It was my first time flying and I was absolutely stoked, despite the fact that we’d been forced to endure an unplanned layover in Minneapolis the night before, a place so cold that the air hurt. But we left the icy fangs of the Twin Cities early the next morning and soared for a few hours above the blanched expanse of farmland, ribbons of roads, and toy towns of middle America. I had a window seat and stared out the whole time, hypnotized by this wintry spread, especially enamored with vast, azure blanket of Lake Michigan. While obviously thrilled, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that we were sitting in a metal tube hurtling through the sky, and my bones were buzzing with exhilaration and dread at the same time. It all seemed so improbable and fragile, yet I couldn’t help but be amazed at just how lovely everything was from 30,000 feet up. Any ugliness that may exist at ground level was washed away by the sheer altitude of it all.
Eventually the plane descended and a hush enveloped the cabin as New York came into view. All necks onboard craned to get a peek through those little oval windows as the aircraft banked over the gleaming clusters of high-rises of Manhattan and beyond. The Hudson and East Rivers shimmered on either side of this storied finger of concrete and steel, while Central Park cut an emerald swath through the middle of it all. I pressed my face against the plastic and took it in, mesmerized. Like rural America, New York looked perfect from the air, an immaculate tapestry of angled silver reflecting the low-hanging, luminous winter sun.
After landing at Laguardia, which even seemed tatty and rundown in ’85, we poured into a couple of cabs that took us to our accommodations: the Hotel Edison, a venerable affair on 47th Street that offered up the basics less than a block from Times Square. If you wanted to be solidly in the action — especially when it came to access to Broadway theaters — you really couldn’t do better, location-wise.
There were eight of us in the group: six students, our drama teacher, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, an exuberant woman of around 30 who we all just called “Kirk,” and her friend Kris, who was to help chaperone. It was now December 27th and we’d be in the city until New Year’s Day, where we’d see the sites, eat the food, and take in a slew of Broadway shows.
I shared a room with Shawn, the only other guy on the trip. He was a senior and the current star of our school’s drama program, and while perfectly nice, he showed little interest in becoming my buddy. After all, I was brand new, three years’ his junior, and had yet to prove myself as a performer, which was really what it was all about in the world of high school theater.
After unpacking my suitcase, I sat on that stiff little bed to gather my thoughts, listening to the radiator on the wall clack and groan. Outside the room’s solitary window the buildings seemed to squeeze together in one dizzying grey mass. The afternoon sun poured its honey over these structures as I wrestled with the reality of having actually arrived in New York.
We got settled, met up in the lobby, and made our way out of the Hotel Edison, past the theater that bore the same name, home to New York’s longest-running production at the time, a musical review titled “Oh Calcutta!” which was notorious for being performed almost entirely in the nude. Can you imagine doing that gig, day after day? Hey, work’s work…
Central Manhattan is made up of walls of buildings which funnel the wind down in shivering bursts. We braved these periodic blasts and followed Kirk like so many ducklings through the channel of 47th Street until we emerged into Times Square itself, that legendary piece of real estate where Broadway and 7th Avenue cross.
It was like wandering into a valley carved between stone buildings, adorned with shiny glass and chromatic reader boards, with yellow taxis, busses, and moving people replacing the river of water found in natural versions of such places. This was it, the center of the world as far as we were concerned. The air was thick with fluttering pigeons and smelled of bus exhaust, baking pizza, and garbage. It was a place where the buildup of grime and urban decay met an avalanche of color and vitality, a pulsing, electric zone of humans and machines. I had never felt such a palpable energy, and I just let the tingling pleasure of it all wash over me.
After grabbing slices of pizza at Sbarro (I naively thought it a New York neighborhood joint) we all lined up at the famous tkts discount booth to score some tix. While our trip was a package tour with a shows included as part of the greater price, we still had plenty of time to see whatever else captured our fancy, and after about forty-five minutes in line, I walked away the proud owner of a ticket to that evening’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain,” which of course had been adapted from the movie (one of the rarer cases where a musical goes from screen to stage).
