Villager Expat

Missing Greenwich Village. Looking for that dream apartment with a garden--or a view of one.

My romp through Tin Pan Alley

Everyone comes to New York with a dream. Armed with a copy of The Songwriters' Success Manual, I set out for the city in 1976 to sell my songs. I knocked on doors of music publishers whose addresses I found in the phone book, about fifty in the city at that time. I made the rounds with my reel-to-reel tapes and lead sheets and got listening appointments with RCA, United Artists, ATV and others. I came close--they listened to all three songs on my tapes--but the wide-ranging feedback was confusing ("it needs a stronger hook," "you're better at writing music," "you're better with lyrics"). What was I doing wrong? I stopped by ASCAP for advice and was told "You can't make a living writing songs. Go to college." I thought about it, told my parents, and after a year they made me go back to college.

The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

--F Scott Fitzgerald

College courses in classical music didn't make me a better songwriter, but I never stopped asking myself, How did music publishers pick their songs? Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin got their start as song pluggers with Tin Pan Alley publishers on 28th Street, the racket of piano-playing earning the street its name. I read somewhere they traveled along the rooftops and fire escapes of the Tin Pan Alley buildings to get from publisher to publisher. The music business in 1976 was very different--most performers wrote their own songs--but there was still a demand for hit singles for solo singers and jazz artists and "professional managers" hustled them. I saw a place for myself with music companies and sought out a job as a part-time floater at Warner Communications to make connections. What a place! College was stuffy, but at Warner I met music lovers who shared my passion for pop music and concerts.

Irving Berlin, "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
One summer I worked at Warner Bros. music publishing and saw how sheet music and songbooks were produced. I learned all my repertoire from sheet music and had been buying it for years at Schirmer's and CT and NJ music stores. So I loved seeing where it all came from. Staff arrangers transcribed bestselling records and voiced them for piano/vocal sheets and songbooks and school bands. I admired they could take it from tapes and notate it with ease. I knew I would never reach that level of musicianship, but they were happy to talk about the music they liked: big bands, jazz and their own projects. They expanded my horizons, but I didn't get to see how new songwriters were signed. The professional department, where it happened, was a small office on a separate floor with a very small studio for demos. Frankly, I don't think it was all that active. Warner Music was a big company. They acquired "catalogs" and publishing rights to songs and albums already climbing the charts.

How were new songs discovered? What did talent scouts listen for when they picked new songs? I had to get into a record company's A&R department, and if I couldn't get inside as a part-timer at Warner I would have to get there when I graduated. Those jobs were hard to get. More about my experiences in Part 2 next week.

You may have heard that Tin Pan Alley is under threat of demolition. If you appreciate this special time and place in New York, here's a link to the Historic District Council's video about their efforts to save the remaining buildings on 28th Street. I hope you'll be moved to add your voice to the growing number of supporters. 

Ladies who lunch: remembering my mother on Mother's Day

Are you a lady who enjoys the ritual of lunching out?

I am! When I was around five my mother invited me out for our first lunch together, a special trip to Kaufmann's department store in Monroeville, PA. It was a Saturday, and we spent all morning getting ready while Dad looked after my younger brother. She gave me a bath, toweled me dry in the cold spring air, then dressed me in my birthday party dress and patent leather shoes and socks. She wore a dress and put on the perfume she always wore when going out to dinner with Dad.

Until then I'd only been to Howard Johnson's rest stops on the Pennsylvania turnpike with my family on our daylong drives to see all the grandparents and my mother's many aunts and uncles in New Jersey. But at Kaufmann's, it was a special treat to go out to lunch with my mother in a big dining room with tablecloths and heavy silverware. I ordered my first waffle and had it every time we went back. We didn't have waffles at home. I practiced the table manners my father had drilled into me at home, careful not to talk with food in my mouth despite my excitement. In those days, I ate slowly and neatly. This was before I was a working girl in the city on a lunch hour. I really should remind myself to slow down when I eat now.

New York Exchange for Women's Work restaurant
Growing up in Connecticut, we used to go to the city for Wednesday matinees and lunch at Sardi's. I wanted to be an actress, and we saw four Broadway shows a year. My mother was an artist, and threatened to sneak in a sketch of me on their walls. 

When I started college in New York in the late 70s, we moved to Long Island. On Fridays and during summers when I worked as a floater in music and publishing at Warner Communications, Mom met me for lunch at Stouffer's at 666 Fifth Avenue, and when they closed, the waiters sent us to the Women's Exchange restaurant. It was one of the few places left in New York for ladies who lunch. 

untitled sketch by Barbara Carter
When my parents got their first apartment in the city, a pied-a-terre on Beekman Place, my mother started carrying her sketchbook with her. She has many sketches of diners and coffee shops around the city. This is one of her livelier scenes. I don't know where it's from, but she used to go to Oscar's at the Waldorf and Les Delices patisserie in the East 50s. I don't know why she misspelled coffee. She always got it right on her shopping lists.

The Glass Box, pastel. Barbara Carter
Do any of you remember The Glass Box on First Avenue? They always seemed to bring out the mop while you were eating. This pastel is from a series of watercolors and pastels of Midtown Merchants near Beekman Place that I will be sharing in future posts.

*Photo permission: New York Exchange for Women's Work, Box 11, Folder 8, MS 446, The New-York Historical Society. Used by permission.

Making my way back to Greenwich Village

Are you stuck with your lease, wishing you lived somewhere else? I made a mistake. I left Greenwich Village. Tempted by larger apartments and lower rents in other neighborhoods, I left. But once you've lived in the Village, you'll miss it.

I'm trying to get back. I signed a lease for a one-bedroom in Midtown and knew I was in a bad situation on moving day. The handyman threatened to shut down the service elevator at 4:00. I was at his mercy and couldn't reach the property manager. It doesn't matter how much rent you pay. This is life in a doorman building.

I've lived in doorman buildings before, in Murray Hill and the Upper East Side, but I'd forgotten what they were like. As a freelancer I worked from home and workingmen were a constant presence, calling out to each other in stairwells and the courtyard--it was hard to think. When I complained a doorman told me, "You're not supposed to be here. The only reason you're home is 'cause you didn't feel like going to work today." When I moved out, on both occasions, they shut down the freight elevator for the porters' lunch hour; it didn't matter how much I'd tipped them at Christmas. In my current Midtown building, you need a certificate of insurance for each delivery to your apartment, even those from recurring companies like Home Depot and Ikea, and staff isn't permitted to do odd jobs like putting up window blinds, so COIs are needed for outside handymen as well, and doormen won't sign for deliveries from accounting and law firms. Living here is complicated, and a hassle.

In my old building in the Village, a five-story walkup of ten apartments, we didn't have doormen and life was simpler. We didn't need 'em! I scheduled my move-in day with the property manager, of course, but tenants weren't strapped with rules. If I needed help with something, I called the super and we worked it out.

Within a week of living in this new apartment, I'm pursuing a leasebreak. I commiserated with my former Village property manager who told me, "Your landlord doesn't have to be nice to you." Another realtor who knows me well said, "You have to learn to put up with crap." There's truth in what they say, but I need peace of mind and I had that in the Village.

Hopefully my Midtown nightmare will be over soon.

Exploring opportunities in digital and other media. No longer representing writers or accepting submissions.

Waverly Place Literary Agency has closed. If you're looking for an agent, I recommend looking at writers' conferences' websites for participating agents. 

Writers' Digest is holding a conference in NYC August 22-25, 2019

Contact info

Debbie Carter, Blogger
(212) 925-3721 is no longer accepting queries

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