Celebrity is a strange bolt of cloth. It wraps a mortal being and fashions something more than that, an image or an icon for a idolatrous crowd. When I was young and first walking the avenues in this town, celebrity held some currency as I think it does for most young people in the big city. Yet I find in my second half century that the fame of others, and their crowds, is worth very little and that I see only men and women and not boldface names and famous faces.
Of course, in a small but real way fame is driving this little project. In the limited honesty of recollection this is a chance to gather a few instances of brushing against those names and faces, as anyone who has practiced journalism in New York for thirty years or more surely must. It is a chance to name drop, to align my travels with those of others with more accomplishment, money or luck. And the flinging back of the curtain - what the venture capital crowd called "going open kimono" in the upscale conference rooms of the dot-com 90s - must reveal at least some truth about New York as well. Why? Because millions inhabit streets where the thousands come to make their names. We comprise the giant sifting blade of celebrity and fortune. We are the mecca of fame, and those seeking it turn our way from the infinite points of the compass.
In 1992 in the dank, sweaty hockey arena built on the ruins of glorious old Pennsylvania Station, I stumbled in a crush of credentialed media and well lubricated Georgia delegates toward a belle figure of soul out of Memphis by way of Detroit. Aretha Franklin came down to the floor of the Democratic National Convention after singing the national anthem to a political assembly that would nominate Bill Clinton the next night. The flow of reporters, and delegates, and security guys with assorted ear pieces pushed me toward the great personage. And there on floor below the podium, I gasped a simple line of praise for her performance, which had translated Napoleonic Era martial music into sweet gospel. "Thank you, honey," she said, with a big smile. And then I was swept past.
And that was the moment when I felt most like any other fan gone weak at the knees. I've never smirked at the crowds lined up outside the Today Show since, or the kids who wait by the player's entrance at the ballpark to beg an autograph, or the middle managers who bid a few thousand at a charity auction to play golf with some politician or athlete. Everybody in this town has his moment of weakness under celebrity's gaze, with the rockets' red glare, and Aretha on the floor of the Garden was mine.
In 1960, Aretha was a bridge and tunnel kid herself (I count airline terminals too - it's my metaphor), courted and signed out of her father's touring church choir by John Hammond of CBS Records. She recorded her first mainstream album in a converted townhouse on East 52nd Street built by the Vanderbilt family, originally as a stables and later as a guesthouse. It later became the first graduate school of the Juilliard School, before being converted to studios by CBS during the height of the pre-war record-making boom. The liner notes for Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo tell the truth as few liner notes ever have: "She doesn't just open the door - she breaks it down."
In truth, many break it down and this is the place come to do it. What they don't realize about fame is its sandy quality - and not the wet sand down by the surf either, the dry sand up on the dunes that runs through your fingers when you squeeze a handful. I can sit in the sun of these middle years and honestly say "son, I've seem 'em come and I've seen 'em go" but it's an old story, and somewhat shopworn. I don't value fame. Walking these streets alone, I often pass packs of paparazzi photographers waiting on a name I'll only dimly recognize in front of Manhattan hot spots that didn't exist a decade ago. They're waiting on a couple of Escalades and a posse of hangers on, the security guys and the flacks, for the brief "availability" that the famous person bestows: a moment of photogenic glory and perhaps an autograph or two before being swept into a higher tier of worship. I don't wait to catch a glimpse. I do not care. I walk on. I whistle an old song.
