After Midnight: A Scrapbook of Late-Night New York

After Midnight
A Scrapbook of Late-night New York
Photograph by Bobby Doherty

I Miss Last Night Already

I am a lifelong insomniac, so it was inevitable that I would make New York my home. Even if I don’t venture out late on a given night, it is a great comfort, at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., to know that I can, that there are others out there on the streets, working and playing, restless and questing for love, drugs, food, sex, or cash, that the streets are bathed in yellow light. Elsewhere, midnight is the end of the night, but in New York, it’s the middle, if not the beginning. For some of us, the possibility junkies, the city is far more welcoming after dark, vivid and electric, inexhaustible in its store of potential pleasures. The night is egalitarian in a way that the day is not. By day, New York is segregated into professional ghettos, but at night the boundaries are loosened. The city becomes more cosmopolitan as the tribes mix; the lawyers doff their ties, and the nocturnal dandies don their makeup. After a day of drudgery, the office intern lies down for a nap and emerges, hours later, having metamorphosed into Cinderella.

1917 Shimmer on the Harbor An image of the early skyline that appeared in The Edison Monthly, a publication of the New York Edison Company dedicated to celebrating the wonders of ­illumination. Photo: The Edison Monthly/National Geographic Creative/Corbis

Not every night is eventful, of course, even the ones you were most hopeful about. Still, especially when you’re thinking about nightlife in the past tense, it’s hard not to romanticize what happened, even, or maybe especially, if you weren’t there. I’m sorry that I missed New York in the ’20s, during Prohibition. (The lure of the forbidden is always more compelling than an engraved invitation. Who wouldn’t rather be an outlaw, really?) But the greatest era of nighttime in New York is always the one that coincides with your own youth. The darkness never seems so rich in promise as it does when you’re in your 20s.

When I arrived in the city in November 1979 — one of its most mythologized eras, I know, but it was mine — the death of the disco age had just been sealed when Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were busted for tax evasion. And what replaced Studio 54 and Xenon was grittier, more egalitarian, and, to our minds, way cooler and more authentic. It was a kind of punk reaction to glitzy disco, although elements of disco, including a pervasive pansexuality, were subsumed into this new order. Punk had been invented on the Lower East Side a few years before I arrived, and in late ’79 it was still possible to hear the Ramones in CBGB, or Talking Heads at the Mudd Club, or Iggy Pop at the Peppermint Lounge. They were places where a wide-eyed aspiring writer/New Yorker fact-checker dressed like a preppie could rub shoulders with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Lou Reed and David Byrne, Jim Carroll and William Burroughs, as well as the drag queens, club kids, and drug dealers who were the glue of the scene.

It’s easy to glamorize the decay now, but the city was teetering on the edge of the financial brink; bankruptcy had been narrowly averted, but jobs and affluent white people were still fleeing for the suburbs. A heroin epidemic was ravaging the poorer neighborhoods of the city, creating a wave of crime that spilled over everywhere. The whiff of danger had become the scent of the Manhattan streets. You quickly developed a sixth sense, and you tried to keep it turned on even as you got obliterated on alcohol and drugs.

I suppose this era was probably almost finished by the time I had a book party for my first novel at Area, the sprawling Tribeca club with art installations that changed every six weeks and legendary coed bathrooms that were the scenes of epic orgies. The fête was arranged by a party promoter — a phrase that was brand-new to me then. In 1985, not long after my party, Rubell and Schrager, having served their prison sentences, took their show downtown, opening a huge club in the Palladium, a former concert hall on East 14th Street. I remember showing up after midnight for the opening, joining at least 2,000 people on the sidewalk desperate for entry. Where the hell had they all come from? It felt like the end of something — if only my 20s.

I can’t help feeling the night has been tamed, packaged, and commodified in recent years, that the downtown I was part of has become a kind of brand. Perhaps that was always inevitable in a place that’s the world capital of money. Or maybe the real scene has moved elsewhere, to Bushwick or Ridgewood or somewhere that trend-piece writers haven’t yet discovered. I suspect that young people still venture out after dark in New York City with something more propulsive than cash — and with the same sense of wonder and hope that we did.

Photo: Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection
1958 Killing Time Showgirls between sets at the Latin Quarter in Times Square. Photo: Gordon Parks/The LIFE Picture Collection

Some Things That Happened Around Midnight

1641 A fur trader opened Manhattan’s first tavern, the Wooden Horse, on Stone Street between Whitehall and Broad.

1652 The first late-night police force was formed, to patrol for Indian attacks.

1824 A crowd gathered in front of a fire at 7 Cherry Street, only to learn that the glow was something new called “gas lighting.”

1866 A Tammany Hall judge used the nighttime hours to naturalize 10,000 new loyal Democratic voters in the month before an election.

1894 The Waldorf-Astoria introduced the velvet rope.

1898 Manhattan annexed the boroughs at the stroke of midnight.

1907 A 700-pound iron-and-wood sphere covered in 25-watt bulbs descended in Times Square for the first time to ring in the New Year.

1933 The city ended Prohibition with 54 truckloads of alcohol and 19,000 police officers on patrol.

1938 The Brooklyn Dodgers lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the first night baseball game played in the city, at Ebbets Field, a no-hitter that didn’t start until after 9 p.m.

1946 A tugboat strike turned fuel shortage shut down the whole city at 11:59 on a cold February night.

1966 The Bolshoi Ballet dancers gave the very last performance at the old Metropolitan Opera House — then had a party on the roof of the St. Regis that ended in a 4 a.m. dance-off.

1969 Eight police officers raided the Stonewall Inn.

1980 Diana Ross, wearing cowboy boots, serenaded the owners of Studio 54 on their last night before going to jail.

1994 Tupac Shakur was robbed and shot five times on his way to a recording studio.

2000 Twenty-one-year-old Constantine Goudkov became the first person to be arrested in the new millennium, for allegedly attempting to enter Times Square with an 8-mm. handgun.

2003 A request to extinguish cigarettes under the new smoking ban ­escalated into a fatal stabbing in Alphabet City.

2006 A coyote named Hal wandered Central Park, stalked by a police helicopter.

2012 Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

2014 The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, returned home.

2015 The first baby of the year, Maxim Olenyukh, was born on January 1, at HHC Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, exactly at the stroke of midnight.

1982 Penn Station and a Gun Keating was 26 years old and teaching himself to use a camera when he stumbled on a drug bust. Photo: Edward Keating/Contact Press Images

Wanna Go to the Copa With Walter Winchell?