The biggest selling point of “Singin’ in the Rain,” other than getting to experience all of those wonderful toe-tapping numbers performed live, was the fact that, for the show’s most famous sequence, it actually rained on stage. A whole system of pumps and jets and rubber coating and actual gutters had been installed, and sure as shit, as soon as it let loose its deluge, the whole of the audience erupted into rapturous applause. In fact, the rain got more love than the performer, who, while more than competent, could only hope to act a cipher for Gene Kelly, a guy so good that he had branded that song and dance into the firmament, far above the reach of any mere mortal. It’s like trying to repaint “Starry Night.” No matter how good the end result, it can only be seen as a cheap facsimile. The dude never had a chance.
The show checked all of the boxes, and more than anything, earned the honor of being my first Broadway show, even though I had watched it alone from deep in the nosebleeds of the second balcony of the cavernous Gershwin Theater. As I clapped for the curtain call, I felt my elation deflate every so slightly: I’d just seen my first Broadway show and it was just pretty good. It certainly didn’t blow my mind, and while slick and flawlessly executed, I couldn’t say that it lit any kind of fire in my bones, which is what good theater is supposed to do, isn’t it?
As I shuffled along back towards my hotel, I found myself picking the show apart, trying to pinpoint exactly why I felt just ever-so-slightly underwhelmed. Half a day in New York and I was already savvy, it seemed. That rain, however, was fucking spectacular.
Rather than head straight back to my room (there was an 11pm curfew that was never enforced, since Kirk and the Kris would often be out themselves for post-show cocktails ’til well past midnight), I decided to have a gander around Times Square on my own. In the afternoon I had noticed that the place was populated by some fringe characters, but it was well after dark and they now oozed out of the doorways, alleys, and seemingly from the greasy pavement itself. Shifty junkies, transvestite hookers in thigh-high boots and garish wigs, fedora-crowned pimps, dice and three-card-monte hustlers, homeless dudes, and pretty much anyone else that would horrify your suburban mom had materialized for some serious after hours vice.
The place took on an edge, imbued with a certain dark gravity and danger. This especially hit home once I turned down 42nd Street, which wasn’t the gleaming mecca of musical venues made famous by the production of the same name. Oh sure, there was a sea of lights and marquis, but these came from the endless rows of porno theaters lining this fabled way like the glowing eyes of so many predators. And it goes without saying that filth attracts filth: in front of these blue movie houses lingered the detritus of the city — tattered clusters of unshaven, unsavory men — along with prostitutes of all races, sizes, and genders.
This was the New York I had also heard about, the New York of Scorsese and the 70’s Rolling Stones and the butt of the jokes of late-night comedians that usually involved rats, hypodermic needles, or corpses. This was the scuzzy, broken-down, depraved New York that was later pushed out, scrubbed clean, and bleached away by the iron hand of Rudy Giuliani. This was the bloated, dirty, corrupt New York of Hill Street Blues and Mayor Ed Koch and my 14-year-old ass was seeing it all right up close, when I probably should have been back in my room watching “Family Ties.”
This glimpse I got of the hard town was eye-opening, but it wasn’t really a shock, as I was old enough to know such stuff existed. Like everything else in Manhattan, I had already seen it through the lens of TV and the movies, so in a sense, it was familiar. And once I turned tail and scampered back to the safe, welcoming womb of the hotel, I took in the other New York: the one of men in Armani suits and Rolexes; women in mink coats and diamonds that could choke a horse; limousine drivers and doormen and the smothering, alluring scent of wealth. This was the first time I’d seen actual full-on rich people in the unsullied flesh. Here they were, strolling amongst the garbage and human rubbish without ever pausing to look down. This was a crash-course in class consciousness, an on-the-ground view of the chasm that separates the rich from the poor. I never knew such inequality could exist in such close quarters and during that week I would come to understand that it was far more obscene than anything shown in the smuthouses of 42nd Street.
