Sunday, March 16, 2014

118. How New Yorkers Have Fun

     New York has always been fun city, a place where people came to have a good time, to live it up, maybe to get just a bit wild.  And the locals have always liked to have fun, too, and in the Big Apple the possibilities were – and are -- endless.  But what exactly is “fun”?  The dictionary says “what provides amusement or enjoyment,” and in distinguishing it from words like “game” and “play” says that fun “implies laughter or gaiety, but may imply merely a lack of serious or ulterior purpose.”  Okay, I’ll go along with that, though I may stretch the definition just a bit.

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                                                                                                        lldar Sagdejev

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                                                                  David Shankbone

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                                                  Bureau of Land Management

Having fun today

     I asked several of my friends what they do, or what they have done in the past, to have fun.  The answers varied quite a bit.  For instance:

·      Cook a dinner for friends you’ve invited over.
·      Museums and concerts.
·      Hiking.
·      A good book.
·      A congenial bar with a good piano player.
·      A dinner out.
·      A disco with loud music and dancing.

     No, not a single orgy; sorry to disappoint.  My friends don’t go for orgies, or if they do, they won’t admit to it.  But don’t worry, we’ll get around to some wild stuff later.  If some of these are on the quiet side, without laughter or overt gaiety, I still include them as fun, quiet fun, but bars and discos offer noisy fun, too.  One friend, by the way, reported that he didn’t have fun anymore, though he’s never struck me as glum.  Here now are some notes on the examples of fun listed above.

     As regards bars, one gay friend mentioned The Monster, a gay bar in the West Village on Grove Street at Sheridan Square with a bar/piano lounge at ground level.  He described it as having three personalities.  The pianist often plays show tunes from shows from the storied past, to the delight of the older gays present (personality #1).  But he also plays tunes from recent shows, to the delight of the younger gay set (personality #2).  And #3?  For that you go downstairs to the dance floor, where Hispanic males dance up a storm.  The bar has been going since 1970 and is definitely a fun scene.  One of the online reviews by a man from Brooklyn tells how his girlfriend wanted to take him out to a fun gay bar for his birthday and chose The Monster on a recent Sunday night.  “We happened to be thrown into a sea of fun bartenders and staff that were hosting an underwear party that night.  What a blast we had.”  And if his girlfriend was one of only three women there, everyone seemed to love her.  His conclusion: “Will definitely be back!”  Which sounds like a real New York scene.

     Though it’s in my neck of the woods, I’ve never been to The Monster, so I’ll mention instead a gay disco that Bob and I went to in the late 1960s and 1970s, when discos were all the rage.  It was a mafia-run joint in the West Village, with the inevitable thug at the door to keep the non-gay element out.  Inside you were obliged to have a drink first at the bar, before proceeding to the dance floor in back.  And what a dance floor it was!  Male and female couples (rarely mixed) bouncing and jiggling to ear-splitting piped-in music while strobe lights flashed splashes of color that made you think you were on an LSD trip, while a male go-go dancer in a bikini exposed his pulsating charms.  It was wild, it was crazy, it was fun.  At first some of the lesbians fooled me; they really looked like men.  But Bob and I decided that two things gave them away: the voice (if they spoke), and the line of the jaw, always slightly more delicate, less rough-hewn than a man’s.  Otherwise, you’d never have known the difference.  But all that was long ago. 

