New York, circa 1999.
I’ve been so busy working a temp job the past two weeks that all I want to do when I get home is curl up with Food Network. So I haven’t had much time to write. And I’m certainly not traveling at the moment. But, since I’m traveling to New York this summer, it’s on my mind.
I went to New York City for the first time in 1999, the summer between graduating high school and starting college. I wrote this years ago, 2005 maybe, before I had a blog, for a travel writing class I took in grad school. At the time I had only ever traveled to New York and Las Vegas plus some quick trips to surrounding states. No where, really, so my options on what to write about were pretty limited. This is unedited.
“You’re going to have to check that,” the flight attendant said to my eldest sister as if it were her fault that there was not enough room to house everyone’s carry-ons. We had all purposely bought suitcases that were well within the established guidelines and none of us were going to dare let our bags out of our immediate vicinity. None of us would have been able to handle our luggage getting lost. The flight was one of those where your seats aren’t assigned and dictated only by when they allow you to step onto the plane. We were towards the end and while Natalie and I squeezed our bags into the overhead, there was no room for Jennifer’s and so she forced it in between her legs and the seat in front of her. On a routine check the flight attendant saw it there and tried to pry it away to stash it who knows where for it to maybe or maybe not arrive to New York at the same time we would. Jen loudly protested and finally won when the staff found a place for it up front, guaranteed not to get lost.
It was the first time I’d been on a plane or even in an airport. When we were younger my sisters and I and my parents and grandparents and aunt would rent a van and go to places like Disney Land and Disney World. Being six and ten years older than myself, Nat and Jen were at the prime ages to really enjoy these vacations. I, at four, was too young to have any remembrance of vacationing other than meeting Tigger. After those trips my grandparents started getting older and sicker and we never took a vacation again. This trip was my sisters’ graduation present to me. New York City, a place they knew I had always wanted to go and thought I would enjoy. A year earlier they would have been right. New York had always been my dream. I didn’t care about the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building or Central Park or Times Square or even the mile high Jewish deli sandwiches. New York had always meant just one thing to me: Broadway. The dancing, the music, the lights. Exhilaration. I didn’t want to just see Broadway, I wanted to be on Broadway. I wanted to dance, act, sing and be someone else and be someone. From the moment I had stepped on to a dance floor as a kid and a stage in high school I knew that was where I’d wanted to be. And since I was just a couple weeks away from going to college to study neither dance nor drama, it just wasn’t the right time. But we needed to get away.
Shortly after we arrived in our hotel room, luggage in tact and in tow, we were greeted to sounds of sirens and looking out the window could see a fire truck parked down below. “Great,” Natalie mumbled. We didn’t unpack our bags except to switch what we were wearing for pajamas and positioned our zipped up luggage near the door. Just in case. Almost as soon as we arrived we retired to bed. The plan was to wake up early to stand outside The Today Show’s window. Not my idea. In fact, to this day I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched The Today Show. I hated the idea even more as we woke up at 6am and made our way to the studio. I’m not a morning person. To our luck, at least, they were doing a summer concert series and we happened to arrive on the day Hootie and the Blowfish were playing outside, drawing a crowd that made me feel a little less stupid about waking up early to stand in front of a window. As the hosts came out to introduce the band, this little girl a couple people away sat on her father’s shoulders was yelling out “Katie, Katie”. She shouted this over and over, holding out a piece of paper as far as her arm could reach, as if she was expecting Katie Couric to stage dive out to her to sign an autograph. Did this little girl even know who Katie Couric was? I didn’t even know.
When the band started to play I began to dance and jump around and smile as big as I could and act as happy and excited as anyone could be, lip-synching to the lyrics I knew and mouthing anything to the ones I didn’t. I never particularly liked their music, but I felt that if I looked like I did, they would have to put me on TV. I was right. My parents, who watched from the hotel room back home, said later that they did show me. They couldn’t tape it though because there was no VCR.
I went from a hotel room in Countryside, Illinois to a hotel room in New York City and back to the first before heading off to my dorm room. Five months earlier the house I grew up in caught fire and burned down. I had never before lived anywhere else and my whole world was there. The fire, which raged up the walls of the basement through the first floor and right up through my closet took away my costumes and show posters and show t-shirts and ribbons and trophies and my very first pair of pointe shoes and all the ones that came after. It was as if I had never been a dancer at all. What the fire didn’t take, the soot and the water did. Luckily no one was hurt (the news cameras who came left when they found that out) and my photographs, flower petals (I kept in a bowl every flower I’d ever received), and programs (I kept programs from every show I’d ever seen or performed in) were dirty, but salvageable. Little else was. All three of us were living at home, Natalie a few years out of college who was at her first job and Jennifer just between apartments and storing all of her furniture and things. We went to a cheap motel for the first week before moving into a temporary house 2 towns away, luckily, though I now technically lived out of district, my school still let me attend as I was already past halfway through my senior year. That house sold early and all the trouble of work permits and building codes kept our house rebuilding late so we were forced to move into a Holiday Inn for the last two months of the summer.
The hosts took back their stage to interview Hootie and the little girl was hoisted back on her father’s shoulders to re-initiate her plea to “Katie! Katie!” I put my camera to my eye and snapped her picture. Jennifer whispered in my ear “You took a picture of the annoying girl?”
“I don’t know.”
After our concert we went to Central Park where I took photographs of the flowers of Shakespeare’s Garden and statues of Romeo and Juliet and then we climbed to the top of the Empire State Building where I took photographs of pigeons with the city behind them. The two activities took up most of our day. The time we had between and afterwards we wandered Broadway seeing signs for all the shows we’d have to miss. Budget and time allotted us to only see two. The next night we would see The Weir, a straight play that all took place in an Irish pub that none of us had heard before. But that night was Cabaret. I fell in love with the show when I saw a clip they performed on the Tonys the previous year. I bought the soundtrack and rented the old Joel Grey movie and memorized all the lyrics and practiced how I’d dance if I ever were cast. As we wondered around Broadway I took photos of the signs announcing the shows outside the theatres: Miss Saigon, Cats, Titanic, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Lion King, RENT, Ragtime, Chicago.
Before the show we stopped in at a memorabilia shop across the street. The little store sold t-shirts and mugs and magnets and all the things you could buy in the lobby of the play if you were seeing it. In one corner was a section for RENT, one of my new favorites that I had quickly memorized the entire score to. I picked up a t-shirt, heathered blue with the logo name fading in across the front. It was the same t-shirt I had bought for myself when I saw the show in Chicago. I picked up my size and bought it for myself again.
We made our way across the street, nearing showtime, 8 o’clock standard. The sign outside the theatre proclaimed in white letters on black “In Here, Life is Beautiful” and I knew it would be. The theatre wasn’t a theatre, but a true cabaret. We sat at tables instead of rows and no curtain separated the stage from the audience. It all melded into one.
When the curtain begins to rise is usually the time I’d feel tears. Not balling crying like those tears that fell when I watched fireman throw debris from our crackling windows or those on our closing night of Sound of Music when I realized that it would be my last musical, but little tears of excitement and nervousness and exhilaration. Little tears that would be just enough to moisten my eyes and liquefy my eyeliner. Tears for the thought that at that moment my life would momentarily sit still and a whole new world would start in front of me.
The theatre went dark. A drum roll. Cymbals crashed. Dumdadadumdum, dumdadadumdum music began to play. And I started to cry. And I wished I was home.
“Scan all my old photos” is number 93 on my life list. It’s a work in progress.