Nine Nights in New York

Douglas Messerli

The First Night: 252 72nd streeet

Upon completing my junior year of college at the University of Wisconsin, I was nearly desperate to get to New York City. It so happened that a co-worker in the Admissions Office and her husband were planning to drive there at the close of the semester, and they asked me did I want to join them. I readily accepted.

The trip, as I remember it, was a long one, since we took a northern route through Indiana and Ohio, and moved yet further north into New York State so that we might stop by her sister’s house in Skaneateles. My friend’s sister, it so happened, had married the architect-developer James Wilson Rouse (who had built many projects including the Faneuil Hall Marketplace; he would later create the planned community of Columbia, Maryland and the development of the harbor area in Baltimore.) Like many of the houses in Skaneateles, their home was a mansion, where we stayed the night and part of the next day. I recall a good discussion with Rouse about urban development.

Later that day we drove down to New York City, staying with her husband’s brother and wife in a small apartment on 72nd Street.

I had determined to spend at least the summer in New York, but had failed to report this information to my own family and had made no provisions for a place to live or even given any thought to how I might survive in the metropolis without money. I can’t even imagine, today, my complete lack of fear and consequence. I just presumed something would come up—and indeed it did.

My friends’ relatives knew of an apartment belonging to a puppeteer, now on tour, that stood empty on Horatio Street in the Village, where the next day I was duly shipped off. I stayed there for about a week before I moved in to the Sloane House YMCA (it would be nearly a decade before The Village People, with their satirical advice—“Young man, you can stay at the YMCA!”—would come into being) and ultimately, with someone I’d met in that august institution, shared an apartment in Jackson Heights.

I began temporary employment with NBC, moving boxes of old records for two days. That was followed up with a typist job with a Swiss manufacturing company in the Crysler Building. They were so impressed with my typing and—I guess—my personality, that after several weeks they tried to hire me as a salesman; but I could never comprehend what kind of machinery they produced, and even after attending a meeting in lower Manhattan with someone from the company attempting to describe what I would be selling, I could make no sense of it. Perhaps these were newer models of “Miss Emmy,” the monstrous computer of Desk Set.

Soon after, I moved to Steuben Glassware, where I was asked to create a scrapbook of all the glassware that had been given as gifts to foreign dignitaries by the President of the United States. That took me through several weeks before, following a tip I’d received from my previous employer in Wisconsin, I applied for a job at Columbia University, where I was immediately appointed Assistant Director of Protocol. The head of Protocol—Mrs. Torbert—and I planned for the dinners and activities surrounding several events, including the various award ceremonies such as the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes. We were also in charge of organizing and scheduling events for the Board of Trustees of the University. At these occasions I was responsible for advising the President of the University of everyone’s name and the sequence of his activities; often I had to dance with guest and faculty wives. That year the Bancroft Prize was awarded to James Watson and Francis Crick.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying the open sexuality of New York, and on almost any night I could be found at the gay bars in the Village. I often started at the renowned Julius’ (dining on one of their famous hamburgers) before trekking over to Stonewall and heading further West to a bar near the trucking docks whose name I can’t recall, but which, at a late hour was the site of backroom orgies. I was quite attractive and thin in those days, and generally had “picked up” someone before the long trek to the docks.

I recount this little history of my activities to indicate that some time had now passed since my embarking at 72nd Street. And I had still failed to inform my poor parents that I was in New York! Today, it seems unbelievably cruel of me to have behaved so irresponsibly. The idea that my parents would be terrified by my unexplained absence never seemed to reach the synapses of my brain. My only excuse now is that I was young, and like many young men, utterly selfish. Life was exciting—things had worked out, despite my lack of planning! And I had no intentions of interrupting my adventures with a call home!

One evening during my tour of the various bars, I met a young man who, following the usual pattern after hearing of the far-away location of my habitation, suggested we go up to his place. We entered the subway or perhaps we took a taxi, and headed up town. “I know this street,” I blurted out as we exited either subway station or taxi cab; “It’s 72nd Street.” The boy smiled.

I was more than a bit startled when he entered the same apartment building in which lived the relatives of my Wisconsin friends. I was even more overwhelmed by coincidence when he soon thereafter opened the door to the very apartment where they had lived. “I just moved here a few months ago,” he mysteriously reported.

“Yes,” I said, “because I knew the former tenants.”

“You did? How strange.”

“Yes. Indeed it is.”

That was the end of it—the strange event—so I thought. We had sex, and I was preparing to leave—or perhaps to stay for the night. I can’t remember my intentions. For before I could take any actions, the telephone rang. It was for me, reported my new friend.


“They asked for you.”

“But no one knows I’m here,” I responded, shaking a bit as I picked up the receiver.

It was my mother! Where was I? Where had I been? She’d had to call the University to find out that I’d gone away to New York with some friends, and they had told her that I’d stayed the first night with their relatives. My mother had called here now to find out if they knew where I might have gone. Why hadn’t I told them? Was I coming home? Was I quitting school? She was in tears. My father was crying in the background out of a mix of what I now recognize as horror and relief.

I don’t think I said much. I just told them that I was staying on in New York, and wasn’t at all planning to come home just yet. But I promised I would keep in touch.

I don’t recall whether I stayed for the night or not. I probably remained in that bed in the master bedroom of the apartment in which I’d spent my first New York night sleeping on the living room couch. For I now realized, whatever choices I made, there could be no escape. Fate or God—whatever one called destiny was clearly on the side of my parents. Or perhaps it was on my side, since I soon realized I had been ready to be found.