Dept. of Word Lists

Manhattan Magic

These memories of Manhattan in the summer of 1956 employ a number of words that appear in my book "More Words That Make a Difference," with illustrative sentences from the Atlantic Monthly.

The centered sections entirely in blue are complete word entries from "More Words That Make a Difference" and are intended to better familiarize readers with the blue words in the Manhattan story. The definitions in those blue sections fit the words in the Manhattan story, as well.

Emerging from the building at 9:30 that Friday night in July more than fifty years ago and into the brightly lit darkness of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, it took only a few seconds for Joel and me to hail a cab for the ride downtown.

"Thirty-third and Eighth," Joel said, with New York succinctness.

We were on our way with cartons of mail to New York City's main post office, the only one in the city that never closed. It had been another exciting late night at work — exciting at least for me, as a 16-year-old office boy with what I considered an almost-glamorous summer job in the mail room of a Rockefeller Center marketing firm.

Cars and taxis streamed steadily down Fifth Avenue on both sides of us, horse-drawn carriages sauntered near the curb, carrying tourists and lovers, and summer crowds strolled along the sidewalks, talking, window-shopping, and heading toward the subways and buses that would take them home after work. In the midst of all this, in my taxi, I too was a part of the rhythm of Manhattan. And I was enamored with the city. Passing Forty-second Street, I looked a block east for the art deco steel-spired Chrysler building, and as we approached Thirty-fourth, I looked up at the Empire State Building. I loved New York's tall buildings, and never tired of looking at them, but none compared with those in Rockefeller Center, where I felt fortunate to be working every day.

enamored e NA muhrd    
captivated; in love with
Betterton was the son of a cook in the service of Charles I. He went on the stage in 1659, when he was twenty-four years old and first played Hamlet two years after his debut. His Ophelia was the charming Mistress Sanderson, of whom he was known to be enamored, and the town was as much interested in the real as the mimic lovers. They were married shortly after, and the young Hamlet found in his Ophelia a sweet and devoted wife. She is said to have been the first woman who appeared on the public stage. —Abby Sage, June 1869 

I was at home among Manhattan's skyscrapers. But an American journalist who had spent years in Paris perceived them differently upon his return to New York more than a hundred years ago.

disconcerting dis kuhn SERT ing
disturbing the composure or calm of
New York's disconcerting sky-scrapers are vastly picturesque, and even grandiose in certain lights. On winter afternoons, when the dusk comes early, their myriad lamps afford a spectacle which outclasses in brilliancy the grandest electric displays of the greatest world's fairs. Athwart the moonlit or starlit sky, their soaring masses stand forth black and ominous, like the donjon keeps of colossal castles; and, under these conditions, the lower end of Manhattan, where they most abound, might pass for the Mont St. Michel of the New World. —Alvan F. Sanborn, October 1906

Disconcerting? Ominous? As alien a pair of words as I can think of to describe Manhattan's skyscrapers. And consider, the tallest skyscrapers in Sanborn's New York were ten stories high! My New York's steel and concrete skyscrapers have always enveloped me in warmth, making me feel when I'm among them that I am, indeed, home.

Incidentally, the term skyscraper originated in the 18th century as the topmost sail on a ship. In the 19th century it was also a tall horse, a very tall man, a high hat, a high fly ball in baseball, or a tall story.

Joel, Walter and I, the mailroom guys, were the only people still in the offices of Crossley S-D Surveys, at 7 p.m. that evening, working late to get the mailings out. Crossley was a famous public opinion research firm founded in the 1920's whose surveyers went door-to-door interviewing apartment dwellers and home owners about any subject Crossley was hired to get the public's opinion on. Most of my workday I photocopied and collated questionnaires and other survey materials, filled envelopes with them, and put metered postage on the envelopes to mail to thousands of surveyers around the country. Usually, the mail was picked up at the office by a postal worker, but at least once a week we'd stay hours late to finish a rush job after everyone else had gone home, then take it to the post office. For Joel, a college student, it was also a summer job. Walter, a man in his forties, worked the mailroom full-time.

When we worked late, we'd order dinner from a local luncheonette, dine at the company's mahogany conference table, then work for another few hours. I always ordered the same thing — a BLT and a thick chocolate shake, one of the world's great combinations. The two marry so well.

marry MA ree
to join closely; unite
Pork is my default  meat — the one I use when I can't think of anything else to buy, the one that can marry with any number of sauces, and the one that can be cooked in the time it takes to wash the utensils used to prepare the rest of the meal. —Corby Kummer, December 1988

When the stacks of mail were ready, we locked up the office, Walter walked home to his apartment near Times Square, and Joel and I stepped outside the DePinna Building onto Fifth Avenue to get a cab to the post office.

