Saturday, September 17, 2011

Seems Like Gold Times

“Are those Twizzlers in your pocket?” Jeff R. had known me for two seconds and already he knew everything anyone ever needs to know about me.

Yes, it is true. I did have a pack of Twizzlers in my back pocket. But I also had them for a very good reason. After I stepped out of the subway on Canal Street, I searched around desperately for one of the tiny grocery stores (known as bodegas) that are everywhere in New York City, except where and when you really need one. I had just finished doing the show for the night and my breath was terrible. Truly terrible. I am going to LA in two weeks and am desperate to lose thirty pounds of fat and gain twenty pounds of muscle without doing anything more serious than have my usual large salad at lunch knocked down to a small. So I can’t blame my healthy eating. But it was the end of a long day and I was dying for a breath mint and I couldn’t find a store for love or money.

But then again, I couldn’t find The Canal Room either. How times have changed since I first moved to Manhattan in 2001 and famously declared that I wouldn’t go South of Houston unless I was fucking a celebrity. Is Canal South of Houston? Does anyone really know after you leave the safe confines of 14th Street, where (by the way) there is a bodega overflowing with breath mints every ten feet. So when I finally found a store around the corner from The Canal Room, I grabbed a small pack of “reward” Twizzlers for later along with the Breathsavers I hoped beyond hope would save my breath. As I paid, I rationalized that if I had Twizzlers in my pocket, I wouldn’t be tempted at 1am to eat a 20 piece at McDonald’s on my way to the train, knowing full well as I pocketed the change that I, being me, would of course, eat both. And have a Dr. Pepper too. But, you know, just a small.

I am certain that Jeff does not have these kinds of problems. He is young and handsome and blond and his body is ridiculous. We met outside of the Canal Room where he was accompanying my new friend Ryan White, and all of us were waiting to get into Gumbo Pop, yet another of Ben Harvey’s wildly successful nights about town. Also waiting with us was Jeff Eason, the NEXT Magazine photographer who shot the cover of my new book, and who I just saw a few nights ago at the Blendr launch party which I enjoyed but didn’t write about.

It turns out that both Ryan W. and Jeff R. are recent émigrés to Manhattan, although they knew each other before. They had been friends in San Francisco before Ryan went to China and now both of them are living in New York and happily reacquainted. Jeff looked really familiar but it is impossible for me to know him. Perhaps he is one of the handsome men that Facebook is forever telling me that I may already know because we have twenty-three hot men in common. Ryan and Jeff are just back from Provincetown, where they spent a very pleasant Labor Day weekend. There they met Ryan M. and Dwayne and even though it took us a minute and Ryan had shaved his head, we realized that we already knew each other.

“I was in my underwear in your studio!”

“I think I follow you on Twitter now!”

Conversations in the gay community are a lot of things, but subtle is simply not one of them. But let this be a lesson for small town gays frustrated by their small town gay lives. You would think that moving to the biggest city in the world would allow you to lose yourself in a new group of people, but you are wrong. I met Ryan W. in a taxi after Reichen’s fragrance launch party. Ryan W. brought Jeff R. to Gumbo Pop tonight. Jeff R. met Dwayne and Ryan M. in Provincetown. See, you can’t even leave town to meet new people. The gay community is like Al Pacino’s line in the Godfather 3, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

It is not surprising that I ran into Ronnie Kroell at Gumbo Pop either. Ronnie was in the latest Eating Out movie with Chris Salvatore who was performing at Gumbo Pop and was on our show promoting his music last year and who was on Ben Harvey’s podcast a few weeks ago and Ben, well, you know the rest. It is like an endless gay loop. You run as fast as you can but you just end up back in the same place you were before. But when everyone is as handsome as all of these men, what difference does it make if you can’t leave?

“Do you know David? From the Real World.” Ronnie asked me, pointing into the murky darkness of gay men by the bar. I had no idea who he was pointing to and frankly my first thought (with good reason!!!) was, “Is that the guy who was our waiter at ELMO three years ago who was so bitter?” But I think that guy was on the Road Rules Challenge or that dating show where the guys wait on a bus to have their best pick up line shot down at the curb. Whatever was happening in my head didn’t matter because not knowing that guy from the Real World just reminded me so palpably how, like a slingshot, I am being hurtled further and faster from the Clearasil generation with every passing moment, like a rocket that once struggled to leave Earth’s atmosphere and now oh so casually drifts away from the solar system, never to be seen again.

