ON A PRIVATE TOUR of NEW YORK CITY
ON A PRIVATE TOUR OF NEW YORK CITY, I SHARE WHAT I DO FOR MY OWN PLEASURE WITH MY GUESTS. WHAT COULD BE MORE ENJOYABLE THAN THAT?
Private Tours of New York City are a way of experiencing the city in a unique way. They give us time to absorb, to soak in the energy and spirit of NYC. Perhaps some time to sit in a sidewalk cafe and watch the world go by. On one of our late afternoon private tours, we visited the Metropolitan Museum to see some of the astounding pieces in the Egyptology collection. After the visit we decided to have a coffee and a snack and rest our weary legs. We were sitting outside at a cafe on upper Madison Avenue sipping delicious cappuccinos on an unseasonably warm day in October and discussing the wonders we had just seen, but as we sat, we couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a large number of small dogs being portaged around in expensive Gucci and Coach bags draped casually over some very fashionable ladies shoulders. It’s a trend worth watching, because a bond forged over millennia is slowly eroding. The dog, man’s best friend, a superbly adapted quadruped with the ability to walk or run for miles is having its physiognomy subtlety subverted.
The hounds that lunch are being carried about town like little potentates, feet nary touching the ground, paw pads pink as the day they were born. Sadly, this trend of portaging pets is spreading. By our very rough unscientific analysis, of every five dogs living near Madison Avenue two or more do little or no walking.
How far will this go; is there an upper theoretical limit to the size that a porta-pet may attain? Will men who normally favor the more robust breeds, challenge each other for sidewalk supremacy by slinging Rottweiler’s and Sheep Dogs over their shoulders echoing the days of the huge boom box? No doubt laws will soon be needed. Surely, with the advent of genetic engineering can a breed of dog bred purely for the Prada bag be far behind? This movement must be stopped in its tracks, or we will we soon see hounds whose legs have become vestigial, resembling snakes, rather than the canids we adore. Will we live to see the cocka-boa? Dogs belong down on the end of a on leash, strutting beside their masters. The beasts needs to stand on their own four feet the way God intended. On our NYC tours we’ll keep our eyes sharply peeled for any animal being sported around in a Gucci bag. Perhaps we can issue a citizen’s summons? But, first, quick, how many hounds in the photograph to the left?
ON OUR GET ACQUAINTED TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY WE PASS THROUGH HELL’S KITCHEN ON OUR WAY UP TO CENTRAL PARK. THE KITCHEN IS A BIG AREA, STRETCHING FROM 34TH STREET TO 57TH STREET FROM 8TH AVENUE TO THE HUDSON RIVER.
ON OUR TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY WE DISCUSS HOW THE NEIGHBORHOOD STARTED TO DEVELOP IN THE MIDDLE 1800′s
It was populated by a diverse group of mostly impoverished Irish, Scots, Germans, African Americans, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Supposedly it got it’s name from the cops who patroled it, according to local historian Mary Clark the name Hell’s Kitchen:
”…first appeared in print on September 22, 1881 when a New York Times reporter went to the West 30s with a police guide to get details of a multiple murder there. He referred to a particularly infamous tenement at 39th Street and 10th Avenue as “Hell’s Kitchen,” According to this version, 39th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues became known as Hell’s Kitchen and the name was later expanded to the surrounding streets. Another version ascribes the name’s origins to a German restaurant in the area known as Heil’s Kitchen, But the most common version traces it to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue. The rookie is supposed to have said, “This place is hell itself,” to which Fred replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.”
I live in Hell’s Kitchen, on the fifth floor of a five story walk-up on West 43rd Street, off of 8th Avenue. The building has stood for over a hundred years. According to neighborhood lore, Al Capone lived at XX9 in the 1920′s. He was doing business with the nastiest gang in Hell’s Kitchen, the Gophers. One Lung Curran, Happy Jack Mulraney, Stumpy Malarkey, and Goo Goo Knox were some of the fellas that Al had to sit across the table from. They controlled the West Side of Manhattan, from 4th Street up to 42nd Street from 10th Avenue to the Hudson River. Their gold mine was the New York Central rail yards, where they pilfered and extorted a fortune.