Over the next few days we explored Manhattan by taxi, subway, and more importantly, on foot. Our package included three days of guided walking tours, which is always the best way to see a city, especially the heart of America’s metropolitan crown jewel. Our guide was an aging, no-nonsense local woman who was also a part-time actress. We followed her along the thrumming streets with their hot dog vendors and steam ducts, through the plaza of Rockefeller Center (where we oohed and awed at the towering marvel of the Christmas tree), St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Macy’s and Bloomingdales and Sak’s 5th Avenue, Central Park and the Ritz-Carlton, Tavern-on-the-Green, and the architectural triumphs of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. At one point our guide brought us to a tiny cemetery from the 1600’s, where some of the island’s original Dutch settlers had been laid to rest. These were the oldest man-made objects I’d ever laid eyes on, and decades later, the image of those crooked, cracked, black tombstones still comes clearly into focus.
On the second day of the walking tours we got up early and took the train downtown to get an eagle’s eye view of the city from the top of the World Trade Center. It was an icy, radiant morning, and I quivered in anticipation as the elevator catapulted us to the viewing platform on the 107th floor. After stepping out and taking in a flash of the city sprawled out beneath us, I gripped the railing in an attempt to stave off the vertigo knocking at my door; after all, I’d never been up on a structure even close to this high and the whole thing gave me octopus legs. However, this dizziness soon gave way to a euphoria that can only be experienced at such heights.
The whole of New York shined below and the silver surface of the Hudson sparkled in the dappled winter sun. Even New Jersey, visible on the other side, managed to look attractive as it bathed in the morning’s brilliance. I grabbed the Olympus OM10 hanging around my neck, put it to my eye, and snapped away at this photo-rich environment.
All those years later, when I watched those towers crash down on the screen of my TV, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the buildings themselves. After all, this was a place that I had physically occupied, if only for thirty minutes or so. Still, I’d stood at the top of the South Tower and drunk the beauty of the city beneath me. To see them plummet in a twisted maelstrom of fire, metal, smoke, and death stabbed me in the heart, as it surely did countless others that day.
At the time, of course, I had no idea that those two sterling columns would come to represent the defining historical event of my lifetime. Still, on some deeper level I couldn’t help but understand their magnificence. It was as if the Twin Towers were more than structures erected by man: they were elemental monoliths with a force and gravity all of their own, even if this would prove to be fragile in the end.
After our trip up to the top of the city, we walked over to Battery Park and boarded the Staten Island Ferry, which apart from being absolutely free, would take us past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. This ended up being the most anti-climactic portion of my visit to the Big Apple, as Lady Liberty, at the time, was undergoing a lengthy restoration and was completely shrouded in scaffolding. While we could just make out her shape through the caging surrounding her, the only thing clearly visible was her iconic torch, thrusting defiantly out of the jumble of rods, walkways, and ladders.
This was New York’s (if not the nation’s) most defining landmark, and we snapped our photos (judiciously, of course, as film cameras were limited to 24 or 36 pics a roll) and felt our blood pump just to be in proximity of such a legendary site, scaffolding be damned. Still, I couldn’t help but be further disappointed by the size of the statue. She was much shorter and smaller than I had imagined. Somehow, I had it in my head that the Statue of Liberty was some kind of she-Colossus towering over and dominating the whole of the harbor, but reality was serving up something different. This surely stemmed from the fact that TV and the movies — my only real reference points — invariably warped my sense of scale, and that the Statue of Liberty is such a mythical figure that looms so large in our imaginations that we naturally assume her to be more massive than she really is.
After the ferry ride we walked along Wall Street (where we popped into the New York Stock Exchange, which proved to be a yawner), saw Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park, and then my favorite, Chinatown, which was like being transported to another dimension. Strings of barbecued pork and whole roasted ducks hung in the display windows, and the sidewalks were jammed with Chinese people clamoring and dealing and ducking in and out of the myriad tiny shops. The signage was made up entirely of the intricate, alien script of Chinese characters, and the whole of the neighborhood smelled of sharp spices and sourness and cigarettes and mouth gushing deliciousness of unknown provenance. Old men and women practiced tai-chi in the little parks and I was taken with a temporary fever that was at once overwhelming and oddly satisfying. I had been to Seattle’s Chinatown a few times but this was a whole other level of intoxicating wonder; it was as if I had stepped through a portal straight to the streets of old Canton.
