Tag Archive for 'Times Square'

DRAFTED/Part Three

Part 4

Like a condemned man I’ve learned to savor my reprieves.  To relish that moment of bliss  before my misdeed is punished. 

The criminal knows he’ll be caught, but wants the champagne and dancing girls. As a kid I lied about my grades so my mother would let me go out on Friday nights knowing I would be smacked, shrieked at and grounded when I brought my failing report  card home.  I forged her signature on an excused absence note when I “played hooky” to go to “Forty-deuce” to see Madame Olga’s House of Pleasure and eat ten cent hamburgers  at White Castle. I did it on Friday so I would have a glorious weekend and a tranquil Monday before my 8th Grade teacher called on Tuesday to report  the forgery.

“Why was I cursed with such a lying bum for a son?” my mother would cry.

I was unmoved by her despair. The freedom of the “D” train  to Times Square, the taste of fried onions while watching buxom ladies disport in complex lingerie was worth anything she could do to me. 

Now I’ve connived a reprieve from Uncle Sam. I’ve been classified 1Y  by Selective Service, granted a whole year before the System turns it baleful eye back onto me.

A cultural revolution is taking place on MacDougal Street in clubs like the Cafe Wha and Gaslight Cafe. Folk music, jazz, comedy. Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Bill Cosby, Charlie Mingus, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, even Joan Rivers: every major artist of the next thirty years is getting a start here.  At the San Remo Cafe, the stars of the Boho world are mingling. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, John Cage,  Delmore Schwartz, James Agee, Tennessee Williams. Up the block on Bleecker, at the Bitter End,  Woody Allen is opening for Richie Havens. 

I am oblivious to this ferment. I sit for hours at  a window table  in the Cafe Figaro at Bleecker and MacDougal, nursing a hot cider with a cinnamon stick,  smoking Gauloises, playing chess, reading Notes from the Underground–watching the girls go by. Occasionally, there’s a flurry when Burt  the manager throws out a drunk. Burt was kicked off the Cincinnati police force for brutality, although Pierre, a black kid from Cleveland, says that’s next to impossible. “You’d have to eat a motherfucker to get kicked off the Cincinnati police…” Burt punches first, a looping right to the bridge of the nose and issues instructions to the slumping victim– “get the fuck outta my store”–later. 

One night Burt and his tipsy brother Tom, the owner, stand over my table, arms folded. I think I’m about to get the bum’s rush. 

“I guess we’ll  have to hire you if we want our table back,” says Tom. “You can be our new machine man.”

I give notice at the funeral parlor. They take me to Cookie’s Buffet on Avenue M for a farewell dinner. Owning an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Brooklyn is the closest thing to hara kiri the West has invented. People rush the buffet like it’s the end of Yom Kippur.  Veal cutlets parrmigiana are secreted in purses.  Drumsticks are shoved down pants. Steaks are passed through the ladies room window to confederates in the parking lot. The eponymous Cookie stands by the door, blanching under his Miami tan. The place is jammed and he’s going broke. A few months later Cookie’s  burns down after being hit by “Jewish lightning,” a peculiar phenomenon that only strikes businesses on the verge of bankruptcy.

I’m taking a thirty-five dollar cut from $75 to $55, but “machine man” is the the coolest job in coffee house culture. I make espressos, hot cider, cafe au lait in tall glasses, ice cream sodas and sundaes. I taste hazelnut coffee and herb tea for the first time. Plus I eat for free–cheeseburgers, BLT’s, Yankee bean soup, pie a la mode. 

I’m a member of the proletarian aristocracy. I have no money, no resume, but I have cachet. I’m greeted by the important customers, the NYU profs, the freelance journalists, the mysterious old guys at the corner tables who turn out to be blacklisted screenwriters.

Suddenly, I’m a trophy screw. French girls with a few days to kill in New York love my sub basement. “Oh formidable…”  NYU girls like walking the streets with someone under 40 who knows everybody.

I have months of joy. No drudgery, no need for lies or excuses. I’m the “machine man” at the Figaro. I can do no wrong.

One night there’s an awestruck girl from Brooklyn College. “Oh my God, are you actually working in the Figaro?” Her boyfriend wears a tweed jacket and an ascot. He takes off his gloves to shake hands. Very classy. 

