Fugettaboudit. That's what the door hangers say at the Parker Meridien Hotel, not "Do Not Disturb" or "Privacy Please"...Fugettaboudit. New York isn't so much a different city, it's not even like another country, it's more like another planet. A couple nights in New York gone wrong can be the sort of nightmare they make movies out of -- movies like "The Out of Towners" (recently re-made with Steve Martin and my new best friend Goldie Hawn, but more about her later). The couple of nights in New York my wife and I spent, however, were more like a dream. Let me just start by saying that if you're going to New York, if at all possible, try to arrange it so that Ted Turner pays for everything. The airfare, the hotel, restaurants, nightclubs and limos. That really simplifies the whole process.
Turner Network Television taped their All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell April 6th in New York, and it will air on TNT April 16th at 9PM -- and they really want to get the word out before hand. One way to do that is to invite some media people to the taping, let them see the show, interview the artists backstage, show them a good time in New York and send them home interested in the Joni Mitchell Tribute. It's a clever strategy, and it's working. You have my full permission and warmest blessings to turn off your stereo the night of the 16th, and turn on your TV instead. I know I will, I can't wait to see the whole thing again, all polished up for cable TV.
So here is my account, my New York journal, of a very fast three days and two nights in the Big Apple...
The Tribute to Joni Mitchell was put together very quickly, so with many apologies the organizers couldn't get us a non-stop flight to New York. At the hour I'm normally brushing my teeth to go to bed, we were on our way to the Portland International Airport. First a flight to St. Louis, then a change of planes to New York. It's interesting -- when you're running on only an hour and a half of sleep, how jittery everybody else on the plane seems to be. These people just can't hold still. If protracted throat clearing and aggressive newspaper reading were Olympic events -- hey, USA! We're going for the gold! The guy behind me slapped the back of my head with his Wall Street Journal so much, by the time we landed, I was fully housebroken.
New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers. And everything. We were met at La Guardia with a sleek black town car and a New York native driver, who chatted us up with lots of good restaurant and walking around tips as we tore through these incredible canyons of glass and steel. Is "breathtaken" a word? If it is, we were breathtaken long before we got to the hotel. It's disorienting, dizzying, for out of towners to find themselves shooting through a city like this. Above you are buildings you can't see the tops of because of the cloud cover, and in front of you are rivers of people and cars you can't see the end of because of the curvature of the earth. Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from the south end of Central Park -- Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Empire State Building, all walking distance. The bellboy seemed really intent on making sure I knew where ESPN was on the TV. As soon as we'd tipped him and he was gone, I shut the TV off, closed the lovely armoire it was in, and never turned the TV on again. We didn't come here to watch sports.
FIRST NIGHT: ARE BOTH THE LIMOS OUTSIDE?
The first night out, sleep-dep jet-lag or not, was dinner for the radio people with the L.A. and Atlanta folks who had invited us all here in the first place. Eventually there would be twelve at the table, but when we left the hotel there were only eight of us. I loved hearing the phrase "Are both the limos outside? Let's go then..." and realizing that this included me. Dinner was at Tribecca Grill, the restaurant owned by Robert DeNiro, in Greenwich.
It had started out as another celebrity showplace that everyone figured would fade away when the celebrity crowd moved on, but the chef was so good the place got it's own real reputation as a great restaurant. And it was -- mostly Italian fare with some great Asian spins on the menu, and a wine list thick as a phone book. But there were some at our table who got star struck anyway when they spotted James Gandolfini, a.k.a Tony Soprano (of the HBO mob drama series The Sopranos) having a drink at the bar. Tony Soprano at Robert DeNiro's place -- get it? Fuhgettaboudit. Don't be a mook.
Another caravan of limos back to the Parker Meridien and we call it a night. The rooms of the hotel have nearly soundproof windows, so when you open them, the sound of the city bursts inside like you turned on an amplifier. Someone once said that being in New York City is like being inside an engine. I think it was Tom Waits who said it was like being inside the belly of a very sick animal. But that must have been before they cleaned up Times Square. There are of course all the individual sounds, coming from just down below, the steady stream of horns and cars and busses and trucks and sirens and people yelling -- but there's also this kind of steady dull roar in the background, the sound of the city beyond your close range hearing that sort of mixes together into a fine constant white noise. We've all heard that New York is the city that never sleeps, which is true enough. But I can tell you that mid-town Manhattan does quiet down a bit around three or four in the morning, but then again, so do I. And that's when I heard that fine dull distant wash of noise the clearest. It's actually kind of soothing. Like, I don't know, maybe the sound of rain, or the ocean.
FREE TIME IN MID-TOWN
Thursday - the day of the concert. We were supposed to meet in the lobby at 6:30 that evening to go to the Hammerstein Ballroom for the show -- that left us the rest of the day free. There was the little matter of some sleep to catch up on, so --- the afternoon was free. Enough time to go on some sort of organized tour, if we chose. There were all kinds of theme tours available -- jazz tour, food tour, classic architecture tour, or these big double decker busses you could hop off of at one point of interest, then jump on the next one to go to another destination. We could take a horse drawn carriage ride through Central Park. We tried to talk ourselves into this stuff, but got nowhere. We knew what we really wanted to do. Walk. Hit the streets, start walking, and keep walking till our legs gave out.