Photo: Joe McKendry

I don’t know if the name will mean anything to any readers under 90, but I was once taken to the Copacabana by the legendary Walter Winchell. He was 70-something at the time and still trying to keep his legend going. This would have been ’69 or ’70. Here he was, the most powerful, feared columnist in the world, most certainly in the world of New York City, which to New Yorkers is the only world, of course. But he had been on my show, and he sort of took a liking to me. This is long after he had been totally defanged. Winchell called one day and said, “You wanna go to the Copa?” and I said, “Sure.” It was just, “Go to the Copa,” as if that was something nobody could resist. Tony Martin was the star at the time, warbling his songs. The strangest part was that I felt underdressed because Walter showed up in a tuxedo with a .38 revolver snub-nosed in the cummerbund. I decided not to cross him that night.

He was notorious for carrying a gun, and he was rather proud of having it. A Freudian would interpret it as a phallic remembrance of his former prowess or something. Or Gore Vidal’s “You can always get your gun up.” He still had plenty of enemies, he felt, although I think by this time most of his enemies had forgotten him or died from other people’s guns. He picked me up and was driving his own car. The old bastard had his cop radio — not the kind you or I can buy, but the real official cop radio — because he spent his life cruising around New York with his cop radio on. As soon as there was a crime, Walter was there. He was clinging to these old vestiges of his notoriety, with the gun, the cop radio … The old Walter Winchell tough act.

I used to love to listen to him on the radio as a kid. You wouldn’t know the sound of his voice unless you knew The Untouchables. He was the voice of that show, that patented, sharp, dramatically penetrating voice. I remember that shocking night when he said, “And we have a president who does not know what the H-E-double-L is going on.” That was Harry Truman. He was a major force in the business. He would make or break an act. Presidents wanted him on their side. To lose all that power must have been sad.

So that night, we went out to the Copa and sat through Tony Martin’s charm and alcoholism. Then we went out and did his nightly prowl, or what was left of Winchell and his radio pursuit of crime in the city. We got some kind of a call, went down to a precinct, but we had missed all the excitement. The cops were there just filling out forms. But he brightened at every “Hey, Walter!” You sensed that he wanted, desperately, to be known. And then suddenly a kid about 18 said, “Hey, pop! Say something more!” He said something more. The kid goes, “The Untouchables! Wow! Hey, it’s the old guy from The Untouchables!” And he so brightened at this scrap of recognition. He seemed to drop 20 years, he was so grateful that this kid recognized his voice. He then supplied an unrequested autograph.

ca. 1950 Piaf in Love and Grief Edith Piaf performed regularly at the Versailles, on East 50th Street, including on October 28, 1949, the evening she learned that her lover, Marcel Cerdan, had died in a plane crash. She sang “Hymne à l’Amour” and collapsed before reaching the final line: “God reunites those who love each other.” Photo: Photofest

Ships in the Night

Photo: Joe McKendry

January 13, 1840 The steamboat Lexington departed New York in the evening for Connecticut. It made its way smoothly north through Hell Gate and out into Long Island Sound, clipping along at a speedy 12 miles per hour, before some cotton near the smokestack caught fire. Panic ensued as the wind whipped the fire into a waterborne inferno, and by morning what hadn’t sunk was scattered across miles of icy coast. Nearly everyone aboard perished, and men were stationed all along the coast to recover personal property and cargo as it washed ashore.

February 6, 1920 The Old Dominion Line steamer Princess Anne ran aground off Rockaway Point at 2 a.m. in the middle of a blizzard. Over the weekend, plans formed to remove cargo and lighten the load so the steamer could float off the sand, but by late Sunday night the currents prevailed, and the ship split in the middle with horrible noises that terrified the crew. Commanding officers drew their pistols to get the crew to stop panicking, and then they abandoned ship.

April 24, 1943 Oily bilge water in an old freighter, SS El Estero, caught fire in the early evening off Bayonne in upper New York Harbor. The ship had just finished loading more than a thousand tons of incendiary bombs, depth charges, anti-aircraft ammunition, and blockbuster bombs. Because it was an oil fire, water alone wasn’t enough to fight it. As night set in, those battling the blaze grew desperate, fearing the ship could turn into an enormous bomb with the potential to reach New Jersey, Staten Island, and even, some speculated, lower Manhattan. Mayor La Guardia arrived just before 10 p.m. to find the ship still burning by the Robbins Reef Light. Shortly before midnight, however, the radio message went out: “All clear.”


A Supply List for Late-Night Street Art

When Keith Haring did the wall at Bowery and Houston, he asked me for permission. I was shocked by that. I said, “Keith, it’s not my wall, but I appreciate that you asked me.” His next question was “How do you do it?” I looked at him. Everyone was awed by walls, and I never realized that. I just said, “Go and get a ladder.” Everyone made it more scientifically complex than it was. You paint in the middle of the night by moonlight. All you need is a ladder … and some cojones.

1987 The Night No One Wanted to Go Home After a hellish Black Monday at the New York Stock Exchange, traders stayed late at Harry’s bar, drowning their sorrows in Amstel Light. Photo: Jean-Pierre Laffont

His Name Was Magic, Her Name Was Angel

Photo: Joe McKendry

In 1974, I was on Hudson and Horatio — it was still pretty shady over there at the time — and I could not get a cab. This big giant Cadillac pulls up, and a guy and a girl were in it. It was obviously a pimp and his girl. And the guy goes, “My name is Magic. Do you need a ride?” Who in their right mind would get in that car? But I did. His name was Magic, her name was Angel, and it was like a scene out of a Scorsese movie. I just remember the tranny girls yelling, “You go, girl!” They thought I had gotten a trick or something. I don’t know what made me think it was going to be okay. Angel let me know, “Don’t worry, honey, we’re not serial killers.” And for some godforsaken reason, I believed them. Maybe it was how they smelled — this combo of English Leather and Chanel No. 5, which was comforting and delicious and cozy. Once I smelled the familiarity, I felt safe, even though it was so taboo and risky and just not done. Not only did they give me a ride, but they invited me to the most fabulous party I had ever gone to. It was in an unmarked building in Soho with a creepy door, one of those empty lofts that people would rent and turn into party places, and you had to have the password, like “Table 29” or something. Everything was freely flowing — yes, there was a mountain of Peruvian marching powder on a glass table — but there was also caviar and Champagne and Bellinis. It was one of those parties. Magic and Angel, I wonder where they are now. God knows what they really did, and who they were. I’m not recommending this, to jump in a car with strangers.


Times Square, Illuminated

Nightfall used to pretty much put an end to advertising. Painted signs and printed billboards, which plastered every visible surface of New York’s major thoroughfares by day, receded wordlessly into the shadows by night.

