Katherine Hall Page has published thirty books: twenty-three in the Faith Fairchild series with The Body in the Wardrobe (April 2016), five juvenile/YAs, a cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, and Small Plates, a Collection of Short Fiction. She is Malice Domestic 28’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. This essay missed being included in the New York issues of Mystery Readers Journal, but so glad it found a place here. Thanks, Katherine!
Katherine Hall Page:
It’s a Wonderful Town
The Big Apple. Jazz musicians coined the city's familiar moniker in the Twenties. There were plenty of apples to pick from the tree, but only one "Big Apple", only one New York. If you had a gig there, you had it made. The ultimate destination. And as the title of this piece indicates, it’s impossible not to hum, or sing out loud, about it. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but if he wanted to make it anywhere, he had to head East.
I set two books—The Body in the Big Apple and The Body in the Boudoir— in New York City, both of them prequels covering the time in my series character, Faith Sibley Fairchild’s life before she was married and transplanted to the more bucolic orchards of New England.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, as teenagers my friends and I used to say we lived "just outside the city", omitting the fact that we had to cross a state line to get there—the coolest place on earth. At twelve, we had been deemed old enough to take the DeCamp bus together to Port Authority —in the day time. Armed with the small penciled maps my artist mother would draw, we'd head for Manhattan. One Saturday it would be museums. My cousin John convinced me to stand in line with him for several hours outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art to catch a sixty second glimpse of the Mona Lisa, on loan from the Louvre. It's the wait I remember best now, the mix of New Yorkers and out-of-towners, the jokes, the stories—holding places while people dashed off for a dog from the Sabrett's All Beef Kosher Franks stand with its bright yellow and blue umbrella. Another Saturday, we'd go from box office to box office on Broadway until we got tickets to a matinee (prices were much lower in the early Sixties). We saw everything from Richard Burton in Hamlet to Robert Preston in The Music Man. Sometimes we'd just wander, walking miles, entranced by the dramatic changes in the neighborhoods from one block to the next. Bialys and bagels gave way to egg rolls followed swiftly by cannolis as we moved Uptown.
No time of year was more magical than December and from the time I was a small child, there was always a special trip during the season to look at the Rockefeller Center tree and the department store windows. Other times of the year, my parents took us to the ballet, opera—the old Met with the cloth of gold curtain—, concerts, and special exhibits at the museums—the Calder mobiles like nothing anyone had seen before spiraling in the enormous spiral of the Guggenheim.
Then there were the restaurants—or rather one restaurant: Horn and Hardart's Automat. My 1964 Frommer's Guide advises: "Inquire of any passer-by, and you'll be directed to one that's usually no more than a block-or-two away." Sadly, they have all disappeared and trying to explain the concept to my son—you put nickels in the slot next to the food you wanted, lifted the little glass door, snatched it out and watched the empty space revolve, instantly producing another dish —is well nigh impossible. Fortunately there are old movies. Just as difficult is describing the food—the superb , crusty macaroni and cheese with tiny bits of tomato, the warm deep dish apple pie with vanilla sauce, the baked beans in their own little pot. Most New Yorkers of a certain age wax nostalgic about automat food—the meat loaf! And a whole meal for $1.00.
My husband is the genuine article. A native New Yorker, born and bred in the Bronx. "The Beautiful Bronx" when he was growing up and we have a book of the same name to prove it. When he meets someone else from the borough, talk immediately turns to the Grand Concourse, the "nabe", and egg creams. Where he lived is now part of the Cross Bronx Expressway, but he can still point out his elementary school as we whiz past. New Yorkers are very sentimental.
And to continue in the manner of Faith Fairchild's sweeping generalizations, New Yorkers are also very rude, very generous, very funny, very stylish, very quirky, and very fast. Genetically, they have more molecules than most other Americans. The moment I step off the train or plane from Boston, in imitation my pace quickens, gaze narrows, and senses sharpen. Forget all those New York designer fragrances. The essence is adrenaline, pure and simple.
These two books are paeans to New York City past, present, and future—always keeping in mind what the comedian, Harry Hershfield said, "New York: Where everyone mutinies but no one deserts." No matter the time—some things never change. It's a wonderful town.
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