I hate the winter. This was the thought running through my head as I waited for the car to heat up. It was New Year’s Eve and it was freezing. A few moments later the warm air melted away the thin layer of ice on my windshield and I slid the car into drive and headed off, down Route 17, wondering if tonight would change the long standing tradition of me being completely miserable on New Year’s.
Coming down the mountain in Ramsey I could see the sky was turning from grey into a dark red over the crippled Manhattan skyline. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps going into New York City on New Year’s Eve the year of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history was a good idea. But, instead of dwelling on such fears I lit a cigarette and turned the radio up. I didn’t have time for thoughts of terrorism, I had too much on my mind and to be honest, if there was going to be an attack what could I possibly do about it? I pulled off the exit for Paramus Road, swung around the jug handle and headed for Glen Rock to pick up Tyler, who would be accompanying me this evening. The destination was the Apollo Theater in Harlem to see the Strokes, a New York band starting to get some national airplay.
The trip into the city proved to be rather uneventful, in fact it was a little disturbing how easy one could park their car in Hoboken and walk past the three police officers in the PATH terminal and board train running under the Hudson River into Manhattan. I was expecting the full regalia, stationed at every exit, armed to the teeth holding back crazed German Sheppard’s, checking ID’s and frisking everyone, but in truth it might as well have been September 10th. We got off and walked down a few blocks of the cold, buzzing streets of midtown, finding a cab to take us the rest of the way.
Outside the theater people were scattered, smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee and hot chocolate, trying to stay away from the windy streets. Tyler and I walked up to the entrance where the lobby was filled with people trying to squeeze in so they didn’t have to wait outside. No point in trying to sneak in there, I thought, and lit a cigarette. I looked around at the neighborhood, this wasn’t my first trip into Harlem, but it certainly was one of the few times I was intentionally headed here. A few years earlier I’d been on a tour of the Apollo with a class of mine but I didn’t remember all the murals, and painting. Before I could fully appreciate this whimsical moment I heard a voice behind me.
“You got two dollars man?” A raspy voice grumbled.
I turned to see a man dressed in old clothes, unshaved and hunting cap slightly askew talking to Tyler who was fumbling in his pockets.
“Here you go,” I handed him a single I had in my pocket from the subway and Tyler handed him another.
“Oh, thanks man,” is what I think he said though I couldn’t be sure, he put the money in his pants pocket and then started to point, “You see that big brown fence over there,” he motioned to the fence between the Apollo and the building next to it, “they killed some guy back there a few days ago, behind that big, brown fence. That must be seventy-five by a hundred but they got him”
“Oh yeah?” I said back while staring at Tyler to gauge his reaction and make sure this guy did just say something about a murder.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t like it around it around here too much anymore. I’m from Alabama, it don’t get this cold in Alabama, I’m headed there soon, soon” he said looking off into the distance. “Alright boys, I have to get going, you have fun now” and he started walking towards the big brown fence.
“I think the whole ‘guy getting killed behind the fence’ kind of made that exchange uncomfortable” Tyler said.
“Hey man, you think I could get a quarter?” the man had returned “I’m sorry I forgot”
“Yeah sure,” Tyler, as if anticipating this, handed him a quarter, suddenly people started crowding towards the door and the homeless man disappeared. We never got a chance to see if there were any dead bodies behind the fence.
When the crowd realized it had to make a line to get in it started to disperse and somehow, luckily, we were right towards the front to get in. Tyler asked a girl if she knew what time it was.
“Um, nine-thirty, I think, around nine-thirty, my watch might be wrong” she said in a thick accent.
“Are you English?” I asked in my complete ignorance of accent detection.
“Um, no, we’re Australian” she corrected me.
While I was wondering whether or not it was offensive to ask an Australian if they were English, I noticed her friend standing next to her. Had I seen her I might have initiated the conversation myself. This girl was wearing a yellow vest with a white long sleeve thermal undershirt, brand new Levi’s and black Converse All Stars. An all-American Australian girl.
We were to find out through some small talk that they were staying in Connecticut at a friends house but they were specifically here for this show, having missed the band when they were in Australia, and making up for it by flying half way around the world to be in the cold glow of Manhattan. We started discussing the little insignificant differences between our cultures when a security guard passed us and threw them open, unleashing a warm gust of air. Until that happened I hadn’t been aware of the wind chill factor, blowing up against my neck and down my spine. The guard stood on a chair, he had a relaxed look in his eyes, and his braided, red pony tail made him look like something of a pacifist, but his muscles were visible through his jacket and it was obvious if he had wanted to, he could punch my head off my neck.
He spoke: “Alright everyone we’re going to ask you to stay in line the left here and have you’re ticket ready. We’d like to remind you that no flash photography will be allowed tonight, as well as no audio or video recording devices inside. Thank you”.