What was even more astounding was how quickly this world shifted. After a good hour of losing ourselves in the sensual chaos of Chinatown, we crossed Canal Street and were now suddenly in Little Italy. Things were much quieter on this side of the border, with little stores selling fruit and cheeses and cured meats and restaurants dominating the scene, along with the tricolor of so many Italian flags drooping over the streets.
At one point our guide pointed to a restaurant kitty corner from where we stood. A big black limo sat idling in front, its exhaust huffing out into the frigid afternoon air like a panting dog. “That place is said to be a popular meeting place for mafia bosses,” she said, lowering her voice to a stage whisper for effect. Our eyebrows arched as we walked by, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Godfather shambling out the door, post cannoli.
On our third and final day of walking tours, I decided to play hooky. I skipped the scheduled events entirely to set out to see things on my own, without the filter of a guide or the poky hindrance of group movement. I created my own spontaneous walking tour, hiking those urban trails without direction, destination, or purpose, other than to soak in as much as I could firsthand, setting a precedent on how I would explore new places for most all the travels of my future. I just wandered around mid-Manhattan for hours with little rhyme or reason, snapping pics and marvelling at the architecture — from brownstones to skyscrapers — an uncountable number of buildings that spoke to me in a language of arches and columns and angles that I could feel but not truly understand.
I recall standing agog at the base of the art deco majesty of the Chrysler Building for the second time that trip and deciding then and there that it was my favorite building in the whole of the world. On my two return trips to New York — many moons later — I made it a point to replicated the moment — and will do so again if I ever end up back there.
At the time there were these old Greek guys near Central Park selling hot dogs, chestnuts, and best of all, lamb gyros — which I became hooked on after sampling on my second day. After all, back where I was from, I’d never experienced anything like the savory, mouth-melting goodness of lamb, veggies, yogurt, and warm flatbread wrapped up into one delicious, satisfying package. This was a revelation, and I returned most every day to get my fix.
On this particular afternoon I was curious to try the roasted chestnuts, another culinary novelty, but you had to buy a whole bag of the things. Now I wasn’t sure if I’d like them, and not wanting to take such a gamble with my very limited funds, I tried to haggle with the guy, a gruff meatball of a man with a eyebrows like a couple of tent caterpillars.
“Can I just buy 3?” I implored.
“No. You buy bag.”
“But I’ve never had them before and just want to try them.”
“No. Just bag.”
“Come on. Just 3 or 4?”
“Okay… 5? Can I get just 5.”
“No! No! No!”
“GOODBYE!” he shouted, nearly batting me away with both his meaty paws. “GOODBYE! GOODBYE! GOODBYE!”
Thoroughly chastened, I slunked down the sidewalk, stinging of failure, but somehow proud that I had at least try to bargain with the gruff old Greek.
We had come to NYC to see shows, and while that was the initial hook for me, it soon took a back seat to actual exploration once I realized just how thrilling it was to walk the city on foot. Still, I saw a number of productions that week, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” a very worn-out “A Chorus Line” (where I learned firsthand the meaning of “phoning it in”), a laryngitis-stricken Bernadette Peters croaking her way through a matinee of “Song and Dance,” a somewhat amusing night of comedy one-acts, an energetic and entertaining “42nd Street,” and most memorably, the Off-Broadway staging of “The Foreigner.”
“The Foreigner” was playing at the historic Astor Place Theater, and I recall the walk from the subway to the venue being a light jog through a half-abandoned no-man’s land of bombed out buildings, debris piles, skagged out zombies, bums and barrel fires. Of course it was after dark and my then-sheltered eyes likely exaggerated the degree of decay, but to me it was akin to walking through war-torn Beirut. It goes without saying that this was before the moneyed tentacles of gentrification slithered on in and remade the neighborhood in the name of profits and urban renewal.
