New York City, free and easy
Forget making plans in the City, if you want free entertainment just open the door and see what happens. For example, years back, I was searching for morning coffee in Midtown and found instead, Ringo Starr playing at Bryant Park. Just recently Martin and I helped a grand older lady who had fallen on a Fifth Avenue bus, turns out she had been an extraordinary Mezzo Soprano at City Opera, who upon reaching her nineties had joined the Hemlock Society just in case she didn’t like what old age offered. And I will always remember, thirty years ago, walking through Times Square with my friend, Taylor Kitchings, who suddenly stopped and cried out, “if I saw any ONE of these people in Jackson, Mississippi, I’d talk about it for a month.”
So I decided, on this, my first day in Manhattan, to maybe, sort of, do two simple things: 1) head down to the half priced TKTS booth in Times Square and see what shows they offered and 2) then walk to the Rose Reading Room at the 42nd Street Library and do a little writing.
I’m staying on West 147th Street in a building that was made famous last year for housing an ebola patient. (My entire family was here for a wedding at that time, and yet, despite the alarming headlines, we all lived.) That said, I absolutely love West Harlem. This is where MY West Side of the 1970’s went. All my mismatched stores picked up their skirts and skipped north about 80 blocks.
So I set out in the neighborhood, chatting on the phone with an old friend – a clown I had performed with in Vermont – and we made plans to get together this week. A quick coffee shop stop, then down into the mouse hole I went to buy my unlimited metro card pass. I hopped on the downtown 1 and rumbled along, fully aware that above my head flew my old school, Columbia University, St. John the Divine, and my West Side neighborhood where I lived in a ramshackle walk-up on 89th and Riverside.
Across the rocking car, a softly inflated lady napped. She wore a baby doll dress, dangling sea shell earrings, and had the smallest feet I had ever seen on an adult. Her billowy legs gave no warning they would stop like that. It was like somebody had screwed little hotdogs on the end of her ankles.
I got off the train early at Columbus Circle so I could see the park and walk a few extra blocks before hitting Time Square. I didn’t expect to get any tickets because I had dawdled well past any matinee performances. But I was surprised that the entire TKTS booth was closed down for the Annual Tony Awards. I hadn’t really done any research for this trip. The Belmont Stakes got away from me (Triple Crown winner, thank you very much) and now the Tonys! Right there. Right then. I almost missed them.
Somebody was staging an event in the middle of Broadway. (It is hard to tell when something special is happening at Times Square because everything twirls and blinks anyway.) Hundreds of white chairs were set up for a live streaming of the Tony Awards. I walked around and around the barricaded area but nobody could tell me what was what. First come first served, they said. But while many were waiting, the line made a complete circle with no beginning and no end.
I left, thinking I would come back later and watch the Tony’s, but I know better than that. Walking around in New York is like getting caught in a rip tide. You never swim backwards. Before leaving Times Square, I looked around for my old acting friend Brenda Allen. She now preaches the Gospel from a card table on 42nd. Brenda was a wonderful actress who fell in love with a Man of God named Smitty. Things didn’t work out between them but she continued in the spirit and for forty years has lived from donations to her basket and the grace of God, she says. Sadly, I didn’t see her. I didn’t see any sidewalk preachers, come to think of it. Is that one of the ways Giuliani cleaned up the city?
I had my heart set on writing in the grand Rose Reading Room at the 42nd Street Library. On the approach, Bryant Park was looking very European with it’s leafy dining tables but I stayed the course, knowing the library would be closing soon. I circled around the front to say hello to the iconic lions and bounded up the massive stairs, then inside and up to the third floor only to discover that the Rose Reading Room was CLOSED. Temporarily, they said! But they had closed down over a year ago, for a six month repair (it seems the plaster rosettes had begun to fall from the ceiling.) Further inspection revealed asbestos and there is no plan to reopen. My dream of spending a month writing in the Rose Reading Room withered. The alternative reading room across the hall was okay, only because it is in one of the greatest libraries in the world, but frankly it was an ugly step sister compared to Rose. . . even so, I settled into the stark and stingy step-room, applied for my library card, did a little research and wrote one paragraph, actually the beginning of this post. Tra-la.