The building is also mentioned in Godfather I. For those who don’t remember the Godfather cut by cut, it was the scene after Michael kills McClusky and the Corleone’s have to go to the “mattresses.” In the car, the fellas say “where we goin’ now?” Peter Clemenza, who’s played by Richard Castellano fishes around for a piece of paper in his top pocket, pulls it out, looks at it and says, XX9 West 43rd Street. My freakin’ address! Neighborhood lore states that Richard Castellano lived in my apartment in his salad days.
When I first moved into the Kitchen it was not a very nice place, it was rough and edgy. Show World, the world’s largest peep show was right around the corner on Eighth Avenue, which was in it’s degenerate prime, Eighth was so funky that if I had to go uptown, I’d walk over to Ninth to avoid it. Coming home late at night from a gig (At the time I was a wedding videographer) was always an adventure, dudes hanging on the stoop, up to no good, me clutching a monopod in my right hand, just in case, my heart pounding. I used to whisper a little prayer once I’d gotten in, I’d thank God for making locks, and an outside and an inside.
I lived on the first floor at the time, so I had bars on my windows and bolts on my doors. Outside my window was the view of a road that led into a parking lot. Under my bedroom window was a hidden niche off the alley. This little private space was well known to every hooker in the neighborhood, it allowed them to ply their trade right beneath my window. When my kids would come over to visit, I’d keep a real close eye on where they were in the house. Lest they should gander out the window and get an eyeful.
On summer nights, when I would lie in bed with the windows open, it seemed like the activities were going on right inside my crib. The question any sane person might ask is, why didn’t I move? And my response, as usual, would be, money! I had lucked into an impossible to find rent stabilized apartment. People would kill for what I had found, I wasn’t going anywhere, not if I wanted to live on the Rock. I hunkered down and prepared to live the best I could. Then, when I needed it the most, a miracle occurred, my landlord agreed to put in a fence across the outside niche, (if you click this link and scroll to 3:25 you will see my building and security perimeter that saved my soul. You’ll also meet my son) I was now living in a gated community. The quality of my life improved dramatically. The apartment itself was about 450 Sq Ft, which doesn’t seem like much, but as far as NYC apartments go it was big enough and cheap enough to allow me earn a modest living and enjoy the wondrous pleasures of NYC.
The neighborhood has completely changed. Now, when I give tours of New York City and the Kitchen I mention an article in the New York Times that raves about the real estate in Midtown West, of course the debate about a new name for The Kitchen goes on unabated. Should it be Clinton, or Midtown West? We grizzled veterans of the area are pretty much of one mind. We’ll keep calling it Hell’s Kitchen, you can call it what you like.
PRIVATE NEW YORK CITY TOURS ARE WHAT I’VE SPENT MY LIFE ENJOYING; THE PLEASURE OF SHOWING NYC TO MY GUESTS MAKES IT EVEN MORE ENJOYABLE.
CONDUCTING PRIVATE NEW YORK CITY TOURS IS A NATURAL FOR ME; A FLANEUR, “A PERSON WHO WALKS THE CITY IN ORDER TO EXPERIENCE IT.”
There have been times when NYC has been a tough nut to crack, it is not a city that offers up it’s pearls up casually, and at times, the future hasn’t seemed as bright nor as clear as it seems to me now. It took me some time to find my calling, my life’s work; it was sitting right had under my nose. Could my random ramblings through the city be made a livelihood? And as it turned out, they have. Arguably NYC is the capital city of the world, but it’s physical space is small, 14 miles long and 2.5 miles at it’s widest; A perfect home for a wanderer.
