Having resided on Manhattan Island in NYC since 1976, I have come to appreciate by degrees both its potential for unparalleled levels of enforced intimacy and the curiously deferential nature of its citizenry.
New York City is like thousands upon thousands of small towns, stacked one atop another, in a largely vertical environment, and one learns straightaway to live and let live as a means of minimizing tension and conflict, and of optimizing the chances that you will get home alive to see another day. As a result, the best reaction is more often than not, no reaction at all. Of course, this is easier said than done, when at any given moment one of your fellow citizens can literally show you their ass, and suddenly, like it or not, you are enveloped in an episode of street theater as you contemplate your next make me or break me move. Think carefully now…it’s not so much that New Yorkers are jaded, or simply inured to the presence of so-called celebrities, but that cherishing our own privacy and personal space as much as we do—and as dearly as we pay through the nose to enjoy every square inch of our sanctuaries—we tend to be maybe a touch more deferential to the greats, the near-greats and the ingrates walking among us, so that chance encounters between mere mortals and those for whom the spotlight often shines well beyond the customary fifteen minutes, needn’t prove unduly awkward for observer or observed.
By the same token, if one is an impudent Nebrew upstart with a Yiddish predilection for the well-timed zinger, well then…all bets are off.
One afternoon in the late ‘90s, walking across Broadway on the Upper West Side, I encountered a familiar face in front of the Beacon Theater. It took a few swipes at the matchbook cover to set off a spark before the flame of recognition was ignited: “Well, I’ll be damned—it’s Ray Davies.”
As in that Ray Davies, lead singer for one of the most iconic British Invasion bands of the 1960s, The Kinks, and boy, did my internal jukebox ever begin to yodel: “You really got me, you really got me…”
I guess a flash bulb must’ve gone off behind my spectacles, because upon making eye contact, I discerned an unmistakable glint of discomfort. With his wiry physical frame and nervous demeanor, Ray seemed all too typical of those quiet fellows from our school daze who overcompensated like Zeus almighty to become the lead singer in a rock band.
Never mind the enigmatic star power Ray might routinely project from behind a microphone stand—in the near field it seemed apparent that our mate had precious little fatty tissue around the old nerve endings, and by God the look in his eyes suggested impending doom:
“Sweet merciful Jesus, I’ve been outed; and now he’s going to want to engage me in a conversation—oh, agony.”
Sensing his desperation in such an awkward moment, and having nary a God damn thing to say to him in the first place, as we drew closer I recognized my obligation to let him off the hook; I turned on the high beams, and with a reassuring smile, extended my fist outwards in an enthusiastic thumbs up—and kept on trucking, all the while.
Well, I could practically hear the air rush out his butt as he exhaled emotionally in the blessed realization that this particular fan was content to keep it simple, stupid; as the clouds of paranoia parted, his face broadened into a giddy grin of gratitude and he returned my high sign with an enthusiastic thumbs up of his own.
Half a lifetime before this particular encounter, I was commuting back and forth between upstate New York and Manhattan, circa 1976, all the while trying to establish a foothold for my family in NYC. Waiting in Grand Central Station for a train back to Syracuse, I had occasion to glance behind me at a tall, striking-looking man; an athletically chiseled, middle aged African-American with a broad, patrician nose dominating his stately countenance.
Time and again I stole furtive glances and finally, as we boarded the train, I worked up the chutzpah to address him: “I beg you pardon, sir, I don’t mean to be a bother, but are you Sonny Rollins?”
“Uh, yes, I am,” the saxophone colossus smiled shyly, as he sat down directly in front of my seat, passing the time peacefully with his wife Lucille by chatting and reading the Sunday Times. Me? I didn’t say word two to him, but inside my tiny little brain “East Broadway Rundown,” “Strode Road,” “Sonnymoon For Two,” “Way Out West” and damn near every Sonny Rollins tune I knew went into heavy rotation.