He works as an Assistant Make up editor for the NY Post.  There’s been a 114 day newspaper strike and they lost most of their copy boys, he says. The strike is over and they’re hiring. It’s a good time to get in.

“But I dropped out of college to go to Paris,” I say.

“The Managing Editor’s wife is French,” he says. “His name is Alvin Davis. Write him a letter.”

It takes a whole day to write a four paragraph letter. I tell the truth. How I hated college and fled to Paris in the great tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but  became so fluent in French I was terrified that I  was losing command of English. How I can think of nothing better than working for the paper I grew up reading.

A week later I get a reply. My letter has been jammed into a small envelope with a scrawled note: “Interview, Davis..”

I  put on my black undertaker suit and go to the NY Post building downtown at 75 West Street.  Leonard Arnold, the Personnel Manager  is in a cubicle at the end of the Classified Department.  He’s a gray-haired guy in a brown suit. “You read the Post?”

Every day all my life,” I say. 

“Okay, give me the names of three sportswriters.”

I name the whole department. Even Jerry De Nonno who handicaps the races.

He gives me a one page application. “You’re on probation for thirty days,” he says. “If you’re hired the union will see it to you can make $50 a week for the rest of your life. The rest is up to you.”

“You mean I’m really working for the NY Post.”

“Al Davis liked your letter,” he says. He shakes my hand. “Come in Monday morning.”

I go out to Brooklyn to tell my mother. “I got a job at the Post.”

She gets a worried look. “A real job? Did you lie about college?”

My grandmother is rinsing potatoes at the sink. She stops to wave the peeler at me. “Look, he thinks he’s a big shot already…”

I’m taking a five dollar cut down to $50 a week. and losing my privileged status. No more French tourists for me. But it’s worth it. I’m going to be a newspaperman.

Next morning there is a letter from Selective Service… “You are ordered to report for your physical examination…”

My year is up.





July ’73, Times Square, New York…There’s a recession on, but you can’t tell by me. I’ve got a bar job– twenty-seven bucks a night and all the goldfish I can eat. It’s at the Hotel Diplomat, an SRO on 43rd. St. and Sixth Ave. We call it “the Roach Motel” because once you check in you don’t check out. Half the tenants are seniors, shuffling around the mahogany chairs and sputtering lamps in the lobby until they find a spot on a lumpy sofa where they can lean on their walkers, muttering to the ghosts in the gloom. They stop breathing in rooms filled with fifty years of clutter, and lie forgotten until their stench signals their demise. The stronger ones make it to the hospital, bounced down the steps on a gurney, heads turning for one last dazed look around before they vanish into the ambulance of no return.

Hookers live in rooms rented by their pimps, who hang out in a bar off the lobby. They are hustled out, handcuffed and hysterical, by Vice Squad cops. New girls immediately take their places like there’s a waiting list. The seniors lean on their walkers and watch as they lead raucous sailors, nervous high school kids or furtive men in suits across the lobby.

Slouchy guys mutter in the phone booths by the elevators. Some of them are found with the needles still in their arms. Alerted by a trail of blood under the doors the maids enter to find the others tied, gagged and slashed in ransacked rooms. The seniors hobble down the hall as EMS workers wheel the bodies out, wrapped in their bloody sheets.

Rats the size of anteaters raid the liquor room, ripping open the bags of pretzels, unscrewing the tops of the maraschino cherry jars. We shout and sing to get them to scatter before we enter, but there are a few practical jokers in the pack. You don’t know what terror is until you’ve been startled by a giant rodent covered in Red Dye No. 2.

The Diplomat was once the hotel of the soft Left. The Socialist Party had its meetings and dances in its three ballrooms. Now promoters rent the spaces for dances and special events. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night the Crystal Room, so named for its chandeliers, is taken over by Alfredo, a twitchy middle-aged Neapolitan and Gerry, his blonde Brooklyn girlfriend. They put on dances for Italian immigrants. They charge ten dollars at the door and the hotel gets the bar. The room has a capacity of seven hundred and fifty. Every night begins with Alfredo pacing nervously as a few people straggle in. But by ten o’clock the place is jammed.

Three of us work a ninety foot bar. It’s Paul, a retired mailman from Harlem, Al, an angry butcher at Gristedes, who sells swag steaks out of the trunk of his car and me, a recently separated hack writer with a six year old son. We each have a bottle of Seagrams Seven, Highland Dew scotch, Gordon’s gin and Wolfschmidt’s vodka–and a soda gun. Seven and Seven is the cocktail du soir; we go through at least three cases of Seagrams a night. All drinks are $1.25 and served in plastic cups. No bottled beer; quarrels often erupt and the management doesn’t want any throwable glassware available.