From my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen on West 43rd Street down to the tip of Manhattan, up through Central Park, or over Brooklyn Bridge, walking has sustained me. “Walking is also an ambulation of mind.” says Gretel Ehrlich, noted author. This I know to be true. We conduct our Private New York City tours in all conditions, rain, snow, cold, or occasional nor’easter. We are undaunted, you can chooses anytime of the day or night. It’s so nice to select a day when we feel the first gentle kiss of spring. Only the heat beats me, on those unbearable days of August I revert to the indoors, camped inside my chill little crib, venturing out only to lead well-hydrated tours.
Last Sunday, the first mild day, after an endless stream of cold brutal ones, I took a walk. Down five flights of stairs from my tenement roost, and out into the warm sun, coat opened, walking west toward the High Line on West 30th Street. On the way I’ll get to see what’s happening with the #7 subway line extension. I love watching large scale construction. That part of town, know as Hudson Yards will transform the the last undeveloped part of Manhattan. Its scale mirrors in steel and glass, the enormous willpower and energy of the people that conceive, and then get these projects done. The size of the operations create a sense of drama, the pressure to get things done, enormous! I peer into the sites, watching the buildings rise off their foundations, and marvel at the ingenuity of the engineers.
MY BROOKLYN BRIDGE: BROOKLYN TOURS
WHEN I LEFT MY PARENTS HOME, I WAS TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD. AT THAT TIME I WAS WORKING IN THE FILM PRODUCTION INDUSTRY, DOING WHAT I LOVED. MY DREAM WAS TO BECOME A HOLLYWOOD CINEMATOGRAPHER, AND I FELT I WAS WELL ON MY WAY. I WORKED REGULARLY AS A FREELANCE ASSISTANT CAMERAMAN, CAMERAMAN ON STUDENT FILMS, SOME TV COMMERCIALS AND LOW BUDGET FILM PRODUCTIONS. I LEARNED GAFFING, AND SOUND RECORDING, AND PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT AND ALL THE OTHER SKILLS ONE NEEDED AROUND A FILM SET.
Quest Productions, a company in the Film Center building at 630 Ninth Avenue was giving me a ton of work, I was a free-lancer, (what’s new?) they were my main client. We traveled around the country shooting documentaries, commercials, etc. The owner of Quest was a man maned Bill Jersey. Bill got his start in the film business as the art director on The Blob, a classic horror film. It was Steve McQueen’s first leading man’s role. I felt really lucky to have found them!
One day, while sitting in the equipment room, prepping a shoot, I was unintentionally eavesdropping on Polly, the secretary. She was on the phone, talking to her boyfriend. I heard her say ” so what are you going to do with your apartment?” Boing! I heard all the cylinders on the locks of fate slip into place, and pop, a door sprung open.
My ears perked up, and when she got off the phone I asked her about the apartment. She mentioned off-hand that she and her boyfriend were moving in together and that he was giving up his place. “Where” I asked her, “Brooklyn Heights” she said. “Can I take a look?” I queried, not giving it much thought. “Sure” she said, “come tonight!” “What’s the address?” “54 Sidney Place” “Ok, I’ll be there.” Since my days of Brooklyn Tours were well in the future, I didn’t know anything about Brooklyn Heights, I’d never heard of it. She wrote the directions down, and later that evening I went to Brooklyn.
I took the A train to Borough Hall. I was struck by the different feel of the A, it was far funkier than the F to Queens that I knew. I climbed out of the hole and walked towards the Heights,down Joralemon Street towards Sidney Place, first across bustling Court Street. It was odd, because the closer I got to the Heights the quieter and more peaceful it became. By the time I came upon Sidney Place, a single laned, tree lined street. It was a world I was not familiar with. On either side were stately brownstones. Fifty-four was on the other end of the block, so I walked down, I hit the buzzer on the ground floor apartment and Polly quickly came to the door. She took me to the rear apartment and showed me in. And what a place, it was fairly large, but what trumped everything, was that beyond the two French windows in the kitchen, was a rose garden in full bloom.
