77th and Broadway

verdi square

Thirty-five years ago this weekend I moved to New York City to seek fame and fortune; just another romantic fool. I wanted to write for the musical theater and my dreams were significantly larger than my talent.

I took a one-way flight from Norfolk to La Guardia. I had no job, 300 dollars in travelers checks, and knew one person, my friend, Tom Cherry. He met me at the airport and we took the subway all the way into the city, most of it underground, and when we finally exited from the 72nd Street Station into that strange twilight, my first impression of NYC was Verdi Square, located at the intersection of 72nd and Broadway. It looks lovely in the photo above, but when I saw it, it was 1979 and the city was falling apart and going broke. The statue of Giuseppe was almost black from all the carbon exhaust and covered in pigeon shit. The main thing that struck me was how dismal and dirty everything was, not to mention the minefields of dog shit on the sidewalks (I assume this was before any pick-up ordinances…or maybe people just didn’t care). None of this mattered. It was love at first sight; I was trodding the same streets that Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers may have trod.

We walked the five blocks up to 77th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, an 11-storey building that probably saw it’s best days in the 30s or 40s. It was an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel and I took the elevator with Tom up to room 1101, a room he shared with another guy from Elizabeth City, Steve Rhees. The room had two beds, a sink and a small desk in the corner. There was a communal bathroom down the hall. I bedded down on the floor between their beds. It was a corner room facing west with 5 windows. In winter the full force of the icy wind off the Hudson came rolling in and there was ice on the inside of the windows. Of course the opposite was true in the summer, the afternoon sun made the place a furnace. But the windows did offer entertainment, which was welcome since we could not afford a TV or the movies. There was another building across the street on the west side of Broadway and there, two floors down, curtains wide open and lights on, I got to see the sins of the flesh in living color. A woman lived there who was somewhat of an exhibitionist, let’s just say that modesty was not one of her virtues (and she had a lot of visitors…hmmm). But like all things, even that got old and I went back to reading books or listening to music. None of this mattered. I loved it.

I later got my own room, room 933, and I had one window overlooking a fire station. You get used to the sirens real quick. None of this mattered. I loved it.

The hotel was the home to a lot of elderly folk and we jokingly referred to it as the Dinosaur Hotel. It was not unusual to see daily postings in the elevator along these lines “Mrs. Goldstein in 607 has passed away, memorial service to be held tomorrow.” Aside from the elderly there were other interesting characters who lived at the hotel or in the vicinity. There was “chicken man” who strutted along Broadway and at random moments, and to no one in particular, would let out a huge crow and cackle. It scared you the first time, but then you realized he was harmless and you ignored him just like the sirens. More troubling was “the Mick”. He referred to himself in this way and was a huge Irishman with a black handlebar mustache. I never saw him sober and his rants were sometimes horrifying and sometimes funny, “You American wankers do nothing but drink piss beer and go to bars with women. Why don’t you let me take you to a man’s bar…an Irish bar?” And then there was “the Perv” (our nickname), who had a habit of knocking on your door (he was usually drunk as well) and extracting his manhood and waving it at you. We quickly found out that he was harmless as well.

I heard a gunshot one night. I saw the dead being wheeled out. I saw more roaches than I care to comment on. None of this mattered. I was 21, on my own and living in New York City.

I lived on the upper west side from September 1979 to February 1982 when I got my own apartment on Sullivan Street in the Village. Would I ever want to live like that again? No! but I would not trade those times and experiences for anything. Did those experiences change me? Definitely! but unfortunately I am still the same romantic fool. But you know what? None of that matters. I love it.