The Past is Dead…Long Live the Past

On a leisurely walk down 59th St. this morning, I was shocked to learn the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel has closed. Little by little, old New York seems to be disappearing before our eyes.

Not that I was a frequent visitor to the Oak Bar. The fact is, I was there only once, but it was a memorable “once.”

On a blind date, a set-up by a good friend in the 1980s. I was single, a professional sales rep by day, grad student and artist by night.

My “date” was an exec at Dow Chemical. Our meeting took place shortly after the Dow/Union Carbide disaster, when a toxic leak at one of their plants poisoned the entire city of Bhopal, India with pesticide gas, killing 3,800 people.

“You work at Dow?” I said, incredulously. “Dow?”

I couldn’t get past it. My friend (who was also present and sitting with her date) told Mr. Dow Chemical I was an artist. Which prompted him to tell me he collected art. In his kitchen, he said, hanging above the table, was a very large, very cool painting — of a stop sign.

My memory of the Oak Bar itself, however, is sublime. Lovely inside, sumptuous, clubby. I never did get around to a return visit, unfortunately — but I’d like to think I probably would have gone again at some point. Isn’t that always the way? Now that I think of it, maybe by staying away I contributed to its demise.

Honestly, this was the crummy Greek diner sort of place that is ubiquitous in New York. But it was the only place in the vicinity of my office where I could grab unspectacular grilled cheese sandwich or a decent breakfast-for-lunch (these establishments have mastered the fried egg), where I could eat and read, unmolested by the disinterested waitress, for an entire lunch hour.

Not long ago, my good friend Tom met me for lunch. He’s been an upper West-sider for most of his adult life, yet, he knew of this little hole-in-the-wall in midtown well enough to suggest we dine there.

I had tuna on toast. He had an egg sandwich. We talked for an hour about his trip to Florence, his wife’s trip to Machu Picchu, and the memoir he had written.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I was headed there, solo, for lunch…and was stunned to see: windows covered in brown wrapping paper and a sign posted offering appreciation to their loyal customers over the years, of which I was (recently) one. Thankfully, I had nothing to do their closing. I’ll bet it was the the waitress’s fault.

Although Hurricane (er, I mean, Tropical Storm) Irene didn’t severely molest the Heights of Jackson, she did succeed in uprooting the formidable tree that shaded my bus stop. R.I.P., much-loved tree.

The nostalgic impact of these encounters was, perhaps, emphasized by the disturbing dream I had right before waking up this morning.

The duration of the dream seemed to be several seconds only. It went something like this:

I was behind the wheel of a dark-colored car, speeding, racing, when, suddenly, I grew sick of driving. I opened the door and exited the car while it was still in motion. Strangely, I wasn’t injured. But then I watch in horror as the car hit a curb near a bus stop, ricocheted in the air and then fell onto a guy who was leaning against a tree. The wildly out-of-control car then hit another guy standing nearby, killing them both.

Terrified, I thought (while I was still dreaming): My life as I know it is over. It will never be the same again.

If I hadn’t felt so terrible about what happened (while dreaming), I suppose one could possibly interpret my “thought” as “positive.”

Then again, maybe not.

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