For a city boy, who’d grown up in an urban environment , it was miraculous. I asked her how much the rent was? “Eighty bucks a month” she said. I said, “I’ll take it!” She said it was cool with her, but she’d have to introduce me to the landlord, who lived upstairs. She took me up the stairs to meet Gus and Nina Ballas who owned the house. He was in his seventies, with a full head of white hair, and a courtly manner, his wife Nina, sat elegantly by his side as he interviewed me. I can’t remember any specific questions, but he ultimately said to me, “I’m not looking for a tenant, I’m looking for someone that I can trust as a family, like a son.” I told him that I would be a good tenant, someone he could trust and rely on, that I would treat the apartment as if it was my own. He shook my hand, and that was it, the apartment was mine. I was officially a resident of Brooklyn. (For the sake of clarification, the interior photograph on the left is what the apartment looks like today, not when I lived there. The current rent is about 3 grand a month.)
When I returned home that night, I told my mother and father that I was going out on my own. My mom was shocked, she said “But I thought you’d live here ’til you got married. “oh mom, really? The die was cast! Surprisingly, I would fall in love soon enough, a love affair that continues to this day, she would be my friend, my confessor, my home. Over the course of the next fourteen years I would commune with her two or three times a week. In summer swelter, in winter freeze, middle of the day, or late night, I would stride purposefully from Brooklyn Heights to downtown Manhattan across my beloved Brooklyn Bridge.
MY BROOKLYN BRIDGE: BROOKLYN TOUR
I BEGAN WALKING BROOKLYN BRIDGE SOON AFTER I MOVED INTO MY APARTMENT ON SIDNEY PLACE IN BROOKLYN HEIGHTS. IT WAS MY OWN PRIVATE BROOKLYN TOUR; LITTLE DID I KNOW WHAT THE FUTURE HELD.
The bridge wasn’t a long walk from my apartment, just a few blocks, I’d walk down SidneyPlace, past the three and four story brick and brownstone homes that lined the street. Their floor to ceiling windows allowed me visual entry into the residences, some were quite nice, but I remember one that had wallpaper the looked like bookcases. Over to State Street, then left. Past the oddly shaped yellowish brick building with it’s large bay window, askew to the street. I dreamed of living there, Right on Henry Street to Grace Court Alley, a cul-de-sac lined with two story carriage houses; no cars in sight. If it was a nice day, I’d stroll along Columbia Terrace, where I knew that Norman Mailer lived, and a little further down Truman Capote, who was probably working on “In Cold Blood” at the time. The house where Washington and Emily Roebling lived as they supervised the construction of Brooklyn Bridge had been torn down many years earlier. Below Columbia Terrace was the Esplanade, with sweeping panoramic views of lower Manhattan.
I would hit Court street and then pass through War Memorial Park and then left down Cadman Plaza East. This lead to a steep stairway under an overpass that led up on to the bridge. It’s not an easy stairway, probably 100 steps, you have to earn your experience. When emerging from the stairwell you stood next to a highly traveled roadway, three lanes that feed traffic across the bridge and into Manhattan. cars whizzed by. As I started to walk towards Manhattan the path gently began to elevate above the whine of the traffic.
My favorite time to walk the bridge was early evening, I didn’t care what the weather was like, I was undaunted! I remember one time walking across the bridge in a heavy fog, the spires of the city hidden, the gothic towers of the bridge half obscured. I expected that when i reached the other side that I would be be back in the 1800′s the bridge a new wonder. The immortal words of Walt Whitman’s, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry came into my head …
“It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.”
As I walked through the deep mist Whitman’s words enveloped me. I felt what he felt, breathed the air he had breathed, a sense of timelessness, the souls of the people who had trod this path before me, both the living and dead that had come upon this walkway in the air, this Broadway in the sky. A feeling of exhilaration, a deep connection to all the humanity on the other side of the river, yet a sense of solitude.
When John Roebling designed the bridge, one of his goals was to provide an escape, “….that in a crowded commercial city, such a promenade will be of incalculable value.” He saw the walkway as respite from the travails and pressures of living in a dense urban environment. As I walked, I thought about him, about this man with visionary ideas, and an iron will to see them become reality. A man who did not live to see his bridge built, who died young because of his stubbornness.
