Manhattan, When I Was Young

manhattan-when-i-was-young    Mary Cantwell’s memoir, about her first New York adventure (though I’m not sure if I could truly call it an adventure) turned up in the book bin of my building’s laundry room. The author, a Radcliff graduate, goes to 1950’s New York for the “career girl” experience of the time, and ends up, via an employment agency, at the magazine Mademoiselle. She admits to having absolutely none of the skills necessary for magazine work, as her college education taught her nothing about layout, paste-up, typesetting, journalism, or even what a secretary would need. Perhaps things haven’t really changed in the last 50 years? Only difference I see is that nowadays she’d be doing it as an unpaid internship. At least her generation got paid.

Since this was the 1950’s, she got paid less than the men, but that couldn’t have been a problem, because she admits to doing almost nothing in her spare time. She says she never went to art galleries, never explored the city, and never enjoyed any of the free things in the neighborhood because she simply didn’t know about it. I could tell early on that this would not be an interesting story. The only thing funny here is where she finds (the formerly crowded and bustling Midtown Manhattan) desolate after 10pm. The book is divided into apartments (one per chapter) and from what I read here, Cantwell’s generation wasn’t into creative décor. She prided herself on having furniture and doodads that looked almost exactly like something you’d buy in Macy’s. Today’s college grads, skilled in the art of dumpster-diving for new furniture, are lucky if they can afford folding chairs from Kmart.

I gave up at page 77, because the story is too repetitive. I can understand that life in her time wasn’t so much fun. College grads back then, especially women, didn’t go on crazy adventures the minute college ended, probably because the jobs were a bit more plentiful and their skills were better. They didn’t need the free room and board arrangement to pay back their student loans, like today’s grads with huge debt and zero skills. As for the women, there weren’t a lot of white collar jobs for them in those days, save for teacher, nurse, or secretary. But still, did she do nothing at all that would pique the reader’s interest? Okay, maybe she did nothing, but then why write a book about it?

What I can’t figure out are the reviews like the Boston Globe’s praise of the “storytelling.” Same thing with New York Magazine, I don’t know what they saw in it. This book had one paperback printing in 1995, and that was it, gone and forgotten. Maybe that is why we should take Andy Warhol’s advice and never listen to the critic? Despite having a column of their own, the critics can’t make me buy the book.



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