I grew up in the suburbs of New York and had only one goal: get to The City. As a teenager I took the train in whenever possible and soaked up as much '70s atmosphere as I could. And believe me, in the '70s the place was thick with atmosphere--a stew of graffiti, beggars, X-rated movie theaters with "greeters," Diane Arbus subjects, and an overarching sense of menace and inflation. It was not a place for children, and I was thrilled no longer to be a child.
In the 1970s Times Square was the epicenter of New York atmosphere. The place had not yet been Disneyfied and my friend Gaynor and I spent a wet and sleazy New Year's Eve there getting kissed by strangers as 1974 turned to '75. Up by the ball in One Times Square, Dick Clark was challenging Waldorf-Astoria-based Guy Lombardo for the network TV title of Mr. New Year's Eve, and it gives me a stark sense of the passage of time to realize that Dick was then a newbie at the job. But Gaynor and I cared nothing for either of them.
We had gone to see a Mountain concert at the Felt Forum, the smaller stage attached to Madison Square Garden. (These days it's called, depressingly enough, the WaMu Theater.) Gaynor and I had been forbidden to see each other by her mother, who inexplicably thought I was a bad influence. Who, me? I had graduated high school at 16 and was already halfway through my freshman year of college while Gaynor was cutting the bulk of her 11th grade classes. Somehow I only seemed to get in trouble when I was with Gaynor, and my own mother had given up her ineffective efforts to keep us apart once she realized I probably wouldn't end up in jail.
At any rate, that December 31st Gaynor and I took the commuter train into Grand Central and walked to Madison Square Garden for the early show, about which I remember absolutely nothing except that it got out around 11:00p.m. There was a light rain and of course we were too cool to carry umbrellas, so by the time we walked the 10 blocks to Times Square we were cold and clammy.
Like everyone else on earth we'd heard that this was the place to be on New Year's Eve. And like everyone else on earth, we had gone there that night. The streets were packed, and the moistness gave the scene the feel of a giant, chaotic, open-air locker room during some twisted championship game.
In this case, the game seemed to be to see how many strangers you could kiss before the ball dropped. We were grabbed and buffetted about the closed-off streets, our faces slobbered on by men tall and short, fat and thin. They spoke to us in foreign languages and, occasionally, English. It felt frenzied and lawless and somewhat thrilling. We veered between wanting to run for the train and to play the kissing game to win.
Finally, just as we'd had about enough, I was grabbed by a ringer for the Marlboro Man. He enveloped me in his damp arms, tilted me back and kissed me deeply. For the first and only time that night, I kissed back. I had visions of '40s movies and a tingle that I could have easily believed was true love. I wanted it to go on forever but in a matter of moments he raised me back up and strode off. "Wait!" I wanted to yell after him. "Let me give you my phone number!" If only I could have squeaked out a sound at that point, or remembered my phone number.
To this day when the talk turns to memorable kisses I am transported to the recruiting station just under the ball-drop and the arms of a beautiful stranger.
The rest of the night was anticlimatic. Gaynor and I got our sodden bodies on the train, which was delayed for more than an hour when a man dropped dead in one of the front cars. Gaynor had no patience for tragedy and took his death as a personal affront. She knew that there would be no explaining her lateness to her mother. Indeed, my diary from January 1, 1975 notes that I dropped her home at 3:15a.m. and when I got home at 3:30 my mother was sitting in the kitchen. She said that Gaynor's mother had called and would I please refrain from doing things that would bring on those calls.
A postscript: I worked in Times Square in the 1980s, still pre-Disney, and occasionally would marvel that "normal" life went on amid this circus. When I stepped outside my office I could watch Olympic-quality breakdancers perform on a flattened box used earlier in the day for three-card monte games. I'd be offered whips and wrench sets for sale--whatever had fallen off the truck that day. I loved those streets, even if I had to hold on extra tightly to my purse while trying to focus on the warm glow. I might point out that I was never mugged until I foolishly took a trip to Philadelphia.
As a New Yorker of a certain age (and I still consider myself a New Yorker even though I've been gone for two decades), I feel nostalgic for the freakish and dangerous that used to thrive in Manhattan and was especially concentrated in Times Square. It's hard to find a good whip salesman or breakdancer these days, ironically harder around 42nd Street than in small-town USA. But if you're looking for an accomplished kiss from a hot stranger, I suggest you hop a plane to New York for Monday night's festivities. Even cleaned up, there's still nothing like Times Square on New Year's Eve. At least once.
Originally published 12/30/07.