More stuff I miss………..
The called it The Deuce. Forty Second Street. It was a part of the city unlike any other, with its own rule of law, its own traffic pattern, its own societal norms. Walk one Avenue over in either directions and you would be back in Normal Town, but there in that crossroads, in that vortex of morality and humanity, there you were in a different world. It is almost too hard to imagine when you look at the Disney-esque nature of what the area has become now, but once, back in the day, back in the sinful Seventies, it was ground zero for all kinds of human endeavor and debauchery. Specifically it was 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, right off of Times Square, and if that sounds like a pretty limited piece of real estate, you would be amazed at how much was crammed into that short walk to the wild side. Now understand, the area was considered “undesirable” from back in the Sixties, due in large part to the trade on the streets, and the entertainment offered – the first peep show opened there in 1966- but by the Seventies, it had intensified to proportions beyond a Mid-Westerners imagination. Everything and everyone was available, and willing, and the glare of the 24 hour neon lights only accentuated the carnival like atmosphere that prevailed everywhere.
I loved to go there to just walk the streets, past those peep-shows, burlesque reviews, and porno houses, and take it all in like I was in some foreign land (or planet for that matter). And all the while I had to keep up a steady stream of responses to the boys, men, women, girls, trans and all in between who approached me with some very interesting propositions: “No thanks”….”Not today”…..”Not interested”…..”I’m flattered but no”…”Wait – what? you can do that? Really??” “Uh no no thank you”.
It was so easy to make friends in that part of town. And isn’t it nice to feel wanted?
But for all that there were real places, everyday workingman like gems. One was the Grand Luncheonette, a bit of a hole in the wall between 7th and 8th Avenues. Signs hanging above the small seven seat Formica counter, read things like: “Knish Potato Pie $ 1.25” and “Hot Sausage $ 1.50”. It had been there since 1941, and from behind that counter, the founder Fred Hakim watched history unfold; celebrations of wars ending, city strikes, civil unrest, all played out like a newsreel right outside the door. Of course like everything else in the city that had some old world charm, it was doomed. By the 80’s and 90’s the fix was in, and Manhattan was on its way to becoming a land of the rich, and places like the Grand Luncheonette didn’t belong any more. It always devastated me when I would head out with the intention of grabbing a bite to eat at a place like this, and see that dreaded all too familiar sign on the front door stating it has closed for good. Just like that, I had been there the week before, enjoying one of those wonderful knishes and all was right with the world, and a mere week later, a piece of the city’s fabric was ripped away; these kind of places do not come back once they are gone; they can’t. No problem in opening up another Appleby’s or Starbucks; they are all the same, but lose a gem like the Grand Luncheonette and you lose it for good.
Another one of my favorite places to hang out was the Howard Johnsons on 46th facing Times Square. Yes a Howard Johnsons, a chain I know, but you would never know it from this place. With its distinctive orange colored booths and brown carpet, it’s small full service bar with signs encouraging you to buy a decanter of Martinis, Manhattans or Daquiris for its daily Happy Hour. Heck you could get a stack of waffles and a dirty Martini at the same time, all day every day. And c’mon those fried clams were divine. It was an affordable, somewhat clean, perfectly situated restaurant in an area fast going through a transition from tawdry to unaffordable. It was a mainstay, a reminder, an icon, gleaming well into the Manhattan night, every night. I loved to sit in a booth near the big glass windows that faced Broadway and Times Square, and just watch that surreal world pass by hour by hour. Sinatra or Crosby would waft through the restaurant, and I would sip my drink and munch of that basket of clams, and think I was the luckiest guy in the world. Where else could you experience something this transformative, this bizarre? Oh and did I mention upstairs, on the second floor was the Gaiety Theatre, a male burlesque venue? I mean really, does it get better than that mixture of cultures and kitsch? Talk about irreplaceable; cocktails with breakfast, Sinatra on the juke, fried clams and a male review upstairs; try matching that Disney!
And also amid all that swirl of life, there were indeed a few what we now would call “legitimate” theaters showing non-porn movies. My favorite for a very specific reason was the Victoria, right on the Deuce, and like all good things, long gone now. Now this shouldn’t be confused with the New Victory theater that is there now. No, the old Victoria was into double bills, and quadruple bills, all with a theme in mind. And what the Victoria did in the early Seventies was host a “Spend a Day with Clint Eastwood” promotion. For under three bucks I could go armed with a couple of sandwiches and settle into the sticky fabric on the warped seats, and watch four, count them, four Eastwood westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Hang ‘Em High). The place was full of smoke of all kinds, the floors were awash in something I didn’t want to know about, and the bathrooms were a whole other adventure where often I would run into some of the people I had met on the street previously; they were still offering, and I was still not game. Hours later as dusk fell, I would stumble out of the theater, satisfied, (for at least a week or two) with my movie fix. And every time I left I would turn back to look at the beautiful marquee again, it’s bright lights reflecting off of the peeling gold paint, a grand dame of another age, and I would just know there was no other place in the world quite like 42nd Street.
And I am glad I got to experience it, when it was the Deuce.
There are so many more places and stories that now only reside in memory and city lore; stories and places and people that deserve to be remembered as they could have existed no where else but New York City.
I got this.