up to Toronto a few weeks ago to usher at the wedding of an old
friend, Thomas Gerginis, a man with a truly rare gift for
enthusiasm. I had first encountered him seven years ago at Columbia
University here in New York, when Andrew, my soft-spoken dorm
neighbor, told me to meet him one evening at a tiny room on the
fourth floor of International House.
I threw open the door to find a tall man in shirt and tie
screaming out James Brown lyrics and dancing a conga-line all by
himself. Andrew, who was cramped up against the desk, told me, “This
is Tom. Isn't he great?” I wasn't at all sure.
Slowly, though, I began to see the greatness. Everything Thomas
did, he did as if he had learned absolutely nothing from experience
- as if the world was new. He did not know how to be blase or
cynical. He took his concepts of romance, adventure and style
straight from the movies, and invested them with such sincerity that
even jaded bystanders were often caught in the glow of his belief.
He is, for instance, the only man I know under 40 who can sing
along to Frank Sinatra - even the swing version of Mrs.
Robinson - without the trace of a smirk. At Columbia, when he
fell improbably in love with power politics, he began to carry
himself like a diplomat and, full of moral fervor, quoted passages
from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger that would have sounded
like tired cynicism coming from their own mouths.
Once, feeling the need to “experience his masculinity,” he even
talked me into going camping. I had camped before; he hadn't. His
younger brother summed up the family's shock by saying, “In the
woods? Thomas? Are you kidding?” But because he believed in what he
was doing, he lived the weekend like a chapter out of James Fenimore
Cooper, undaunted by the fact that our campground had a washer and
dryer, and that we spent two hours each day at a donut shop in
His most special gift was for romance. He adored each woman he
went out with, however ordinary, as if she were the one true Venus -
writing love letters and leaving off red roses on the flimsiest of
occasions. When he finally found a woman he had the sense to see was
worthy of his imagination, he took her out to their favorite
restaurant, then to a jazz club at the Royal York, proposed, and had
the band play their favorite song as the engagement was announced.
The wedding itself had the same wonderful feel of a 1940s movie,
down to the sleek black tuxedos and cigars on the veranda that made
frumpy Canadian stock brokers and journalists feel like extras
backing up Carole Lombard and William Powell.
I bring up Thomas here because, like me, he adored New York City,
especially at this time of year. Manhattan in December is the most
romantic place on Earth, for anyone who has the eyes to see it.
Giant snowflakes cast their blessings down onto Fifth Avenue, as the
great equalizing crowd draws you in past the whimsical shop windows
and the twinkling lights on the trees, the vendors hawking roast
chestnuts, the hansom cabs with their horses snorting cold weather,
on and on to the center, the apex – the glowing white oval of the
skating rink at Rockefeller Center, always bright, open to all,
always circled by smiling people, like a Christmas carol come true.
There you're as likely to hear, “Isn't it a beautiful night?” from a
street hustler as from a woman in furs. And you're all the more
likely to believe it, for the same reason.
The jazz clubs are packed down in Greenwich Village, the
saxophones drift languidly into the streets; children stare
open-mouthed at the six-foot toy soldiers in F.A.O. Schwarz; wreaths
and menorahs are up in every apartment lobby. The forests of Central
Park, dark at five o'clock, their tangles of branches black against
the night sky, for once make you think of fairies instead of
muggers. And the doormen in their livery stand, as always, on the
square outside the Plaza Hotel as overcoats and evening dresses sail
past them to the Palm Court and the Oak Room, where Cary Grant
stopped for drinks in North by Northwest, and where he stops
for drinks in spirit every evening, if only you have the eyes to
When Tom and I were at Columbia six years ago, soon after I met
my own wife-to-be, we hit on the idea of spending New Year's Eve at
the Plaza. It seemed like the ultimate New York thing to do.
Jennifer would fly down from Ottawa; Tom would bring his
I was a more carefree romantic in those days myself, so on Dec.
