Monday, June 25, 2007

Is New York Friendlier, or is it me?

Prior to writing Look Me in the Eye, I hardly ever went to New York. Now, as I move through the processes leading to release of my book, I find myself going there regularly. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that the New York I see today is very different from the New York I saw in years past.

Has the city changed, or is it me?

My first encounter with New York came in the mid 1970s when I worked for a local Western Massachusetts band. The guys in the band were doing a session at Studio Instrument Rentals, and we stayed – if my memory is correct - at the old Taft Hotel. It's either that, or we wanted to stay at the Taft, but it cost too much, and we stayed at a less expensive place down the street. Anyway, prior to that visit, I’d read about New York, and New Yorkers, as something to be wary of, and that visit confirmed my suspicions.

When we arrived at the hotel, Peter was surprised to find the rooms cost more than he expected. None of us had a credit card, and we didn’t have much cash, so we made our best deal and packed twelve of us into three rooms.

“Make sure you have your shit out of the room by eleven,” the clerk said as he handed over the keys. “And towels are available over there for twenty five cents each.” Fuck that, I thought. No towels for me.

We split up the rooms. In my room, two of us got the box spring, and two got the mattress on the floor. The rooms were sort of seedy, and the toilets in the men’s room were coin operated. It was clear from the smell that a dime was too much for some patrons, though. There was a brownish scum surrounding the drain in the cracked tile floor.

“Hey! There’s good money in pay toilets.” Never before had the shithouse appeared as a business opportunity.

Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling in spots, and as I got ready for bed, I heard a guy moving slowly down the hall, singing, “Acid. Reds. Speed. Get your acid here. Good Jamacian shit! Anything you want!. Anything at all!”

Well, I thought, he didn’t have anything I wanted. And what he didn’t have, the pimps in the lobby probably did. But I didn’t want that either. What I really wanted, at that moment, was to be back home.

I was sharing the box spring with Captain Vornado, a friend of the band. The mattress looked more comfortable, but there were roaches on the floor. I figured I was safer from critters, a foot off the ground.

The Captain was a short swarthy fellow, with a black motorcycle jacket and leather boots. As we got ready for bed, which for me consisted of taking off my shoes, the Captain withdrew a small pistol from his coat pocket. Placing the gun under his pillow and tossing his jacket on the floor, he said, “Shit, you never know what’ll come through the doorway in a place like this. Don’t make any sudden moves when I’m asleep.” And with that, he was out.

Somewhat worried, I drifted off to sleep. Wishing I had a gun, too, but having to content myself with a four-inch switchblade knife. I made sure the safety was on, so it wouldn’t snap and stab me in the leg. I nodded off to the intermittent sound of screams and thuds down the hall and the occasional siren, and the night passed uneventfully.

The next morning, I checked out the shower, but decided I was already cleaner than the shower stall. I let it slide and went downstairs in search of food. Across the street, the trash was still heaped from the night before. I walked across to check it out, but the smell kept me back.

I noticed one thing right away. The rats had no fear. Back home, rats – if you saw them at all – scattered as soon as a human moved into sight. Not here. These rats stood their ground, staring back at me with bared teeth. Son of a bitch, I thought. They’re all nasty here.

Seeing me and the rats, one of the guys offered some sage advice. “Just make sure everything you eat is cooked good,” he said. “And stay clear of dead ones. They have diseases.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” I said.

The fried eggs cost as much as a steak dinner back home. And then we walked across town to work. They say dogs can sense your fear. Well, people sense other things. That morning, I watched the panhandlers shake down passerby. “Hey buddy! Got some spare change for an old man?”

When the Captain and me walked by, they didn’t say anything. I guess they sensed our frugality. We reached our destination with no loss of funds.

And that’s what it was like for me, in the Big City thirty years ago.

12 comments:

ORION said...

I had the opposite experience in Washington DC in the '70's. I lived there for almost 2 years
I was naive and wandered into areas I should never have been in and even picked up hitchhikers in my 1956 volkswagon beetle.
I am stunned that I survived.