    I also mentioned a good dinner out.  Quiet fun, but fun nevertheless, and very New York.  New Yorkers like to dine out and have the choice of cheap, moderate, or very expensive and exclusive restaurants, and every ethnic variety conceivable.  Over the years Bob and I have patronized Italian, French, Spanish, German, Irish, Chinese, and Thai restaurants, with special emphasis on Italian and Chinese.  For a really good meal Bob and I used to go to Gargiulo’s, an old family-run Italian restaurant on West 15th Street in Coney Island, but a few blocks from the boardwalk.  Founded by the Gargiulo family in 1907, when the great amusement parks were flourishing, in 1965 it was bought by the Russo family, who have run it for several generations.  Under the Russos the restaurant has greatly expanded, adding extra dining rooms to accommodate weddings and celebrations, and a huge parking lot across the street offering valet parking to patrons coming from all over the city.  (Bob and I were probably the only ones who came and went by subway.)  The expansion was no doubt all to the good, though it did eliminate a brothel discreetly situated next door, passing which, as we approached the portals of culinary Elysium, somehow added spice to the adventure.  Gargiulo’s is famous for classic Neapolitan fare, but to sample it you have to observe their dress code: no shorts and, God knows, no bare feet.  This may be Coney Island, but it’s a very special Coney Island, catering to middle-class families of taste.

The main dining room, circa 1970.
     Dining often in the high-ceilinged main dining room, Bob and I acquired a favorite waiter, Giancarlo, who looked after us with care.  My preferred dishes: as an appetizer, mozzarella in carrozza (mozzarella cheese on toast), then fettuccine alfredo, and for dessert, cannoli (fingerlike shells of fried pastry dough with a sweet, creamy filling).  I couldn’t begin to describe these dishes; I can only say each was delicious, exquisite, unique.  Though meat dishes and seafood were available, we learned to settle for pasta, which Gargiulo’s does superbly.  As veteran New Yorkers, such a meal was the evening’s entertainment; there was no thought of doing anything else, except the long subway ride home the length of Brooklyn, most of it above ground, looking at the dark borough’s lights, and savoring in memory the dishes we had just enjoyed.  When we saw other guests – a few – rush through their meal and dash off to some other engagement, we were amazed; what could possibly top a dinner at Gargiulo’s?

     When you have a favorite restaurant, you experience more than just food.  It becomes, in fact, a ritual.  Bob and I would go to the New York Aquarium at Coney Island on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, when there were very few visitors, to renew our acquaintance with penguins, walruses, and sharks.  Then we would walk along the boardwalk and, on a clear day, see the sun set over the ocean, en route to Gargiulo’s, where we would arrive shortly after 5 p.m., among the first of the diners to appear.  Always we asked for Giancarlo, who would greet us warmly and guide us to our reserved table.  Then, as the dining room filled up, we had the fun – yes, fun – of watching middle-class Brooklyn on a very special family night.  Three, even four, generations of an Italian American family would arrive, some of the elderly in wheel chairs, the grown unmarried kids dining of necessity with the family, the young women, sometimes blond, in stylish black dresses or pants suits, and the little kids invariably more elegant than their parents.  Only a restricted menu was available, so as to lighten the work of the staff, since they would be going to midnight Mass.  But if we asked Giancarlo if canoli, not on the menu, were possible, he would reply with a sly smile, “For you, yes,” and canoli would appear.

     Giancarlo wasn’t the only staff member we bonded with.  One of the Russos, Anthony, whom Bob remembers as long ago behind the coat check counter, now helps run the restaurant and welcomes patrons table by table with a hearty greeting.  And once we saw Lula, one of the staff in her late forties, come out of the kitchen to greet some longtime patrons and friends, and she seemed so open and friendly that we flashed a smile in her direction.  That was all she needed to come over and greet us, total strangers, and exchange a few warm words.  After that, with management’s approval and blessing, I would always go into the huge kitchen, hunt her up among the sinks and cutting boards and pans, and say hello and thank her – and through her all the staff – for the superb dinner we were having.  She always responded with the warmest smile and thanks.

The Gargiulo's staff.  Lula on the far right, with
Anthony standing next to her.

