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To New York, with love (and without Woody Allen)

It’s unclear how I caught such a high degree of this particular type of fever. For a girl born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1960, a life in Manhattan was just so damn far afield. But at some point, fairly early on, I truly believed that I belonged here — and the scene I imagined was set, in part, by the writer and director Woody Allen.

In younger years, I was first and foremost a dancer. As luck would have it, the Dayton Ballet Company far exceeded anything one might imagine its “home of aviation” namesake could incubate. It was excellent, and my training was excellent. The summer of 1977, I was 16 going on 17, more or less innocent as a rose. I auditioned and earned a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School. 10th Street and Sixth Avenue, above (or was it beside) the Balducci’s where I’d buy these two-dollar chocolate chip meringue cookies the size of Texas toast as some sort of ballerina sustenance.

The day I arrived is etched in my memory. I moved into my casket-sized room at the Parkside Evangeline Salvation Army Home for Young Women in Gramercy Park. It was prim and Christian and kind of lousy, and it took forever to read the list of house rules (no drinking, absolutely no men, no baring of shoulders or knees, no frolicking whatsoever). I unpacked, laying out leotard after leg warmer after pointe shoe on the narrow shelf that posed as a closet. And I walked out the door.

I think it was a Sunday. It was definitely sunny and warm, and it was almost as if I had never taken a full-on breath before. I was in Manhattan, and I was on my own.

I walked about a dozen blocks south and a few avenues east, and there it was. The Waverly Theater might as well have screamed my name, taken my hand and shoved me inside. Maybe I spied the marquee, maybe not. But it was 1977, and it was “Annie Hall.” I bought a ticket, sat myself down and exhaled.

And I sort of fell in love.

When Woody Allen as Alvy Singer said to Carol Kane as Allison Portchnik, in a bizarre sort of degradation flirtation, “You’re like New York, Jewish, leftwing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings,” I so wanted him to be talking to me, about me.

Beth Saidel

At the Barre: The author at the Joffrey Studio during her first stint in New York. Courtesy of Beth Saidel

As the story played on, I was simultaneously comfortable and awkward in the velvety seat in the butter-scented theater, just a few other matinee-goers dotting my peripheral vision. I had never gone to the movies alone before, or laughed alone quite like that before, or witnessed scenes so permissibly sophisticated and sexy. I felt a rush of instant maturation when Diane Keaton stepped out of her body to comment on what was happening with Alvy in bed. Her white camisole and panties and her hair in that loose bun were, for me, right then and there, a clarion call to freedom.

That summer in New York City was notorious on many fronts. The Son of Sam was continuing to murder young women with medium-length brown hair not unlike my own — by July, a total of six. A record-smashing heatwave had us schvitzing through the bottoms of our ballet shoes, leaving footprints on the studio floor. And between dripping in sweat and worrying about killer David Berkowitz, I went to see the Royal Ballet of Canada perform “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center. It was July 13, and I was sitting with a girlfriend in the cheap Family Circle waiting for Act II when the entire city blacked out.

But somehow, still, I felt invincible.

Between classes and on weekends I roamed the avenues and streets, fake smoking Nat Shermans. I would catch a glimpse of my lithe body and the unlit cigarette reflected in the big windows along Fifth Avenue, surely looking like an idiot to anyone but myself. On one of those days, I headed to The Plaza’s Palm Court for a splurge of a lunch. After stopping by the portrait of Eloise that reigned over the lobby, I sat between potted plants and silver trays and ordered the finger sandwiches. They weren’t $5.95 for a plateful. They were $5.95 each. I didn’t have the cash for what I had just consumed, and I didn’t have a credit card. Glamour turned to mortification, and I wept my way out the hotel door.

One day after class, right near the Joffrey studio, the bearded guy behind the Bagel Nosh counter patiently explained the difference between Nova and lox and then asked me on a date. I knew only the basics about smoked salmon and not much more about dating strangers, so I said yes. He took me to see the other movie of the moment: “Star Wars.” Don’t ask me the plot, but I do remember ogling a young Harrison Ford, and I remember the escalator, flooded with arches of bright, white lights that ushered us down into the darkness.