It occurred to me that if the Tony’s were being ‘live streamed’ into Time Square around the corner, that meant that the Tony’s were ‘live live’ just up the street at Radio City Music Hall, so I headed up 6th Avenue. (Tip for NY: don’t ever wear a hat on 6th Avenue in Midtown. It’s a wind tunnel, no joke.)
A lady sitting cross legged on the sidewalk keened, “Buy me a hamburger, will somebody please buy me a hamburger.” But I was swept along in the thickening crowd.
At the corner of Radio City, I turned and worked my way down the barricades and strange production sheds. People were saying What’s this? What’s happening? It’s the Tony’s. Who’s Tony? Policemen were begging people keep moving, keep moving please. They had created pens for the spectators, but nobody wanted to go in them. I threaded along wondering if there was a Red Carpet to be found. Finally an opening appeared and sure enough, Red Carpet, all over the street, all over the sidewalks, handlers dashing about with radios. The breathless excitement of celebrity.
Here’s the thing. I’ve watched award shows all my life and my primary thought was always: Who are those fools behind the barricades? Who would waste their time like that? Hanging over a barricade waving at celebrities. Shameless.
Well, now I know. Those shameless fools are me.
I wiggled into a tight spot right up against the barricade (inside one of the approved pens.) I wedged between a poor videographer who didn’t have the credentials to get inside and a tall woman whose long hair hung like a blanket between me and the celebrities. I began to excuse myself immediately, explaining to anyone who would listen that this was just a lark, who knew? I was taking a walk and would you just look at this. Only in New York.
It is important to note that I had recently been friended by Taye Diggs on Twitter. He asked me to be friends, get that. Even though he follows a half a million people, I felt very special and I longed for my new friend to spot me in the crowd and usher me inside where I belonged. But alas he did not answer my tweets; I was trapped on the wrong side of the barricade. And the difference between me and Taye Diggs became painfully apparent. Awkward even. And that awkwardness prompted the philosophical question: which is the right side of the Red Carpet barricade, the famous side or the real people side? I’m afraid, for me, it is both and neither.
While I pretended I was not star struck, which I clearly was, always have been, I realized that there are many different ways of being star struck. As the insiders began pulling up in their cars (more SUVs fewer limos) it was like we were watching fireworks. Ooooo, ahhhh from the crowd and then –– a disappointed groan when they didn’t recognize whoever stepped from the car. I HATE that. I love working actors, I love working actors everywhere, more than the stars really. Here’s a million Oooooos and Ahhhhhs from me to every new actor who is thrilled to be on Broadway, yet not as famous as a movie star.
Unlike Red Carpet events on television, from the barricade you can hardly see the people as they tumble out of their cars and vanish into the Red Carpet Swirl. All views are blocked by the cars, the guards, the production apparatus. Yet I lingered. Taking pictures of the backs of famous people.
Here’s what I heard in the crowd repeatedly. Who’s that? I don’t know. Who’s that? Nobody. Where’s JLo? She’s coming, she’s coming soon. Who’s that, you ask? Duh, that was Tommy Tune, Joel Gray, Helen Mirren, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen . . . on and on. More chatter behind me, I love her dress, her shoes, her hair, she’s so tall, I want her face. Really? You want her face? What are we talking about here?
I snapped an embarrassing number of photographs (for someone who was just ‘there on a lark’ as I kept repeating, but nobody was listening because I am a nobody, lark or not.) It was terribly exciting to be photographing the backs of celebrity heads, and degrading, and fun and I would still be there looking for my new friend Taye Diggs but . . .
