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Not every night is eventful, of course, even the ones you were most hopeful about. The lure of the forbidden is always more compelling than an engraved invitation. But the greatest era of nighttime in New York is always the one that coincides with your own youth.
When I arrived in the city in November — one of its most mythologized eras, I know, but it was mine — the death of the disco age had just been sealed when Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were busted for tax evasion. And what replaced Studio 54 and Xenon was grittier, more egalitarian, and, to our minds, way cooler and more authentic.
It was a kind of punk reaction to glitzy disco, although elements of disco, including a pervasive pansexuality, were subsumed into this new order. A heroin epidemic was ravaging the poorer neighborhoods of the city, creating a wave of crime that spilled over everywhere.
The whiff of danger had become the scent of the Manhattan streets. You quickly developed a sixth sense, and you tried to keep it turned on even as you got obliterated on alcohol and drugs. I suppose this era was probably almost finished by the time I had a book party for my first novel at Area, the sprawling Tribeca club with art installations that changed every six weeks and legendary coed bathrooms that were the scenes of epic orgies. In , not long after my party, Rubell and Schrager, having served their prison sentences, took their show downtown, opening a huge club in the Palladium, a former concert hall on East 14th Street.
I remember showing up after midnight for the opening, joining at least 2, people on the sidewalk desperate for entry. Where the hell had they all come from? It felt like the end of something — if only my 20s. I suspect that young people still venture out after dark in New York City with something more propulsive than cash — and with the same sense of wonder and hope that we did. Regis that ended in a 4 a. He was something at the time and still trying to keep his legend going.
Here he was, the most powerful, feared columnist in the world, most certainly in the world of New York City, which to New Yorkers is the only world, of course. But he had been on my show, and he sort of took a liking to me. This is long after he had been totally defanged. Tony Martin was the star at the time, warbling his songs. The strangest part was that I felt underdressed because Walter showed up in a tuxedo with a. I decided not to cross him that night. He was notorious for carrying a gun, and he was rather proud of having it.
A Freudian would interpret it as a phallic remembrance of his former prowess or something. He picked me up and was driving his own car. The old bastard had his cop radio — not the kind you or I can buy, but the real official cop radio — because he spent his life cruising around New York with his cop radio on. As soon as there was a crime, Walter was there.
He was clinging to these old vestiges of his notoriety, with the gun, the cop radio … The old Walter Winchell tough act. I used to love to listen to him on the radio as a kid. He was the voice of that show, that patented, sharp, dramatically penetrating voice. He was a major force in the business.
He would make or break an act. Presidents wanted him on their side. To lose all that power must have been sad. Then we went out and did his nightly prowl, or what was left of Winchell and his radio pursuit of crime in the city.
We got some kind of a call, went down to a precinct, but we had missed all the excitement. The cops were there just filling out forms. He seemed to drop 20 years, he was so grateful that this kid recognized his voice. He then supplied an unrequested autograph. It made its way smoothly north through Hell Gate and out into Long Island Sound, clipping along at a speedy 12 miles per hour, before some cotton near the smokestack caught fire. Nearly everyone aboard perished, and men were stationed all along the coast to recover personal property and cargo as it washed ashore.
Over the weekend, plans formed to remove cargo and lighten the load so the steamer could float off the sand, but by late Sunday night the currents prevailed, and the ship split in the middle with horrible noises that terrified the crew.
Commanding officers drew their pistols to get the crew to stop panicking, and then they abandoned ship. The ship had just finished loading more than a thousand tons of incendiary bombs, depth charges, anti-aircraft ammunition, and blockbuster bombs. As night set in, those battling the blaze grew desperate, fearing the ship could turn into an enormous bomb with the potential to reach New Jersey, Staten Island, and even, some speculated, lower Manhattan.
Mayor La Guardia arrived just before 10 p. Shortly before midnight, however, the radio message went out: When Keith Haring did the wall at Bowery and Houston, he asked me for permission. I was shocked by that. Everyone was awed by walls, and I never realized that. You paint in the middle of the night by moonlight. All you need is a ladder … and some cojones.
In , I was on Hudson and Horatio — it was still pretty shady over there at the time — and I could not get a cab. This big giant Cadillac pulls up, and a guy and a girl were in it. It was obviously a pimp and his girl.
Do you need a ride? His name was Magic, her name was Angel, and it was like a scene out of a Scorsese movie. Maybe it was how they smelled — this combo of English Leather and Chanel No.
Once I smelled the familiarity, I felt safe, even though it was so taboo and risky and just not done. Not only did they give me a ride, but they invited me to the most fabulous party I had ever gone to.
