- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

NEW YORK. — New York is a very old city by Western Hemisphere standards, and it keeps on transforming itself every few decades. When I talk about “Old” New York, however, I’m talking about the city I visited as a boy, a decade after World War II.

On that first visit, we stayed at the St. Moritz Hotel. It was not quite the Plaza, but it was luxurious, and lots of celebrities, including film stars, stayed there. It also had two famous restaurants, the Cafe de la Paix and Rumpelmayer’s. We frequently went to the latter, where the prices were shocking to a boy from Erie, Pa. Almost everywhere else, a soft drink was 10 to 25 cents, but in Rumpelmayer’s it was $1. In Erie, $1 could buy a big lunch; in Rumpelmayer’s it only got you a Coke or a cup of coffee. Lunches here were well more than $5, and dinners more than $10, which seemed outrageous in a day when you had a complete large lobster dinner, including salad, dessert and tip, for $4 in an Erie seafood restaurant. I was dazzled.

Then there were the celebrities I encountered in the lobby every day. Charles Laughton in his robe and slippers waddling through the lobby in broad daylight. A young Billy Graham getting into the elevator. A famous Broadway producer, wearing a pink button-down shirt in the Cafe de la Paix. I got all their autographs. I don’t remember our room or much of the decor — it was already an older building — but I’m sure it was very nice.

Yesterday, I was walking to the GOP convention site and passed within a block of the hotel. I decided to stop. As I approached its Central Park South entrance, I noticed it now said “Ritz-Carlton” on the building. I walked in the front, past the uniformed bellmen and the security guards, and into an elegant if smallish lobby. I realized that the space had been completely changed, made smaller and more elegant, but for all its finery, it no longer had the glamour of what I now fabled as the old St. Moritz. It’s all tricks of the mind, of course, and the way we want to assert memory in the present, but I think I am right about the glamour. The celebrities, I am sure, still stay here, but they are not the stars of old. Today, a lot of celebrities seem to think they are political theorists.

My mother took me on that trip into Greenwich Village to see “The Threepenny Opera” at the Theater de Lys. Jerry Ohrbach played The Streetsinger in his first big role. I’m sorry, theater fans, there hasn’t been a show comparable to this in New York for decades. The Village was strange enough then, but a mother and her son could wander through it at night and not give it a thought.

We also went to the old Metropolitan Opera and saw “Tosca,” and sat in one of the top balconies. I looked over the edge of our seats down to the orchestra pit where Dmitri Mitropolous, as bald as my father, was conducting, and Renata Tebaldi, then in her prime, was undoubtedly singing gloriously.

We went to Danny’s Hideaway, where there were apparently no menus. The waiter came and asked how you liked your steaks. That’s all they serve, my mother said. When the bill came, and each steak dinner cost $10, my father’s face turned grim. In Erie, a steak dinner rarely went above $2.50, soup to nuts. The next night we went to Mama Leone’s, and I ordered octopus in a marinara sauce. I thought I was the most adventurous teen-ager in America. My father, whose favorite dish was roast chicken, thought I was crazy.

I think President Bush would react to my ordering octopus just as my father did, but the world he has to navigate through is as much changed as New York has changed in a half-century. Mr. Bush may also be as good a diagnostician and as reassuring as my father, a general practitioner for 65 years (and a liberal Democrat), was to his patients, but as we go toward the long treatment stage ahead, the 2004 campaign is a chance for a second opinion. Mr. Bush and his many supporters here at the convention, now increasingly optimistic, hope that America keeps him on the case.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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