The customers rush the bar, hundreds of them, shouting and shoving and clamoring for drinks for like they’ve been crawling on the Sahara for weeks. They pay in small change. “These greaseballs don’t go for spit,” Al says. By midnight, we have so many nickels in the register that Lester, the night manager dumps them in a huge sack. A quarter is considered a big tip and is presented with much pomp and ceremony. A few of the guys proffer a buck like it’s the papal crown on a plush pillow, but then they want free drinks for the friends and any stray girl who happens by. We do the math and figure that with people coming and going Alfredo is grossing ten thousand cash a night on Friday and Saturday and about five on Sunday– twenty-five G’s for low. Figuring an average crowd of twelve hundred, averaging three drinks at $1.25 per, that’s about $4500 for the hotel. For very low. “Everybody’s makin’ money and we get screwed,” Al says. We decide to charge the customers and steal from the till.

A quintet plays Top 40 and traditional Italian. Vito, the vocalist, a short kid with a gimpy leg and coke bottle glasses, is the ideal cover singer, doing Marvin Gay, Frankie Valli or Domenico Madugno with equal fidelity . Gerry rakes the dance floor with disco lighting, flashing, strobing, changing color, sweeping the room like a prison spotlight. The dancers do the same steps to a proto party list, going from Swear to God to Let’s Get It On to Volare.

There is a hard core of about a hundred regulars who show up every week. Among the men, an older group, smooth-shaven and slick-haired in wide-shouldered suits clusters at one end of the bar. They own pizza parlors all over Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vito explains. Another faction, young and modish in jeans and leather vests over sleeveless tees comes to my end. They work in “debt collection, you know what I mean?” Vito says flicking his nose. The two groups greet each other guardedly and never mix.

The females are either overdressed, heavily made up and deliriously sexy, at least to me, or mousy and awkward and giggling with each other. They arrive in groups like a bus tour and dance together for the first hour until the men join in. Everyone usually pairs off, but one night I spot a melancholy lady staring at me as she knocks back Seven and Sevens. At closing an invitation to coffee leads to a lurching clinch in the lobby and more stumbled kisses on the subway steps. But she sobers up on the long ride out to Brooklyn and by the time we get to Bensonhurst it’s life story time with lots of names and places, weddings, spiteful cousins, he saids, she saids… I find out she lives on 18th. Avenue with her parents and her “fiance” is a few doors down and I’m out of there. The next week she’s at the bar with one of the “debt collectors,” giving me a complicit smile like we’re having a mad affair.

The ’60′s had been a stressful time, what with psychedelics, army physicals and the shock of parenthood. Now, in the ’70′s I wake up broke, rejected and full of guilt on a mattress on the dusty floor of an empty apartment. But I’m not in school, I’m not in the army, I’m not married and I’m up for a job writing porno novels at ten dollars a page. Life is good.

One night I come to work to find a line a gleaming limos in front of the hotel.

“We doing weddings now?” I ask Lester.

“They’re havin’ a big party at Le Jardin tonight.”

He’s a black dude who’s been at the Diplomat for forty years, working his way up from porter. You’d think he had seen everything, but he shakes his head in amazement.

“They had Diana Ross and the Supremes up there the other night. They get just about everybody…”

I remember a few weeks ago when the place opened. “They got a fag joint on the roof,” Al had said.

Vito had gone up there one night and come back with a dismal report. “No live music…They got a DJ like on the radio. Two turntables goin’ back and forth…” He looked at me helplessly. “Everybody’s gonna do this now. We’re dead…”

It’s the beauty of narcissism. A seismic cultural phenomenon was erupting right under my nose and I didn’t even notice it.

For the first time I notice that the lobby has a new population. Young, stylish, flamboyant, pushing the seniors off their perches, interfering with the orderly process of prostitution, even sending the dope dealers into temporary retreat. They jam into the only elevator that goes to the roof, making so many trips that the motor burns out and they have to take the stairs.

“They wait on line like they’re givin’ out twenty dollar bills,” Lester says. “You oughta go up there. They got everything goin’ on…”