     Dining on less festive occasions had its advantages, too.  When we arrived at 5 p.m., the waiters would still be sitting at a table near the entrance to the kitchen shelling peas.  And with them was Father George Ruggieri, a handsome Jesuit in his fifties who was a renowned marine biologist and, for many years, the director of the Aquarium, but also a longtime patron and friend of the restaurant.  Though we shared two enthusiasms with him – the Aquarium and Gargiulo’s -- we never spoke to him, but he struck us as an  urbane, sophisticated gentleman, an impression reinforced by the greetings that other arriving guests gave him, including numerous women young and old who in a steady stream flocked to his table for a bit of conversation and charm.  The waiters and their peas had by now disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Father Ruggieri to hold sway alone at his table with poise and geniality, as at ease here as in a marine laboratory.  He died in 1987 and for us Gargiulo’s hasn’t been quite the same since, though his portrait adorns the wall of the dining room where he was often a guest.  But today Gargiulo's, having survived Hurricane Sandy, is still offering superb Neapolitan fare to diners of taste.

     A brief final note about dining out in New York.  If, having made a reservation, you arrive at a restaurant, find a long line, and are made to wait twenty minutes or more, never go to that restaurant again; it’s probably “in,” probably “hot,” and coasting on its reputation.  New York abounds in restaurants.  There’s probably just as good a one within easy walking distance where a reservation is a reservation and you’ll be seated promptly. 

Having fun yesterday

High-wheeled bikes in the 1880s.  Notice the
three-wheel bike to accommodate the lady.

     Yesterday – by which I mean the nineteenth century – offered many possibilities for fun, but with a distinct class difference.  The well-bred middle class often gathered in the living room to play parlor games and sing.  Tame by today’s standards, admittedly, and even then some were a bit more adventurous.  If rendering “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” or “Silver Threads among the Gold” wasn’t quite your idea of fun, in the years following the Civil War a whole range of activities appeared.  For hardy males the velocipede, an import from France in the late 1860s, opened vistas of healthy endeavor, while causing neophytes not a few bruises and fractures.  Then, circa 1876, came the high-wheeled bike that made the sport popular; cyclists’ clubs proliferated.  In time, ladies too were able to cycle, though the ample garb of the time posed problems. 

     Archery and lawn tennis were also popular in the 1870s, being thought refined games appropriate for both sexes of “the educated and refined classes.”  Archery required more skill than exertion, and many women  excelled in it, striking handsome poses in the process.  Ladies playing lawn tennis held the trains of their long skirts and were not expected to run for the ball, which was patted gently back and forth over a high net stretched across the lawn; overhand serves and smashes at the net would have been though unmannerly. 

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The hurly-burly of lawn tennis in the 1880s.

The most genteel of games.
     Coming from England, croquet was welcomed by some as an alternative to lawn tennis’s “hurly-burly.”  Esteemed above all in the game were grace in holding and using the mallet, easy and pleasing attitudes in playing, and gentlemanly and ladylike manners.  Young ladies were allowed to cheat, since gentlemen were thought to find such indiscretions charming.  And since croquet permitted the sexes to mingle innocently, it facilitated courting, as couples socialized and flirted freely in full view of parents and neighbors. 

     Was the fun of those days inevitably and oppressively constrained by  notions of gentility?  Not always.  In 1866 The Black Crook, a hodgepodge of an extravaganza mixing melodrama, spectacular stage effects, and ballet, burst upon the New York theatrical scene and proved an instant success.  The plot is too complicated and too absurd to merit recounting; suffice it to say that it involved a villain’s pact with the devil, a kidnapped heroine, a hero aided by a fairy queen, and finally – after five and a half hours – a happy ending.  What appealed to audiences were the special effects: scenes rising out of the floor, fairies soaring in the air, shimmering stalagmites and stalactites in the fairy queen’s crystal grotto, a hurricane in a mountain pass, Satan’s sudden appearances, and gilded chariots dropping from the clouds.  But what appealed even more – especially to the male contingent – were a Grand Ballet of Gems featuring two hundred shapely female legs daringly exposed in flesh-colored tights, and a Pas de Demons with four leotard-garbed women, skirtless, who, possessed by the devil, danced devilishly. 

The finale, where Amazons defeat the forces of evil.