Jan said...

woof

you've come a long way from the taft to the park lane. I am sure there are many stories packed in those next 30 plus years. I believe there are more seeds for more books.

My first trip to the big apple was with my folks in the back seat of a buick convertible on a summer evening to see Bobby Short at the Carlyle Hotel. I had been issued a fancy dress and white gloves for the occassion and sat quietly drinking shirley temples while the music and singing filled the room. My Mom was in her element loving every minute. I felt confined but enraptured by the energy of all the people in the room and the focus on one man who kept the room mezmerized. I slept in all the way home.

Other journeys to the city started with dressing in a linen dress and joining friends at the train station of a saturday adventure to the theater - or later to the Brooklyn Fox - but these trips involved a stop at the ladies room of grand central to change out of the clothes our parents expected us to wear when venturing into the city, into jeans which were more appropiate to taking the subway to Brooklyn.

Ah, the twists and turns of the life adventure!

Orion - or Pat - when I look back I too have many experiences I am stunned to have survived. I am glad I don't know all the things that my sons are doing and often amazed when I am now getting bits and pieces of their experiences that I was shielded from!

thanks for sharing your wonderful stories.

Kim Stagliano said...

I stepped over a dead person in NY on the corner of 3rd and 50th in 1992. Bulump - no time to stop! I was a busy bee executive off to a meeting. People were standing around pointing and I just happened to walk to that corner. Today I would stop. I think.

Trish Ryan said...

I feel like every trip to NYC is different...the city is like people, some characteristics stay the same, but other things change so much you can't believe it's the place you remember.

(I'm pretty sure that doesn't make sense, but you know what I mean...)

Polly Kahl said...

I work in the city as a talent escort at red carpet events a couple of times a year, which is always a great reprieve from my heavy work, mommyhood and country livin' here in PA. I think the climate in the city is warmer since 9/11. It seems to me that eye contact has improved, people have slowed down a little and actually see each other a little more now. But that may be some projection because of how that experience changed me.

I had a traumatic experience with cockroaches in the city circa 1975, related to my childhood abuse, which will be in my memoir. Had post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares about it for years. Fortunately no rats though.

Once when I spoke at a conference in the city I was put up at the Chelsea, pre-renovation. That was a trip, and not altogether a pleasant one. The only thing that would have given it more flavor would have been if Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were there that week. But luckily I missed them by a few years.

I would not change any of these memories for anything. What a hoot!

Anyhoo John, I don't think it's you. I think it is actually friendlier. And thanks, this is a perfect way to end the day, with a smile on my face before crawling into bed.

The Anti-Wife said...

My first trip to NYC was on business back in 1981. I was totally intimidated and scared to death. My bosses had me stay at the Plaza,told me to take cabs everywhere and gave me a list of places to go and not to go. I was there for 3 days and only left the hotel for meetings and once for dinner. NY wasn't as nice back then as it is now.

John Elder Robison said...

Anti-Wife, I now stay at the Park Lane, which is adjacent to the old Plaza.

The Plaza is closed for renovations now. They are making it into condos, "from 1.5 million" according the the sign.

I do think it's nicer now and it's not just me.

Kanani said...

Yes, it's nicer.
Though it's much more expensive everywhere. New development, gentrification, land price increases --it's really changed things in NYC.

Chumplet said...

What a great story. Reminds me of Tom Hanks in 'Big' the first time he stays in the city.

TR said...

I like the story, John. New York City is a nicer place to live in and to visit these days. You are probably nicer, too. I've been going to NYC at least once a month for the past six years, and there is a friendlier attitude among the locals. Money has always smoothed the bumps in a city, where hassles can be as common as pepperoni on a slice of Ray's pizza.

Demon Hunter said...

Wow, John. Interesting story. I can tell I'm going to like your writing, just from your story. What an experience. I went to New York as a young kid with my family and I had a blast. We stayed with relatives. I love it! I really noticed a significant change after 9/11.

Michelle O'Neil said...

My guess is YOU are happier, and it is being reflected back to you.