New York City was cold and uninviting when the Greyhound bus arrived late in the afternoon. It was two days before Easter and light snow had fallen leaving the streets wet and slippery. On Sunday, the Easter Parade down Fifth Avenue attracted a huge crowd and at night Times Square was alive with flashing neon signs and people celebrating. It was my first visit to the “Island of Many Hills” (Manhattan) and I had a lot to see. I rode the Circle Island cruise boat, took the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, climbed the stairs into the crown of the Statue of Liberty and watched the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center. That was just the first day…
Dwight Eisenhower was still President, Jackie Robinson had retired after ten years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mao Zedong had launched the “Great Leap Forward” in China, and the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants had made their “Great Leap Westward” to California. Alaska had become the 49th state, Hawaii was about to become the 50th state and Fidel Castro had overthrown the government in Cuba.
In 1960, John F Kennedy was elected President and starred in the original version of “Camelot”. A U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia. Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro visited the United Nations and created huge traffic jams across Manhattan. In 1961, the “Bay of Pigs” became a major embarrassment for the Kennedy Government, the Berlin Wall was erected, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs and Mickey Mantle hit 54 for the Yankees who won the World Series. The Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a nuclear war in 1962, President Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Berlin, the NY Mets played their first season at the Polo Grounds and the Yankees won the World Series. They wouldn’t win again until 1977. In 1963 Kennedy was assassinated in Texas and replaced as President by a Texan, Lyndon B Johnson. Martin Luther King Junior made his historic “I have a dream” speech which moved a country, and the Beatles took the USA by storm. In 1964 Lyndon B Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election, and the summer riots in Harlem lasted for several weeks. In 1965, US combat troops landed in Vietnam, New York City was shut down by a major power failure, John Lindsay was elected Mayor of New York and the “Smiley Face” made its first appearance on tee shirts and just about everything else. In 1966, anti-war protests reached a new high and Ed White became the first American to walk in space. In 1967 there was a tragic accident at Cape Canaveral when three astronauts were killed after a fire engulfed their Apollo capsule during a launch rehearsal. In 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris played their last games of baseball. In 1969 Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and the NY Mets won their first World Series.
The big issues capturing the media’s attention were: the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements, riots in New York and the Cold War between capitalism and communism. New York City was right in the middle of the demonstrations, debates and race riots. National and local political campaigns were fought fiercely on these issues but in New York City other things made the headlines – the city’s financial mess and declining services, increased pollution and filth in the streets and a rising crime rate. The city was crowded, unpleasant, unfriendly and dirty. The subway system needed an upgrade and increased police protection.
Many people referred to the 1960s as the “Age of Youth”, the period when children from the post war baby boom became teenagers and young adults. The baby boom had created seventy million teenagers in the USA who wanted a way of life that was different to the previous generation who had lived through the deprivation of the war years. The changes affected education, values, lifestyles, entertainment, literature and the attitude towards war. Novels like To Kill a Mocking Bird, Catch-22, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Group were popular best-sellers because of the increasing disillusionment with racial relations, wars, the “system” and the role of women. Universities became the centers of debate and scenes of protest against almost everything the teens inherited from the 1940s and 1950s. The “hippie” movement endorsed drugs, rock music, mystic religions and sexual freedom, but opposed violence and war. Some teens were excited about “reaching for the stars” when the first Americans went into space, orbited the world and landed on the moon. But the assassinations of John F Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr had dampened the excitement. Camelot had a short life.
Folk music, rock and acid rock replaced the sentimental ballads. Modern jazz replaced the traditional Dixie Land or New Orleans jazz in many of the New York clubs. Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock were the popular jazz musicians, replacing the marvellous entertainer Louis Armstrong and the big bands from the 1930s and 1940s. Miles Davis released his hits Round About Midnight and Kind of Blue to become the hottest jazz musician in New York, appearing regularly at the Birdland nightclub and in the Village.
Broadway musicals remained popular entertainment and movies became more political. FM radio introduced quality music programs while dedicated subscriber jazz and classical music stations became popular alternatives for listeners who did not like talking disc jockeys. Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Righteous Brothers, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles were the most popular singers and groups. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Andy Williams (with Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Johnny Mathis continued to be popular amongst older fans.
Sitcoms and Westerns were popular television series, especially Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, Beverly Hillbillies, Candid Camera, Red Skelton Show, I Love Lucy, Danny Thomas Show, Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Gomer Pyle and The Ed Sullivan Show. The re-runs of The Honeymooners, an outrageously funny comedy set in Brooklyn in the 1950s with Jackie Gleeson, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph had a large cult following, including me. The academy award winning movies were: Ben Hur, West Side Story, Dr Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones and A Man for All Seasons. On Broadway the major shows were: Once Upon a Mattress, I Can Get it For You Wholesale, Fiddler on the Roof, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Hello Dolly, Gypsy, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Camelot, The Odd Couple, A Raisin in the Sun, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the long-running My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Sound of Music.
Little of this featured in my life which seemed to revolve around the New York subway. It took me where I wanted to go and where I needed to go for a 25 cent token. The subway was the heart of the city. It moved millions of people every day and night around the five city boroughs. It was fast, crowded, dirty and often unsafe. I remember standing up for hours as the train lurched from side to side, being leant on by sweaty bodies and pushed aggressively by people forcing their way on and off the trains. It was only late at night or in the early morning hours that I could hope to find a seat. Then it always was a race to get to the seat before someone else. Once seated the subway etiquette was not to give it up for anyone. If I forgot the rule and offered the seat to an elderly person or pregnant woman the response usually was: “What are you, some kind of nut?” before the person shuffled away to stand at the other end of the subway car and I looked down to avoid the glare of the other travellers.
The elevated train services in Manhattan had gone but Third Avenue was still lined with the old low-rise buildings, small stores and Irish bars that previously stood beside the “El”. There are few Irish bars along Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan now, replaced by high-rise office buildings. Gone are the Shamrock, Kelly’s, Murphy’s and O’Grady’s pubs that served basic food and cheap beer. The corned beef, mashed potatoes and cabbage lunches have disappeared, replaced by gourmet sandwiches, wraps, salads and sushi. A few of the traditional Irish bars have survived on Second Avenue and one of my old hangouts, P J Clarke’s, still lives on the corner of Third Avenue and 55th Street.
In Brooklyn and later in Manhattan and Queens I lived amongst immigrants from all over the world and people born elsewhere in the USA. We all had come from someplace else so I fitted in. New York was a tough city, crime was a huge problem and many New Yorkers were aggressive, rude and uncaring. After a while I didn’t notice it, perhaps I became one of them. But underneath there were many kind and caring people, some became my friends and guardians.
Shortly after arriving in New York I discovered a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn written in 1943 by Betty Smith. I remember it because of its description of the life of a struggling immigrant family in New York. The main metaphor of Smith’s book, set in the early twentieth century in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, was the hardy Tree of Heaven that flourished in the most difficult places and unlikely circumstances. The protagonist of the novel, Francie Nolan, grew up in Brooklyn near where I lived forty years later. She was the product of a poor immigrant family with a dream to rise above the impoverished circumstances of her uneducated hard-working mother and alcoholic father. She sought education as a way out of the poverty trap, a solution I later chose. Living in New York in the 1960s was a learning experience. It taught me how to survive in a hard and changing world. At the time I didn’t know it was the “Age of Youth”, I read about it later. I wasn’t trying to change the world or anything else, just myself. So if the 1960s was “The Age of Youth” I think it must have passed me by.