From the Pines to Park Avenue
By Bill Fields
My New York Days, to borrow the title of Willie Morris’ 1993 memoir, weren’t much like those of the Mississippi-born writer and editor, who led Harper’s in the late 1960s as it documented the political and cultural doings of that tumultuous time.
Aside from the fact that we were both small-town Southerners who moved to the big city, the only other similarity was where, geographically speaking, we worked. His office was at 2 Park Avenue. Mine, at Golf Illustrated magazine two decades later, was located at 3 Park Avenue, across the street.
The building that housed Golf Illustrated for a handful of years, until the publication’s abrupt closing in 1991, is on the southeast corner of 34th Street. Built of bricks the color of café con leche, 3 Park stands 42 stories and is aligned diagonally on the block. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects of the Empire State Building, and 3 Park’s proximity to its famous neighbor — along with a distinctive shape and hue — make it easy to spot flying in and out of New York.
Seeing it upon takeoff or approach at LaGuardia takes me back. I lived in the city from 1986-88 and commuted from Connecticut for three additional years, until Golf Illustrated’s owner pulled the plug and gave us two days to pack up.
I had only been to New York twice before I became a senior editor and photographer at the magazine — laying over for a few hours in 1980 during a long bus ride, and two years later when I made a summer visit to a former college roommate who was living in the Bronx.
We took long rides in hot, graffiti-rich subway cars, hung out at museums and Central Park, drank a bunch of beers at McSorley’s and elsewhere, and closed some of the long nights at a Greek diner. Driving me around the Bronx in his beater, Bernie pointed out the apartments where serial killer David Berkowitz had lived before the “Son of Sam” murders. The Yankees were in town, and we bought cheap seats for a Saturday afternoon game. My vocabulary was enriched during those couple of hours in the right field bleachers. It was not Bob Sheppard’s precise baritone over the P.A. that lingered with me but the language of the louts jostling for a drink at the water fountain.
Although Bernie got me a gratis room in the Bronx for a few days to hunt for an apartment once I was hired by Golf Illustrated and suggested I consider the borough for my new home, I settled elsewhere. For $725 a month, I rented a one-bedroom in a brownstone in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, then predominantly an Italian neighborhood and only starting to become gentrified. It was almost three times my rent in North Carolina, and I traded a fireplace and a yard for a kitchen and bathroom sized for a kindergartner.
My place was a short walk to the Carroll Street subway station, where I got on an F train for the trip to 34th and 6th Avenue in Manhattan — between 20 and 25 minutes without any delays. From there, I walked down 34th Street, right past the Empire State Building, to the magazine. We were housed in a couple of different offices at 3 Park, none lower than the 31st floor, each with an astounding view compared to where I’d come from.
It was a new world. I’m not sure how brave I was, but I coped with it. The pleasure of those days — having gotten the opportunity to fulfill a dream by moving to New York — surely exceeded the anxiety. Although I explored the city, I wish I had been more adventuresome. My only true regret, though, is not splurging on an air conditioner during the infernal summer of ’87, even if I had to strap it on my back and walk it over the Brooklyn Bridge and all the way down Court Street. New York was more stifling than North Carolina had ever felt.
My former neighborhood, like the larger city, doesn’t much resemble its 1980s self aside from the brownstones themselves, which have soared in value. What I paid in rent probably would get me a twin bed in a crowded share. Manhattan is full of chain stores, places not unique to the city. It’s not as gritty, or charming, as when I moved there. To see 3 Park Avenue from the air is not only to recall a place and a time but a person, young and excited, eager for the next chapter. PS
Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.