03 August 2009

Me and Sidney Zion

I did not know Sidney Zion, the colorful career journalist who died yesterday. But I met him on one memorable occasion.

It was a party at "21." The restaurant's longtime director, a poised, manicured figure in tailored, white-collar French-cuff shirts named Bruce Snyder, was retiring after 35 years, and all the regulars who loved him—corporate titans, old-school pols and journos, heads of state—gathered in droves to say goodbye. Two floors of the restaurant were used, and they were full. There was a lot of food, "21" burgers and oysters, and lots of drink. Many speeches were made.

Toward the end of the evening, my wife and I settled down to a place at the main bar on the ground floor, under the trinkets and toys that cover the Bar Room ceiling. It took us some time to get the bartender's attention and order our drinks. A man next to us already had his poison in hand, a jumbo-sized martini with olive. He wore a blue blazer, tie and thick black glasses. His expressive pink face was framed by a rim of silver hair. And he was garrulous.

Spying our dilemma, he began lamenting that it was no longer possible to hang out at the "21" bar on a regular basis. "It's the smoking ban that killed it," he growled. "In the old day, the people were three deep at the bar, every day! There were clouds of smoke. Now it's dead." Apparently, he was a habitue of the old place. He said his name was Sidney Zion, a journalist. (My brain was not clicking at the time, and the handle meant nothing to me. Just another writer.) We talked some more. When he found out my wife and I were both journalists, we talked even more. He had a way with gabbing, about frivolous and serious things alike. Playing things close to the vest was not his style. He trusted you with his opinion; his thoughts were not a secret cache to which only he and a few worthies had access. You could see how he'd be adept at becoming intimates with all sorts of people quickly, how he could "get that story."

We eventually retired to a table. Our conversation ranged from politics to religion to family matters. I liked him, even admired him. He was open, willing to take an intense (if temporary) interest in someone he had never met before in his life—and at an advanced stage of life, too. He also reminded me of something that was missing for the New York journalism work of the 21st century, something I was constantly looking for and never finding: character, humor, raffishness, a kind of rough-hewn humanity, people who drank, smoked, ate, made the rounds of their favorite joints—in short, lived.

I never saw Zion again, except in the papers. I started reading his column. (His last perch was in the conservative New York Sun.) I didn't always agree with him. I still liked him.

Sidney Zion was 75.


jewelyard said...

In the early eighties, Sid Zion owned Broadway Joe Steakhouse. I played piano there a number of times, due to the fact that I was the house pianist for their sister restaurant, The Spindletop, Hal Kanter's place. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Zion personally, hearing the name has recalled a flood of memories for me. Thanks for a great moment.

Ken Mac said...

great tale