As if to prove the point, early onset deafness caused me to mishear his name as David when in fact it was Davis from the Real World. Actually, yes I do remember hearing about Davis, before, but by then the damage was done. I had already introduced Davis to Ryan W. as David (“That happens all the time,” Ronnie tried to assure me) and my profuse apologies in the moment didn’t seem to help matters. But later after I danced with his tiny and exuberant female friend from Staten Island, we discussed the finer points of what makes a star and Davis seemed to warm up to me. And I am glad. Because unlike that waiter at ELMO he once stayed with, Davis offered to get me a drink when mine was empty and in all manner was a very nice person.

But I couldn’t have another drink. I had to leave. As it was, Ryan W. and Jeff R. had already taken off for Rockit (taking I assume Ryan M. and Dwayne along for the ride). Ryan W. asked me if I wanted to go with them, but my feelings about Rockit are already well known. As I said my good-byes, I ran into Dan and Henry, which surprised me. I thought they were in Connecticut now! I was glad I did, not just because I really like seeing them, but when Dan congratulated me on my new book, I got to tell him the happy news that they are both in it. “Your New Year’s Eve party is the final chapter!” I told Dan and he couldn’t have been more pleased.

It is good for some stories to have happy endings. For all of my feelings of joyous isolation in the wilds of Westchester, it turns out that I do know quite a few people. In fact, just tonight, I ran into enough hot guys to fill a sixteen month calendar without repeats. That is a good strategic place to be in, especially in the gay community. And as I waited for the train, fretting that I didn’t have enough time to get something to eat at McDonald’s, I remembered that pack of Twizzlers in my back pocket and once again, all was right with the world.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ground Zero: The Story From New York

Mike was on his way into work from Brooklyn on the train when they spotted the twin towers on fire as the train crossed the bridge. Matty had just finished voting in the primaries in Chelsea when he looked up and saw the first plane crash into the North Tower. Moments later, he witnessed the second plane crash into the South Tower. And I was in a bath with Johnathan. We were splashing around and I heard/felt the percussion sound of the first plane hitting. I accused him of farting in the bath and we had a good laugh, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding around us.

           September 17, 2001 - Usually this time of the week I try to be as glib and as brittle as possible in the writing of my column. The only thing brittle right now are my nerves as I sit in my office in midtown Manhattan. The last couple of days have shaken us to the core, so in lieu of my usual rantings on casual sex and dating mishaps, I am writing about my home, Manhattan, and what is happening here this week.

Monday, September 10. A typical day here in the city. I just flew into La Guardia from Chicago after a weekend on my farm. It is Fashion Week here in the city and the designer runways are all set up in big white tents in Bryant Park, a block from my office. The traffic in cars and on foot is so intense in midtown that I get out of the cab three blocks from my office and walk the rest of the way into work.

I had a date that night with this guy I have been seeing named Johnathan. I wanted a really gay evening, so we went down to Chelsea for dinner at the Viceroy. We had a couple of drinks there and at a local bar. I couldn't believe how packed the bar was for after midnight on a Monday night, but that is typical of New York. We went back to Johnathan's place and fell asleep.

Tuesday, September 11. Johnathan woke me up after 8 a.m. and we hopped into the shower together. He works down in lower Manhattan and has to be at work by nine. I kept him late in the shower, and at one point we heard a low rumble, but thought nothing of it. Traffic in the street maybe. We said goodbye just after nine outside his building and he walked over to take the train downtown. I headed over to the west side to get to my apartment.

When I reached 34th Street and 11th Avenue, near the Javits Convention Center, I saw a bunch of people looking up, and a local TV crew van. I thought there was a fire in one of the warehouses down the street. As I came past the FedEx building there, I looked up and saw the North Tower of the World Trade Center with a few floors on fire near the top. From my angle, we could only see the North Tower, as the South Tower was completely obscured behind it. Knowing how my mom worries about me, I immediately called her on my cell phone and woke her up. “I don't want you to worry. I am fine. But there is a small fire in the World Trade Center, so it might be on the news.” I overheard someone say something about two planes crashing, but it seemed inconceivable. No planes fly around that area.

Of course, when I got home, I turned on the news and the first thing I saw was the replay of the plane smashing into the South Tower. I couldn't believe it. I raced to the observation deck of my building, which had a clear view of the towers. I joined a few dozen other tenants watching the towers burn, and then, to our utter horror, collapse live before our eyes.

In a sense, it was easier to watch it all on TV. I am used to seeing images of buildings exploding and planes crashing on TV, in movies and news programs. But to see it happen in front of you is almost unbearably unreal. The people on the deck were devastated. Our building has the same security company as the towers. The staff was shattered. From my apartment, I watched a line seven blocks long of people waiting for the New Jersey ferry and the Circle Line tour boats to take them off the island. The police barricaded the street below and used it as a staging area for police and other emergency vehicles.

