When I was a kid growing up in Astoria, Manhattan seemed a million miles away. My friends and I used to call it “The City.”
My neighborhood in Queens was quiet and tranquil. When we played outside, my mother would call out the window when it was time for me to come home. By contrast, the City seemed like it was mayhem…crowded and noisy. The only time I ever went there was when my mother would bring me with her to work; she’d clutch my arm tightly so she wouldn’t lose me.
Although the City seemed like a scary place to me as a young child, as I grew older, it became the place to be — where all the excitement was. My friends and I were huge sports fans and we always talked about going to Madison Square Garden to watch the Knicks and the Rangers play. We dreamed of going to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for a live taping of our favorite TV show, Saturday Night Live. One of my friends even wrote to the Late Show with David Letterman requesting tickets.
For my 14th birthday, my friends and I conceived a plan to go into the City to celebrate. After a little bending of the truth to the parents about where my party was being held, we walked to Ditmars where we jumped on the RR train and took it to the last stop: 42nd Street and Times Square.
To say that Times Square was a little bit different in 1980 than it is today is an understatement. Back in the day, it was considered the unofficial Red Light District of New York. Disney was a couple of decades away from opening its flagship store there. There was no Ripley’s Believe It Or Not or the Times Scare Haunted House. Back then, if you wanted to see a real ”freak show,” all you had to do was walk past the Port Authority Bus Terminal; you’d see pimps and prostitutes, drug pushers and addicts, pick pockets, thieves, and games of chance like Three Card Monte.
I’m sure my friends were as nervous as I was when we first exited the subway and felt the rush of Times Square. We may have even wanted to clutch onto each other’s arms like my mother did to me; but our fear quickly turned to excitement.
Back in the day Times Square was darker, dingier, and dirtier, but it was still a marvel for its time and buzzed with a frenzied energy.
The first stop of our adventure was to a gift shop that advertised “Authentic Identification Cards;” the legal drinking age was 18, so my friends and I all got fake I.D.s saying we were students at St. John’s University and that we were born in 1962. We went from 14 to 19 instantaneously, and more importantly, we were of drinking age!
Then it was on to the Blarney Stone Pub to break in our new fake I.D.’s. To our surprise, we walked right in and got served without anyone carding us. We ordered a round of beers and some shots of Jack Daniels and we guzzled them down quickly, afraid that an adult might confront us or call the cops, but no one said a word. No one even looked at us, so we just kept drinking.
Next stop: The Show World Center, a go-go bar that advertised “Live Nude Peep Shows” in blinking red light bulbs. We walked in, converted our dollar bills into Show World Coins, and we each got our own booth. When we put our coins into the slot, the window popped up and there was a naked girl dancing on a stage; I remember she was a redhead and had spinning tassels on her boobs. I also remember that the booths circled the stage so we could see each other’s faces; we started laughing uncontrollably. A couple of minutes later, the window in my booth started to slowly close, so I quickly threw more coins into the slot; it was less about watching the stripper, and more to keep on laughing with my friends.
After we left, we felt different. We had seen a lot of stuff at Show World. My friends and I became much cooler…we developed some swag. We weren’t nervous anymore. Our trip into the City had turned into a rite of passage: we left Queens as teenagers, and came back as perverts — haha — young men.
Back in the day, I rarely ventured into Manhattan. The hustle and bustle of the big city scared me. But as I grew older, I learned to love the fast pace and action that can only be found in New York City. Times Square has changed for the better since the 1980s, but any real New Yorker around my age will tell you that even though the streets were dark and dirty back then, they were fun and exciting as well.
I mean who doesn’t love a good peep show, right?