The movie ended, and I found myself, still with the 20-something, bearded date guy, on the Staten Island Ferry as it slithered out into New York Harbor. The night was starry and breezy and might have been wonderful had he not pressed up against me while I demurely looked out over the railing. Lady Liberty stood there, stunningly beautiful but no help whatsoever. I had zero idea what to do.

We got off the ferry to end the night. In the cab, he made a move that didn’t scar me for life but might have. I grabbed his probing hand, slapped it away, and jumped out at the next red light. As was probably true for most 16-year-old girls at the time, I didn’t tell a soul because I didn’t have a soul to tell. For whatever reason, it didn’t stay with me for long. It wasn’t an entry in my summer journal — the equivalent of never having happened at all.

Another 23 years passed before I settled here. The lawyer I was dating lived in New York and made a very good play for me to join him, so I packed up a pretty stellar life in D.C. and did just that. Don’t worry about a job, he said. We found an extra cool apartment in Chelsea above a dry cleaner and next to a romantic French restaurant where we had more than a few awful fights while dining on duck. He was controlling and abusive from the start, and I got out of there in a matter of weeks, though it took so much longer to be clear of him. I was 40 years old at that point, with no reliable income and too many lessons to learn.

I wrangled a decent job, and a studio in the West Village, and began to build my New York life.

Big chunks of my dream have since materialized. I married a born and raised New Yorker. Not a socialist summer camp Jew, but he makes amazing latkes, plus I got his big Italian family. We live on an historic block in SoHo in a loft apartment that was once the loading dock for the Marvin Safe Company. The family-run chemist, two doors down, is the neighborhood gathering spot. Raoul’s, where I first had steak au poivre, got really drunk, and lost an earring some decades ago, is right around the corner. And my kid knows the subways and streets, best bubble teas and bodegas, like he was born here. And he was. Mount Sinai Hospital. Fifth Avenue. November 2005.

All this I love, but my heart may also be a little bit broken.

I was enjoying my long-distance relationship with Woody Allen, movie by movie by movie. And I wasn’t all that interested in changing course. As my ballet teacher Josephine Schwartz used to say, distance lends enchantment. If you sit too close you see the dancers sweat, you hear them pant. She always opted for mid-orchestra, row P perhaps, and I can understand the charms of that, certainly for ballet, but also for the traumas in life.

That’s probably why it took months for me to get the courage to face the four episodes of “Allen v. Farrow” and the allegations of abuse that it documents. But eventually, I sat in the living room of the loading dock loft trying to absorb what very much felt like the truth. I watched it with a pervasive ache, not only because my first memories of loving New York City felt tainted, but because I saw glimpses of myself in Dylan — in that little girl who wasn’t entirely sure what to make of what had happened to her.

When I think about what has happened to me in all of my now 60 years, the sum total is not purely existential. It wasn’t really Woody Allen that I loved, or Mr. Bagel Nosh, or the lawyer boyfriend I moved here for, or even ballet. Gershwin’s bewitching and bewildering, and the allure of Bendel’s and Barneys, MoMA’s garden, a parade of water towers, and a silhouetted bench in Central Park. None of these things are it. It is an amalgamation — one that I have created. Years, plus experiences, plus tears, plus friends, plus luck.

It doesn’t really wrap up neatly, the last scene of “Annie Hall.” At the corner of 63rd and Columbus, with Lincoln Center in the background, Annie and Alvy part ways. Her plaintive rendition of “Seems Like Old Times” is playing over the shot — the vague longing in the song and their quick goodbye are like an all-you-can-eat nostalgia buffet. Then he recites an old relationship joke about the guy who tells the doc his brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken, can’t cut him loose, needs the eggs, etc. etc.

Of this I am certain. I have sealed my deal with the city that I love. Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Allen. I no longer need the eggs.

Beth Saidel is a writer, and retired dancer, living in New York City.

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