But we had to power up for this one. One of the two restaurants in the lobby of the, excuse me, Le Parker Meridien Hotel is a place called Norma's, which specializes in power breakfasts. Just breakfasts. A really cool 50's retro Ikea meets a Scandinavian Donna Reed type of decor. Everything on the menu looked great, if not exactly...um, cheap. So Norma's is the home of the fourteen dollar pancakes, fuhgettaboudit. You could get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk. That's only thirteen bucks. We ordered two huge exotic breakfasts, loved every bite, got seriously caffeine enhanced, charged it to the room and hit the streets of Manhattan.
FIFTY BLOCKS IN HEELS
We marched out of the lobby, heading in the direction of Central Park, skirted along the south end of the park to Columbus Circle before we marched right back to the hotel. We needed a map. We had to have some sort of goal here. South. South was good. We went over to 6th - The Avenue of the Americas, and started walking south. And kept walking south. There was just no reason not to keep going. It had turned into a beautiful day -- the night before there were snow flurries in the forecast, but this day was gorgeous, and the sun was just right so that if walking on the sunny side of 6th got too warm, the other side was in shade. So we plowed south, through the lunch hour throngs getting outside on a nice day just like we were.
I love to walk around downtown Portland, I take what my wife calls an "urban day" every now and then to just walk around the city. I like that certain flow you get into, a kind of rhythm between Walk and Don't Walk. So there was a little trace of familiarity here, but only just a trace. Mostly it was mind boggling, it felt almost like swimming in a river of people, being swept along by a human current. Of course it's between the sidewalks where the real river is. The taxicab and limo river.
If people tried to drive in Portland like they do in New York, they'd be in wrecks all the time, other drivers wouldn't know how to accommodate it, they'd freeze up like deer in the headlights. On the other hand, if you tried to drive Portland style in New York, the entire city would freeze up and nobody would ever get anywhere. And they'd be in wrecks all the time. As it is, everyone in New York runs lights, cuts into the crosswalk, uses jackrabbit starts and stops, jumps in and out of lanes, jockeys for position, and clears other cars and bicycles by mere inches. Limo drivers act like they're in go-carts. Yet somehow, when everyone does it, it all works out. And you get to where you're going. Not quickly, but eventually, with this alternating mix of total gridlock and great bursts of speed, and lots of opinions expressed with the horn (a.k.a. the "New York Brake Pedal"). I never saw a single car wreck or crushed pedestrian the whole time I was there, although I was sure I was about to become one almost constantly.
When we got as far as Bryant Park, the idea of sitting down suddenly occurred to us. It was the tail end of lunch hour, but we still managed to find a couple of free floating park chairs to pull into the sun, inspect for pigeon droppings, then take a load off and catch our bearings. Off to my right I saw the Chrysler Building, it's silver top catching the sun. That gave us an idea. We are, after all, tourists. And once we spotted the Empire State Building, there was no way weren't going to go up to the top. You have to stand in line to buy a seven dollar ticket, and stand in another line for an elevator that counts off the floors by tens and makes your ears pop, but, good God, what a view. They figured fifteen miles visibility the day we were there. Now that's breathtaking. It's funny though, in "Sleepless in Seattle", when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks met at the top of the Empire State Building, I don't remember a huge gift shop being in the middle of everything. Maybe they added that later.
Back down to the street, we cut over to Seventh Avenue, and headed back up toward Central Park, going right through Times Square. No longer a porno-sleaze center, Times Square is now Disney-safe, family-ready and crawling with cops. With just a thin crust of sleaze around the edges. Right near the hotel we got some excellent pizza, then went back up to the room to collapse and regroup for an hour before we had to leave for the show. That's when my wife pointed out that she hadn't really brought along any sneakers or anything, so she'd done those fifty or so blocks in heels.
ARE BOTH THE LIMOS OUTSIDE? - THE SHOW
The Hammerstein Ballroom, fully renovated a few years ago, was just a short limo caravan away, on west 34th. They have lots of alternative and rock concerts there, but it feels like a classic opera house. The All Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell was, of course, a taping for a television special (did I mention it premiers Sunday, April 16th, on TNT?), but they really did keep it running like a concert, with very few breaks to speak of. Watching them put the show together from behind the scenes, it looked more like a NASA launch than a tribute concert -- it's always cool to watch people who really know what they're doing. They had two huge camera booms, cameras at the end of long booms so skillfully controlled the operator could send his camera up into the balcony and sit it in someone's lap if he wanted to. There weren't many cameras blocking the view of the stage, therefore, giving the show even more of a real concert feel. "Backstage" was really several backstages, the one I wanted to be in was the media bunker where, if they felt like it, the artists might come by and chat with people like me. People with microphones. There were newspaper and magazine reporters and photographers, a bunch of TV crews from Entertainment Tonight and what not, in addition to our small group of very friendly radio people. It was up to the artists to decide if they wanted to leave the company of their fellow musicians in this great collaborative environment, and come mingle with our bunch, and quite frankly, if I was in their shoes.... you know what I'm saying? Fuhgettaboudit. So it was really nice of Cassandra Wilson, Cyndi Lauper and Richard Thompson to go ahead and come visit with the media for a bit.
