I arrived in New York City 15 years ago, March 22nd, 1999. I was 20.
Back then the Tunnel existed, and Kurfew, and the Roxy and Limelight, epic night clubs that were wild and exhilarating, where nights truly felt like they may never end. Ruby Foos and EJ’s, and the Drip coffee shop, were still around on the Upper West Side. Tower and Virgin records still dotted the city.
I saw “You’ve Got Mail” the year before and I was determined to find, and I did, all the places featured in the film. I went searching for the Flatiron Building, my favorite in the city, and found it by accident.
I saw Iceman Cometh and Chicago and they made me feel like I was floating. I wanted to be an actor, but I couldn’t act.
I slept on the floor at the foot of my best friend’s bed, in an air mattress that deflated every night. Some nights John would snore so loud I would tickle his feet to wake him up just enough for him to stop snoring so I could get some sleep.
I pounded the pavement, spending hours walking up and down Manhattan, collecting dozens of business cards, looking for a job.
Pieces was my first bar. EJ’s was the first restaurant in NYC I was introduced to. Vynl was the first restaurant I found on my own.
I packed most of my things in a rigger’s bag, my sea bag, and some old MRE boxes. That Saturday morning four people who had been like my parents, Henry and Terri, and Ingrid and Gary, stood inside the Greyhound Bus Station to see me off. I cried as the bus pulled away, and I waved till it turned the corner and they were out of view. I wanted to stop and hug them all again, but tighter. The pain of leaving, in that moment, eclipsed the excitement of moving.
It was hard leaving Billings. It was the longest I had ever lived anyway, which is saying something for a kid who grew up drifting from town to town. I went to five different Jr. Highs or middle schools, two of them twice, and two high schools, from 7th to 9th grades. I worked four years at the same radio stations in Billings, where I was once the host of the Saturday night request show “Saturday Night at the Twist and Shout” (with Duane Davis) on Cat Country. Basically, I grew up there, starting when I was 17 and leaving just before turning 21. I was able to save about $700, but my co-workers pooled together and raised another $1,000 for me to get started. Even now, I could never say thank you enough.
The trip to New York City took two days, through Milwaukee and then Chicago, each time switching buses. Each time I schlepping bags through the station, complicating many things, including going to the bathroom.
When I was a kid I used to think that bus stations were high class, the way I think about airports and flying now. Very cosmopolitan. Buses were much preferred over hitchhiking, which is how my dad and I usually got around. I had been to the bus station in Chicago before, when I was much younger. But back then there was a strike and Trailways drivers stopped just outside of the station while security guards, in black uniforms, escorted other drivers (likely non-union?) onto the bus to finish the job. It was a trip to be back.
I didn’t have a cellphone at the time, so at every stop I would call to give a progress report to my friend John, in whose apartment I would be crashing. He also agreed to pick me up from the bus station and take me to my new home.
John was, and is, one of my greatest friend. He literally changed my life. While I lived in Montana I was deeply in the closet. I was profoundly confused as a teenager, but by the time I was moving I knew for sure I was gay. But, living in Montana, I was still hiding it. Before I arrived, though, John told all of his friends, and my soon-to-be friends, that I was gay. What that did was give me the freedom and security to be open, and provide an immediate support network when I arrived. I could finally be honest with and confident in myself. I will never forget that act of kindness and love.
Early on Monday, with just a few hours left in my journey, we hit a patch of snow and ice in Pennsylvania. A bus in front of us started to slide sideways as the bus I was riding passed on the inside lane. The other bus nearly clipped us. We stopped, but when we tried to move again our bus slide sideways, too, till it hit the guardrail. People panicked and the driver screamed for us not to move. We sat there for a while before our driver left to check on the other bus. He returned to say everyone was all right on the other bus, except the driver who hurt his neck when the bus was hit in the back by a truck. The accident also left he bus without heat, but our bus was too unstable to allow for more passengers. A girl in front of me started sobbing.
We sat on the side of the road for at least two hours, maybe more, before a convoy of emergency vehicles started appearing from around a bend. The stream of vehicles seemed endless, and they drove past us and disappeared. A long while later a small, I mean very small, truck started driving up and down the stretch of road in front of us, sanding or salting the road. Finally the passengers from the other bus were allowed on board, and after about 15 minutes our bus started moving. Cheers erupted. As we drove around the bend, we could finally see the carnage that lay behind us for all those hours.
The back-up of cars and trucks seemed infinite. We could see the truck that hit the bus behind us. Behind the truck were a few cars, behind that a jackknifed tractor trailer, and more cars and trucks and flashing lights of the emergency vehicles.
The bus stopped in the nearest town and I waited in line to call John. It was a while because one woman would not get off the phone with her mother. She oscillated between sobbing and yelling at other people waiting for the phone to back off. At the time John was going to AMDA, and had to miss a day to stay to pick me up. That was a big deal that I’m still thankful for.
We were back on our way, having been rescued from the snow and ice of Pennsylvania. We made it to New Jersey, another foreign and exotic place I’d only heard about on TV, when the first glimpse of her crested the horizon. In my mind, there was the same kind of telescoped characteristic as the moon sometimes has, when it takes up the entire night sky; the Manhattan skyline looked so big, and I felt it was so close I could grab it. My chest swelled and my heart pumped so hard I thought it might spray out the tears of joy I was trying to conceal. I wanted to scream. I was so happy!
Nothing anyone ever tells you about New York City—the threat of violence, the brusqueness of New Yorkers, the way the city can drain you—prepares you for the Lincoln Tunnel. I thought for sure our bus would crush and kill someone in an offending car. Bus drivers coming into New York City are ruthless.
We disappeared into the tunnel. I saw Midtown briefly when we emerged, but we disappeared again into the Port Authority. John—my incredible friend—and my new roommate, Lee—also wonderful—were waiting to meet me as I walked off the bus. I can’t describe the feeling accurately, except to say, at that moment, a sense of destiny alighted on my shoulders. Yeah, it was that heavy.