Blogging about The White Horse Tavern yesterday got me to thinking about a number of old haunts in NYC back in the eighties and nineties when I lived there. Disney and Giuliani hadn't yet arrived on the scene in those days and parts of NY were still pretty much the old west. Midtown most certainly was still something from a Fellini movie in those days and from 110th street and up on the West Side, it was definitely off limits. Now, of course, neither of those things are true. Midtown is now an extension of Disney World and Harlem is Clinton Country.
For a couple of years I lived up in Washington Heights on the Upper West and one could always jump on the A train Express and bypass Harlem. Naturally, once I got off in the wrong place, walked out of the subway station at 125th and was immediately surrounded by about five or six cops. They walked me back down to the station and put me on the train. In 1987, 125th street was no place for a stupid, white kid from the midwest to be blithely sashaying about.
A buddy of mine from those days, Greg Orosz, emailed me yesterday about our many times at The White Horse Tavern. In fact, Greg had acted in one of my plays, 'Changing it to Brando', and would toddle over to the tavern with me after rehearsals. But mostly, as I recall, Greg and I would drink at a place around the corner from where we both worked, an old Irish pub with wood walls and tin ceilings called 'Mulligans' on 33rd Street. In fact, Greg and I once sat in that place for hours inventing a new drink. We spent an enormous amount of money that night. We'd decided to invent a new tequila-based drink and the eager bartender (charging us for every mistake - and there were many) mixed away as we tasted each new concoction. I seem to vaguely remember ending up with an amazing drink but by that time we were both far too deep into the evening to remember what it was.
It's funny (and more than a little sad) but when Angie and I finally get a break in our schedule out here in LA and take that trip to NYC, most of the places I'll show her from my 'old' days will be various bars. I spent a good deal of time in bars back then, for better or worse. She once asked me, 'Did you ever go to the Statue of Liberty or the top of the Empire State Building or something like that?' Well, no. I mean, I worked in the Empire State Building for years but it never really occured to me to actually go to the top of it. And taking the time to go the Statue of Liberty seemed sheer insanity for one who actually lived in NYC.
Speaking of Greg Orosz, one of the places we frequented was a rehearsal space near the Times Square Howard Johnson's (which I believe is still there). It's where we had rehearsals for the play. Problem was immediately next door was a gay strip joint of the hard core variety. Which was fine, but the problem was the two doors were identical, as were the stairs one had to traverse to enter the respective places. On more than one occasion we quite innocently found ourselves accidentally walking into the strip club before rehearsal only to turn around and descend the stairs again to find the right door.
Usually, after rehearsal in midtown, we'd head over to a place called 'Charlie's' for drinks. I always liked that place and it was a great place to spot celebrities working on Broadway. I ran into Elaine Stritch there one night nearly five years before we actually did a show together. She didn't remember, of course, but I did. Also sat next to Tim Hutton once at the bar and drank the night away. Later still, I did a play directed by the late Patrick O'Neal and sat there with him drinking about thirty bottles of red wine and listening to him hold court about the old days in the fifties in New York. Patrick had been the original T. Lawrence Shannon in the Tennessee Williams' play, 'Night of the Iguana.' He'd worked with Bette Davis in that play and had some jaw-dropping stories to tell about her. Ironically, Angie and I now live quite literally about fifty yards from the old Bette Davis ranch here in LA.
Later still, we rehearsed another play of mine, 'Golden Eggs', at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in the East Village. This is when I first discovered The Spring Street Lounge. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, it was quite a find. The tourists hadn't yet discovered this joint thmeselves yet, so it was still a true blue NY place; sawdust floors, mismatched tables and chairs, writers, both playwrights and novelists, sitting around scribbling longhand on pads, either Sinatra or Springsteen blaring from the ancient juke box. This is where I met Lanford Wilson one afternoon writing away. Also Mailer and Jay McInerney were often in there. One night Sean Penn was in there doing shots with Martin Sheen. It was a cool place, to say the least, and I think it's gone now, alas. One had to know the bar was there because there was absolutely nothing on the outside to indicate there was a pub inside; only a big, bright red, metal door. No sign whatsoever. In fact, I wrote the entire script for 'Golden Eggs' in that place in a corner by the bathrooms, sitting there afternoon after afternoon, nursing a couple of beers for hours and scribbling away. One day, about a month before we began production on it, my late friend, Robert Fiedler met me there. I showed him the script (I hadn't even typed it yet, it was all still in longhand). He wandered over to a table by himself and sat and read it for about an hour. Afterwards he came back to the bar and sat beside me and said quickly, "If you change one word of this you're a fucking idiot." We never mentioned it for the rest of the night. And I never changed a word.
I'm glad I lived in NY when I did. As John Malkovich once said, "You can't afford to be a starving artist in New York anymore. It's better to starve somewhere else." He's right. New York is not a place to be poor. I think I was there in the last decade where it was possible to still be poor and also barely afford to live there. I think the days of moving to NY after college to 'try and make it' are long gone. 'Tis a pity, really. What an extraordinary city it was and is. And maybe it's just retrospective falsification, but it's still my favorite city in the world. Sometimes my students ask me what it was like to live in NY in those days. I tell them I had a love/hate relationship with the city...some days I'd wake up and rather be anywhere else in the world but there. Other days I'd get up in the morning and rather be nowhere else in the world. That was the singular allure of New York City for me.
See you tomorrow.