Then too, there are the professional responsibilities that require the currency of fame to make them work; these are the precision Swiss clocks of charitable endorsements and policy appearances at conferences in support of worthy causes. I've had a lifetime's fill to go with a thousand pounds of warmed over catering hall chicken, though I will admit there are exceptions to the rule. Some meetings have been interesting. The Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf comprises an annual gathering of New York's Catholic clans, people who used to be reliable Democratic voters when social justice mattered to the faithful in the last century but who now generally lean Republican, weighed down perhaps by the jewelry on obvious display and too many generations of financial remove from the hard benches of Ellis Island. One year, as I've mentioned in a previous installment, I actually waited on the receiving line to meet Barack Obama. Two years earlier, I was hanging around a post-game party in a suite upstairs packed with politicians and those who want to meet them. Game 7 of the National League Championship Series was on the television by the bar (they'd famously lose with Carlos Beltran frozen at the plate by an Adam Wainright curveball) and I was watching the game with my brother Chris. Tim Russert, Andrew Cuomo and Chuck Schumer were working the room. I was heading back from the bar toward the Mets game when I was caught in a political scrum by the windows overlooking Park Avenue. And suddenly, there was Hillary Clinton at my elbow - and despite the callouses of fame met, fame interviewed, and fame easily dismissed I felt the shiver up my leg that Chris Matthews got two years later for her Democratic opponent. Hillary was a month away from squashing former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, a Republican who I knew from covering his major waterfront revamp for The New York Times, in her reelection campaign. At the time, Clinton was a very popular Senator, a political fact that has been eclipsed by her 2008 match with Obama and subsequent success as his Secretary of State. In the Waldorf suite, we chatted briefly about the race, and about the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a month earlier. That conversation stayed with me for years because my experience ran exactly counter to the celebrity Hillary Clinton I knew only through the media. The public figure I encountered was warm and charming, with a quick laugh, and she paid close attention to the conversation. She was a good listener.
Ed Koch was not. Yet he didn't live up to his public billing either. Sure, on television he was abrasive, confrontational, nasally bellicose. And in the politics I observed in the late 70s and early 80s and covered in the last half of the decade, Koch was aggressive and towering. In the film NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, Koch famously declared - several times - of political adversaries in that landmark mayoral race: "my attitude was...fuck 'em!" Koch played for keeps, and he didn't hesitate to run the other guy down. In the late 80s, his administration proposed 1,000 units of middle income housing next to John F. Kennedy High School in Kingsbridge, a massive development that would have overwhelmed an already crowded urban landscape. I was the deputy editor and political reporter for The Riverdale Press, which covered Kingsbridge and Marble Hill in addition to more sylvan districts up the hill in the northwest Bronx. The Mayor had already declared his intentions to crush local opposition thusly: "You know how it is in Riverdale, don't you? It's last one in shut the door!"
Amidst that level of discourse, Koch invited the Press editorial board to lunch at City Hall. The delegation consisted of co-publishers Buddy and Richard Stein, and me. The paper, in those days, was probably the finest local independent newspaper in New York City, and among the very best in New York State. We were strongly liberal, strongly preservationist, and strongly dedicated to free speech; the editorial page was a must-read for citywide politicians and Bronx wannabes, and it boasted an incredible range of opinion. In those years before the Bloomberg bullpen, the Mayor ran a small dining room beneath his office, complete with a kitchen and staff. The diners included deputy mayor Stan Brezenoff and Dan Wolf, founding editor of the Village Voice and major domo of Koch's kitchen cabinet. The lunch was very civilized - though I recall Koch defending subway shooter Bernie Goetz, strangely enough - and the Press continued to oppose Tibbett Gardens, the giant housing project. But something else stuck with me: Ed Koch's manners and civility. When the gathering was being seated, I was uncertain where to drop myself as the most junior guest at the table, momentarily flummoxed by the deference due both my bosses and the city fathers. "Tom," said Koch, "you sit here by me."
A couple of years later, when the Press was firebombed by terrorists with links to Iran (or so the FBI told us), Koch spoke at a public rally for the paper, in the last year of his Mayoralty and a third term that was - to put it kindly - a disaster. Yet he rose to the occasion: “Mr. Mayor,” a reporter asked, “hasn’t this newspaper been very rough on you on their editorial page?”
“Sure they have,” Mr. Koch replied, “but I don’t respond by throwing bombs, I write letters to the editor!”
Koch's successor, David Dinkins, was an all around nice guy who you'd want to be seated next to at any New York function you might find yourself attending. When he was running against Rudolph Giuliani to succeed Koch, he bumped into fellow Press reporter Larry Dublin at a Riverdale fundraiser. Larry, a great friend who was filling in on the political coverage in a busy season but really hounded the public schools beat, told Dinkins that I'd interviewed him a few weeks earlier and would be following up for a series of formal sit-downs with the major candidates. Dinkins didn't miss a beat at the mention of my name: "Great guy!" he effused, though in truth the connection must have been tiny in his recollection. It's a big city.