As we passed through the doors I quickly decided that these security guards were the most friendly people I’d ever been frisked by, they were wishing everyone a happy new year while patting them down. There were even a few New York cops inside that were getting hand shakes and pats on the back, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened at a rock concert six months earlier. The Aussies were still in front of us on line but as we got further into the lobby I realized there were two ways to go: straight ahead to the floor seats and upstairs to the rafters. Without really thinking, I knew for some reason that there would be no further life lessons on life in the outback this evening, as it would be painfully disappointing to travel thousands of miles and be stuck in the upper mezzanine level.
We came close to where tickets were being ripped, there Apollo employees took over wishing everyone new year cheer and handing out noise maker sand paper top hats and plastic crowns.
The staircase at the theater leading up to the mezzanine can not be structurally sound. At first, being taken by all the large paintings and photographs of performers,(name an artist from Duke Ellington to Little Richard to Michael Jackson and their image is somewhere on the wall) you don’t really notice that your knees are landing hard after each step. After all the years renovations some of the steps seemed higher than the others and my legs quickly started to feel like gelatin.
When we reached the top there was a girl waiting there to check our ticket. “We’re probably in the last row,” I mumbled to Tyler. The girl pointed to an intimidating man with a red blazer and flashlight who lead us to the seats.
“No, we’re in the second to last row,” Tyler corrected me.
The seats weren’t really too bad, you could see the whole stage and the rows were steep so there would be no case of someone’s head getting in your line of sight.
“Happy New Year fellas” the man said as he left us.
“Thanks,” we said in unison.
Everybody was so nice. I felt like I should stick around after the show and ask them if they needed any help cleaning up. It really felt almost like we were at a party because everyone was being so cool with each other. The staff, security guards, the police and the audience all seemed to be in a relatively good mood .
As we were told when we entered, if we kept our ticket stub on us we could go outside to smoke and allowed to re-enter. This is what lead to what seemed like at least ten trips up and down those unforgiving stairs. We got up and put our jackets on, but I decided that I was just getting used to the warmth of the indoors and that maybe I’d rather just sit and have a beer. It was New Years Eve, and I wanted to catch a nice buzz to enjoy the show with. I had about $70 on me and I thought this would be enough to obtain that goal.
“I.D. please,” the girl behind the small, make-shift bar smiled at me.
“Sure” I fumbled getting the license out of my wallet.
“What can I get you?”
I stared at the bottle of Jack Daniels for a moment, “I’ll just have a Bud bottle I guess. You want something?” I turned to Tyler.
“Yeah I Heineken bottle, please” he answered. This was a prearranged scheme, Tyler was still 19, but I didn’t think anyone should be denied drink, not on New Years, not after this year.
“That’ll be fourteen dollars please” the girl behind the bar said very casually.
I looked at her for a minute and then began to fiddle through my wallet for a twenty. At these prices I certainly wouldn’t be maintaining much of a buzz, in fact I’d have to cut myself off soon if I wanted to have enough money for the parking lot back in Hoboken. I handed her the cash and politely said “thanks” not wanting to ruin the whole friendly vibe that had already been established.
We went back to our seats, the place was starting to fill up but there were still vacant sections as it appeared as if everyone was still roaming around. In fact it seemed like everyone knew everyone except for Tyler and I.
I sat back and sipped my beer slowly, I wanted to enjoy every nickel of it. A few minutes later the house announcer came on the PA to remind everyone of the no flash photography, no audio or video recording devices rule. As I got to the bottom of my over priced domestic beer we decided to head down and have another cigarette before the show started. The stairs seemed more difficult to navigate going down then they did coming up and I was winded and jelly legged by the time I got to the bottom. I didn’t even want a cigarette anymore. But as most great explorers would have I forged ahead with little consideration for my own well being.
I had forgotten how cold it was but my attention quickly turned to people crowding up to a long, white limo that pulled up to the curb. The police came over and yelled to clear a path, which of course just drew more attention to the car and formed a bigger crowd. I heard one of the officers behind me say: “Tell them to ease up, it’s New Years Eve”. I was convinced the train had drove us through a tunnel that landed us in a twisted backwards version of New York City. The door to the car opened and it was…nobody, a bunch of college kids who must have rented the limo with the intention of not having to drive anywhere for the evening, and a smart move on their part. I turned away from the crowd and noticed a flash of make-up and jet black hair walk by me. I focused in: another girl draped in blue jeans, several layers including flannel and leather, and black Converse all stars. This was obviously the theme of the night. As she walked by I mumbled to Tyler: “That is the girl I want to sit next to”.
“Right” he answered with the exact cynicism that I probably would have answered him with had he said that to me.
