Date:         Sun, 21 Jul 1996 20:17:57 -0500
From: Anne Harwell Toal 
Subject:      WTHMNYC-I
To: Multiple recipients of list WORDS-L 

I have never in my life been as hot as when I was in New York. The last
time I was there, I was hot, too. However I had just gotten off a flight
from Scotland and had spent the last two weeks in the gorgeous cool air, so
I misattributed my discomfort to the sudden change of climate.

Not this time, though. It was just plain hot. From the moment we climbed
off the train until we settled into our seats aboard the American Airlines
727 three days later, my back was coated with a film of oily sweat. There
was no way to get out of it aside from taking refuge in the big stores.
After about twelve hours of thinking it would get better, that I would find
a way to obtain air conditioning, I finally realized that I would not: a
visit to New York was going to be just like a visit to Mexico. You just
made up your mind that you were going to be hot and uncomfortable as long
as you were here, and that was that. However, unlike Mexico, the museums
and food were better, but you couldn't buy OTC penicillin and estrogen in
the pharmacies.

Our host was an amazingly kind and accomodating girl named Teresa. She
lived in a tiny flat on the East Side. She pays amazingly high rent--over
two times per square foot what you'd pay in my neck of the woods for luxury
accomodations. But, as any New Yorker will remind you with a wave of the
hand and a roll of the eyes, you can't step outside your apartment in South
Texas and be in East Side Manhattan. Although Teresa's apartment could
arguably be said to be too small for even one occupant, somehow Graham and
I squeezed in with all our huge travel cases and shopping bags and so on.

Date:         Sun, 21 Jul 1996 20:18:28 -0500
From: Anne Harwell Toal 
Subject:      WHTMNYC-II
To: Multiple recipients of list WORDS-L 

And boy was it hot in there. Air conditioning? These people laugh at air
conditioning. Air conditioning is for the weak, for out-of-towners, for
people who just don't get it about New York. So naturally, being all three
of the above, I tried to spend as little time indoors as possible. We
decided to take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It goes out over the
water, right? Where a cool sea breeze will take our minds off the heat?
Well, it went out over the water, fair enough. But it was just as hot and
humid out there. I snapped some pictures of Manhattan and the Statue of
Liberty, mainly to document the air pollution and mist in the atmosphere.

On the ride back, Teresa mentioned that the Empire State Building was
located on 34th Street. And just like a B-film, I heard my mother's voice
saying, "I used to walk by the Empire State Building every day on my way to
work." In that instant, I realized why I was in New York. I wasn't there to
see Picasso. I was there to see B. Altman, the store my mother worked in
when she lived in New York.

So we had dinner with Myles at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar (one of
the great oyster experiences of my life, not to mention one of the great
Myles experiences), and as soon as I got back to Teresa's flat, which if I
haven't mentioned it yet, was hot, I logged on and sent Rashmi a mail
asking what Altman's new identity was, since I had a vague memory of her
posting something about that in tha past. The next morning I had mail from
her saying sorry, she didn't know. However, I knew it was near the Empire
State Building, and everyone in New York was bound to have heard of it.
Friendly outgoing people that they are, I'd have no trouble locating it.

Date:         Sun, 21 Jul 1996 20:18:51 -0500
From: Anne Harwell Toal 
Subject:      WHTMNYC-III
To: Multiple recipients of list WORDS-L 

So I took the N train to 34th and got off. As an especially cruel touch,
New York air conditions the subway trains, but not the tunnels. This is so
the killing and mayhem will be restricted to the area outside the rail
cars. It was so hot on the subway platform, I began to give rude stares to
anyone who brushed up against me. I came up on 34th and 3rd and felt like I
had walked into a movie about New York. A boy with a spike protruding
through his lower lip pushed past me on the way down the stairs. He came
close to brushing against me but backed away when I glared at him.

