It’s 10 degrees outside, and the temperature is still plunging, but Helene Hanff’s wondrous and adoring Apple of My Eye makes me want to go outside and start exploring every nook and cranny of New York City right now. If Hanff’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because she was also the author of 84, Charing Cross Road, also a great book.
Apple of My Eye may not persuade everyone to love Manhattan, but Hanff paints a beautiful, idiosyncratic portrait of my favorite city, warts and all, during a time when the New York ran out of money and the rest of the country, and Gerald Ford in particular, told New York to go to hell.
TIME OUT TO PLUG A NEW BOOKSTORE. Apple of My Eye took me by surprise as I was checking out Book Monster, a fine new used book store in Santa Monica. Like the best used books stores, Book Monster’s layout is completely inviting and encourages wonderfully random browsing. The travel books alone were worth the trip! Who knew I’d find my favorite book about New York while browsing in Santa Monica?
The premise of Apple of My Eye is that Hanff was commissioned to write the copy for a book of photographs of Manhattan. Determined to write a truly helpful book for tourists to the city, Hanff sets out with her long-time friend Patsy to explore Manhattan in the mid 1970’s, when New York City as a whole was in a state of financial collapse. This book is about their adventures. There was a lot more crime and many more things were falling apart in the 1970’s than is the case now. Acknowledging these issues, Hanff is determined to learn as much as possible about the parts of New York that she thinks tourists ought to see. Along the way, Hanff discovers and rediscovers an impressive array of New York neighborhoods, and is always ready to stop and really look at what is her around her.
Hanff lives on the Upper East Side, and her friend Patsy lives on the Upper West Side (my own personal nirvana). The two happily debate the relative merits of these two meccas — of course some of the traditional distinctions are waning as the Upper West Side keeps replacing old, charming and sometimes dilapidated brownstones with scores of fancy high rises. I might argue that the Upper West Side’s residents have changed far less than their architecture.
Helene Hanff and Patsy have obviously known each other for a long time, and together they come up with lists of places to see and neighborhoods to explore. Hanff and Patsy combine high degrees of inquisitiveness with a determination to see and appreciate as much as possible. Undaunted by getting lost (in a pre-IPhone era) and often getting very hungry, hot and footsore, they are determined to do a thorough job of checking out places tourists to New York should see. The two women are both very very opinionated about how New York should be — Hanff has been boycotting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest over its expansion into Central Park — and yet they can be persuaded to alter their initial perceptions. They really want to point tourists to good places and they are open to checking everything out.
New York keeps changing. In addition to the financial crisis of the 1970’s, Hanff writes about the World Trade Center just as the Twin Towers were opening, the newly opened sections of the Metropolitan Museum, the newly opened and very dusty Ellis Island and so much more. It was also a time when Central Park was considered pretty dangerous except on the weekends. Apple of My Eye made me want to explore everything. Now of course we have Google and Google Maps, so theoretically we shouldn’t get lost as often and we can look up the details on anything of interest. That’s a good thing in many ways, but I have to wonder about how many interesting things I may have missed because I was so focused on my phone that I neglected to look around.
For those of us who lived in Manhattan during the late 70’s and 80’s and have returned to live there only recently, Hanff’s book offers the best kind of nostalgia and also the recognition that change will continue to happen. Some change will be good, and some will suck. We can fight it or embrace it, but New York is going to keep on changing. And if we are confused or want to know more, we can look it up on line.
This is a great book and stands on its own, regardless of your interest in New York. Having said that, for me Manhattan has got to Beowulf of the best backdrops a book could ever possess.