Just before he disembarked, we crossed paths near the rest room, and surely appreciative of my deferential silence, he was sweet enough to engage me in a brief conversation; a remarkably gracious gesture on his part, but as I got to know him over the next four decades, I came to realize that Sonny Rollins is nothing if not a mensch.
Me? I’m kind of a nudge, and over the years, in subsequent encounters with notable New Yorkers, I rarely averred from a well-placed zinger. Walking west at a brisk pace one summer evening across Central Park with the great drummer Beaver Harris, we finally took a breather on our way downtown at a Broadway bus stop, when who should we eyeball strutting north but the comedian Jackie Mason, arm in arm with a statuesque brunette straight out of a Richard Wagner wet dream of Valhalla.
I mean, it’s not as though Jackie Mason weren’t the most fascinating man you ever laid eyes on, but this Valkyrie simply towered over him. The two certainly made for an incongruous couple, and as they passed by, Mason kind of smirked at me, as if to say, “Pretty good, huh, pal?”
I took my measure of the scene, and borrowing a quote directly from his one-man show, then running on Broadway (which you may reference at 46:45 of the accompanying video clip), I shook my hand in an ambivalent gesture and quipped, “Too Jewish,” which elicited a wag of the finger and an appreciative laugh, one ball-buster to another.Speaking of ball-busting, when I was in college, my room-mate split for an off-campus apartment early in the first semester, and relishing the new-found luxury of my solo accommodations, I took it upon myself to go “shoo fly” to any and all of the congenitally Caucasian-types the school administration sought to couple me with from then on.
If rousing myself from a fitful sleep at five in the afternoon and blowing smoke in their face from a freshly lit joint didn’t stamp their postage, I would reach for my copy of The New York Art Quartet’s first ESP album, and put on their rendition of LeRoi Jones’ black revolutionary anthem, “Black Dada Nihilismus,” with a dramatic recitation by the poet himself.
Never mind returning as my room mate. I don’t think that poor innocent stopped backtracking until he reached the banks of the Mississippi.
Some twenty-odd years later I found myself in attendance at the Blue Note, a well-known jazz club in the heart of Greenwich Village, for a friend’s concert: Drummer Max Roach, and his long-time working quartet (featuring Odean Pope on tenor, Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet and Tyrone Brown on bass).
LeRoi Jones was a contemporary of Max Roach’s from that period in history defined by the civil rights movement. They would eventually go on collaborate on Max’s autobiography. So who should appear three steps behind me as I ascended the staircase on a direct trajectory for the Blue Note privy? LeRoi Jones (or rather I should say, Amiri Baraka).
Talk about happenstance. As I prepared to seize the moment, I left my brother to his solitary contemplations, and upon hearing the sound of running water in the sink, I took that as my cue to emerge from the stall, in mid-recitation, and make for the adjacent set of faucets:
“Black Dada Nihilismus/Against what light is false/What breath sucked for deadness…”
“Mister Baraka? I’m a friend of Max’s. Chip Stern. A pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Of course, when we speak of street theater, I am but a humble aspirant; still, at one point in my journey the chess master of the universe saw fit to present me with a true rite of passage, putting me in direct proximity to a Knight Templar of the put-on.
I was in the passenger seat of my mother’s Toyota, as we crawled up Sixth Avenue, when who should emerge to our right, hoofing his way towards Central Park South? None other than Andy Kaufman, in a neck brace no less, purportedly from wrestling women and getting buddy-slammed by Jerry Lawler.
“Watch this, Mom.”
I pulled myself through the sun roof, and in my best Mel Blanc/BronxBrooklyn HeeHaw hollered: “The winner and still chammmmmmpeen…ANDY KAUFMAN!”
He jumped out of his shoes as if zapped with a Jerry Lewis Joy Buzzer. Frantically scanning the street, until zeroing in on me–pie in hand from my offstage perch–he brightened and came to full parade ground attention, saluting as I passed in the vaudevillian semaphore for “You got me,” a friendly gesture of kinship…one bent soul to another.