Times Square: The Sleazy Years

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.) [Ed. note: Now, the Hulu Theater. So it goes.] 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.

Best Wishes for a Rainbow-Filled New Year

J'adore Randy Rainbow! He wasn't always the famous Trump-teasing superstar he is today. Once he was just as bitter and unsuccessful as the rest of us, and not afraid to put it out there.

This is Randy's first-ever video, posted 10 years ago this week and the Source of Video Wonderfulness.

So happy 2020, Gurl! You are a big part of the reason we will be kissing the Desperate Cheeto goodbye and good riddance.

Home for the Holiday

 My first solo apartment followed a string of four nightmare roommates in four years.

The book publishing company co-worker on the Upper West Side who lurked outside my bedroom door, waiting for me to go to the bathroom so she’d have someone to talk to besides her cat.

The Wisconsonite in Chelsea with the bad nose job who dotted the eyes on her passive-aggressive notes with little bubbles and left them in the “kitchen” that was actually a converted hotel room closet where the oven door didn’t open all the way.

The creepy couple whose rent I turned out to be paying – and then some – at the dark place in Soho that was mostly hallway, with my tiny, padlocked bedroom and its barred window onto an air shaft.

Me in my pre-blonde days with David, my friend
Marcia's boyfriend (now her husband of 
30+ years)
That last one did it. I took Manhattan’s heavy-handed hints and signed a lease on a ground-floor one-bedroom in Astoria, Queens. There I’d have no nut jobs except those I invited in myself.

It was actually easier to get to work from Queens than it had been from that Soho pit. I was employed by an audio magazine on the Upper East Side, writing about autosound and more house-bound stereo equipment.

The main perk of that job, besides the friendships and relationships among the rapidly changing twenty-somethings on staff, was discounts on the products we wrote about. I examined the specs on dozens of turntable-amp-tuner configurations, then picked the prettiest one: a mid-sized yet powerful Harmon-Kardon stack in brushed chrome. I added a pair of speakers I’d heard at the audiophile section of the Consumer Electronics Show, held in the Las Vegas Jockey Club, where I was the only woman roaming the halls except for an occasional hard-working PR "lady."

Marica (on that tweedy couch) strings popcorn
with other partygoers/menial labor. Note the
speaker in the corner.
That December, of 1982, I bought my first Christmas tree. I held my first tree-trimming party, to kickstart an ornament collection that today is filled with Proustian madeleines. I cranked up the Harmon-Kardon and blasted the Blondie. I gave my work friends, who now, almost 40 years later are just my friend-friends, popcorn, cranberries and spools of thread and told them to get to it. We laughed and drank and swapped tales about being yelled at by our crazy publisher.

After everyone had left, I sat alone on the tweedy couch that had come with the place. I turned off the lights and looked at my glowing Christmas tree. It was strung with little white lights I’d picked up at the Woolworth’s near the office. My parents’ Christmas lights were large and brightly colored. I was going my own way.

The H-K played Squeeze and Elvis Costello and the Pretenders. It had small, glowing red and green lights I hadn’t noticed before that night. They blinked “Merry Christmas” and told me I was where I was supposed to be. I was a quarter century old and everything was merry and bright.

The Endless Promise of Christmas Magazines

'Tis the season for a baking plan and here I sit, surrounded by 25 years of Christmas magazines. The oldest ones date from 1980 and the newest one, well, I bought it last week. That means I've been optimistic about Christmas baking for more than a quarter of a century, and I'm no Martha Stewart. I can't believe it. I'm sicker than I thought, and that's saying something.

For one thing, why in the world am I still buying these things? If I preheated the oven right now and started sifting flour, I would die of old age before I could make half the recipes in this pile. And I still have several hundred cookbooks, including God only knows how many specifically about Christmas.

This massive 25-year stack, which lives on top of the cabinets in the breakfast room, is obscene, Christmas porn. Bad enough that I’ve saved them, which probably puts me in some twisted packrat category. But check out these cover taglines: "500 Merry Ideas." One-upped (well, 130-upped) by "630 Merry Ideas." Only to be outdone by "Christmas Magic: 705 Ideas." But the 1993 Women's Day blows them all out of the water with "1104 Ideas."

What is it with numbers? Do we really think they hold the key? Why else would I buy issue after issue with promises like: "Rooms that Say Christmas 65 Ways." "150 Easy Holiday Tips." (How easy would it be to do 150 anythings?) "160 Ways to Make Yours a Holiday Home." "200 Ideas for the Best Christmas Ever." "Over 200 Ideas for Your Best and Happiest Christmas Ever!" "Over 250 Ideas for Your Most Memorable and Heartwarming Christmas Ever!" "250+ Ideas to Make Your Holidays Merrier." "400 Ideas to Make Your Holidays Happier." "400+ Ideas to Light Up the Season." "456 Holiday Ideas." "508 Christmas Ideas." "557 Glorious Ideas." "The Glory of Christmas: 935 Ideas." "Hundreds of Magical Ideas."

We all know ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the time, energy and creativity to implement ideas that make them valuable. To pretend you could even process all the information behind hundreds of ideas—“magical” or not—is to buy into the true meaning of Christmas: unmet expectations. You know what I really need? One great idea and a kitchen assistant.

I love the back covers of the magazines from the ‘80s that feature cigarette ads from More, Now, Vantage, Virginia Slims...do they still make these? Heck, maybe those represent the 41 ways to stay thin promised by one cover: two packs plus an extra will certainly keep you away from the cookie dough.

Who am I kidding with this stash of Christmas past and present? I make the same things every year, and very few come from magazines or cookbooks. They come from index cards my mother gave me, back when she still baked. They're for coconut-honey balls, which I rolled in confectioner's sugar back in the '70s and still do, every year. If I make nothing else, I always make those. (They have no honey in them, but that's the name on the card and I’m sticking to it.)

It’s almost enough to send me to the recycling bin. But I can’t dump them now; they’re part of my Christmas tradition. And as any self-respecting Christmas magazine cover will tell you, it’s all about Tradition. Or, more likely, "247 Ways to Celebrate Your Traditions."

Originally published on December 1, 2006. Since then, I have finally dumped a lot of the magazines described here. Sunday I made seven dozen coconut-honey balls from the recipe on that ancient index card. These days a friend and I share the load, baking together over the course of about five hours. But that's a hellish story for another time.