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Three Sundowns A Day

The following excerpts are from an article originally written for the Reporter magazine in the 1960's by Fritz Littlejohn, who has lived in the same Turtle Bay apartment since 1945. Mr. Littlejohn has had a long career in newspapers and radio as well as television.

The first sign appeared in the northern sky, no bigger than a 21-story apartment house - which is what it turned out to be. It seemed innocent enough at the time, smooth as alabaster, white as a mosque in Araby. A latticed superstructure, viewed from two blocks away, seemed faintly middle eastern - after the second martini, positively Moorish. But that was four years ago.

I live in what once seemed a reasonably safe fifth-floor apartment in a fashionably sordid sector of the East Side of Manhattan, not far from where Georgia O'Keefe must have lived when she painted her Sunspots on the Shelton. The apartment never had a real view of the East River. If you leaned out far enough over the rusty fire escape you could get a glimpse of the sun glinting on the oil-covered surface, a narrow slither of undulation wide enough to accommodate a tugboat. The Waldorf and its Towers, full of kings and travelling salesmen, dominated the western horizon, but they were far enough away not to bother. To the east lay River House, tenanted by quiet types so rich they didn't care whether they were celebrities. It is true in summer a 26th-floor bar gave tourists a clear view into the privacy of our tar paper beach, a sweltering weekend retreat on the roof. But otherwise the sky was open and clear all around before the building boom came to the one-time land of the Dead End Kids. From the back windows of the floor-through flat, you could discern the North Star, one so-far unwavering symbol of stability in a changing world.

The main celestial show - day or night - was off to the south. On chilly spring days, the sun came slanting in at just the proper 50-degree angle to provide a sheltered sunbath away from the cool river breeze and public observation. But night-time was the time for flamboyant spectacle in the southern skies: a new act every three hours and a complete change of bill every three months - bright Arcturus arching high over the Con Edison stacks; mighty Hercules astride the river with one foot in Brooklyn, the other in Wall Street; Pegasus, Pisces and Perseus in illogical parade. On certain late afternoons in the mauve background over New Jersey one could see Venus, alone and palely loitering by Chrysler's slender spire. Or lie abed late of a winter's night and watch Orion steal down the far slope of the Empire State Building.

Beneath the windows, boys played stick-ball in the traffic. Across the way, ancient women lined their window sills with bed pillows to make their daylong leaning comfortable. Old boys in caps bowled in the abandoned slaughter pens the game of boccie, just as you have seen in the countryside in southern Italy or under the trees of the Champ de Mars. Family washing fluttered from retractable clothes lines on a display universal and colorful - now supplanted by the Avenue of Flags on U. N. Plaza. Twice each week the aged vegetable dealer parked his creaky horse-drawn wagon near the corner and dispensed greeneries at half what they cost in stores. It was that kind of neighborhood - some wealthy, some not so wealthy. In the course of a few days you would see Garbo and hat, Paul Whiteman wheeling out one of his sports cars, Madeleine Carroll shopping in the corner drug, the Duke of Windsor taking a miniature dog for a late-night stroll. Notables were treated with impressive respect for their privacy in this tight little community. In 20 years I never saw one approached by an autograph seeker.

With the coming of the United Nations, sirens of police escorts would wail through our street. The landlady's baritone would echo in the air shafts: "Who is it, Marge?" "It's the President!" "So?" They would lean on the sills gazing down for hours on end, but would not shuffle across a 12-foot room to see a celebrity. Only on Saturday nights was the serenity suspended. Then the back gardens resounded with crisis, denunciations and imprecations to satisfy Genet and shame Albee. Directly across the street, the brownstone mansions had long since been converted to apartments, walk-ups occupied by indigenous families and newly-arrived career girls. In summer the entire range of domesticity was displayed in casual disregard for undraped windows. Now all that is gone and there is only tiered monotony - buildings not even looking out on the world from their shielded eyes, other blind walls looking back.

At the height of the architectural incursion, one could count from the rooftop 16 separate steel or aluminum screens climbing into the heavens. Suddenly a 40-story pile blotted out the beautifully balanced curve and line of the United Nations complex. A cluster of five towers - standard 16 and 21 stories - in two adjoining blocks cut off the view to the west and the bright lights of midtown. The white mosque to the north disappeared behind a red brick and glass creation a stone's throw distant. And across the street two antiseptic structures, with canopies and gold-buttoned doormen, supplanted the brownstones, and now permit only two narrow ribands of light.

No more Sunspots on the Shelton, not from here. The view is obstructed. No more sunbathing in bed. No more panoramic views of life in little houses across the way. One can still win a dollar now and then betting that Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn was farther west than the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, but a map is required to prove it and it was more fun guiding on Polaris. To the south, the slow majestic cartwheel of the universe once beckoned the spirit to far and unknown places. Now the stars dart quickly across the narrow strips of sky and the viewer feels as one does on first looking through a telescope, feels the small planet beneath his feet and hears the tick of time. As the tall towers rise on every side, the man on the fifth floor knows that without moving he has somehow lost elevation. It is small consolation for a lover of twilight's soft refractions that, under the circumstances, sundown comes three times a day - the last, alas, in this winter season at about 2:20 p.m.

Addendum: With the arrival of the new millennium the third sundown now occurs shortly after noon! - F. L.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

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