I got a call from my real life friend, Simone, to come for dinner with friends on the West Side. So I put my iPhone away and squeezed down the barricade trying to break free but just as I stepped away —- wait for it — the face of Bernadette Peters floated right in front of me, like a helium balloon. The only good picture I might have taken, the woman my husband truly loves, and I missed it.
Bitterly disappointed, I scooted below Rockefeller Center to catch the uptown D and transfer to the 1, so pleased to find my way without a map. After an unusually long wait an empty train pulled up and stopped. A ghost train of sorts. I asked the conductor, who was hanging out the little window, where all his people went and why I couldn’t get on that train, I was late after all. He said “This train is for Yankee Fans, Yankee Fans only, this is a special train.” Then he chugged away.
On the uptown D I hung on the pole over a woman who could protect her private space with the arch of an eyebrow. She was sleek and reserved, crossed her long legs elegantly, reading her phone at arm’s distance. With the mere tilt of her head she forced a grown man to back away, far away. She hadn’t liked his shoulder bag swinging in her space.- I swear I didn’t knock the phone out of her hands on purpose. It wasn’t my fault. I let go of the pole, the train lurched, then I felt something odd against my hand as I moved toward the door. Glancing back, I saw the face, the angry face of a woman who seldom lets her face get away from her, but the door slid shut between us. I headed for the transfer train feeling clumsy but strangely not sorry. She was like the female version of man spreading holding her phone out like that on a crowded train.
Dinner on the West Side was at the home of dear friends of my dear friends, the Bloch-Wehbas. So it was six of us: Simone and John (John 1) and their son, Ben (who was choosing good company over writing his school paper) the hosts, Michael Fields and his husband John Dunn (John 2). As it turned out Michael grew up in Nashville so I had a security ‘topic’ if I needed it. John 2 does costumes and voila I had another ‘topic’ because I love production people, in general, and Alexandra Welker, in particular, who does costumes for the TV show Grimm. Then I learned that Michael had published a book last year! Books! We could talk publishing. Topics everywhere. All social anxiety dissipated. The food was delicious, Cassoulette, simple roasted carrots, and a complicated cabbage dish. (I really didn’t need thirds but since when had need dictated what I put in my mouth.) We lingered at the west-facing window spying on the neighbors serving Sunday Suppers on their roofs. We watched the sun set over the Hudson River and New Jersey.
Here’s what we talked about at dinner:
- Michael and John’s wedding at ‘City Hall’, only the ceremony was actually down the street from City Hall, but they posed for wedding photographs in front of a large picture of City Hall.
- Horror Movies, in particular The Omens 1, 2, and 3.
- Their Czechoslovakian handyman named Mango, who quit handymaning to climb Mount Everest only to be trapped in the base camp avalanche. Everyone thought Mango had perished but he survived and stayed to lend his handyman skills to a local village.
- Julia Child’s kitchen.
- Michael’s book. The Thousand – Petaled Lotus which is about growing up gay in a southern Baptist Church in Nashville. Oh fun.
- Ben’s school paper on dichotomies.
- How John 2 manages a car in the city, which he needs everyday to haul costumes around to the sets.
- Alexandra Welker’s eerie bridal gown for the wicked La LLorona on Grimm.
- Everybody’s country houses.
- The Christmas decorations at the Parthenon in Nashville when Michael was young. That was when Nativities were still allowed on publicly owned properties.
- And, why the hell I was in New York so long. Didn’t I have a home or something?
After dinner, during the two block walk between the uptown subway and the apartment I remembered what else I missed about the Old West Side. In the evening, everybody treats the stoop as another room in the house. They spill on to the sidewalk to sit and talk, often loudly. They drag out grills and televisions, play dominos, and dance. It’s all very charming, unless you are a tight ass, or in a bad mood.
I’ve just returned to my apartment and kicked off my shoes. My first day in the city was everything I wanted and nothing I expected. Outside below my window on the sidewalk, a man with a hodgepodge accent is shouting: America I love it.
And I’m wondering if the Tony’s are still on TV.