We threw our cigarettes down and headed back up the staircase of death. The house announcer said the show would be starting in five minutes. I took my coat off to get settled in, having no intention of spending another seven dollars on a beer. Two girls started walking down the aisle, I didn’t really pay attention until I realized they were getting ready to sit down next to me. It was the girl from outside. Jet black hair, hoop earrings, beautiful face, as well as other complimenting features. It was if I’d wrung out the last drops of karma from the filthy rag that was 2001.
It was 10:05p.m. That is what the wrist watch on the guy in front of me said. He had his arm around the girl next to him the whole time I’d been there and the watch was in plain view, I was checking it regularly hoping that neither of them thought I was trying to have a look down her low cut top.
“I’m going out for another cigarette,” Tyler announced. “You wanna come?”
“No, I’m think alright for now.” I had thought maybe this would give me a minute to work up the nerve to strike up a conversation with this girl next to me. Tyler disappeared through the exit, I turned to my left as the girl took her jacket off to reveal a short sleeved flannel and two arms half filled with tattoos. This changed everything. No longer was she the sweet faced girl from the suburbs who was in the big city for a good time. She was the girl who took the train to get here from Brooklyn and of course she was going to be here tonight, where else would she have been except for maybe a punk show in some basement club that I’d never heard of in some section of the city I don’t really know. I was already struggling trying to come up with something to open with to her, now I couldn’t even fathom a word.
“You want to get something to drink?” I heard her ask her friend.
“Yeah, I’ll come with you” she answered. The got up and left their jackets.
I had the whole row to myself now as people were standing around filing in, going to the bar, or going down for a last smoke. Sitting alone gave me a minute to take in the whole aura of the place. There was a hum of chatter that was constant, like a vacuum cleaner or air conditioner that helps you fall asleep at night. It sounded like school during recess, just dozens of clashing voices forming a rickety buzz. My mind started wandering and I’d wondered how I got myself here in the first place.
Two months earlier, the end of October, the sun had just come up and I felt like an ashtray, the booze had worn off and the taste of stale cigarettes stuck in my mouth. I pulled into a gas station trying to wrap my mind around the evening that had just unfolded. The Strokes, whom I hadn’t heard of before, came on the radio, the song was called “Last Nite” and for some reason the image of listening to that song, completely burned out on the night sitting back in my car seat and watching the sun come up over Route 17 after hooking up with a girl who’d broken my heart a few months earlier always stuck with me.
Now it was January, that girl was gone again, and here I was, hoping for the best with a girl who I feared if I said the wrong thing might kick my ass all over the Apollo Theater.
Tyler walked back in and sat down and few moments later the house lights went off and the show began.
David Cross walked on to the stage like a party host to welcome the crowd and explain how the show was going to be laid out. His bald head and thick, black framed glasses stuck out even form our seats high above the stage. He told the audience he was going to do 45 minutes of stand up followed by the Strokes at midnight and then Guided by Voices, then more Strokes. So it looked like it was going to be a long show if nothing else.
Cross was one of the selling points for me in the first place but during his set half the audience started blowing in to the horns or twirling the noisemakers that were handed out earlier in the night. At first it seemed like it was just a way to make the ovation louder but some were still using them during his set, which to his credit, he managed to play off for a while even though it was obvious annoying. Finally after he finished a bit he shook his head, laughed, and said: “Who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to hand out noisemaker?” This received a mixture of laughter and applause and eh continued on with the act, the horns continued but the audience slowly started turning on those who continued until it the noise was hardly noticeable anymore. What bothered me about the whole thing, besides interrupting his set, was that it kind of ruined the atmosphere of people who enjoy the same things spending New Year’s Eve together. It reminded me of other concerts I’d been to that left me wondering how I could be into the same music as people like this. He finished his set with an interesting perspective on September 11th, and tearing down the George Bush myth, which the crowd really got into and he received nice ovation before he introduced Guided by Voices.
While all this was going I’d completely forgotten about the girl next to me. When Cross finished he introduced the Strokes, whose equipment was set up behind the curtain. As soon as they began playing everyone in the place started standing up and moving around. It was a situation where my height becomes an asset, through all the fingers and hairstyles I could see the stage, and the band playing. Tyler, had a tougher time due to the monster in front of him who was sucking back Heinekens’, at which I calculated he must’ve spent at least $50 in the first hour we were there, soon however all this appeared to catch up with him as he sat down, looking shaken and Tyler gained a small line of sight to the stage.
The show looked like what I imagine seeing the Doors in a small auditorium or theater, probably looked like in the late sixties; it was loud, the singer was drunk and leaping around the place and everyone in the crowd seemed to be eating it up.
“We’re going to do one more, and then Guided by Voices is gonna come out here. We’ll be back later though!” the singer called out.
Good, I thought--it would give me a chance to have a cigarette, maybe sit down and have a conversation with the girl. But, no, there was no break. Guided by Voices came right out, said hello and started playing. “Goddamn efficient setup” I cursed to no one in particular.