Everything was freely flowing — yes, there was a mountain of Peruvian marching powder on a glass table — but there was also caviar and Champagne and Bellinis. It was one of those parties. Magic and Angel, I wonder where they are now. God knows what they really did, and who they were.
Nightfall used to pretty much put an end to advertising. It hung off the side of the Cumberland Hotel at 23rd Street and Broadway, an intersection then widely considered the center of city life. Heinz, who stayed in a nearby Madison Square hotel, took note and ordered up an incandescent green pickle and a brilliant white 57 for his varieties on the same wall.
New York development, meanwhile, was racing uptown, and when, in , the New York Times outgrew its story building on Park Row, Adolph Ochs looked north to a thin wedge of land on Seventh Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, where Broadway carved a bow-tie-shaped opening into the Manhattan grid.
Down went four existing townhouses, and up went feet of steel, brick, limestone, and terra-cotta. Her skirt blew just enough to reveal some stocking and a hint of Heatherbloom petticoat. But this somehow seemed to concentrate rather than shrink the signs. Times Square pulled in all the light around it, growing brighter like a hungry star. And it was working. People came from all over to stare.
The rent brought in by some signs exceeded that brought in by occupancy. A college dropout who, it was said, could sell dirt to a farmer, Leigh parlayed an out-of-the-way Bronx billboard into an extended stay at the Hotel St. Moritz so he could start a business with a Central Park South address. Then he set his sights on Times Square. There were, by his count, 90, lightbulbs in the square in He also imagined into existence a foot coffee cup that emitted 1.
An ad for Bromo-Seltzer bubbled endlessly, while another for Camel cigarettes blew five-foot smoke rings in steam. He even had handymen on patrol from dusk until 1 a. These early spectaculars, with their wit and whimsy, prefigured the TV ads to come. So it perhaps should not surprise us that they would eventually be replaced by enormous programmable screens. Now a 24 million—pixel megascreen stretches along Broadway from 45th to 46th on the Marriott Marquis, the biggest digital billboard in the world.
One can only imagine that Douglas Leigh would have been impressed. And it was this narrow sliver of a shop that obviously had sold antique clothes or something.
I was told, back then, that all the cast of the original Saturday Night Live went there after the show; this was their haunt, this was their after-party-after-party Copacabana. And I went there countless times, eating Velveeta cheese, waiting for them, and they never came. They never showed up.
I think they had moved on by then. It was a very different time. The city was bankrupt, the Lower East Side was basically firebombed, and it was extremely dangerous. It was the Son of Sam. It was the blackout, with people looting and 3, people getting arrested. I mean, the crime that existed and surrounded us as artists absolutely influenced the art we were making.
It was like a public temper tantrum. What I liked about that period was the absolute bawdy raunchiness. It was a lusty and greedy time, and anything was allowed. I would hijack taxis occasionally, if I liked the driver. I could live on that. There was also a clinic on Second Avenue near St. Marks Place where you could get any drugs you wanted — black beauties, Plazadol, Seconals, Tuinal. Basically, you got them to sell them. I mean, the whole city was a criminal enterprise of corruption and bankruptcy, so our petty crimes were nothing.
One time the members of Teenage Jesus got in a van and went up to Studio But on the way back, Bradley Field, our drummer, who was a notorious alcoholic badass, just started yelling at the car next to us — and they started firing a gun at us!
We had to race back down to the Lower East Side. That was an exciting night. One thing that Matthew used to do to me, he used to walk me with my hand over my eyes …. And he would walk me into completely random places and take my hand off my eyes and I would be in the most strange, unconnected-to-the-previous-spot places. The first time it happened, we were somewhere near Union Square, and …. We ended up in the lobby of Zeckendorf Towers.
I was very delighted by it. New York has so many close-together, completely different, crazy things you can suddenly be staring at after a five-minute walk from one spot to the next. We were up late because our work often required it.
Sex and the City shot really, really late. And for years, so was I. Night was our twilight. We have a lot of nostalgia about that time. I love those times where you almost feel alone. I would only pick it up if it were heads up. I found a hundred-dollar bill in the lobby of a theater. I found a check recently, for a very large amount of money, like thousands of dollars, and I tried to be a proper investigator like Sherlock Holmes, and I was able to find the owner.
The other night, walking home after the Oscars, we found a kazoo, sitting with a glove, together. It would complete a house, a home, a life.
On a late-night dog-walking excursion, I thought a homeless person asked me for some money. I gave him a dollar. And once I was eating a slice of pizza, and a young man pulled a knife on me and took my slice!
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