Then, in 1892, the Long Island Rail Road had the Edison General Electric Company put up the first electrically illuminated advertisement. It hung off the side of the Cumberland Hotel at 23rd Street and Broadway, an intersection then widely considered the center of city life. After sunset, its letters buzzed to life with 1,457 lightbulbs, hypnotizing New Yorkers with the new technology and enticing them to BUY HOMES ON LONG ISLAND, which, it blinked, visible for miles in the night air, was SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES. H. J. Heinz, who stayed in a nearby Madison Square hotel, took note and ordered up an incandescent green pickle and a brilliant white 57 (for his varieties) on the same wall. These “spectaculars,” as the enormous illuminated advertisements came to be known, earned that name because it’s exactly what everyone agreed they were.

New York development, meanwhile, was racing uptown, and when, in 1904, the New York Times outgrew its 16-story building on Park Row, Adolph Ochs looked north to a thin wedge of land on Seventh Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, where Broadway carved a bow-tie-shaped opening into the Manhattan grid. The area was already a bustling transit hub, and with the opening of the New York City subway that year, it was poised to become the city’s new civic heart. Down went four existing townhouses, and up went 395 feet of steel, brick, limestone, and terra-cotta. At the setback on the 16th floor, a sign glowed TIMES. And so Long Acre Square, named for a district in London, which, Ochs quipped, “meant nothing, signified nothing,” became Times Square, which would come to mean quite a lot, especially for New York at night.

One of the square’s ambitious early spectaculars showed a woman, about three stories tall, her back to the square, her face and torso hidden behind an umbrella. Her skirt blew just enough to reveal some stocking and a hint of Heatherbloom petticoat. SILK’S ONLY RIVAL, read the tagline. By the 1920s, there had been such a proliferation of after-dark advertisements that the city had to intercede, turning the advertisers’ arguments against them (they are visible to everyone!) and setting some rules. For example, ads couldn’t monopolize the night sky by being so big they eclipsed others. They couldn’t be broader than a city block. But this somehow seemed to concentrate rather than shrink the signs. Times Square pulled in all the light around it, growing brighter like a hungry star.

For advertisers, even back then, the idea wasn’t just to light up Times Square; it was, through the square, to reach the world. And it was working. People came from all over to stare. The rent brought in by some signs exceeded that brought in by occupancy. “The square goes divinely mad by night,” declared the journalist Will Irwin in 1927. Paul Morand, a French writer, described this new language on façades and above rooftops as “a kindled alphabet; a conspiracy of commerce against night.” Times Square had become synonymous with New York’s triumph over darkness.

In 1930, an Alabama-born ad prodigy named Douglas Leigh arrived in New York. A college dropout who, it was said, could sell dirt to a farmer, Leigh parlayed an out-of-the-way Bronx billboard into an extended stay at the Hotel St. Moritz so he could start a business with a Central Park South address. Then he set his sights on Times Square. There were, by his count, 90,500 lightbulbs in the square in 1933. He didn’t think that was nearly enough.

By 1941, according to The New Yorker, Leigh had crafted some 32 new signs (five “of the gaudiest” for Times Square), which used 75,000 lightbulbs and 15 miles of neon tubing. He also imagined into existence a 15-foot coffee cup that emitted 1.5 million cubic feet of steam per month (which he sold to the grocery chain A&P). An ad for Bromo-Seltzer bubbled endlessly, while another for Camel cigarettes blew five-foot smoke rings in steam. He even had handymen on patrol from dusk until 1 a.m. to mend outages.

These early spectaculars, with their wit and whimsy, prefigured the TV ads to come. So it perhaps should not surprise us that they would eventually be replaced by enormous programmable screens. Now a 24 million–pixel megascreen stretches along Broadway from 45th to 46th on the Marriott Marquis, the biggest digital billboard in the world. One can only imagine that Douglas Leigh would have been impressed.

1883 Guests at the Vanderbilt Ball There were 1,200 guests at the lavish masquerade housewarming on Fifth Avenue that lasted until 4 a.m. The Times reported that the party “has agitated New York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years.” Photo: Mora/Museum of the City of New York

Louis’s Toy Bar

Photo: Joe McKendry

I’ll never forget the years when I first worked at NBC doing a soap opera, around 1980. I was told that there was a place called Louis’s Toy Bar on the Upper East Side. And it was this narrow sliver of a shop that obviously had sold antique clothes or something. And this guy Louis who owned it would put out plates of, like, Velveeta cheese and crackers and very modest kinds of canapés. I was told, back then, that all the cast of the original Saturday Night Live went there after the show; this was their haunt, this was their after-party-after-party Copacabana. And I went there countless times, eating Velveeta cheese, waiting for them, and they never came. They never showed up. Louis’s Toy Bar. I think they had moved on by then. That’s the rule: Once I show up, you can know they’ve all moved on.

1959 Beach Bums A summer night at Coney Island with a gang of teenagers who called themselves the Jokers. Back then, one member later recalled, there was a lot of “drinking beer, smoking pot, maybe popping a pill here and there.” Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Teenage Jesus in the Summer of Sam

1977 was when I started performing with my first band, Teenage Jesus. It was a very different time. The city was bankrupt, the Lower East Side was basically firebombed, and it was extremely dangerous. “Beirut on the Hudson,” I called it. But I came from a pretty bad neighborhood in upstate New York, and I guess I was fearless. And it’s probably why nothing bad ever really happened to me as a 17-year-old storming around the streets of New York City from midnight until four in the morning. ’77 was one of the most violent years in New York’s history. It was the Son of Sam. It was the blackout, with people looting and 3,000 people getting arrested. I mean, the crime that existed and surrounded us as artists absolutely influenced the art we were making. It was like a public temper tantrum. What I liked about that period was the absolute bawdy raunchiness. It was a lusty and greedy time, and anything was allowed. I would hijack taxis occasionally, if I liked the driver. I’d say, “Let’s go for a ride. I don’t have any money, but I could tell you a story.” That was fun. You need the wind in your hair; you’ve got to get in the back of a taxi and see where it’s taking you. I made money by standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, shaking down women with children, saying I worked for the Cancer Foundation, until I got $10. I could live on that. The rent at my apartment on 12th Street between A and B was $75 a month. There was also a clinic on Second Avenue near St. Marks Place where you could get any drugs you wanted — black beauties, Plazadol, Seconals, Tuinal. Basically, you got them to sell them. Everybody did it. I mean, the whole city was a criminal enterprise of corruption and bankruptcy, so our petty crimes were nothing. One time the members of Teenage Jesus got in a van and went up to Studio 54. I don’t know if we got in or didn’t get in, we didn’t care. But on the way back, Bradley Field, our drummer, who was a notorious alcoholic badass, just started yelling at the car next to us — and they started firing a gun at us! We had to race back down to the Lower East Side. That was an exciting night.

