By Joan Wile
I’ve lived mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 58 years. I wouldn’t live anywhere else, although I tried to twice. But, I came running back as soon as I could. It’s been great for all my phases of life, starting with when I came here at the age of 22 to be a jazz singer.
Now, I’m 80. I see people moving to Florida when they hit old age. Some go to retirement communities in the suburbs and exurbs. And, some, like me, stay put right here. Why? Because the Upper West Side is the best possible place to be when you’re old (yes, OLD — none of this “senior citizen,” “aging” or “elderly” to define myself. I am OLD, people.
But, I don’t feel it. And, one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, is because of where I live. There are so many free and/or affordable activities for us here on the interesting and colorful side of Manhattan. There are plenty of doctors and hospitals nearby, too, in case the infirmities of old age require attention. Oh, and if you need some psychological counseling, this is the place. I’ve often wondered how the island of Manhattan doesn’t tip into the Hudson River from the weight of all the psychotherapists who hang their shingles on the West Side.
There are lots of senior centers, and not ones where they consider a game of Bingo to be sufficient intellectual activity for the old. The ones here have art classes, political discussion groups, book clubs, member-created theater productions and all sorts of other exciting projects befitting the braininess of Upper West Side inhabitants.
There are restaurants, parks, plazas, and, most of all, people. People, people everywhere. I meet them on the bus, on a park bench, in the elevator, and while participating in my many anti-war pursuits. People of all kinds from all parts of the globe. Intelligent and vibrant people, with fascinating personal histories.
I raised my two children here. My four grandchildren have been brought up in the suburbs, and when I contrast their early lives with those my kids experienced, I feel they are deprived. They can’t go anywhere on their own until they become old enough to drive. There aren’t a lot of kids in their neighborhoods to play with compared to living in a big old Upper West Side apartment building where there are kids on every floor. And, once kids in the burbs are teens and old enough to meet with friends socially, their playground is the Mall. Not very stimulating, whereas my kids basked in the pleasures and excitement of the endless cultural attractions we have. Two of my grandkids have already moved to Manhattan, at the ages of 21 and 17 (incidentally, both into apartments on the Upper West Side).
I’ve also had the fun of seeing tons of celebrities. I even live in the same building with one — James Earl Jones (a very courtly, approachable and friendly man). Bernadette Peters lives in the building next door. I’ve encountered more than I can remember on Upper West Side streets — Keir Dullea, Paul Newman, Darryl Hanna, Ben Gazzara, Harry Belafonte, and years ago, Myrna Loy and Peter O’Toole. I could go on and on.
One celebrity sighting is worth describing, as it could only happen here, I believe. I was walking along Broadway in the low 70’s one day and spotted the famous comedian, Jackie Mason, talking to a group of passersby on the sidewalk. I approached and realized he was, in essence, doing his act. One-liners tumbled out of his mouth in rapid-fire succession akin to a machine gun fusillade. He did at least 15 minutes, as I recall, before I had to move on.
And, then there’s Fairway on Broadway. I think just about every actor who’s ever played on Law & Order buys their groceries there. Also, guess who. Mayor Ed Koch shops there regularly. I found that rather odd, as I know he lives downtown in Greenwich Village. And, he buys very prosaic items he could get anywhere — oranges, milk, that sort of thing. I once asked him why he comes all the way uptown for his groceries, and he said “because it’s 40% cheaper.” Was he that stringent about City expenditures? I don’t know, but I wonder.
One can create one’s own fun, too. For instance, my apartment house has established a weekly poker game in our basement community room, where I lose money regularly. Somehow, I can’t picture stuffy East Siders doing something like that.
I started an anti-war group, Grandmothers Against the War in 2003, and was a Founding Member of the Granny Peace Brigade in 2005. Our first action was held at the beautiful Eleanor Roosevelt statue on Riverside Drive at 72nd St. (Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it, do go. It’s awesome and has nearby benches from where to view it.) My group has held another event on the West Side for almost eight years — our weekly vigil on the west side of 5th Avenue in front of Rockefeller Plaza — not Upper, but still West. And, perhaps we grannies are most famous for our arrest and jailing on Oct. 17, 2005, when we tried to enlist at the Times Square recruiting station to replace America’s grandchildren in harm’s way for an immoral and illegal war. Also not Upper, but nevertheless West.
Yes, it’s all here. And, it’s attainable on a retiree’s fixed limited income. Of course, this presupposes that you already have an affordable apartment. If you are lured to move here from somewhere else, be sure you have the kind of money that can pay the exorbitant rents and co-op maintenance fees — the one big drawback of the Upper West Side (and just about everyplace else in Manhattan).
See you around — maybe at a free Shakespeare-in-the-Park play, or strolling through the Museum of Natural History, perhaps at one of the many free concerts in dozens of churches and libraries, sitting entranced at one of the top-drawer diverse Lincoln Center performances (many free in the summer), attending a free lecture/book-signing at the Barnes & Noble on Broadway at 82nd St (I’ve heard Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. Gary Hart, Doris Lessing there).
Or, maybe I’ll see you at Fairway?
Joan Wile, a singer-songwriter-musician, appeared in many nightclubs and cabarets, appeared on TV shows, recorded and wrote songs and jingles, wrote 6 musicals, 4 of which were produced Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. In 2003, she founded Grandmothers Against the War and in 2005 she was a Founding Member of the Granny Peace Brigade. Her book, “Grandmothers Against The War: Getting Off Our Fannies and Standing Up For Peace,” was published by Citadel Press in 2008.
Photos courtesy of Joan Wile.