That night I went down with Johnathan to the barricades at 14th Street and 6th Avenue. The city was eerie and quiet, the streets largely deserted. Johnathan told me about getting to work and seeing the buildings on fire and watching dozens of people jumping from the windows. "What they showed on TV -- it was more." His building is the white and gray horizontally striped building right behind Building 7, which collapsed later that day. He was still shaken up by the horror of the scene.

Wednesday, September 12. I came to work for a little while, but the city remained largely deserted. It was hard to tear myself away from the news coverage. Almost everything in midtown was still closed, and my building required two forms of ID to enter. As I walked home, there was a police car parked next to the station near my house. The windows on the car were blown out and there was a six-inch layer of soot and debris in the back window and seat. Later that evening, the wind shifted to the north and the smoke that had been trailing over Brooklyn wafted all the way up to midtown. It was an awful smell that filled my apartment.

Having lived in Los Angeles, I was used to earthquakes that disrupted and shook the entire city, so this event has some familiarity to it. It was also in the back of my mind before I moved here that if there ever were to be more terrorist activity in America, it would probably be here in Manhattan. So I was more or less reconciled to the event and was reasonably calm. Then Johnathan called and told me there was a bomb scare at the Empire State Building and Penn Station, just a few blocks from my apartment. Suddenly my calm collapsed and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness and panic.

Thursday, September 13. Midtown is more or less back to normal. Businesses are open and the roads and streets are more crowded today. More scares at La Guardia, and in a building here in Times Square, sent panicked people fleeing into the streets again, and in a general sense, we all wonder when life might return to some feeling of normalcy again. When will we feel safe? How long will it take for us not to feel a jolt of panic at the sound of an emergency vehicle racing down the street? How much time will need to pass before we all stop looking down the avenues as we cross the street for buildings that are no longer there?

Excerpted from my book Colonnade: A Life In Columns, about my experiences living in NYC in 2001 and 2002, available in paperback, Kindle, Nook and the iBookstore.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Usually my drunk train home is boisterous and noisy. As I write about my evening, it is with my head down, desperately trying to block out the heterosexual melee going on around me. The same cannot be said for the NYC subway at night. After midnight, the subway takes on a quiet, filthy reverence. Little eye contact is made, conversations are non-existent. And waiting for the train is even less eventful. The platforms are empty, preventing the usual entertainment watching people can bring. There is no phone service, nor Internet connection. It is just you alone with your thoughts for as long as it takes for the next train to finally arrive.

There is such a late night scene in an early chapter of my new book, When Nightlife Falls. It is me, alone on the platform waiting for the 2 Train home to Harlem, getting emotional after a night of drinking out at Vlada with Ben Harvey. That night on my iPod the song of choice was the k.d. lang cover of the theme from Valley of the Dolls. Tonight, years later in the future, as I waited for the 2 Train to take me up to Times Square, I flipped through my iPhone for Amy Winehouse’s Tears Dry On Their Own. She is gone now, as is Nick Ashford who co-wrote the song, as is my iPod and even the reason I am emotional all over again. But tonight it is just nostalgia, for a time and a place that maybe was never really there.

I guess it is a function of being young that you see time as a linear function. This happened and then that happened and then this happened. It is lazy writing, like the story plotting (plodding?) on The A List or any of those other excruciating reality shows that take place excrementally. As you get older, time starts to crisscross a bit. People you knew leave and then come back. But it is beyond that grid now and I see for the first time so clearly why the clock is melting in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Time is like cutting a cake, if you slice it but never remove the pieces. At first the cuts are smooth, but the more you cut, the messier it gets and as you cut and cut and cut again, eventually the integrity of the cake itself is gone and the whole thing falls away into a sloppy unrecognizable mess. And as you peer down into the pile of frosting and layers, you alone can still see the cake as it used to be, staring back at you. The original promise is gone, but the taste lingers.

Ben Harvey was hosting Gekko, his usual last Wednesday of the month party down at Gild Hall. It is hard to believe that Ben and I met more than four years ago. It doesn’t seem possible. But as we talked about the good times and caught up on current events, it reminded me of the conversations I was always desperate to have with him back in 2007. Our friendship that started with our mutual careers in radio and our shared love of Rosie on The View came flooding back to me anew as we talked about our shows and the eminent return to TV of Rosie this fall. Everything old was shiny and new again.

