Searching New York for Matthew and Bernie

cheersThe following article was originally written by Lawrence Block for his Chinese publisher, but it will be of interest to anyone who has ever wondered about the locations mentioned in Block’s books in New York City.

I remember the time some fifteen years ago when I walked into Jimmy  Armstrong’s saloon.  Jimmy  himself  was at the bar, and he told me about a recent visit by a group of visitors from Japan.  It seems they had come to see the place they’d read about in my Matthew Scudder novels, and they spent an hour there, taking pictures of the bar, taking pictures of Jimmy, and taking pictures of each other in the bar and in poses with Jimmy.

“It was fun,” he said. “They were excited to find out that this was a real place.”

I was reminded of this on my recent visit to Beijing, when I met some Chinese fans who are members of a virtual club called Armstrong’s Bar that has meetings online.  It was my sad duty to tell them that the real Armstrong’s Bar no longer existed, and that its owner, my old friend Jimmy  Armstrong, had died in 2002.  (A nephew of Jimmy’s took it over and ran it for a couple of months, but then he sold it to somebody else, and the name was changed, and that was the end of that.)

I know that those Japanese readers who dropped in on Jimmy are not the only tourists who have combined a visit to New York with a search for traces of Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr in the city they call home.  This can be difficult, because some of their locations are hard to find for several reasons.

Some of the places mentioned never existed.  The books are works of fiction, and some of the locations are fictional as well.  A favorite restaurant of Matthew and his wife, Elaine, is one called Paris Green.  Fans sometimes look for it, and I can understand why; I’d eat there myself if I could!  But no such place ever existed in reality.

The same is true for many of the places where Bernie Rhodenbarr hangs out.  His bookstore, Barnegat Books, is fictional, and so is his pal Carolyn’s dog grooming salon, The Poodle Factory.  The two often eat lunch from a neighborhood restaurant that keeps changing its name as different nationalities run it:  Two Guys From Addis Ababa, Two Guys From Bucharest, Two Guys From Phnom Penh, etc.  It sounds like a fine establishment, but don’t look for it.  Or for the Bum Rap, the saloon on Broadway where the two friends meet after work for a drink.  It’s fictional as well.

Another thing to bear in mind is that I’ve been writing about Matthew and Bernie since the mid-1970s.  As a result, there are many establishments that were real when I mentioned them but that have since gone out of business.  That’s true of Armstrong’s, as I mentioned, but it’s also just as true of Polly’s Cage, McGovern’s, Antares & Spiro’s, and most of the placers where Matthew used to drink bourbon.  (Maybe they went out of business because he stopped  drinking!)

Bernie lives at 235 West End Avenue, and you can look at the building and enjoy a walk through the neighborhood.  Carolyn lives in Arbor Court, and there’s no street to be found with that name, but there are several private streets in that part of the city (Greenwich Village) that fit the description of Arbor Court.  You could have a look at Patchin Place or Milligan Place—or Grove Court, which comes closest to the street in the books.

Matthew and Elaine live at the Parc Vendome, on the southeast corner of West Fifty-seventh Street and Ninth Avenue.  It’s a real building, and a very fine one.  The hotel where Matthew lived for many years, the Northwestern, is directly across the street from the Parc Vendome; it never existed under that name, but there was a hotel there called the Henry Hudson which was very much like the Northwestern.  (A few years ago, it changed its name to The Hudson, and became a boutique hotel, very chic and trendy and expensive.  In the books, it’s still the Northwestern, and Matthew’s young friend TJ now lives in Matthew’s old room.)

The church where Matthew used to light candles, and now attends AA meetings, is St. Paul the Apostle, on Ninth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street.  It’s very real, and worth a visit; for a dollar or two, you can light a candle yourself.

There are two coffee shops Matthew mentions often—the Flame, where his AA friends go after meetings, and the Morning Star, where he and TJ often have breakfast.  They are real, and just a block apart, the Flame at Ninth and Fifty-eighth, the Morning Star one block to the south.  Both have extensive menus, so you’ll be sure to find something you like.

Matthew has spent many hours with his friend Mick Ballou, most of them in Mick’s saloon, Grogan’s Open House.  It’s located in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, on Fiftieth Street and Tenth Avenue, but don’t waste your time looking for it.  Although it may be very real in the books, it doesn’t have any counterpart in the real world.

On the other hand, the church where Mick would occasionally attend mass did exist, and so did the Butchers’ Mass as described in the books.  (Mick would show up wearing his father’s bloodstained butcher’s apron.)  The church was St. Bernard’s, but the neighborhood’s Irish population has declined, and the meat markets have mostly closed, and the church in recent years has become Hispanic, and is now called Our Lady of Guadalupe.

New York is a beautiful and exciting city, and I hope many of my Chinese readers will be able to come pay it a visit.  Overseas visitors often find New York surprisingly familiar, because they’ve already become acquainted with so many of its locations through film and television.  I hope some of you may find, as you walk through its streets and explores its parks and museums, that your own prior acquaintance with Matthew and Elaine and Bernie and Carolyn will enrich the experience for you.

Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, has won multiple Edgar and Shamus awards and countless international prizes. The author of more than 50 books, he lives in New York City. Learn more

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