The theater, however, was more than civilized, and once the lights went down, we were treated to two hours of riotous laughter. This was a true farce running on all cylinders. Larry Shue’s (who tragically died in a plane crash just a couple of months before our trip )play about a pathologically shy Englishman who hides out in a Georgia cabin and pretends to speak no English had us dying. I was gasping for air at times, clawing at my chest while bullets of tears raced down my cheeks. To this day it’s the hardest laughter I’ve ever sustained in the theater, and Kirk and I were so turned on by the play that we went on to produce it my senior year (with me in the lead role), to much acclaim, I might add.
Since then “The Foreigner” has gone on to be produced by professional and community theaters across the country. It’s now a bonafide American classic. I can say I saw it before it really broke, and doing so was worth every step taken through the DMZ of NoHo at the time.
December 31st, 1985 was our last full day in New York. It was also New Year’s Eve, and our hotel was just a block away extreme party central. Anyway you wanted to cut it, things were going to go off.
Our whole group had tickets to “Cats,” which, at the time, was easily the biggest show in town. We took our seats in the Winter Garden Theater, which sits smack dab on Broadway itself, and watched the spectacle of humans in makeup, wigs, and tiger-striped unitards prance about and sing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flashy tunes, all set to the poems of T.S Eliot.
Now “Cats” has no narrative to speak of. It’s a rather silly show of song and dance and spectacle, and perhaps the fact that you don’t have to pay too much attention to the non-existent story helped contribute to its massive appeal. That’s not to say that the show didn’t also have a plenty of detractors (it was largely dissed by the theater cognoscenti), but you couldn’t count 14-year-old me among them. I had gotten the CD a year before for Christmas and had since memorized every syllable of every song. I could have easily gone up on stage that night and sung any of the numbers (with questionable competence, but still). I loved “Cats” for what it was — pure theatrical magic. I didn’t consider the “coolness” of it at all, which, thinking back on it, was probably my greatest virtue.
The spell cast by “Cats” did its best to wash over me, but I quickly discovered that perhaps New Year’s Eve wasn’t the best time to see a show in a theater located walking distance from the biggest party on earth.
There was just a wall and some fire doors separating us from the actual streets of New York, and despite the blast of the orchestra and those singers belting their toned, feline butts off, the continuous din of revelers making their way to Times Square kept bleeding through that membrane.
“Jellicle cats come out tonight,
Jellicle cats come one, come all.”
“Whoooooooo!!! Fuck yeahhhhhhhhh!” (party horn)
“Memory, all alone in the moonlight”
“1986! Let’s get fucked up. Waaaaaah!!!”
After the show we fought through the thick press of humans back to our hotel, where, for the time being, I holed up with Shawn, content to watch the New Year’s Eve festivities on the TV, somewhat amazed by the fact that I could see something on that small screen that was actually happening live, just outside from where we sat.
People came in and out of the room from our group. At some point a bottle of champagne materialized and I downed a fizzy glass or two. This, of course, went straight to my head and soon I became dissatisfied with being a passive observer. Why was I just sitting there, watching the action on TV? I could do that back home, in fact, that’s surely what I would be doing back home, but the one place I wasn’t was back home. Just outside of our building, the real celebration was going down, and despite a rather vague admonishment from Kirk to stay within the confines of the hotel, she was nowhere to be seen, and I could hear the swell and roar of the mob rise up into the air, echo off the buildings, and pour through the little window of our room. Fuck it, I thought. I’m heading out into the shit.
I left my roomie, whose eyes were glued to the screen, slid out the door, and caught the packed elevator down to the lobby, where I slipped out into the pulsing throng of humanity on the streets.
It was deafening. Everyone was shouting and singing and laughing and downing booze straight from bottles. I could hear the blare of the big show cascade from speakers but couldn’t make out a thing. Everywhere were people braying and swaying and before I knew it, this sea of individuals coalesced into one single organism, bellowing in unison as the countdown began:
“10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The place exploded. The ecstatic fury of hundreds of thousands of souls rejoicing at once lit up the streets like an atomic bomb. Streamers arced through the air and confetti showered down like a paper blizzard. I leapt, danced, jumped up and down, spun around, and embraced several strangers, who, like me, screamed from the bottom of their beings. I felt as if my skin would never contain me.
Eventually this wave crested, and I decided to head back to the room before my absence was detected. As I squeezed back into the elevator, I pressed against a beautiful young woman with sparkling eyes and lips like slices of tangerine.