Walking and Talking With Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick

Photo: Joe McKendry

Sarah Jessica Parker: Before we were married, we used to walk a lot because time didn’t matter.

Matthew Broderick: If we had a fancy outing in midtown, we’d walk all the way home to Tribeca.

SJP: One thing that Matthew used to do to me, he used to walk me with my hand over my eyes …

MB: I led you, and the rule was you had to keep your eyes covered.

SJP: And he would walk me into completely random places and take my hand off my eyes and I would be in the most strange, unconnected-to-the-previous-spot places. I would be in the lobby of a residential apartment complex, or a Starbucks, or at the very door of a tenement that I obviously couldn’t get into.

MB: You’re like listening and trying to figure out where you are, and then when your eyes finally open, boom, you’re two inches from a lamppost.  

SJP: He would spin me and sort of make me lose my bearings.

MB: The first time it happened, we were somewhere near Union Square, and …

SJP: We ended up in the lobby of Zeckendorf Towers. I was very delighted by it. I think the reason we remember it is that it paints a portrait of a time that, for many couples, they don’t have anymore. There’s a sort of leisure, before more grown-up responsibilities dictate your life.

MB: New York has so many close-together, completely different, crazy things you can suddenly be staring at after a five-minute walk from one spot to the next. You’re in a totally new environment.

SJP: We were up late because our work often required it. Sex and the City shot really, really late.

MB: My plays, I’m always eating at midnight.

SJP: He’s on the graveyard shift. And for years, so was I. Night was our twilight. We have a lot of nostalgia about that time. Not the kind of nostalgia that makes your heart feel heavy or like someone’s stepping on your chest, but rather, I think, we really lived it. You don’t have to rush out to make the first steps in the snow, you’re just out there already making the first steps in the snow. I love those times where you almost feel alone. And when I’m out walking, I always find money. Right, Matthew?

MB: Always.

2000 Dancing Break Guests at the New Museum Benefit Gala. Photo: Jessica Craig Martin/Trunk Archive
1982 Break Dancing Showing off at the Roxy. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni/Contact Press Images

SJP: I would only pick it up if it were heads up. If it’s not heads up, I try to kick it and make it heads up for the next person. I’ve found a lot of coins. I’ve found 20s. I found a hundred-dollar bill in the lobby of a theater. I found a check recently, for a very large amount of money, like thousands of dollars, and I tried to be a proper investigator like Sherlock Holmes, and I was able to find the owner. The other night, walking home after the Oscars, we found a kazoo, sitting with a glove, together. And on the evening of New Year’s, we found a purse and all the contents in it. I wish I’d photographed and documented everything I’ve found on the streets of New York. It would complete a house, a home, a life.

MB: I don’t find anything. I get mugged.

SJP: Matthew gets mugged.

MB: On a late-night dog-walking excursion, I thought a homeless person asked me for some money. I gave him a dollar. And then he said, “Give me more!” And I said no. And he stood up, and then he didn’t seem as homeless as he had seemed, and with him he had a friend, who had a gun. And once I was eating a slice of pizza, and a young man pulled a knife on me and took my slice! A knife! I think he just didn’t want to bother to buy his own slice.

SJP: Well, people are in a hurry. [Laughs] This was in the late ’90s. Late. Two in the morning. Varick, that neighborhood back then wasn’t populated, it was much more empty at night.

MB: I don’t miss the scary … I think the city being safe is a great, great thing, and people don’t appreciate it. The thing about the messy city is that it’s very lively and interesting, but the crime and violence … It’s funny to tell it now, but I was certainly terrified to be in the middle of nowhere with a man and a gun.

SJP: You tend to compartmentalize. You feel particularly sentimental about the past, and the stuff that was scary or difficult kind of gets wrapped up in a different way. But despite the crime, I think we can all agree, the city looked and felt different.

MB: There was a lot more variety.

1951 Waiting for the Phone to Ring José Ferrer and Gloria Swanson, co-stars in the Broadway play ­Twentieth Century, on Oscar night. She was nominated for Best Actress (Sunset Boulevard), he for Best Actor (Cyrano de Bergerac). He won just after midnight. AP Photo

The Graveyard Shift at Bellevue

I had a woman who was bitten multiple times by a lemur at the Waldorf-Astoria. I picked up the chart and it said “animal bite,” and I figured, Oh, this is probably another drunk person who got bitten by rats. And I walk in there on a very chaotic, rough night, and in this room is a beautiful woman in a red sequined ball gown next to this handsome man wearing a tuxedo, and she has these bites on her arm — totally not the type of person I expected to see in Bellevue on a Saturday night. And I said, “What happened?” And she said, “Well, I got bitten by an animal,” and I said, “What kind?” And she goes,
“A lemur.” And I said, ‘“Where did this happen?” And she said, “The Waldorf-Astoria.” I just started laughing. Sure enough, she was there for an Explorers Club dinner, and they had these lemurs hopping around to amuse the guests, and one of them chomped on her. Primates can carry horrible, horrible diseases, so we really had to be thorough with her, but she just wanted to leave and go back to the banquet. Anonymous, former resident, emergency medicine, Bellevue Hospital

I was in the emergency department around midnight on September 11. There were very few patients. You might have 150 patients come through the ER on a given day, and there were fewer patients than we treat on a regular night. A firefighter was brought in. He’d been extracted from the debris, and he was rushed into the hospital to get a CT scan, and he suddenly developed problems breathing and needed to be intubated. It is very serious, and the most precipitous event that can happen. It’s worse than bleeding. And there you are, surrounded by 15 or 20 other firefighters, police officers, and you’ve got to get this done correctly and quickly. It went well. This person wouldn’t know me if he were standing next to me on the subway — it is so anonymous. Suddenly, two strangers are thrust in this very serious relationship for maybe an hour, and then the patients get admitted to the hospital, they get their surgery, and when they wake up the next day, it’s all a blur. Dr. Curt Dill, attending physician, emergency medicine, Bellevue Hospital

One night, we got this guy in who was riding his Harley down the FDR at high speed, and he got run over by a semi, and he comes in and is very close to death. He has no mental status, he is not really breathing, there’s not really any blood pressure — he is about to die. We pulled a bunch of teams to work on him, and part of the trauma work is you need to expose people and take all of their clothes off so you can examine them head-to-toe to assess all of their injuries. So this guy, he was covered head-to-toe in iron crosses and swastikas and white-power tattoos. I’m looking around, and I’m D’Amore, and the ortho guy was Schwarzbaum, and we had to call neurosurgery, and that was Goldberg, and we intubated him and we got him stabilized and into the operating room, and he’s totally sedated, and I leaned down and said, “Dude, I just wanted you to know a bunch of Jews just saved your ass.” Dr. Jason D’Amore, former resident, emergency medicine, Bellevue Hospital