This walkway was my route to transcendence, some people meditated, others prayed, the Brooklyn Bridge was my path to a higher understanding. My feet beat a steady cadence on the wooden planks, and at a certain pace the gaps seemed to disappear and I felt suspended over the East River. I strode towards my city, still shrouded in the fog, and as I passed under the Manhattan arch, unfurling before me were the towers of the World Trade Center, The Woolworth Building, and Municipal Building. I felt renewed, reinvigorated. I hoped there was an after-life, that somewhere in this vast unknowable cosmos John Roebling, engineer, visionary, philosopher was looking down at his creation and understanding that he had achieved exactly what he had set out to do.
OUR PRIVATE TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY WILL TAKE US PAST SOME OF MY OLD HAUNTS: THEATERS WHERE I TOILED AS A MOVIE PROJECTIONIST, LONG I BEFORE I FOUND MY CALLING AS A GUIDE.
BEFORE I BEGAN NYSEE AND EARNED MY LICENSE TO LEAD NEW YORK TOURS, I HAD EMPLOYMENTS THAT DID NOT COME CLOSE TO SUITING MY GREGARIOUS, INQUISITIVE TEMPERAMENT.
In becoming a NYC tour guide I have finally found my calling. Before I found guiding I worked in the film production business, owned a photographic laboratory, videotaped weddings, repaired hot water heaters, even counted buttons in a button factory, but by far, the worst job I ever had, the avocation I was least suited for emotionally was working as a movie projectionist.
I’d just gotten back from a yearlong trip, I had traveled from Northern Europe all the way down to Morocco, where I spent a glorious three months, enjoying the sun, the Sahara desert and the wonderful hospitality of the Moroccan people. But now I was back in Gotham and I was broke and adrift. A buddy of mine, who was a projectionist, took me under his wing and offered to show me the ropes. After some perfunctory tutoring I took the licensing test and passed.
I soon officially became a member of Local 306 of the Motion Picture Machine operators union. I dreamt of hitting the sheet at The Ziegfeld, the Radio City Music Hall, theaters that we walk by often on our New York tours. I soon learned the reality of the union shape-up. The good jobs, the prestigious jobs went to guys with high seniority numbers. There were 1198 guys in the union. I was Mr. Eleven hundred and ninety eight. Mr. 1-1-9-8 would show up at the union hall every Thursday and bid on a gig, but my low standing was a direct route to some of the nastiest, dirtiest theaters in NYC. The Music Hall and the Ziegfeld might as well have been on Mars, I wasn’t going to being striking the arc in any of those places.
It was the stone age of cinema, before multiplexes, theaters sank or swam on one film, and many were hanging on by the eighth reel of their cinematic lives. They ran gay porn, straight porn, Blaxploitation movies, kung-foo’s, chop-socky’s the more violent the better. Anything to make a buck, it didn’t matter. The owners, struggling small businessman never spent a dime on equipment or projection booth amenities. Sometimes there were no toilets in the booth, you had to go down and use the funky public toilets. One hell hole I worked in Brooklyn had a booth door that opened onto a roof, on that door was a crudely magic markered warning that read, “do not piss on door, piss on roof.” My career had veered off track. When I tried to explain this to my father, he said, “Well, at least you’re still in show business.” Guiding New York tours was in the distant future.
OUR NEW YORK TOURS WILL TAKE US PAST SOME OF MY OLD HAUNTS: THEATERS WHERE I TOILED AS A MOVIE PROJECTIONIST, LONG I BEFORE I FOUND MY CALLING AS A GUIDE.
UNLIKE LEADING NEW YORK TOURS, PROJECTING WAS A SOLITARY JOB. I WAS ALONE 99% OF THE TIME. TOUR-GUIDING ALSO TURNED OUT TO BE A VENUE FOR PUBLIC ERRORS. HOWEVER, ON A NEW YORK TOUR AN ERROR IN FACT DOESN’T USUALLY RESULT IN RIOTING.