“Happy New Yeeeeeeeear!” she said in accented English, handing me a chilled bottle of bubbly.
“Happy New Year!” I replied, taking a slow slug.
“I am from Brazil!” she said, before pulling me close and planting a deep kiss on my lips, tongue and all.
1986 was already shaping up to be one hell of a year.
It was 3 a.m. The party had died down and I sat with Shawn in our room, reeling from the headiness of it all, still a bit buzzed (there had been more booze), and very hungry. Everyone else in our little group had retired to their rooms and was surely snoozing away. It seemed that we were the lone survivors of what had been an extraordinary night.
“You really want to go?” he asked.
“I’m sure. Just give me some money. I’ll take care of it.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Nah man. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay dude. But be careful.”
He handed me a ten dollar bill and I snuck out the door.
It’s amazing how quickly a place can transform, how an ocean of people can evaporate and just leave an empty space behind, along with all of the trash that they generate.
This was the Times Square I walked into. It looked like a tsunami had struck and washed everyone away, save the handful of horse-mounted cops who still kept watch over the lakebed of bottles. It was a lonely, almost sad space, somehow sapped of all the energy and vigor that erupted forth just a couple of hours earlier — no music, no cheering, no revelry — just the dead, cloaked silence of a party that had since spent itself.
Still, I saw what I was after on the other side of the wasteland. A flashing flush of neon that read, “PIZZERIA. 24 HOURS.”
Traffic was still blocked off, which meant I could make my way across the square unimpeded, save the minefield of booze bottles. I gave no thought to an risks or pitfalls or predators — I just had one thing in mind, and that was pizza.
I soon reached my objective, handed over the cash, and now, armed with a large pepperoni pie, I made my way back across the debris pitch toward the safety of the hotel, where I would share the spoils with my roommate before dropping off into a blissful black sleep. But as I was just leaving the edge of the square, I heard someone call out.
“Yo brotherman!” A solitary dude sat on the stoop in front of a building. I don’t know if he was homeless, but he sure looked down on his luck. “You wanna give me a slice of that pizza? Looks like some good shit.”
I stopped and considered my options. I had a whole large pizza that Shawn and I surely wouldn’t finish on our own. And this guy wanted a piece, no doubt. Also, despite it being nearly 3:30 in the morning, there were still enough cops lingering around as to guarantee my relative safety… and New York City had been very, very good to me. Fuck it.
“Sure man,” I said walking over and sitting down next the guy. “You know what? Take two.”
“No shit? Ah man, you’re the best.”
“It’s nothing. Happy New Year!”
“Ah, hell yeah,” he said, taking a big bite of hot cheesy goodness. “Happy New Year to you!”
By the evening of New Year’s Day, 1986, I was back in rainy Washington State. I made it to our house in Nisqually just in time for dinner, where, over a plate of spaghetti and Italian-style chicken breasts (my favorite), I regaled my parents and with tales of my journey, including the witching hour pizza run. My dad laughed his hearty laugh and my mother shook her head in mild disapproval, but the joy I felt was shared by them, which I supposed is one of the reasons they agreed to cut the check for this whole affair to begin with, money that they really didn’t have to spare. But in that way my folks were generous to a fault: despite the fact that they were usually scrambling to pay the bills, they always found a way indulge me, for better or for worse.
After dinner I stepped outside. Despite the fact that I had just traversed the whole of the continental United States by air, I felt strangely restless and wanted to shake it off.
The rain had since stopped, and I strolled through our front yard and onto the blacktop of 7th Avenue, the two-laned road that ran in front of our place. This 7th Avenue was a world away from the 7th Avenue I had walked along just a handful of hours before. This was nothing more than a glorified country road, a straightaway that doubled as a drag strip for the local kids and their hot rods. Only now it was empty and silent, just an ordinary strip of asphalt in a very ordinary corner of the country, a very ordinary part of my exceedingly ordinary life.
I looked up to the sky, past the streetlight, knowing that unseen clouds swirled overhead. My only desire at that moment was to pierce them once again.