1948 Jazz Capital of the World 52nd Street in the rain. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Winners of “Amateur Night” at the Apollo

Billie Holiday, age 191934

Pearl Bailey, age 161934

Ella Fitzgerald, age 171934

Sarah Vaughan, age 181942

Clyde McPhatter, age 181950

Leslie Uggams, age 81951

King Curtis, age 181952

Joe Tex, age 191954

James Brown, age 221956

Dionne Warwick, age 18 1958

Jimmy Charles, age 161959

Gladys Knight (and the Pips), age 151960

Jimi Hendrix, age 221964

Wilson Pickett, age 251966

Stephanie Mills, age 111968

Michael Jackson (with the Jackson 5), age 101969

D’Angelo, age 161991

Jaheim, age 151993

Jazmine Sullivan, age 111998

Machine Gun Kelly, age 19 → 2009

Photo: Shalmon Bernstein
Photo: Shalmon Bernstein
Photo: Shalmon Bernstein
1971 No One Under 18 Cashiers at Times Square movie houses. Photo: Shalmon Bernstein

Which New York Was the Wildest New York? An Inquiry.

It’s become a commonplace to say that the New York of the 1970s was the all-time, world-historical apex for glamorously libertine nightlife. But that decade was hardly the only time when sex, booze, fun, and crime swirled together in the city. In fact, it’s possible that our general sinfulness peaked much earlier than anyone now alive would remember.

There is an argument to be made that the most debauched decade was the 1920s. After all, Prohibition meant, practically speaking, that all the vice that goes along with drinking was swept into the shadows, where it festered and funded an alternate gangster government. Tens of thousands of Manhattan speakeasies operated with abandon, including the dives of the rumrunner Larry Fay (arrested 49 times, zero convictions) and the Champagne showrooms of the beautiful Texas Guinan, whose own nightclub, the 300 Club, took in the equivalent of $9.2 million during one ten-month period.

Or consider New York’s Gilded Age, when high times for the rich coincided with desperate times for the poor. Illicit industries offered a respite from the local sweatshop — not to mention more attractive employment opportunities. During the last two decades of the Gilded Age, the owners of New York brothels made an estimated $15 million to $20 million annually in profits. Clientele included factory workers looking to escape the misery of their lives alongside the more adventurous rich. Bleecker Street in the 1890s was full of semi-brothels that pretended to be “Parisian-style dance halls.” The most infamous was an establishment called the Slide, which featured effeminate male waiters with rouged cheeks and a room for business transactions. (“Depravity of a depth unknown,” as it was described in a newspaper of the era.) There were opium dens on Mott Street and a saloon on the Bowery that was officially renamed McGurk’s Suicide Hall after it became a common destination for prostitutes to kill themselves.

But to remember New York at its purest moment of depravity — complete and sustained social abandon without an ounce of cynicism — you’d have to go back even further in history, to the middle of the 19th century, during the city’s transition from a port to a metropolis. New York at the time was a place with the aspirations of a world capital but the soul of a hick town. Pigs still roamed the streets. Immigration had brought hordes of poor German and Irish to the tenements of Five Points and the Lower East Side. Vice was not a seduction for them; it was a way of life. Gangs were everywhere, and not all male, either. Hell-Cat Maggie, who fought with brass talons attached to her fingernails and her front teeth filed into fangs, was the most notorious of what the press called “b’hoys” and “g’hals,” satirizing their thick Irish accents.

What their diversions may have lacked in sophistication was made up for in ready availability. Entire streets along today’s South Street Seaport were given over to the business of disgraceful behavior, like Kit Burns’s famous Water Street saloon, best known for its rat-fighting pit. Even the once dignified Bowery Theatre in this era reserved its entire third tier to the employment of prostitutes. It wasn’t just that a corrupt police force turned a blind eye; the Tammany Hall government relied on the chaos to stay in power. Voting stations were frequently located in saloons, and Election Days turned into Boss Tweed–sponsored festivals of booze.

But the crowning touch, in the late 1850s, was the emergence of the concert saloon, the precursor to the New York nightclub, which managed to pack as many sodden amusements as possible into one establishment: large, loud rooms of unlimited alcohol and dancing girls and the brand-new genre of popular music (Stephen Foster et al.). Perhaps the most famous was Harry Hill’s on West Houston, known for its bare-fisted boxing matches. A sign near the door read PUNCHES AND JULEPS, COBBLERS AND SMASHES, TO MAKE THE TONGUE WAGGLE WITH WIT’S MERRY FLASHES. These saloons sprang up not in the slums but on fashionable streets (the ones on Broadway, like the Novelty and the Santa Claus, were especially popular). Soon, they lured in even men and women more accustomed to ballrooms and gentlemen’s clubs. Sin was suddenly available to be enjoyed simultaneously by the rich and the poor in an age when class mixing was itself considered improper.

The possibilities of debauchery would, of course, evolve to reflect the particular desires and repressions and innovations of the city at any given time, but New York dissolution first took hold in this moment. In the 1850s, the impulse to party was born.

Greg Young is the co-creator of The Bowery Boys, a New York City history podcast and blog.

1979 All the Sun Kings and Queens Thirty-three years before Karl Lagerfeld showed a Chanel collection at the real Versailles, he re-created the palace at Studio 54.

Complaints 311 calls on June 20 from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

171 —  loud music

62 —  pests

31 —  rat sightings

30 —  mold

47 —  loud talking on the street

51 —  loud cars or trucks

18 —  construction noise after-hours

11 —  toilet problems

11 —  taxi-driver complaints (2 taxi-driver compliments)

9 —  power outages

8 —  conditions attracting rodents

7 —  “damp spots”

4 —  mouse sightings

4 —  ice-cream-truck noise

3 —  street cave-ins

2 —  illegal fireworks

2 —  barking dogs

1 —  drinking in public

1 —  underage drinking in a bar

1 —  cigarette sale to minor

1—  unsanitary dog

1 —  unsanitary cat

1 —  pigeon waste

1946 Rockettes in Recline For a few decades in the middle of the last century, Radio City Music Hall offered its dancers the use of a backstage dormitory for rests, catnaps, or, when the weather was bad, sleepovers. AP Photo

No Judgments

It’s easier to be nostalgic now. It’s easier to look at it now and say, “Oh, I miss Taxi Driver.” Suddenly, we’re all like French film students who romanticize New York, even though when you lived it, it was bad. There were so many heroin dealers. If you were on, like, Avenue B and C, and somebody goes, “You want heroin?” and you said no, they’d get mad at you, like you were going browsing in a store and not buying anything. “You’re wasting our time! Trying to make money here.”