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Lydia in all her glory.  
     Ministers and newspaper editors inveighed against this incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah and its “ancient heathen orgies,” but the public flocked.  Old men leered from the front-row seats, and riffraff of the lower orders peered down from the gallery, but high society came to the theater as well, some of the women in décolleté just as shocking as that of the performers.  While solid ranks of the godly held aloof, it was obvious that times and morals were changing; what high society did today, the middle class would probably do tomorrow, its younger members in the lead.  The Black Crook was repeatedly revived and imitated; from it, in time, came both the Broadway musical and burlesque.  And when Lydia Thompson and Her British Blondes burst upon the city in 1868, the performers wearing short tunics and tights that displayed their legs, the girlie show of later times was beginning to take its familiar form, with emphasis more on bodily charms than on talent.  And it was all being pioneered in Babylon on the Hudson.

     What other fun was available?  Baseball had appeared before the Civil War, was played during the war by soldiers eager to relieve the boredom of camp life, and spread nationwide thereafter.  This was strictly a man’s game, but healthy and orderly, and it would soon be professionalized, with rival clubs contending and spectators paying a fee to watch.  All in all, it was acceptable to respectable society.

     What was truly abhorrent to the genteel middle class were certain pastimes of the desperate classes, those legions of unwashed, unchurched, or Romanist masses, drink-ridden and riot-prone (and mostly, needless to say, Irish), who existed in uneasy proximity to their betters in the city.  Cockfighting was common among those masses, with spectators betting on either of two contenders, who then lunged and stabbed at each other till the loser was a bloody and demolished mess of feathers, and the victor bled copiously, minus an eye or two; the loser was then tossed on a heap of dead fowl in a corner, and the next fight began.  Also widespread was the rat pit, where scores of spectators sitting on pine planks or standing around a sunken pit watched as packs of rats, often collected by the neighborhood youngsters, were released, to be attacked by trained terriers, while the audience bet on the number of rats the dogs would kill.  The spectators were mostly working class, with some male gentry thrown in.  Clearly, this and cockfighting were the dark side of fun.  To suppress them, in 1866 the reformer Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) here in New York and, with solid middle-class backing, began eliminating lower-class blood sports.

Here, to judge by the top hats, the gentry seem to prevail.

     Another kind of fun condemned by Victorian gentility were the pretty-waiter-girl saloons especially in evidence along Sixth Avenue, Broadway, and the Bowery: taverns offering some kind of vaudeville on a curtainless stage in back, with “waiter girls” in short skirts and tasseled red boots who joined the audience in sing-alongs and then, during intermissions, plumped themselves down among the spectators and solicited customers for carnal encounters in private rooms upstairs.  Flocking to them were males of all classes, though sporting gents of the middle class found the fancier  establishments safer, if not quite respectable.  The most popular of these concert saloons was Harry Hill’s, on Houston just east of Broadway, where clean-cuffed professional men – judges, lawyers, doctors -- mingled with boxers, politicos, and gamblers, and danced and drank with the local demimondaines, under the strict surveillance of the host.  Ever vigilant, Hill suppressed any threatened violence with vigor, and provided a private room where patrons could sober up, so as not to be attacked by thugs outside.  

A rambunctious night at Harry Hill's.

     As for full-fledged brothels, the city had every kind, from the lowest waterfront joints to palatial uptown establishments catering to an exclusive and well-heeled clientele.  Periodically some minister from the provinces would come to the city, visit one of them warily, then rush back to sermonize his flock on the utter and unrestrained turpitude of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Hudson.  Which, inevitably, brought more customers to the establishment in question.

Crazy fun

     We’ve had a glance at quiet fun, noisy fun, and dark fun; so what about wild, crazy, madcap fun?   New York has always harbored plenty of it, but I’ll focus on a peculiar variety that I term fitness fun.  This is what Bob’s and my friend Dyan, a nurse, does, when not looking after others.  It’s crazy stuff that I didn’t know existed, all of it right here in this city.  Aside from attending a no-pants party with her boyfriend, Dyan has done the following:

·      GORUCK drills, marches, and water push-ups in the harbor off Brooklyn.
·      A Color Mob 5k race where she ended up splotched with many colors and looking like a piece of abstract art.
·      The Walking Dead Escape, an obstacle course where survivors who run the course without being touched by zombies can then become zombies and try to contaminate others.