My route to getting my job at Crossley S-D Surveys was about as serendipitous as a summer job can be, but it was also on the order of a self-presented consolation prize. As my junior year of high school had neared its close in June of 1956, I went to the NBC studios in the RCA Building  — known to TV fans today as 30 Rock — to seek a summer job as an NBC page, one of the young men and women who lead visitors' tours of NBC studios, serve as ushers for live television audiences, and otherwise serve NBC's public relations department. I wanted to be a television writer and performer, like my idols Steve Allen and Sid Caesar, and being an NBC page was as exciting and as close to the action as a summer job could be for someone with that goal. Steve Allen himself had been an NBC page.

My aspiration to be an NBC page came not from watching television, but from visits to NBC studios on Saturdays during my junior year in high school where I saw lots of pages on the job. Wearing a jacket and tie, and with a New York Times tucked under my arm, I would nonchalantly walk through the relaxed security at the NBC elevators in the RCA building, take one to the third  floor, and walk through the halls mesmerized, dropping in on rehearsals of shows which, in those days, were performed live on television.

As a callow kid, unaware that I should have called first, I showed up at the public relations office expecting an interview without an appointment. Fortunately, though, Alexander McChesney, NBC's public relations director, was there. He was cordial, but broke the news to me that NBC pages were either college students or college graduates, and that far from being just a job, NBC's page program groomed young people for careers as writers, performers and producers, as it does today. He invited me to speak to him again when I was in college.

callow KA loh
young and inexperienced; immature
I was a callow seventeen-year-old when I first walked into a newspaper city room. I knew almost instantly that I had found my calling, if the calling would have me. There was nothing quite like the amiable, disheveled intensity of a newspaper city room, the kind that existed in many American cities until the efficiency engineers, the interior decorators, and the computers forced themselves into the trade and provided working quarters that could pass for the home offices of an insurance company or a conglomerate devoted to fast foods and corrugated containers. —Robert Manning, December 1976

Determined to work that summer in Rockefeller Center, even if it wasn't for NBC, I went to the 60th floor of the RCA Building (now the GE Building), the highest floor with offices, and began knocking on doors, working my way down, floor by floor, via the service stairs, inquiring about a summer job opening. And I found one on the forty-ninth floor. After a doorway inquiry at a marketing firm, Stewart Dougall, I was led to the desk of a woman named Joan.

After mutual introductions she asked my age.

 "I'll be 17," I said. It was six months away.

She smiled, "That means you're 16."


I got the job, but not in my favorite New York building. Joan wrote a note for me to bring to Stewart Dougall's associate company, Crossley S-D Surveys, on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. Not quite in Rockefeller Center, but just up the block, on one of the floors above DePinna, a stylish men's and women's clothing store. And that's where Joel and I were grabbing a cab that night.

Except for the pickups and deliveries I made to advertising agencies that summer, whose reception and designing rooms and executive offices are depicted so precisely in the television show Mad Men, there was little variation in my quotidian mailroom chores. Anyone looking in might have wondered how I could be happy there. But I was, and I think it was because I was working with a couple of nice guys; I was doing meaningful work, took pride in it  and was depended on (although I don't think I thought about any of that at the time); I was learning and practicing new skills; I respected the company; and I was always aware of where I was working, in Manhattan, in Rockefeller Center.

There was something else, though. It was me. Life was enjoyable.

quotidian         kwoh TI dee uhn
undertaken or experienced daily; everyday  
As our Supreme Court justices have become remote from the real world, they've also become more reluctant to do real work — especially the sort of quotidian chores done by prior justices to ensure the smooth functioning of the judicial system. The Court's overall productivity — as measured by the number of full, signed decisions — has fallen by almost half since 1985. Clerks draft almost all the opinions and perform almost all the screening that leads to the dismissal without comment of 99 percent of all petitions for review. Many of the cases dismissed are the sort that could be used to wring clear perversities and inefficiencies out of our litigation system — especially out of commercial and personal-injury litigation. —Stuart Taylor Jr., September 2005