You'll notice the hypocrisy of names baldly dropped in a chapter that claims little affinity for fame. In part, that's the nature of New York and its centrality to the machine that creates famous people, nourishes them, and either spits them or protects them from decades. I am not immune to the famous face or the great accomplishment, and there is a small shiver to be obtained - still - from proximity to a great artist or world leader. Yet, they are all to be glimpsed as easily as street trees and mounted cops in this town and everyone has his own A list, ignoring (for the most part) everyone else. The other factor is the sheer glut of celebrity provided by New York. There is an over abundance in the market that depresses the value of fame, and unlike the manufacturing sector that vanished in the last generation, the fame factories are still working double shifts, enriched by the digital age of sharing and linking, and drugged up by the vile lattes and bitter, burned brew that passes for actual joe from the invasive "green" northwestern franchise that has stamped out the once vital New York coffee shops. Vanity Fair can hardly keep up. TMZ is everywhere. Instagram runs the DIY shift on the late nights, and Twitter is young flack's dream.
And it is all so fleeting. When I was a young political reporter, the celebrity and power of Ed Koch held some value. But I also remember the names of the day who were regularly in headlines, but won't be all that deeply remembered. Andrew Stein. Liz Holtzman. Stanley Steingut. Jay Goldin. Ruth Messinger. Names from the Green Book. Big deals at the time, all
Sometimes the shooting star halts in mid-flight. I was taken recently with a chapter in Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs last year's collection of essays by my friend James Wolcott. The story recalled the turbo-prop career of television host Stanley Siegel, who fronted a show called A.M. New York in the late 70s. Writing for the Voice 35 years ago, Wolcott predicted: "He's going to be a megastar on TV, not only because of his ebullience, impudent charm, and spacey wit, but because the way he waves and unfurls his personality like a toreador's cape is perfect for the therapy-junkie seventies."
I remember Siegel from that era, a super-caffeinated nerve ending on the morning show of high school sick days. But it didn't happen. "His comet went cold," recalled Wolcott, and Siegel "seemed to dematerialize into the Phantom Zone."
Which is, of course, what happened to me. Oh certainly, I yearned for a larger audience, for followers, for recognition, for standing. I found some alleyways of brief renown, some circulation, a few arguments, the bylines along the way, and some smaller moments with a lav mic hooked to my jacket. Yet we're all mostly Stanley Siegels among the bridge and tunnel crowd, slinging guitars and laptops through the years, blathering on about the outrage of the moment, putting our talent and social currency at risk. But most of us find the Phantom Zone.
It's the nature of the city, the game. Fame is too common, celebrity too present. In the late 90s I was scheduled for a meeting at Sony, and Jason Chervokas and I killed some time in the lobby up on 57th Street, fooling around with the new game systems they were developing and showing off for the public. I was playing a stock car themed racing game, and quickly crashed the virtual vehicle.
"OK, son," said a voice at my elbow, in the booming drawl of a southern sheriff. "Step away from the vehicle and keep your hands where I can see 'em!"
I walked away from the video game, and Jason filled me in. Do you realize who that was? No, says I. Robin Williams, he said. And sure enough, there he was - and improvising humor exactly as you'd expect. That's New York. I walked though a location set of Hannah and Her Sisters and was a block away before I realized the guy on the milk crate was Woody Allen. I laughed at Jimmy Breslin as he filmed a commercial for Piels on Broadway, mocking the "good drinkin' beer" tagline. I watched Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd film Ghostbusters on 116th Street. Mayors, Governors, Presidents, CEOs. They all came here looking for work, as Maggi Waters used to say in the Riverdale Press newsroom.
Fame's currency vanished for me as a journalist; I won't follow anyone around anymore. New York levels us, the famous and the rich. The boldface names get sick, drink too much, feel lonely at times, and put on their pants a leg at a time. New York, wrote E.B. White, "makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin - the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled." That commonality knocks down fame, in a way. You can be well-known for a while in this town, but you still can't hail a cab at 4 pm when it's raining.