Exit Music


It is very cold the night S and I go to the Carlyle Hotel to see Woody Allen play his clarinet with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. Allen is a pretty successful hobbyist. The band’s Monday night engagements at the hotel’s Cafe Carlyle are often billed as a “residency.” Reservations are difficult, but not impossible, to get.

There’s a small group outside the hotel’s 76th Street entrance, fans with inside information, but they’re in their twenties, so I doubt they’re here for Allen, more legend than celebrity, a senior citizen to boot. A doorman yells at a chauffeur whose limousine is idling. Various prosperous-looking people come and go. S arrives. Like the kids outside, we’re really just here to see a celebrity. We go inside.

The lobby is quiet, and we’re unsure where to go. The attendant leaves his desk, leads us down the hall and around a corner, walks us to the bar. It’s hard to say whether this special attention is because we look important (there’s a dress code here) or whether it’s simply how things are done at the Carlyle. It could also be S, who always commands special attention—a consequence of her beauty, yes, but also some harder-to-define charisma that comes to her naturally. When we worked together at Condé Nast, the only people I ever saw the comically vigilant security guards allow into the building without scanning their ID cards were Anna Wintour, Mr. and Mrs. Newhouse, and S.


S and I met in 2000. We were assistants at a then-fledgling, now-foundering magazine. It was long enough ago that the girls in the fashion department used Polaroid cameras, I often had to send faxes, and my rich friends from college were afraid to visit me in Fort Greene. S and I went together to fetch lunch or coffee for my boss, and together we trekked up to the seventeenth floor, which required changing elevators, to visit the accounting department. We’d hand in receipts, and be given cash, which we put into envelopes and distributed to our bosses.

She was glamorous. She dated a model whose body was so flawless it was used on the packaging of expensive underwear. S could and did wear the most unlikely combination of clothes and somehow look just right. Once, we were waiting for the elevator and Andre Leon Talley peered down at her over his sunglasses and said: “Adorable.”


The cafe is very small. We are given a tiny table behind a banquette and in front of the bar. S sits facing the stage, I sit facing a column, on which a mirror is hung, so it’s like I’m at dinner with myself. The maitre d’ greets us as though we were regulars, takes our drink orders as we sit. All this gentility isn’t a modern stab at old-fashioned-ness. The servers are old, the customers are old, the room is old, the sensibility is old, and it seems genuine. There are a lot of tourists, but it’s not a tourist attraction. It’s not a historical reenactment, it’s the last traces of something.

We order salads and pick at bread and talk not about how S is leaving New York and moving away but about when we were kids together, kids who would have been amused and relieved to know that we grew up to be people who spend $145 to get bombed and complain about our husbands while listening to a legendary director play the clarinet.

Woody_Allen_in_Warsaw_Dec28_2008_Fot_Mariusz_Kubik_03I order what turns out to be a pile of chicken and potatoes slathered in cream, an old-fashioned dish, the kind of thing you can imagine Mary McCarthy stubbing a cigarette out in. I drink vodka after vodka, and while the dinner dishes are being cleared, the band appears on the stage with no fanfare and begins to play. Woody Allen looks precisely as we expect him to look. He’s wearing a comfortably rumpled looking sweater and stares off into the middle distance, avoiding eye contact.

“I don’t even like jazz,” S says.

“Neither do I,” I say.


Of course, of course, when I moved here, I expected the New York of Woody Allen films. Gracious, cavernous apartments, fevered and hilarious conversations over dinner. I’d know intense, moody women like Judy Davis and men who had houses in the country and produced plays. I knew this to be a myth, but it was a myth I believed in.

I lived with a roommate in a nice enough apartment in Brooklyn. S lived in a studio in Soho that she shared with a couple. I made just enough money to pay my rent and my bills. S made more, because she earned overtime and routinely worked twelve-hour days. My boyfriend was far off, in college; hers was in Japan or Italy, being beautiful. I was very, very lonely, and she was my first real friend in this city. She was so cool that for a time, I couldn’t believe that she wanted to be my friend. It took some time to realize that though she was the kind of girl everyone loved, she was not a girl who in return loved everyone. We met because of stupid fate—I only had my job because I’d once met an important person at a party. But she chose me, and I chose her.