I started across 34th and asked a newsstand clerk if he knew where the
store that used to be B. Altman was, explaining that I thought it was now a
museum. He gave me the blank look of all blank looks and shook his head no.
So I headed down towards 2nd, passing a nice-looking bar that had evidently
suffered a bit of vandalism the night before--the front plate glass window
was shattered. I turned in at a small shop that had - what else - its door
open to admit as much hot air as possible and asked the woman behind the
counter if she knew where the store was that used to be B. Altman, I think
it's now a museum of something. She said she thought she knew what I was
talking about, and that it was 34th and Madison.

Now, this really has me flummoxed. We are talking about B. Altman here, no
small change amongst New York department stores. Closed eight years and
nobody remembers it. However, the expression "34th and Madison" stirs
another ghostly recollection and I hear my Mother's voice again, talking
about how Altman's had expanded all the way to Madison about fifteen years
before she came to work there. Weird stuff begins to happen. I head back
down 34th in the other direction, and as I near Madison, I can hear my
mother's high heels clicking on the sidewalk beside me. As I approach the
corner, the Empire State Building peeks from behind a building in the
foreground. There, on the corner, is a big limestone facade, and chiseled
into the corner blocks are the dots tracing the shapes of the bronze
letters "B Altman." I peer through the street-level gglass where the
decorators used to put up the season's fashions and look for the big round
black columns. If I could just spot them, I know this was Altman's! But
they are not there.

Date:         Sun, 21 Jul 1996 20:19:02 -0500
From: Anne Harwell Toal 
Subject:      WHTMNYC-IV
To: Multiple recipients of list WORDS-L 

My heart is pounding really hard. I'm not sure when it started. This
journey has taken on the proportions of a holy quest. Thoughts and memories
of my mother are flitting around like big butterflies. I approach the big
bronze doors and I can see her gloved hand reaching out for the handle.
This very door she went through six days a week for five years. I pull the
door open and...what's this? It's a library! The post from Words-L snaps
back into memory. The NYPL turned Altman's into a library, which Mother
would have loved, since her last request was that people who wished to
remember her make donations to libraries.

I walk over to the information desk. "Excuse me, is this the building which
used to be B. Altman?" The security guard replies, "Is that that store?" I
say that it is, and he replies that he thinks this is the place. I wander
over to a display of old books under glass, which features an original of
Newton's Principia, and a 1934 printing by B. Altman commemorating the
expansion of their store to Madison Avenue. This is a closed stack library,
so patrons have to request their selections, which are sent to the B.
Altman Delivery Desk.

I walked slowly through all the public areas, noticing the dozens of
patrons browsing the web, reading lists of all the pitchers who had ever
pitched for the Boston Red Sox, a page in Japanese about who know what,
something on Shakespeare, today's news, tools for woodworking, and
something really fascinating-looking which I didn't get a clear shot at
because the patron gave me the don't-brush-against-me glare I'd been using
in the subways. The Science, Industry, and Business Library is in reality a
big internet POP with bookshelves on the walls.

Date:         Sun, 21 Jul 1996 20:19:08 -0500
From: Anne Harwell Toal 
Subject:      WHTMNYC-V
To: Multiple recipients of list WORDS-L 

On the way out I stop by a multimedia kiosk which has a short video on the
history of the library, including its years as B. Altman. Right across the
way from the kiosk sits the guard who didn't know for sure if he was in
"that store," the same store Chef Boyar bought cookbooks from my mother
before he became known as Chef Boy-ar-dee, the store William Buckley's
brother quizzed my mother to make certain they were selling God and Man at
Yale (they were, but Mr. Altman didn't know it at the time), the same store
she met Leslie Nielsen (very nice, but a mama's boy) in and worked
alongside James Lipton's mother (An Exhaltation of Larks) and endured Miss
Slifer's condescension about her Southern heritage in. I wanted to holler
out at the guard, "you may work here, but you don't know anything about it."

That night, back at Teresa's, I'm sweating as I read a story in the New
York Times Magazine about all the fine old stores in New York that have
gone forgotten, stores like I. Magnin, B. Altman, and so on. About five
years ago, a similar piece ran in the New Yorker's Talk of the Town.
Somewhere along the line, I must have crossed over into the group that is
always looking for the past, that doesn't care so much about what the
future brings as it does about hanging on to time before it gets snatched
away. I don't mind being this way.