I had my routines, in the morning, I’d have a cup of joe and a roll; I loved the way the caffeine would kick in and give me a tremendous feeling of peace, calm, and a loving affinity for humanity. I’d ride that wave as long as I could then grab my New York Daily News. If I could mainline news, I would. I’m a newspaper junky, so the job did have some perks. I could read my beloved np’s endlessly without disturbance. I became a storehouse of useless facts, how many people in NYC were aware that wolves were descending in record numbers out of the hills of Dubrovnik into the city. As a guide conducting New York Tours I would share this with my groups, as a solitary projectionist I would wonder why this was even news – who cared?
After my morning read I’d putter around the booth, I like things nice, and neat (you should see my apartment) so there was a fair amount to do. I’d sweep the floors, tighten a screw here or there, clean film chips out of the projector heads. I particularly enjoyed cleaning the parabolic mirrors inside the projectors; only with Bon-Ami of course, remember “it hasn’t scratched yet” it was a great toy, a huge fun house mirror.
As an unsupervised rookie it was easy to make mistakes. You might, or might not know that before multiplexes most films were packed on twenty-minute reels. The projectionist’s job was to switch smoothly between the two projectors, but on occasion I wouldn’t follow procedure and I’d confuse the reels. Working at the Kent Theater in Brooklyn I once switched reels on a classic movie called Gold Diggers of 1933, in the middle of one of the great Busby Berkley’s dance sequences, Dick Powell leaps and winds up – sitting serenely in a chair. Fortunately for me it was 10 AM on a Monday morning, so it was just me, the candy girl, the manager, and a couple of the house cats in the theater. The Kent was a genteel theater in a nice neighborhood and the audience tended to be more forgiving of my occasional gaffes
However, there were other places where the audiences did not forgive, some were in the more desolate areas of the city, and others in the notorious Times Square, a place where I now happily lead New York tours. In the 70′s it was a no-mans land of porn theaters, grind house, topless bars and a who’s who of unsavory characters. At these venues, I was bound by the first rule of the grind house; under no circumstances let the screen go dark. I relentlessly worked my two projectors in an unforgiving twenty-minute cycle. Back and forth, first one then the other, thread up, rewind changeover, thread up, rewind changeover. One minute of work, nineteen minutes of nothing, the audience had paid two bucks apiece for three movies and trailers. they were tough and demanding and brooked no nonsense, a black screen usually led to a riot and a frantic call to the police by the manager. In the morning, when I’d show up bright and early for my fourteen hour shift I’d notice a look of terror creep over the managers face. It took until noon-time until I was able to demonstrate to the poor soul that I was the consummate pro, and there would be no screw ups.
OUR PRIVATE TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY WILL TAKE US PAST SOME OF MY OLD HAUNTS: THEATERS WHERE I TOILED AS A MOVIE PROJECTIONIST, LONG I BEFORE I FOUND MY CALLING AS A GUIDE.
BEFORE FORTY SECOND STREET BECAME WHAT IT IS TODAY, IT CONTAINED ROW AFTER ROW OF THEATERS WITH ILLUSTRIOUS HISTORIES AND LAVISH APPOINTMENTS. MOST ARE GONE, SOME HAVE BEEN RESTORED TO THEIR FORMER GLORY. I CAN SHOW YOU THE SPOTS WHERE THEY STOOD, AND I CAN TELL YOU STORIES THAT NO ONE ELSE CAN. COME ON A PRIVATE GUIDED TOUR OF NYC WITH ME, A JOURNEY BACK THROUGH TIME.
By mid-afternoon I was crawling up the walls, desperate for human contact, my one and only option was a visit to the concession stand to buy a piece of candy. I’d look forward to a little chat with the geriatric candy lady, but she had zero interest in anything I had to say. She’d nod her head, go “um hum.” I tried it all; movies, current events, history, family, science. “um hum” was what I got. My other co-worker was her son, wasn’t much of a talker either; but was extremely protective of his mom, the candy lady. If he sniffed me downstairs he’d stick close to the popcorn machine to make sure I didn’t get out-of-line. Eventually, if I got too persistent he’s wander over and say, very formally.