Once in a while, we went to the S&M club they used to have on 14th Street. The Vault. I went with my friend, who was a big strong football-player type, and this girl walks up to us and looks at my friend and just bitch-slaps him right in the face and says, “Hello, you little worm.” He was fuming, and I was on the ground, crying with laughter. And she just gave him a look like, “You want to be in this? This is how it goes.” There used to be sex clubs all over New York, right before AIDS. I went to a place called the Zoo in 1981. They had locker rooms. You put your stuff in a locker, just a little towel on, like you’ve done a million times in the gym, and you walk out and it’s like, some of the people were sort of hot. And they had buffets, which was kind of disgusting. C’mon. You can’t wait to eat? We’re at a sex club. This was people eating like they were on a goddamn cruise ship. And they had all these giant matted rooms, for like 30 people. I started talking to this cute girl who was there, and the next thing you know, we had sex. And it was great! Because if I didn’t have sex at the sex club, I would’ve felt kind of bad.

If you went to a porno theater in those days, there would be couples all over. Normal couples. Not like couples trying to have sex, or like a hooker and a guy — they’d be there, too, but there were like 100 porno theaters in midtown, and you’d see young, good-looking couples watching Deep Throat or whatever. Porn was considered respectable in the late ’70s. You weren’t allowed to have judgment on anything. It was illegal.


Dancing in George Michael’s Closet

At the outset of the ’90s, when George Michael released one of the most underrated — and gayest — albums of that decade, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, he refused to tour or do any press to promote it. His stubbly face was not on the album cover, and he did not appear in the David Fincher video for the album’s most memorable song, “Freedom! ’90,” the clip that featured … oh, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Those lip-syncing supermodels. Michael’s veil dance was widely perceived as a pretentious bid to be taken more seriously as a musician (“When you shake your ass / They notice fast / And some mistakes were built to last”), but to those of us who were struggling with exactly how gay to be in our day-to-day lives, it was clearly the act of a man still in the closet.

In the early ’90s, American tweens were not yet behaving like gay men from New York City by dancing to electronic dance music and singing along to lyrics about getting high on molly. Back then, it was called house music and the drug was known as ecstasy and that sort of decadent tribal behavior was, for the most part, a custom of the gay-black-Latin underground, confined to a relatively minuscule number of venues, like Sound Factory in far-west Chelsea. At the height of all of this giddy weekend nihilism — procure happy pills on Friday, gather in East Village on Saturday, dance into Sunday, cancel Monday — George Michael emerged from his self-imposed exile and went on a world tour. He did a concert at Madison Square Garden on October 26, 1991: a Saturday. I went with my then-boyfriend, Stefan, and we left the concert just after Michael sang his cover of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” I don’t remember what we did to kill the time, but by 4 a.m., we were lined up in front of Sound Factory, submitting to the ritual humiliation of getting frisked before entering the pleasure palace. We planted ourselves on the dance floor, underneath the four-foot-wide disco ball, with the usual crowd: the photographer Edward Mapplethorpe; Cliff Pershes, who worked for Todd Oldham; the dancers Jose & Luis, still basking in their “Vogue” fame; Stefan’s coterie of soon-to-be-successful fashion-student friends. At one point, someone poked me and said, “George Michael’s here.” He was wearing a baseball cap and a denim jacket, dancing with his friends to Junior Vasquez’s extravagant mix of gospel-y, piano-laced house music. He danced for hours, availing himself of his right as a gay man to lose himself on the dance floor. I don’t think I saw a single person approach him. This could never happen today, of course. Back then, exactly no one had a camera in their pocket, which means there’s no record of George Michael’s having been at Sound Factory on October 26, 1991, except in the memories of those who were there, living in the moment.

1988 Clown Car A scene from the 15th Village Halloween Parade. Photo: Steven Siegel

YouBeMom’s Message Board in the Middle of the Night

→ How do you know if your son is a mean boy? 3/9/2015, 1 a.m.

→ Today was a bad day … this is when I think about just ditching it all and heading to the coast and working as a waitress under an assumed name. 3/9/2015, 12:34 a.m.

→ I can’t watch TV shows where women give birth. The noises annoy me. 3/8/2015, 12:04 a.m.

→ You know what I hate? Being really good about diet and exercise for, say, a month, and losing 10 lbs. or so … and then having a bad week and it all comes back and then another bad week and I weigh more than when I started. FUCK 3/9/2015, 12:09 a.m.

 I have no sex drive. wasn’t always like this but 3 dds [dear daughters], full time job, i honestly would be happy never having sex again 3/5/2015, 12:12 a.m.

→ I have no sex drive. wasn’t always like this but 3 dds [dear daughters], full time job, i honestly would be happy never having sex again 3/5/2015, 12:12 a.m.

→ Dh [dear husband] used to get into bar fights because of me. The 90s were a fun time. 3/3/2015, 12:18 a.m.


Stop the Presses The Times’ long night of Bush v. Gore.

On election night 2000, all eyes turned to Florida. Inside the New York Times newsroom, top editors raced against print deadlines and shifting vote counts late into the night. Five front-page headlines later, they still didn’t know who was president.

165 Years of Club Kids

As long as New Yorkers have been going out — whether to Delmonico’s, Studio 54, or Limelight — there have been nighttime characters who became known for their kooky getups or risqué dance moves … or for biting off patrons’ ears. And sure, everyone’s heard of Edie Sedgwick, RuPaul, and Michael Alig — but what about Citrus Hills, who was rarely seen without a grapefruit strapped to his head? Here, some of the less-remembered club kids of yesteryear.


John Geddes, then–deputy managing editor: It’s one of those do-or-die nights. I think that was the first time we’d done an election section. The first edition closed that night at about 10:47. But that’s okay, that’s not bad.

Andrew Rosenthal, then–national editor: In those days, we used to order pizza. And the really good times, when they were full of money, we used to order Chinese food at Rockefeller Center. It was either Chinese or pizza, probably pizza.

JG: We’re in the newsroom, on the third floor by [Joe] Lelyveld’s desk, and Gerald [Boyd] was over there, Bill [Keller] and I, and Al Siegal was nearby. We were all huddled around there. The second edition closed at 11:11 p.m. That early edition had “Bush and Gore in Extremely Close Race,” “Hillary Clinton Wins Seat, Polling Shows.” At 12:46, we did it with a slightly more iffy headline. “Bush and Gore in Extremely Close Race,” “Hillary Clinton Goes to Senate.” And then things got crazy.

