Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Pearl Anniversary

Thirty years ago today I got off a Greyhound bus in Port Authority and lugged a suitcase four blocks north on 9th Avenue to 349 West 44th Street, where I sat on the steps and waited for the guy who lived in apartment 1RW to let me in to my new--my first--New York City apartment. And while I was sitting on the stoop, I was looking across the street at The Improv, which is nothing but a memory now, and this place, which is still there:

It was a sunny day.  Warm.  I was reading a book while I was waiting.  Given my reading habits at that age (five weeks away from my 30th birthday) it was probably a mystery or a science fiction book.  Whatever it was, I ended up reading it for approximately two hours before my new roommate (whose name was in a brain cell that was swept out to sea ages ago by a tide of tequila) raced down the street from the east, skidded to a halt in front of me, and then bent over with his hands on his knees to take four deep breaths.

The first words he said were: “Oh my God--I’m so sorry I’m late.”

The second words he said were: “Oh my God--you walked up 9th Avenue with a suitcase AND YOU STILL HAVE IT?!?”

New York in the 80’s.

Less than a month later I was walking out of the C-Town around the corner at about 4 in the afternoon, with two bags of groceries in my arms, and I got knocked over from behind by a thin guy in a white T-shirt and jeans sprinting north on 9th Ave and then turning east on 44th Street; and then, as I got to my feet, I was knocked over again by the guy chasing him, a burly fire hydrant of a guy in a light brown suit jacket who had the shortest crew cut and the biggest handgun I have ever seen in my life.

New York in the 80’s.

What defines that time for me?  One simple lesson: knowing where not to walk at night.  Or even during the day.  For instance: you wouldn’t know it now, but 43rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue was THE place to get mugged in Times Square.  Why?   

Because the entire north side of the street was the New York Times Building, and the street-level floor was actually a block-long garage where the Times-owned trucks drove in and out all day and all night to pick up and deliver newspapers.  Nothing like a garage whose gates are almost always open to provide the perfect place for muggers to wait in ambush for unwary pedestrians.  Walking down 42nd Street, with all its crazy peep show and XXX movie madness? Piece of cake next to walking down 43rd.

ALL MY 1982 FEMALE FRIENDS:  Only if you were a guy, pal.

Sorry, you're right.  Only if you were a guy.  If you were a guy, you looked straight ahead with your best Do Not Mess With Me stare and you walked with purpose.  You walked with a destination.  No looking up; tourists look up.  No more than brief eye contact with people; anything more than half a second could get you a yell of "Whatchoo lookin' at?"  If you were a guy, you let your New York muscles take over, and you walked like you belonged.  And if you were a woman, then you walked down 42nd Street with a guy.

ALL MY 1982 FEMALE FRIENDS:  Bullshit.  You took a cab.

A couple of other places you never went? 

10th Avenue That’s where all the hookers and the drug dealers were, pretty much day and night, working the guys in Chevys who came in from Jersey or the guys in Cadillacs who worked in midtown.  Condoms and needles covered the sidewalk like October leaves in Brattleboro.  The hookers were also out in force at night around the Sheraton on 54th and 6th, believe it or not, wearing impossibly high heels and impossibly short skirts, all of them wobbling like Weebils as they made their way to the hotel bar to pick up (or, more likely, fall all over) visiting businessmen. 

Alphabet CityAvenues A, B, C and D were like descending steps towards an extended stay in Beth Israel.  The level of danger was expressed as a simple four-word warning, one for each avenue: Assault, Battery, Coma, and Death.  I risked assault my first year in New York by having a drink at Doc Holliday's and listening to music at The Pyramid Club.  Taking a cab to get there and a cab to get home, of course.  Because I may be dumb but I'm not stupid. And because living in New York was (and is) an education.  

Speaking of education, there's a story I've told many times about my first few months in New York, but I don't think I've ever set it down, so here goes.  I moved here in June, and went back up to Massachusetts five weeks later to celebrate turning 30.  The next time I went back to Boston was five months later, in November, for Thanksgiving.  I got off the train in South Station, left my luggage in a locker (remember when you could leave your luggage in a locker?), and walked through the city to Boylston Street.  By the time I got to Copley Square, I noticed two things: one about myself, and one about the city I was in.  The thing I noticed about the city of Boston was something I had never noticed before I moved to New York.  It was actually a question.  The question was: "Where are all the non-white people?"  After five months of living in the melting pot of Hell's Kitchen and riding the melting pot of the subway and walking the melting pot of New York's avenues, seeing the streets of Boston was like walking down a supermarket aisle filled with nothing but Wonder Bread.  Where was the rye?  Where was the pumpernickel?  And how had I never known they were missing?