So, what was Gilbert Gottfried doing there? Working, man. He was one of us media hacks, taping segments of himself being backstage at cool events for his own cable thing. He's a really nice guy, and yes, when the camera is off, he opens his eyes and speaks in a normal tone of voice. Well -- he squints less and yells quieter.
We could go upstairs to the ballroom or stay downstairs in the media area, whichever we liked. We could monitor the show on screens and speakers from downstairs, so we stayed there most of the time, as we also interviewed the artists who came to visit. But when Joni Mitchell herself sang her song "Both Sides Now", with the full orchestra behind her, I bolted upstairs to check it out. It really was powerful, emotional, moving. Not a dry eye in the house. Just like they said it was at rehearsal that afternoon, just like Joni said it was when they recorded that track for her new album. Something about strings with those lyrics -- it just gets you right here.
ARE BOTH THE LIMOS OUTSIDE? - THE AFTER PARTY
The taping ran a little long, and the really big "photo-op" in the media tank happened after the concert, so by the time we got to the Artist Wrap Party at the China Club the placed was packed. I mean really packed. You couldn't turn around or breathe -- but you could get a drink, oddly enough. No problem there. The decor of the place looked at first like a sort of Chinese restaurant on Nyquil motif, but when you looked closer you noticed it was full of hand tiled mosaics and beautiful woodwork with subtle but trippy neon accents. Very cool.
We followed the music upstairs and found G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band playing a set of oldies. In the crush of people trying to settle into the upstairs bar area, my wife and Goldie Hawn bumped into each other, and I was really impressed with one guy's leather jacket -- then I noticed the guy was Michael Bolton. Later, he got called up on stage to sing a few, and I have to say, as long as he's singing just flat out fun oldies and not doing a Kenny G to soul songs, he's really good.
Eventually we found a nice spot to settle in and listen to the music and watch the crowd. But then my wife and I started getting this weird feeling that the crowd was watching us. It was subtle, it took a while to notice, but there it was. People all around the room kept looking in our direction, then looking away, then looking back. People seemed to have positioned their chairs to make it easier for them to look at where we were. Now, it's true, my wife looked like a million bucks, and I'd done some shopping at Mario's myself before we left -- but I didn't think we looked quite THAT good. A glance over my shoulder, and we understood. We were four feet from the Celebrity Table: Goldie Hawn, Michael Bolton, Shawn Colvin -- probably others that we missed as the evening turned into morning. When it comes to looking at Goldie Hawn from four feet away, although she is a lovely woman, one or two minutes just about does it. Watching the hip crowd pretending they weren't watching Goldie Hawn was actually more entertaining.
We toured the club a bit more, and returned to the upstairs stage to find a Joni Mitchell impersonator warbling her way through "Circle Game", complete with blond wig, black beret and cigarette -- we took that as our signal that the China Club was about to change from a Private Party pumpkin into an Exclusive Nightclub carriage. The act on stage was there to chase us out.
TAKE ME HOME
Considering how scary Manhattan seemed at first, it's kind of funny how we found ourselves walking up to the corner market near the hotel for juice and bottled Starbucks coffees for later -- at two in the morning. Fuhgettaboudit, no problem. By the way, the room service at the, excuse me, Le Parker Meridien, was fantastic. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that a French hotel knows how to make French onion soup in the middle of the night.
The next morning we were packed to go, and our towncar driver had his own special way to get to La Guardia that skipped the freeways and took us through Queens on a much more, um, scenic route. Got to the airport with plenty of time -- to wait for the delayed aircraft. And wait on the runway. We did make our connecting flight though, barely, running full speed through the St. Louis airport, my wife again in heels and way ahead of me.
The route home was incredibly beautiful from the air. North Dakota was hundreds of miles of farmland, covered in snow, each parcel bordered by neatly cleared two-lane roads. It was as if someone had made a giant patchwork quilt using only squares of white fabric. Montana flowed by, miles and miles of land with only the occasional cluster of something that looked like a town. Our plane was flying directly into the setting sun. It was just around dusk when we started descending for Portland. I'd never come into PDX from the east before, so when we came up alongside Mt. Hood, getting ready to land, it felt like the pilot was going to set her down on one of the night ski runs. The way that mountain looked, in the bright blue dusk, with the lights of Portland just beyond -- well, Manhattan was good, loved the top of the Empire State Building, but THIS was truly breathtaking. And it was so good to be home.
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