31, I put fresh carnations in my coffee pitcher and champagne in the
fridge before going out to meet Jennifer's plane. She, not to be
outdone, had packed a runty metal Christmas tree and a string of
cheap lights in her suitcase. We danced on the subway platforms to a
busker's accordion. Later, the four of us, dressed to the nines,
told the taxi driver to “take us to the Plaza,” and there, among the
linen tablecloths, white gloves and palm fronds, we drank whisky
sours and danced to Sinatra until two o'clock in the morning.
The night was liquid. Other couples swirled around us. The band
played smooth and sleek, to match the confidence of our moment. At
midnight, as we blew on noisemakers and sang “Auld Lang Syne” with
two million people all over the island, I thought this had to be the
most elegant evening of my life.
But times change; or we do. Things look different as we grow
older. We learn to judge what we once took for granted. New Yorkers
even cultivate the habit and call it sophistication. Thinking of the
Plaza as this New Year's approached, I looked up the Palm Court in
my Zagat's restaurant guide only to find what I took for elegance
dismissed as “the ultimate in kitsch.”
And I can see the truth of that. The band, despite its rented
tuxes, acted like it would rather have been playing rock down in
SoHo. We all looked ill-at-ease in our formal wear - except Thomas.
The other couples that night were mostly elderly, or strangely
unsuited - rich women, slightly too old or too plain, who had
brought stunningly handsome men as dates. They would speak of each
other with a distant self-consciousness that meant they were not in
love. A knowing smirk. This was all so much pretending, for them.
Sometimes, when I look, I can see this city drowning in all its
sophistication. An impressario recently reopened a classic nightclub
from the 1940s, El Morocco, as a “tasteful” topless bar - the new
wave, the papers say, for clubs in the 1990s.
He replicated everything the postwar crowds had taken for high
class, down to the famous zebra-striping on the walls, but I
couldn't imagine any New Yorker taking it seriously today. Somehow
we have all aged, young and old. Young girls could not swoon anymore
as Frank Sinatra sings Witchcraft. The crowds at the Macy's
Christmas window could not easily see past its commercialism. Frank
Capra could not bring Mr. Deeds to this town, nor could William
Powell make a speech for the Forgotten Man - perhaps Cary Grant
couldn't even feel at ease in the Oak Room - because the belief has
There are certain experiences we can only have if we believe in
them, if we are not so distracted by the impurities as to lose
confidence in the gold, and now I see things so clearly I can hardly
see elegance at all.
Once I was much less hard to please. I did not even have to go to
the Plaza to find elegance; my definition was as broad as the ocean.
When I was nine years old, my father and I drove from Los Angeles to
Monterey, California, for a quick vacation. He showed me Cannery
Row, but I had not read Steinbeck and couldn't see the beauty in an
old dump. We went to a Clint Eastwood festival at a drive-in. But
most important to me, we stayed one night at the Cypress Gardens
Motel. I had insisted on it, once I saw the listing in our auto-club
tour book. The name sounded famous, and a “Continental breakfast”
came with the room. I did not want to pass up the chance to stay in
such an elegant place.
In the event, our room was carpeted in fire-engine red plush,
with candy-striped wallpaper and lamps made from plaster nudes; the
breakfast was two packets of instant coffee and a stale roll; and
when I walked into the gardens, all the little stone pathways led to
the same granite square in the grass, which read, “Here lies Butch,
beloved dog.” My father squirmed, much as I would today. But what
did I know then? The world was new. I drank it in; I was happy. If
the place was tasteless and tacky, I gave it elegance with the power
of my belief.
In those days, I also believed in the basic goodness of other
people's hearts, because I saw the basic goodness in my own. I
believed that friendships lasted forever; that no problem was beyond
a solution; and that the world was my oyster, ready to give me as
much happiness as I was willing to reach for. I treated other people
with all the optimism my naivete gave me, and the way they treated
me in response just confirmed what I knew. I do not believe in a lot
of those things anymore, though I can't give you a precise reason
why. They have just grown harder to satisfy, like my idea of
elegance has, as the world has grown old.
Jennifer and I haven't made plans for this New Year's Eve. We
will do something on the spur. Maybe go to Times Square, if the
crowds aren't too daunting, or to a jazz club down in Greenwich. I
find it hard to pin down what would be the ultimate New York thing
to do, anymore... and I half-wish that Thomas were here, because I'm
sure he would know.