AR: Gore was going to concede, had already talked to Bush.

JG: At 2:48, we put out a paper that said, “Bush Appears to Defeat Gore, Hairbreadth Electoral Vote, Hillary Clinton Goes to Senate.” About 121,000 copies were printed.

AR: This friend of mine at the AP told me that they were watching our website, and they were like, “Uh-oh, the New York Times screwed up,” and they moved this advisory that was basically for us, telling us we were wrong.

JG: Joe felt within about a half an hour that Florida was shifting toward Gore and the headline was misleading.

AR: Joe came in to my office, and he said, “What’s going on?” And one of us, maybe me, said, “We’re wrong, and we have to fix this.” Joe said, “I’ve always wanted to say this.” And lifting his hand in a dramatic way, he said, “Stop the presses!” Well, it turns out you can’t. The presses move unbelievably fast, and you can’t actually just halt them, because you would end up tearing the paper and causing all kinds of a mess. Joe, as I recall, was somewhat chagrined. He laughed and said he’d been waiting all his life to say that, and now he gets told he can’t do it.

JG: I called the plant manager at about 3:30. About 112,000 copies were distributed in New York. About 9,000 of them were junk, we just trashed them. It was a surreal moment because you don’t expect that to happen. We’d been through, just a year or so or two years before, the Clinton-impeachment thing, and that was a surreal moment, and then, of course in hindsight, less than a year later, we’d go through 9/11.

AR: We didn’t feel like it was like “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but it was pretty close. When you’re working all night like that, the process of getting the paper out is so intense you don’t really have time to stop and think about whether you just screwed up. Obviously we had, and we printed those papers.

JG: At 3:52, we went out with a revised layout that said “Bush and Gore Vie for an Edge With Narrow Electoral Split; Hillary Clinton Goes to Senate.” That’s where we settled, and so we printed about 382,000. We closed the newsroom that night at 4:18. I don’t remember going out for a drink. I think we just said, Let’s all get home because we’re going to have to come in tomorrow morning and start all over again and figure out what this means.


Balcony Seats at a Murder The story behind a Weegee crime photo.

Photo: Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

On the evening of November 16, 1939, Angelo Greco stepped out of the soda fountain and café he ran at 10 Prince Street. It was on a grimy block at the northern edge of Little Italy, almost all tenements, their windows open to air out the lingering summer stink. Greco was out on bail for some unspecified small-time crime — probably bookmaking. A cop later described his field as one “where money is made more easily than by handling a shovel.” Two customers were inside the café. As Greco lit a cigarette, four shots were fired. Two hit him in the head, and he was dead moments after he hit the ground. The shooter, or shooters, vanished.

Police headquarters was just a few blocks away, on Centre Street, so the cops probably showed up fast, but there wasn’t much for them to go on. One of the two customers had bolted the moment the shots were fired; the other had stuck around to finish his drink, but he claimed that he hadn’t seen what happened. Next door at 12 Prince, Pauline Cosenza (age 49) and her nine children (ages 7 through 25) watched from the windows of their $28-a-month apartment.

One of the first cameras on the scene was held by Arthur Fellig, who was becoming famous as a press photographer (and press hound) under the name Weegee. He lived nearby, over a gun shop behind police headquarters, and when the news of the Prince Street rubout came over the radio, he had just rolled out of bed and into his ’38 Chevy, planning to, as he put it, “take a nice little ride and work up an appetite.”

What caught his attention when he arrived was not the body in a doorway but the surrounding human drama, especially the tenement families upstairs. He’d once been one of those kids himself, just a few blocks from here, and he knew that they saw it like a cops-and-robbers movie, or maybe a lowbrow opera. He stepped back — “about a hundred feet,” he said — and set off a blinding explosion of flash powder, an outdated way of making a picture but the only one that would light up half the block. He’d learned how to do this 20 years before, as an apprentice studio photographer, back when there was no such thing as a flashbulb.

Weegee titled the picture Balcony Seats at a Murder, and the next day it ran in the Post. Then he sold it to Life, where, the following week, it ran along with another photo he’d shot. He kept a copy of the check stub he got from Time Inc., which read TWO MURDERS: $35.00.

The cops never found out who killed Greco, and those men milling around in the photo have long since joined him in the great beyond. But Vito Cosenza, who was upstairs at 12 Prince, was 7 then, and he’s 82 now, living in New Jersey. He doesn’t remember much about that night; he was young, and his siblings are mostly gone, so there’s nobody to ask. But he remembers being in Life. “There’s a little face on the third floor, looking out,” he says. “That’s me.”


A Crackhead’s Fur Coat, $5

My sister and I, we were coming out of this nightclub on the Lower East Side called the World. At that time, Alphabet City was really scary, but we were from Bushwick, so we were like, “We’ll just be aware.” It was about three or four in the morning, and we were dressed just in these spandex pants and boots with fringe, and tiny, tiny tops. But then a cold front hit New York, and we don’t have coats, and we didn’t have any money to get on the train. “It’s not that bad, we’ll just walk over the bridge.” And all these guys are checking us out and we were kind of naïve. We thought, They’ll leave us alone if we act like lesbians. We weren’t slobbering on each other or feeling each other up. Just walking arm-in-arm, shivering. But we were getting all this unwanted attention, and we were terrified. When we hit Third, we see these two white guys come out, and one is dressed in this ratted-tatted leopard-fur coat, and they look high as hell. They’re like, “Hi, girls. Whatcha doing? You should be careful on these streets, two girls like that.” And I go, “But we’re acting like lesbians.” And they started laughing at us, and they go, “Okay, well, we’re two queens. It’s perfect, let’s walk together.” And I look down at the guy’s hand, and he has a crack vial, a crack pipe in his hand. My sister thinks fast. She says, “I would pay anything for a coat right now.” And the guy in the fur coat says, “Really? How much do you have on you?” “Five dollars.” “It’s yours.” And he took off his fur coat and gave it to my sister. “Lovely chatting with you ladies. Bye!” We were cracking up, but we had a coat. She took one arm, I took the other, and we walked home over the bridge with it.