Writing my latest book brought back all those early memories of Ben, and all the other things of that time, both good and bad but mostly bad. New York City is a hard place to be if you don’t want to remember the past. It changes constantly but the persistence of your memory is hard to shake. I suppose it is like a living embodiment of what Alzheimer’s must feel like. You walk down the street and you swear there used to be a Circuit City right there or was it an Office Max, a Fotomat, Gimbel’s or Woolworth. The new buildings around you melt away before your very eyes and you can see, right in front of you, what used to be there, almost as if it never left. But it did.

This time of year the city is awash in newness. Recent college graduates have all started their new jobs in the city, like Tommy who stumbled over to talk to us tonight. Or new students at Columbia or NYU are getting settled and starting classes, like my new friend Ryan, the object of Tommy’s brazen drunken move in our direction. So I embrace the new and enjoy it, even as the past draws in and out all around us like labored breathing or waves on a shore.

“Have you been to Provincetown?” Ryan asks me, looking for tips before he heads there himself this weekend. Yes, I was there, almost exactly ten years ago. It is all in my first book. Hooking up with the guy from Naked Boys Singing, the terrifying flight on Cape Air, how tiny the Statue of Liberty looked when we flew back into Newark Airport. I can’t escape it as keywords randomly access those parts of my memory.

Tommy amused me very much tonight because he was the perfect stranger to write about. This should have been all about him. He was not tall, maybe 5’9”. His hair was short and he was decidedly unshaven, which is the fashion for 22 year olds like him. He was in jeans and a white polo shirt. This was old school preppy but with a few hints of Brooklyn hipster about it. Just the barest minimum his new corporate career in midtown allows. He lives around the corner from the bar, something he repeated so often, it couldn’t have been anything but an open invitation to drop by.

He expressed a lot of concerns about his new career and fitting in there. Both Ryan and I tried to explain to him that all he needed to do was act confident and pretend like he knew what he was doing. That’s 90% of success in business anyway. Few people are Warren Buffett or Jack Welch, men who see the forest of the trees. The rest are all just good at repeating what they heard once or have a casual grace about them when ordering drinks that cleverly masks everything else. It seemed that most of his insecurity grew out of the large shadow cast by his older brother, who also lives nearby. “He’s prettier than me,” Tommy told us, puffing up his shoulders as if to indicate that he believes the only thing that really matters in the looks department is big arms, which, if you are gay, is truth.

But the most important thing about Tommy, aside from the fact that he was the second person of the evening with a Y at the end of their name, was that he was so very drunk. It was clear he hadn’t been in Manhattan long because he was the kind of drunk that happens here when you are young and haven’t yet learned that only you can prevent forest fires. When bars stay open until 4am on a school night and you don’t ever need to think about driving home, the only thing stopping your liver from dropping out of your body from sheer exhaustion is your own ability to say no. I wager it takes at least six months for the average person in New York to discover when to say when, but the younger you are, the longer that lesson will take to learn. Tommy has not yet learned that lesson.

As the DJ played pre-Glittered Mariah Carey, we all got funky on the dance floor remembering a simpler time before terrorism and the Kardashians changed America. Tommy kept circling back around trying to get Ryan to go home with him, but no reasonable person would have gone back there with someone so blind drunk. I suppose if he was still able to work his phone when he got up to that no doubt tiny apartment that made his arms looks bigger, he probably ordered someone off Grindr, delivered in thirty minutes or less. Manhattan is nothing if not convenient.

I can’t drink like Tommy anymore, and it isn’t just because I have lived here longer and I know better. Walking up the stairs from the subway onto 41st Street at Seventh Avenue, I could feel the two drinks I had and the lateness of the hour in the heaviness of my legs. But then suddenly, there I was staring up at my first office building in the city: 1440 Broadway. The street has changed so much since 2001, the smell of pot and WiFi is everywhere in the new walking promenade outside the building. I guess we have all changed a lot since then.

But I am done thinking about the past, now that I have emerged from the ethereal stench of the subway. The future is ahead of me. And there is no point in waxing nostalgic about meeting Dan by the lions in front of the New York Public Library or any of the other millions of memories that melt and rise around me as I trot past block after block.

The ghosts are everywhere but if all you do is look at them you won’t see the real living people around you. Ben Harvey isn’t a fading memory of a drunken night long past, he is a current event, a drunken night happening right now. And Ryan is a fun new friend, who braved the advice of a stranger and headed downtown for his own fresh adventure. That’s New York for you: the past and the present, side by side, melting together as one. There is something interesting waiting around every corner, even if you don’t always remember what used to be there.