“May I help you?” Like he’d never seen me before. He’d turn and bark at his mother. “Fix the candy ma!’’ “I said “fix the candy ma, it looks like your bedroom”
Her bedroom, Jesus! I fixed my minds eye on a sea of candy bars; I in visioned her getting out bed, putting on her bunny slippers on and shuffling to the bathroom, her feet moving through an ocean of tinfoil. I put that out of my mind. I realized that my two partners in time, the total population of my world were not going to throw out any floatation device for me to grab. I was on my own! I shifted gears and tried to engage the manager in some chit-chat, I poked him repeatedly, trying to make contact, to crack his shell, he wouldn’t even talk sports for god sakes!. I don’t know how he got through the day. But, he kept his head down, counting soda cups, taking the inventory one container at a time.
Rebuffed and disheartened, I slunk back up to my aerie. Briefly, I stood at the one window with a view of bustling 42nd Street, I saw a sliver of the sun shining brightly in a brilliant blue sky, the sidewalks full of people going about their business. I don’t remember if I sighed, but I probably did.
This particular place where I toiled, the Harris, had opened in 1914 as a legitimate theater, but over the years had seen many changes. In 1922 the esteemed actor John Barrymore played Hamlet for a hundred and one nights in a row, beating out the prior record of one hundred performances set by Edwin Booth. It was owned in partnership by George M. Cohan and Edwin Harris and was very successful until around 1934 when it was converted into a movie theater. It was’t as lavishly decorated as some of the other 42nd Street movie palaces, but it could seat twelve hundred people.
Edward Lamb was the architect, he would later design the Empire State Building. The Harris contained two balconies, brocade curtains and fairly ornate chandeliers. But it was the backstage that fascinated me, stuck up in the projection booth, behind the second balcony that had long been closed off was a wonderland of ancient theater equipment; Huge dimmer banks for the stage lighting, motors that raised and lowered scenery, dressing rooms, spot lights, generator sets. It reeked of the past, it had no future, it was torn down in 1994.
So, it got to be about four o’clock, I’m up in the booth, the projectors are grinding away, everything is 100% normal. I’d finished reading the Post, (and you’ve got to be a real New Yorker to remember when it used to be a actual newspaper) my third newspaper of the day. The Post was for those desperate moments of my fourteen-hour shift when the clock seemed broke, and suicide felt like a viable option.
I had eight hours to go, what was I gonna do? I was going to go mad, then I remembered that on a previous reconnaissance expedition I had discovered a series of rooms off a catwalk that ran above the ceiling of the theater. So packing a flashlight, and knowing I had a nineteen-minute window I headed up. I climbed down through the second balcony, past the red torn seats, the shuttered concession stand, that still smelled faintly of popcorn, then down a long dark hallway. If you were ghost hunting, this was the place to set your traps. If the ghost of Ole” George M was anywhere, it was gonna be here.
I climbed up a vertical metal ladder that was mounted to the wall and passed through the oddest door I’ve ever walked through. How many doors are half-way up a wall. It lead directly out onto a catwalk above the theater ceiling. I had to step very gingerly, because if I walked too fast my feet made a ringing metallic sound that could be clearly heard down in the auditorium below. I began to explored the rooms one by one, I remember feeling a shiver of delicious fear each time I creaked open a door. But, like Al Capone’s vault, the rooms yielded nothing but peeling paint and dust.
Disappointed, I began to close the door on the last room, but for some reason I was drawn back inside. I swung my flashlight up, and there on the opposite wall was a black oblong switch box mounted at eye level. In it’s center, glowing like a little bulls eye, was a bright mushroom shaped red button. And I have to admit now. I am a chronic and uncontrollable button pusher. This little device spoke to me so seductively and so sweetly, it said “push me Freddy,oh push me, please”
So without further ado, I pushed it!