And the thing that I noticed about myself?  I was nervous.  I felt vulnerable; I felt exposed.  I was much more unsure of myself walking between Copley and Dartmouth than I had ever been walking through Times Square.  It took me another block to figure out why, but when I did, the answer was obvious.  It was because, on Boylston Street, I could see the sky.  Five months of living in the canyons of Manhattan had gotten me used to the uniquely urban comfort of being hugged by walls of buildings everywhere.  On Broadway, the only sky I ever saw was straight up.  To suddenly have sky all around me made me feel like a deer in the middle of a field on the first day of hunting season. 

My New York in the 80's.  It wasn’t all graduate school.  And it wasn't all bad.  It was just, well, wild.

To give you a sense of how that 1982 wildness feels to 2012 Matthew, permit me to paraphrase that eminent (and eminently-readable) historian Harry Flashman, who notes that in the Old West, the pioneers who made their way by wagon train across the country during the Gold Rush years of the late 1840’s used to refer to those days as The Earlies.  Thirty years later, one of those same pioneers could board a locomotive to take him back East, and experience first hand the bitterness of History’s sense of humor when he looked out his window to see the wagon-wheel ruts from his hard-won westward journey etched deep into the desert sands ten feet away from the Union Pacific's gleaming brand-new railroad tracks. 

That traveler is me, and I'm here to tell you that there are damn few wagon-wheel ruts left from my Earlies in this city.  But like anyone who has lived in Manhattan for more than ten years, every time I walk down the street I get a memory hemorrhage as my Now Eyes see a truth that my Then Eyes know is a lie, the youthful eyes in me that see the ghosts of places gone, long gone--like Barrymore’s, where Christopher Plummer bumped into me while looking for his daughter Amanda after a performance of Pygmalion--or Curtain Up, where I sat two tables away from Jason Robards--or Madeleine, where Julie Ridge introduced me to Holly Hunter.

Jimmy Ray’s?  Burned up in a kitchen fire.  JR’s?  Closed and razed.  Howard Johnson's?  Melted away like last summer's ice cream cones.  

Sam Goody's?  History.  WNEW?  A fond memory--especially the night in October '82 when Alison Steele returned to do a DJ shift.  (God love the internet--you can find that here.)  Mildred Pierce on 46th?  Can't even find a picture of it online.  Crazy Eddie's?  Only the commercials survive on YouTube.  The Barnes & Noble on Seventh Ave and 43rd?  (That sound you hear is me laughing hysterically--imagine a bookstore in today's Times Square.)  Subway cars with graffiti?  Pictures of them are hanging in museums.

Orange Julius, Coliseum Books, Rumplemeyer's, CBGB's--the past is like a speakeasy and those names are its passwords.  Names like The Film Center Café.  After it got embalmed as a scene bar, it died the real death and now there's an Italian restaurant where it used to be.   

Names like The Jukebox Café, on 10th Avenue and 45th--the first actual place you could go to on 10th Ave without being required to fill out a next-of-kin notification--which made it the bar equivalent of church bells in Tombstone.  After God knows how many incarnations, it’s The Pony now. 

What’s left of my old 1982 haunts?  More places than you'd think.  More places than I expected, when I did the neighborhood walking tour this week.  Place like:


The Westway. 

The bicycle store on the corner of 47th and 9th, where I bought my first NYC bike.

The Galaxy.  The second-to-last table on the window side in the back is one of those city places my ghost will haunt as it waits for the ghost of the girl down the street to swing by for coffee before her shift at Smokestack Lightning.

The Blarney Stone.  Back in the 80's? There was one on every corner, like Starbucks.

The laundromat where I always used to bump into Jan Leslie Harding.  (Great minds rinse and repeat alike.)

The barber shop in the basement of 349 West 44th, where I got my first New York haircut, back when I didn't need to organize a safari to find some hair to cut.

What else is left of all the places where
I used to go, and all the things I did?
Just me, I guess.  Me and my memories.  
The ones I carry with me, and the ones 
I’ll make today, tomorrow, and the day
after tomorrow, in the only place
on earth I know that can keep up with me.


Anonymous said...

Yaaaaaa........the good old days when the boys danced naked at The Gaeity upstairs from Howard Johnsons. servin' up your favorite burger. The same HoJo where Whoopi waited tables and you could buy a nickel bag on the street a half a block from "One Singular Sensation". Those were the days !!

Vincent Park said...

I am always amazed by the things we humans remember. As I read this story I also relived the neighborhood and the adventures. I also visited you in that apartment and was amazed by the creative use of space and your magic ability to store things everywhere, especially books. Time does march and we either step to the beat of sit and listen to the parade go by. I love the past, really adore the present and - like the white parts of a sun tan woman - can't wait for the future to be revealed. Always a pleasure to read a Matt Wells story.