Pondering the road not taken

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

It is Wednesday, and I’m in the lobby of the Arthouse Hotel, just off Broadway, on the Upper West Side. 

The lobby features an unpainted brick wall and a poured and polished concrete floor. The bricks and concrete are softened by illuminated book cases, dark gray sofas, and people who are speaking in tongues — foreign tourists whose animation is testament to the fact that New York City is exceeding their expectations.

My wife and I first visited New York just after our wedding in 1968, and we chose to stay on the Upper West Side. We chose this part of the City because my wife’s sister, Kathy, lived on West End Avenue and gave us her apartment for a week as a wedding gift. 

From that point forward Zabar’s, Citarella, Papparadella, the Beacon Theatre and the young, ambitious folks living just off Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues became our destination.

The West Side was less desirable than the East Side where uniformed doorman kept the unwashed at bay. And there were homeless folks, car thieves with screwdrivers and rotting garbage on every feces-smeared sidewalk in those in those sepia-tinted, long-gone days. 

But if you could get past the stench of the garbage, there was also excitement and expectation in the air.

In the 1970s, our West Side weekend visits meant talks with my brother-in-law, John Littlewood, who was then a rising star in advertising. He, and several others, introduced the Pillsbury Doughboy to biscuit-eating Americans. 

I, by contrast, was under the influence of a young, irreverent law professor (at George Washington University) named John Banzhaf who would eventually win acclaim by banning cigarette smoking on airplanes. In the meantime Banzhaf was going after deceptive advertising at the Federal Trade Commission. 

John Littlewood and I would meet at Allstates Cafe, on 72nd Street, and would start with Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. But we always worked our way round to the advertising business — debating the selling of cigarettes or oil companies that put lead into gasoline or Campbell’s that put marbles in the bottom of the bowl when photographing their vegetable soup. 

It was good, content-rich talk that pitted the unregulated commercialism of New York against rule-making bureaucrats in Washington. It was ‘buyer beware’ versus ‘buyer forewarned and forearmed.’ 

And I must confess that I was impressed by my brother-in-law and his friends. They were creative, they travelled (John also handled the Pan American Airlines account) and were well-paid. I began to believe I could live, even flourish on the Upper West Side.

A law school graduate has one important decision to make after he or she graduates — where does he or she take the bar examination? 

This is a hard test and a hard decision because you only want to take this test once. And where you take the test determines, for most, where you will spend the rest of your life. My choices were New York, Washington, D.C. and South Carolina.

There was a natural gravitation pull back to the South where my people lived, died and were buried. But my wife was from Connecticut — rode the New Haven Railroad into the City — and the ferment, the demonstrations, and excitement of the 60s and 70s were focused in Washington and New York City. These things were not focused in South Carolina. And so I was sleeping on West End Avenue when I got a call from my mother telling me I had passed the bar. In South Carolina. 

Yes, in the end, I went back to South Carolina and moved to a small, obscure place called Beaufort County — a place not then known to most New Yorkers, whose singular contact with South Carolina was a place called ‘South of the Border.’ 

In an hour or so, I will meet my son and his lovely, longtime girlfriend at Viand — a diner on Broadway and 75th Street — and we will talk of bagels, rugelach and his 104th Street, Upper West Side life. 

He made his decision, and I made mine, and those decisions set us upon different seas. We don’t regret these decisions but sometimes wonder about the road not taken.

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