I took the subway to and from work, and read a lot of Steinbeck, whom I adored. Most of my schoolmates had read read The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Grapes of Wrath, but that summer I reveled in his lesser known books, To a God Unknown, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, Sweet Thursday, The Long Valley, The Pastures of Heaven. At the very moments I was enjoying my office work and my lunch hour, I was anticipating my train ride home when I'd immerse myself in Steinbeck's characters and California settings.

revel RE vuhl
to enjoy oneself greatly; take intense pleasure
Mrs. Coolidge likes, revels in, the social world, which her husband detests and avoids. He hates to talk — she loves it; and when she utters the superfluous she gives it a grace and charm which makes it seem more indispensable than the necessary, as indeed no doubt it is. —Gamaliel Bradford, January 1930

Joel and Walter always brought their lunch with them, but I preferred going out each day in this magical neighborhood, which meant I always ate lunch alone. From that lemon, though, I made lemonade, spending the hour trying different restaurants, visiting curio shops and second-hand bookstores, and just walking the neverendingly fascinating streets. Chinese food was my lunch of choice but I tried and liked Philippine, Mexican, Indian and Japanese food, too, at a time when the entire city had only a few of each of them. At the Doubleday book shop, I'd shut myself into a soundproof booth and sample long-playing classical records. They're almost all gone now, the little shops, the little restaurants, replaced since the 60's by huge impersonal monoliths, most without street-level stores, on blocks dull to walk on without human companionship. The nine-story DePinna building where I worked was itself demolished in the early 70's and replaced by a 36-floor dispassionate block of stone and steel.

It was the year of "Love Me Tender," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Blue Velvet,"  "Please Send Me Someone to Love," No, Not Much," and "On the Street Where You Live," romance-craving songs all of them. But the song I was listening to had no words. I often lay in bed in the dark listening to Morris Stoloff's "Moonglow and Theme from Picnic," the most romantic piece of popular music I had ever heard. There was a phantom girl in my head as I listened, and the song put her in my arms. William Holden and Kim Novak danced to it in the movie Picnic, but I had never seen it. The image I conjured up was of my imagination alone, and that summer, as I danced under the stars in a Brooklyn backyard, it came to life. Sort of.

On the night of the last day of school, my Madison High fraternity friends and I attended an end-of-school party with girls from another high school's sorority. The weekend had started off blissfully when I received my report card and saw that I had passed Spanish, the one subject I feared I might fail. I was euphoric.

euphoria yoo: FAW ree uh
a feeling of well-being or high spirits ("euphoric" is the adjective)
Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House. Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, observing from the convention floor, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw." —Joshua Wolf Shenk, October 2005

And that night, holding a girl in my arms and dancing with her under those stars in Letty Shapiro's backyard, elated and exuberant over my Spanish grade, effervescent with the optimism of a carefree summer ahead and an end to Spanish classes ever, I impulsively, and without a moment's vacillation, leaned in to kiss her, a girl I'd met five minutes before. And she leaned slightly back, and said, while still dancing, "I'm sorry, I don't think I know you well enough."

She said it quite pleasantly, actually, not seeming at all offended. Later, we walked around the block and talked, but at the end of the evening, I didn't attempt to kiss her goodnight and she didn't offer the opportunity. And that was that.

The next day in the office, I told Joel — a more experienced guy, being in college — what the girl had said when I tried to kiss her, and asked, "What would you have said to her when she said that?"

And Joel replied, "I would have said, 'I don't know you well enough either, but I'm not complaining.'"

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Department of Word Lists.

Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday January 25th 2010, 11:27 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sweet memories! "Moonglow" and "The Theme from Picnic"--songs to wake romance in the adolescent soul!!
Monday January 25th 2010, 1:58 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Newly discovered, I'm a big fan already. The blue word interpolations is an original idea that works for me. Let's do this again! - TheErn
Monday January 25th 2010, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Katja L. (San Diego, CA)
Well, this dates me. I love the interpolations, but all the words are perfectly familiar. So not only do I know the "old", I don't even know that it is "old"!
Monday January 25th 2010, 3:00 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
I really like this. I was sixteen at about the same time but I was truly a callow farm kid in a back corner of Maryland and longed to go to California, which I did do - and was lost as a stranger in a strange land. My southern accent, bad clothing, lack of social skills kept me in a fog. I did not have the lust for the environment Bob Greenman sought, but I did have books. I always read everything from the age of five. I loved words even though I would not learn correct pronunciation for years yet to come.
Now I do have those same desires but must accept many adventures mostly vicariously. I hear the same music and laugh at the memories of my naivete and my romantic notions. The blue word format is delightful.
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 11:08 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.