     So what is this all about?  It’s about keeping fit.  GORUCK is an organization that stages challenging military-style programs for civilians staffed by Special Operations combat veterans.  Civilians who volunteer for the program can select one of several options that vary in length of time and distance.  They join a team, carry heavy rucksacks, do military drills, and learn survival skills.  Dyan chose GORUCK Light, which involves a mere 4 to 5 hours and 7 to 10 miles.  (GORUCK Selection, the most challenging option, involves 48+ hours and 80+ miles!)  She did physical drills that included carrying heavy packs and the American flag through the streets, then crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to do push-ups in the harbor there.  This is fun? you may ask.  Maybe not for you or me, but for Dyan, yes, though she also calls the experience awesome.  She’s a real fitness freak, and adventurous to boot.

Photo: GoRuck water push-ups!
GORUCK water push-ups.  Dyan is the blonde.

    Color Mob 5k stages five-kilometer races where runners of all ages get splattered with wild colors as they run, then party at the finish line with music and beer.  You are advised to wear clothes you want to have colored permanently, since some of the colors will never completely wash out.  The runners aren’t timed; everyone is a winner.  Coming back on the subway, their clothes all splotched with colors, Dyan and her friends were quite a spectacle.  When a woman asked if she could photograph them, they said yes; she then sent them a copy of the photo.  This, at least, sounds like fun – good, honest, wild, crazy fun.

Photo: A friendly New Yorker took our pic on the subway yesterday and texted it to me today with a really sweet note. I heart NY!
Coming back in the subway from Color Mob.

     Walking Dead Escape was staged on the evening of October 12 last at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum at Pier 86, West 46th Street and 12th Avenue, Manhattan.  The museum features the aircraft carrier Intrepid, a veteran of World War II and Vietnam that is now a National Historic Monument.  Walking Dead Escape participants were invited to climb, crawl, and slide through an obstacle course on the Intrepid that included overturned buses, while trying to avoid being touched and contaminated by zombies.  Or you can choose to be a Walker (zombie), or just watch as a spectator.  When Dyan and her friends finished the course, they became zombies and then were professionally made up, their faces smeared to look like zombies, following which they spent several hours trying to touch and contaminate others.  At the end, the contaminated zombies were taken into quarantine and subjected to a fake execution, since there is no cure for the zombie virus.  Again, pretty strenuous fun, but fun nonetheless.  For Dyan and her friends, at least.  I’m not sure I’d care to dodge overturned buses or be smeared to make like a zombie. 

A smeared face makes you a zombie.

     Note on Kitty Genovese:  In vignette #13 I discussed the Kitty Genovese case of 1964, which a New York Times article presented as a shocking instance of New Yorker indifference to a murder witnessed by many neighbors who chose not to get involved.  Drawing on online sources, the vignette refuted the Times account, which misrepresented the whole event, since many alleged witnesses never heard Kitty Genovese’s screams, and some neighbors did indeed notify the police, who failed to respond in time.  One viewer of this blog just sent me a clipping from The New Yorker of March 10, 2014 (pp. 73-77) that confirms the account of my sources, adding some relevant details.  Anyone interested in the case, and the legend of New York apathy it inspired, should have a look at the article.  Legends die hard, but sometimes they do finally get put to rest.  Since her death occurred just fifty years ago this month, the March 2014 issue of the AARP Bulletin, which addresses Golden Oldies like myself, has also revisited her murder and the Times’s coverage of it and reached a similar conclusion.  (To access the vignettes, click on July 2012 in the Archive.)

This is New York

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Thomas Altfather Good

     Coming soon Exiles in New York.  A Dragon Lady, a future emperor, two madams in discreet retirement, a prince-begetter, an icon of queerness, and many more.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder