#161 – Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits
– For some, moving to New York City can be like relocating to Ork. Now, if you get that reference you’ll want to continue reading. If not, go for it anyway and you’ll understand…
I was looking through photos of Manhattan taken in the late 1970’s. There was the famous skyline with The Empire State Building and Twin Towers of The World Trade Center, along with the various neighborhood highlights of theaters, diners, restaurants, stores and parks. It was everything I love about New York City.
But there were also photos travel agents from that time would never choose for a tourist inspiring vacation brochure. I’m talking about abandoned buildings, crime-ridden areas, graffiti everywhere, sinister looking gangs and scenes of poverty only a short walk away from wealth and luxury. Many city blocks looked dark and ominous, while the subway looked dangerous and filthy. Streets were jammed with traffic and sidewalks were filled with people.
These shots made the city image look dark, dirty and crowded. But without benefit of any brochures that might have changed my decision, I knew New York was the only place I wanted to live. So, in May 1977 I walked off a train in Penn Station with a copy of The Village Voice apartment listings and went looking for adventure.
I found it and it lasted for more than thirteen years.
My first vivid sense memory walking along West 34th Street between Macy’s and Gimble’s and into Herald Square was the strong smell of urine. It was a little offsetting for a Midwestern-raised guy in his early twenties to see homeless camped out in the park while at the same time people were leaving the department stores with big shopping bags.
Welcome to New York.
Following advice from my cousins on Long Island, I focused apartment hunting to the Eastside of Midtown. But after three days of walking and disappointment I couldn’t find anything I thought affordable, even after a solid year of working and saving after college. I was mentally giving up and resigning myself to a permanent return to Ohio when walking on East 22nd Street to the subway I passed a renovated building with an “apartments for rent” sign.
As a last-ditch attempt, I went into the rental office. After being shown a small triplex with a very small terrace and located around the corner from Gramercy Park, I asked how much and held my breath waiting for the bad news. I’ll just call it The Miracle on 22nd Street because it was within my budget.
I signed a lease and moved in.
Okay, without any previous city life experience my budget planning wasn’t exactly accurate. I would’ve been broke by the end of summer, but I hustled through a few jobs and made it work. And the payoff was worth it and almost immediate in giving me a real New York City experience. Within the year I had lived through The Summer of 1977 Blackout, The Blizzard of 1977-78 and a garbage strike.
Yeah, I became a real New Yorker real fast.
The first few months my budget was tight. There were lots of frozen dinners and staying in watching shows like Charlie’s Angles, Happy Days and Mork & Mindy on my small black and white, pre-cable television. Why did I just mention these three shows? Well, Angels was on when the blackout shut down the entire city, I thought The Fonz was cool, and Mork will play a part in this story.
But that’s coming up later…
For me, New York has always been two very different cities. There was the daytime with people rushing around with their nine-to-five jobs, packed subways and traffic jams. Then there was the nighttime, which is what I gravitated to right away.
By the fall of 1977 I was already into my pattern of working in theaters, bars, restaurants and nightclubs. And on my off-nights I started performing in the small folk music clubs in Greenwich Village. I had a close and growing circle of friends, made decent money and by that spring had a steady girlfriend.
In other words, life was pretty exciting and I loved New York – especially at night.
These late 1970’s memories come back whenever I hear Sultans of Swing, which is my excuse for this rambling sense memory since the song was running through my mind on September 20th. I hadn’t heard it in awhile, so it moves into the subliminal category of Dream Songs. And it reminds me of this special time in my city life because it was on just about every jukebox in just about every club we hit (and we hit quite a few) during the winter of 1979.
The song also reminds me of my girlfriend at the time, who for one night got to play Mindy to Robin Williams‘ Mork. But first, that claim needs to be set up…
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Most of my favorite memories of New York are on the dark side, but that’s only because we inhabited the night. I’d normally leave for work in the early evening and finish in the middle of the night. Then more often than not, that’s when we’d go out and meet up with our friends. Clubs and bars were open until 4 am (and later if you knew where to go), there were plenty of 24-hour delis and diners, street lights kept everything from being too dark and ominous, and you could always find a taxi.
My girlfriend was from New York, which made her very different from the girls I’d dated in Ohio. Growing up in the Bronx, she had street smarts and also wasn’t afraid of adventures. Her goal was to be an actress, which meant she also worked in a restaurant. And by the way, that’s an inside joke meant for fellow creative artists. I’m sure you’ll get it.
We decided we could make more money working in television commercials, so during winter 1979 we took a course together in Midtown Manhattan. We learned how to read copy (words), audition, and work on camera. I actually booked a few local commercials, but nothing that earned enough to quit my night job.
Our weekly class was the last one on Friday afternoons, so afterward we’d kick off the nighttime in a dimly-lit bar located on a grimy-looking block under the traffic overpass on the north side of Grand Central Station. I have no memory of the name, but it had a fun vibe with locals and commuters and happy hour prices.
It also had Sultans of Swing on the jukebox.
But every night couldn’t be a hanging out night and I still had rent to pay. So, three nights a week I bartended at a place just two blocks from my apartment. One off-night, which means a Sunday in Manhattan, I was stuck behind an empty bar while my girlfriend went out for adventures with her girlfriends. Sometime around midnight she called me on the bar’s payphone, which is a term today’s youngest generation will find confusing. Not only were we still decades away from cell phones, but public telephones still had rotary dials and cost a dime to make a call.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“At The Improv comedy club hanging with Robin Williams,” she answered.
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Even though I was still only working on my second year as a transplanted New Yorker, I had learned you never knew who you’re going to run into. Especially at night. But I just didn’t think the star of television’s top sitcom filmed in Hollywood would be hanging around a local club on an off-night. I was still a few years away from finding out how often that actually happens.
“Yeah, right,” I said before added a healthy dose of sarcasm, “now tell me a western.”
Yeah, that’s exactly what I said. It was a cool put-down line going around in 1979, basically meaning you’re making it up and I don’t believe you. As comedy fans we had been to The Improv on West 44th Street and I didn’t doubt she was there, but hanging with the star of Mork and Mindy? Maybe he was in NYC and had performed on stage, but the hanging out part seemed to be stretching the story a bit.
Then about half an hour later…
I was standing behind a still-empty bar on East 20th Street when the door opened and my girlfriend walked in.
Behind her was Robin Williams.
Thanks to earlier budget conscious evenings in my apartment I had seen a few episodes of Mork & Mindy. But that shouldn’t have been an excuse for acting like a… well, I guess Orkan would fit this situation. That’s probably the best term because I stood at attention and flashed Robin the Nanu-Nanu hand gesture he did on the show as the alien Mork from Ork.
Yeah, I know… But I couldn’t think of what else to do. Let’s just say I was a little surprised.
“No jokes,” he said.
“Okay,” I answered, relieved I didn’t have to embarrass myself anymore.
They sat down at the bar and I gave my girlfriend a beer. Robin asked for club soda.
Then we hung out and had a regular conversation. We talked about the actor’s strike going on at the time, which shut down production on Mork & Mindy. Rather than hang around Hollywood, he flew to New York and was doing sets in comedy clubs. We also talked about other stuff, but that’s what I specifically remember. He was heading downtown, shared a cab with my girlfriend and came in to prove she hadn’t been writing a western.
It was all very normal for New York City nighttime, which is my way of saying the experience was far from Nanu-Nanu. We hung out for about half an hour and then he had to leave.
Since the restaurant was deserted, the three of us walked outside to Third Avenue. It was cold being winter in NYC, but also nighttime so Robin had no problem hailing a taxi. It was one of the big, yellow Checker Cabs that used to be as synonymous with the city as the Brooklyn Bridge but were phased out in the 1980’s. We said good night and he climbed into the back seat.
That was when the entertainment portion of our program started.
Rear seat windows on NYC cabs only opened halfway. While the driver waited for the red light to change, Robin rolled down the window, stuck the upper half of his body outside and presented us with a LOUD Robin Williams comedy shtick (for lack of a better term). This included facial expressions, different voices and accents, wildly swinging arms and a glimpse of Mork from Ork. The light turned green and my girlfriend and I stood there laughing, not only in disbelief over what was happening but also because he was very funny, as the cab took off down Third Avenue and eventually out of our hearing range.
Even though it was a Sunday night off-night in The City, I remember my pals and some customers coming in later to hang out at the bar until last call at 4 am. And I had a pretty good story for them.
You should’a been here earlier.
And I also remember Sultans of Swing. It was 1979 and was on just about every jukebox in just about every club, including the one where I bought Robin Williams a club soda and actually saluted him with Nanu-Nanu. Yeah, I’m such a nerd… Uh, I mean Orkan.
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Here’s Dire Straits with Sultans of Swing, providing a soundtrack for 1970’s nighttime in NYC.
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