds for all the theaters and nightclubs and restaurants that provide the bright lights of Broadway, and some of the campers stay on awhile and then they become settlers. At present I have two big rooms in a Forty-ninth Street hotel that is sixty years old this year. I have very high ceilings and windows on three sides. My place is in the rear wing of the hotel, on the eleventh floor, and I look straight across the low roofs of the little Forty-eighth Street houses to the big flat back of another hotel that appears to be about the same age and height as this one. My hotel is twelve stories high and there is an arrangement of rooms called the penthouse on top of the roof. In the penthouse there are six bedrooms and two public baths. That hotel I see over there also has a penthouse. The hotel is made of brick, faded and dirty, pink and yellow. I don't know what the penthouse is built of, but it is painted black. It is a cabin in the sky and it makes a deck of the roof it sits on. At one end there is enough roof left over to make a terrace, which has a low stone wall that is painted a pale pink. I consider myself to be quite high up in the sky, eleven flights up, and the black cabin with its pink terrace is about on eye level with me, but as I look past the cabin, looking south across the city, the view goes up and up as the buildings go higher and higher and the walls grow more and more blank and closed. It is an irregular ascending view, split down here and there by a narrow shaft of light that shows where the big buildings do not quite meet, or are prevented from meeting by some small, stubborn survivor like the old five-story Forty-eighth Street houses down here at my feet. If I look over to the west I can see, where Seventh Avenue meets Broadway, the Latin Quarter building, which is not much bigger than a very big shed. I can see the sidewalk by the Latin Quarter and the people passing along, going about their business or hesitating to stare in through the glass walls of Playland. Playland is the indoor amusement park that takes up most of the street floor of the Latin Quarter building. The passersby and the loiterers are reflected in the glass of Playland, and there is also reflected the constantly flowing stream of traffic on its way downtown. That is to the west, only half a block away from me. To the east I can see the Empire State Building for most of its ugly length. The Empire State is at least fifteen long blocks from here. It seems to be very close, but then, no matter where you stand, the Empire State always seems to have that effect of trying to be on nudging terms with every other building in the city. The hotel with the black penthouse and the pink terrace presents a flat, unadorned back full of little windows that are covered with white curtains and shades that pull up and down. In one of the rooms two floors down from the roof a very old lady makes her home. I see her at her window. Now in the hot weather she pulls her window up as far as it will go and leaves it so, and her curtains, the white net of hotel room curtains and worn thin, I suppose, like the ones I have here, are fastened back so that she can get all the light and air there is. She has two red geraniums and some sort of very small green plant in pots on her windowsill. Sometimes she anchors a square of white cloth under the two geraniums. The cloth, stretched tightly across on two of its corners, is limp until it starts to dry, and then it comes to life with little flutters. One evening lately I saw the old lady sitting at her window, facing west or, rather, facing the west wall of her room. Her hair is completely white. She was reading what appeared to be a letter, holding it at an angle in front of her as you would a newspaper. It was one of those lucky evenings when the white summer day turns to amber before it begins to break up into the separate shades of twilight, and in the strange glow the towering outline of the city to the south turned monumental and lonely. The Empire State changed color suddenly, and lost its air of self-satisfaction. Nothing was really certain anymore, except the row of pigeons standing motionless on the western wall of the pink terrace, and beneath, the old lady calmly reading her letter. Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to flail length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading. There was a second sheet to the letter. She did not look out. She did not see the amber air, and she did not notice the violet blue vapor that drifted in transparency across her window, carried on a very timid little eastern breeze. A second time she stretched out her arm and let a sheet of paper go, and she continued to read. The third sheet followed the first two uncertainly down the wall of the hotel, and then she stood up and vanished at once into the dimness of her room. There was something very housewifely about the decisive way she left her window and her geraniums. She is on the tenth floor, but she might just as well have been leaving her ground-floor window after having spent an hour gossiping with her neighbors and watching the market bags to see who was having what for dinner. A good many of the ordinary ways of living go when people begin to live up in the air.
On rhea Train
There were no seats to be had on the A train last night, but I had a good grip on the pole at the end of one of the seats and I was reading the beauty column of the Journal-American, which the man next to me was holding up in front of him. All of a sudden I felt a tap on my arm, and I looked down and there was a man beginning to stand up from the seat where he was sitting. "Would you like to sit down?" he said. Well, I said the first thing that came into my head, I was so surprised and pleased to be offered a seat in the subway. "Oh, thank you very much," I said, "but I am getting out at the next station." He sat back and that was that, but I felt all set up and I thought what a nice man he must be and I wondered what his wife was like and I thought how lucky she was to have such a polite husband, and then all of a sudden I realized that I wasn't getting out at the next station at all but the one after that, and I felt perfectly terrible. I decided to get out at the next station anyway, but then I thought, If I get out at the next station and wait around for the next train I'll miss my bus and they only go every hour and that will be silly. So I decided to brazen it out as best I could, and when the train was slowing up at the next station I stared at the man until I caught his eye and then I said, "I just remembered this isn't my station after all." Then I thought he would think I was asking him to stand up and give me his seat, so I said, "But I still don't want to sit down, because I'm getting off at the next station." I showed him by my expression that I thought it was all rather funny, and he smiled, more or less, and nodded, and lifted his hat and put it back on his head again and looked away. He was one of those small, rather glum or sad men who always look off into the distance after they have finished what they are saying, when they speak. I felt quite proud of my strong-mindedness at not getting off the train and missing my bus simply because of the fear of a little embarrassment, but just as the train was shutting its doors I peered out and there it was, 168th Street. "Oh dear!" I said. "That was my station and now I have missed the bus!" I was fit to be fled, and I had spoken quite loudly, and I felt extremely foolish, and I looked down, and the man who had offered me his seat was partly looking at me, and I said, "Now, isn't that silly? That was my station. A Hundred and Sixty-eighth Street is where I'm supposed to get off." I couldn't help laughing, it was all so awful, and he looked away, and the train fidgeted along to the next station, and I got off as quickly as I possibly could and tore over to the downtown platform and got a local to 168th, but of course I had missed my bus by a minute, or maybe two minutes. I felt very much at a loose end wandering around 168th Street, and I finally went into a rudely appointed but friendly bar and had a martini, warm but very soothing, which cost me only fifty cents. While I was sipping it, trying to make it last to exactly the moment that would get me a good place in the bus queue without having to stand too long in the cold, I wondered what I should have done about that man in the subway. After all, if I had taken his seat I probably would have got out at 168th Street, which would have meant that I would hardly have been sitting down before I would have been getting up again, and that would have seemed odd. And rather grasping of me. And he wouldn't have got his seat back, because some other grasping person would have slipped into it ahead of him when I got up. He seemed a retiring sort of man, not pushy at all. I hesitate to think of how he must have regretted offering me his seat. Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do.
FEBRUARY 15, 1958
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Meet the Author
Maeve Brennan came to America from Ireland in 1934, when she was seventeen. From 1949 through the mid-1970s, she was on the staff of The New Yorker, where she made memorable contributions to "The Talk of the Town" under the pen name "The Long-Winded Lady." She died in New York in 1993.
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