Trying to be fair I stuck it out for a few songs before I ultimately decided my nicotine addiction was more important than being respectful to a band I didn’t even know was playing this evening. I trudged down the stairs, which I was convinced by now were doing irreversible damage to my joints, and headed outdoors where the cold was waiting. For a minute I forgot it was winter, I even forgot it was New Years. That can’t be a bad thing I thought. I finished the cigarette and realized it was almost midnight.
I rushed upstairs and regretted leaving, the Strokes and David Cross were back out. I was excited, and the countdown started:
“9..8..7..6..5..4..3..2..1..Yeahhh! Happy New Year! Fuck Dick Clark, we’re taking over. We’re going to do this thing every year. Save your ticket stubs!” David Cross screamed as hundreds of balloons and confetti poured from the rafter of the Apollo onto the stage and front rows. Then both bands started playing together, I turned and smiled awkwardly at the girl and then quickly turned back.
The singer from the Strokes kicked balloons around and into the audience, then someone jumped onto the stage and past security. Then another. I saw the singer whisper something to the security guard, and then he started pulling people up to the stage.
“Hey, man, leave these people alone. Let them up! They’re just in love with life,” he slurred into the microphone while pulling another girl up.
Within minutes the entire stage was full of people and I couldn’t even see the band anymore. A female fan grabbed the microphone from the singer and declared: “I’m in love with you!”
“Oh, yeah?” he answered.
“I’m you’re soul mate” she blubbered.
“Oh. Okay, cool,” he went back to the song.
“That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.” The girl had broken her silence. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not. “I mean, did she actually think that he was going to be like, ‘Oh, really, we’re soul mates,’ and then embrace in the middle of the stage, and go home together or something?” she said with a certain measure of disgust in her voice.
“Well, yeah, that‘s usually how I pick up women, I run up to them and tell them I‘m their soul mate.”
“And do you find that works for you?”
“Yes, that is exactly how I picked up Joan Jett in 1997”
She smiled and focused back on the stage, and I started analyzing whether or not I’d made a shitty joke. I started wondering how to follow up this exchange.
“I saw these guys in North Carolina,” she said.
“Really. Are you from North Carolina?”
“No, just visiting friends. I’m from the West Village.”
“Were they any good when you saw them?” I asked, trying to keep it rolling along.
“Yeah, they were real good.”
This was followed by a story involving her walking in on the singer and another girl, and then being hit on by the singer later in the night, at a bar after the show. At least that’s what I deciphered over the sounds of the band.
The gears in my head started turning. The Strokes were finishing up their set; and I, in my infinite wisdom, thought it an excellent time to brave the dreaded staircase and the cold weather for another smoke, but this time I would ask her to join me. I looked at Tyler: “You want to go smoke?”
“Yeah, alright,” he reached for his jacket.
“You’re not leaving are you?” she asked as I grabbed my coat.
“No,” I said immediately “I’m just going for a cigarette, I was actually going to ask you if you wanted to come.”
“Well, I kind of want to watch the band,” she said with a hint of regret in her voice.
“Alright. Well, I’ll see you in a few minutes then.”
“Yeah, alright,” she said.
Down the stairs. Out the door. Cold. Smoke. Back up the stairs. When I got back the row looked emptied out, I thought maybe I was looking at the wrong aisle, but no the girl was gone. Probably went to get a drink or something, I thought.
Minutes and songs went by. The longer she was gone, the more I disliked Guided by Voices. Finally the truth sank in. I looked at Tyler, who was listening to the band so I didn’t want to suggest leaving, but I really didn’t want to be there anymore.
“What’d she leave?” he asked, eyes on the stage.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You wanna go?” he asked.
“Up to you.”
“Might as well, maybe we could stop at a party or something on the way back.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said, coming back to reality, remember that it was winter, and it was New Year’s, and this kind of thing was tradition.
That’s why I called her “the girl” about seven hundred times -- I never did get her name. After we left, there was the forty-five minute wait to get a cab as we started walking down the streets of Harlem to get closer to mid-town, and eventually a couple from Canada let us split a ride with them but only took us to 47th Street, thirteen blocks short of our destination. There was the transformer that blew out in a giant flash on the subway car behind where we were sitting that shut the power down on the train, and caused several cautious cops to evacuate it while they did a sweep for explosives.
There was also the sub-zero Hudson River winds blowing in our faces for blocks as we walked through Hoboken to the parking lot and the flat tire I got after dropping Tyler off at 4:30 a.m. as I took a wide turn off his street and bumped a curb, and the half hour I spent unsuccessfully trying to change that tire until I just gave up and let Tyler drive me home so I could finally drive a stake through the heart of 2001. But when I think about that night, I always come back to that girl. Whatever her name was.