I don’t know anything about jazz. The music the band plays is sweet, irreverent, a little silly. It’s clear that few in the audience are aficionados; they’ve come to see Woody Allen and have a certain kind of quintessential New York night. Many of them are Italian, and I think in Barbara Kopple’s documentary about Allen and the band, there’s an assertion that Allen is celebrated as a musician in Italy. But it’s more likely the case that the cover charge is a pittance when converted into euro.

When the band is deep within a song, the room feels happy; it is, for a moment, like the closing titles of a Woody Allen movie, that signature Windsor font over a plain black screen, a sense of promise, but also conclusion. This is the experience we’ve come for tonight, S and I. She’s leaving New York, so let this be the last scene, let Woody Allen play her out, joyfully.


In the rarified world of Condé Nast, S and I were in the minority. We shared a plebeian parentage and dark skin. Perhaps that’s part of why we bonded. We marveled at our bosses’ wealth, the ease with which they did everything. When a girl in our office was given a car for her birthday (it occurs to me know that I don’t know if it was a gift from her husband or her parents) we talked about it for months. Indeed, we talk about it to this day.

I spent my days planning my boss’s wedding, and S spent her days packing clothing into garment bags and ferrying racks to the messenger center. Weekends, we’d walk around aimlessly, too broke to do anything else. If not for our corporate parent paying her cell phone bills and occasionally providing me cigarettes via my boss’s expense account, I don’t know how we would have survived. We thought it would always be that way, but then we got older.


Woody_Allen_(2006)_2One of the joys of being with an old friend is that you can skip the details. We know one another’s stories—so S can complain about her husband and I can bitch about my kids without a lot of caveats. We converse in fragments, in the moments the band has gone quiet, yet still understand one another.

We order dessert, because we’re celebrating, and talk less because we’re listening to the music and because there’s nothing to say. I order another drink and S starts to cry, but then she’s always been quick to cry, at an upset or a kindness, from sorrow or from joy. I know her well, but I can’t quite tell which is the reason now. We hold hands and get drunker.

When the bill arrives, it’s an astonishing amount, but we relish it, enjoy that we’ve come far enough in life to spend on one meal what we once spent on a month’s rent. It’s a vindication, somehow. S pays, and I don’t argue, because I know the pleasure of being able to is worth more to her than the money. With friends, you don’t keep a tally.

It is even colder outside. We are drunk. The nearest subway station is closed. The streets uptown are silent. We take a taxi that weaves insanely down the FDR. The view is, of course, pure Woody Allen. I drop S in DUMBO, and when she gets out of the cab, the magical evening ends. I go home, tiptoe as not to wake the baby.


I work at home. I don’t see many people, and when I do, I find them hard to talk to. Maybe it’s true, as some say, that the institutions that shape American life don’t foster bonds between adults. Maybe I am shy.

By some quirk or coincidence, most of the people I knew as a young man, those drawn here as I was by some vision of the New York life, whether it was Woody Allen’s or Jerry Seinfeld’s or Monica and Rachel’s or Allen Ginsberg’s, have moved on. It’s warmer in California; your dollar goes further in Chicago. There’s the lure of tenure, or family, or other realities more compelling than whatever fantasy we were first pursuing. E is gone, D is gone, K is gone, J is gone, and only the greedy would ask for more than these few good friends.

S leaves New York a few weeks after we see Woody Allen and his jazz band make their joyful noises on the Upper East Side. The last time I see her is at my house. It’s terribly hot, my husband grills hamburgers, and the baby, who has met her before but probably doesn’t remember, grins at her like a maniac, half in love. She won’t let me say goodbye, so we don’t.


Image credits: first, second, third.

Rumaan Alam is the author of the novel Rich and Pretty. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, and elsewhere. His novel That Kind of Mother will be published in 2018. More from this author →