My first time in NY was in the summer of 1980 with my high school that tagged along with a college theater trip and hence no chaperones required. We stayed at the Paramount on 46th, a 5-iron from Times Square. Being a white kid from Utah, it was quite the culture shock.
When the bus pulled up in front of the hotel, I thought the driver was funning us. I turned around in my seat to share a laugh at the driver’s wit with everyone, only to be met by masks of horror at the trash blowing down the sidewalk, bums passed-out in doorways, and hookers walking the street. This surely couldn’t be the heart of the theater district…could it?
After checking in, a couple of us girded up our loins and with wide eyes and heads on swivels we ventured into Times Square. I marveled that I couldn’t see the join where the buildings of Times Square met the sidewalk because black fellas were squatting on their haunches shoulder-to-shoulder staring me down as I walked past.
Didn’t take long to fully get into the swing of things, though. If you could keep your wits about you under the realization that you were being stalked, there was great fun to be had by high school kids in the porn and liquor shops of Times Square.
One night, a buddy and I, along with a couple of girls from the trip, foolishly decided to walk up Broadway to Central Park. We had only made it to around 53rd Street when we came upon a classy black guy in a long, tan overcoat singing New York, New York to the busted speaker in a doorway of a drugstore.
He ambled over to us while nodding to some of his compatriots who immediately surrounded us. With a big smile, he said, “I see y’all are new to New York. And, damn, you got some fine ladies on your arms!” He leaned in closer and with a conspiratorial tone growled, “now you be sure and take care of them… or we will.”
With eyes as big as basketballs, dry mouths, and hearts pounding against our ribs we hightailed it up to Columbus Circle and then practically ran down 8th back to the hotel with only a quick stop to ogle at the characters lined up at Studio 54. We all figured we used one of our lives that night.
I caught 5 Broadway plays during that stay and even got to meet and speak with Mandy Patinkin and Angela Lansbury, but the gritty, dangerous, and odiferous atmosphere of pre-Disney Times Square was the highlight.