4 A.M. at the Fulton Fish Market

When I was 18, in 1892 … I found employment, at what at the time was regarded as a very good salary, in the Fulton Fish Market. I received $12 a week. I reported for duty at four o’clock in the morning and at three o’clock in the morning on Friday … The shrewd commission merchant was the man who had a knowledge in advance of either a glut or a scarcity. Part of my job was the use of a pair of strong marine glasses from the roof of the fish market in order to pick out the fishing smacks of the fleet operated by my employers as they turned out of Buttermilk Channel into the lower East River. A low draft was a big catch. Riding high on the crest of the wave meant failure, and as it was known to the owners of the business where each particular smack was operating, so also was the cargo known. — from Up to Now: An Autobiography, by Alfred E. Smith

1972 Rounding Up the Runaways Teenagers, new to the city, at a police station. “These girls in the picture are lucky; the pimps haven’t gotten to them yet,” one officer said. Photo: Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

The Night After a Really Bad Day

I used to be a New York City police officer, for 15 years. I worked in Hell’s Kitchen in the ’90s during the 6 p.m.–to–early morning shift. One night, a guy tried to commit suicide by jumping from his fifth-floor window. I was on patrol, and I saw it in my rearview window. I heard the thud, and I was like, “Oh my God!” I call the ambulance, I go over to the guy, and he gets up! And I’m like, “Stay down!” And he’s like, “No, no, I can’t be here,” and he starts to walk away. I had to stay with him all night long. I learned that he was a professor, and he had just gotten a terminal-illness diagnosis that day, and his wife left him, and he lost his job — all on the same day! So he decided that was too much. He tried to take pills, but he passed out, and he woke up throwing them up. He tried to cut his wrists, but apparently he didn’t go deep enough, and he just passed out again. He was looking for a gun, but his wife took it when she left him. So he jumped. The good news is, ten years later, I ran into him on the train, and he told me he’s fine.

Busted A brief survey of midnight raids in New York.

Darkness gives cover to those involved in illegal activities — and to the cops and prosecutors trying to catch them. As the modern police force developed at the turn of the 20th century, the NYPD adopted “midnight raid” tactics: coordinated assaults that attempt to catch large numbers of high-profile perps off guard, in the act, and just in time to make the papers the next morning. Below, a sampling of the city’s most spectacular and infamous midnight raids.

1902The Canfield Raid

December 1, 1902, was “a night of tremendous excitement in the Bohemian life of the city,” reported the Times. D.A. William Travers Jerome moved against Richard Canfield, “King of Gamblers,” at his famous gambling joint at 5 East 44th Street. As police bashed their way into Canfield’s silk-walled palace with axes, customers at nearby Delmonico’s leapt from their tables to witness the excitement. Canfield greeted the police graciously, telling them, “I do not exactly relish the manner in which you come, but I shall extend every courtesy the house affords.” His manners ran out when officers made their way to a fourth-floor closet filled with roulette wheels and poker tables.

1919Palmer Raids

On November 7, 1919, 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover masterminded a night of raids on suspected foreign radicals. The epicenter was the Russian People’s House, at 133 East 15th Street. Cops flooded the building, interrupting an English class and arresting 200 people. Law enforcement also seized several trucks full of communist literature, evidence of what Hoover and his DoJ boss, A. Mitchell Palmer, claimed was a conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. Palmer’s house had been bombed the previous June, and, just three weeks prior to the raid, leaflets calling for “bloody revolution” had blanketed the East Village.

1932 The Booze Beneath Federal agents raided a speakeasy and uncovered bottles of Old Dougherty rye and Otard cognac, just one year before Prohibition was repealed. Rue des Archives/Granger

1927‘Sex’: The Play

After finishing a performance of her play Sex on the evening of February 9, 1927, Mae West, along with her cast and crew, was arrested and charged with obscenity. The play, about a prostitute angling for a rich husband, had already completed more than 300 performances, seen by an estimated 325,000 people. According to legal documents, one reason for the raid was that she cast actual gay men instead of the standard vaudeville “female impersonators.” West knew a photo opportunity when she saw one: She arrived in a white limo to serve her ten-day sentence and later claimed she’d worn silks in jail.

1930Hip-Flask Raid

During Prohibition, New Yorkers became accustomed to police busting down doors of speakeasies. But people were aghast on April 25, 1930, when Prohibition officers went so far as to arrest patrons — in evening clothes! — during a raid of the Hollywood on Broadway and 48th Street. The Hollywood wasn’t a speakeasy but a club where customers could bring their own liquor, hence the name “hip-flask raid.” Eleven were arrested, including a stockbroker, three insurance men, two bond brokers, and an engineer. Several protested that the police had ruined their dates. An officer testified that he’d known whom to arrest by swiping their drinks — though he took “just a sip.”

1936The Raid That Brought Down Lucky Luciano

The downfall of the notorious gangster began with a massive raid on Brooklyn and Manhattan brothels organized by prosecutor and future governor Thomas Dewey. On the night of February 2, 1936, police busted 200 houses that were believed to employ up to 2,000 women and gross as much as $24 million a year. It was an extraordinary operation, five months in the making. To avoid leaks, officers were only told of the plans that day, and were sent to make arrests in groups, with warrants kept sealed until they arrived. The 87 arrested were held with unusually high bail in an effort to get them to testify against their employer.

1981Gotham Discothèque

There was no hotter club in the summer of 1981 than Gotham, at 226 East 54th Street. That may have had something to do with the fact that, as police said, it was “a drug supermarket.” When cops busted in right before midnight on November 4, they saw, in the words of one reporter, “a snowfall of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and hundreds of pills hit the dance floor.” Three hundred and seventy-five patrons and some staff, including several teens, were arrested for low-level misdemeanors. It was the culmination of one of the earliest campaigns against “quality of life” crimes.


The Long Way Home

In the summer of 2001, I decided to walk home every night, no matter what time it was or what shoes I was wearing. Most of my friends lived in lower Manhattan — some in Williamsburg and Park Slope — but no one lived near me, on the Upper West Side. The Brooklynites teased me for being fancy when their own neighborhoods were starting to break out in bespoke condos hewn from muddled goji berries. It’s not like I was living in Panic in Needle Park myself, but at least my stretch of Columbus featured a bodega (now a kids’ shoe store), a Thai place (now a Magnolia Bakery), and a harmless crack addict who sometimes slept in my vestibule (a Winnie-the-Pooh T-shirt pulled over her knees). It was a good neighborhood. Or good enough. Most every Manhattan neighborhood in 2001 was good enough.

Maybe it was the economy and maybe it was the corporal hubris of a 23-year-old, but I felt somehow taken care of by the city. Safe. I would walk in the dark, turning over the night’s events, rewarding myself with a slice at Big Nick’s at 4 a.m. My greatest fear was that my poor sense of direction would become so exacerbated by alcohol, I’d wind up four avenues out of my way and have to pay for a taxi home.

Walking up from the East Village presented no problem — one grid gives way to another. The West Side, meanwhile, was full of markers: If you can see the river, you’ve gone too far; if you can see the neon sign for Florent, you’re on the right track; if you can see stilettoed women tripping over cobblestones, laugh. Walking from Chinatown was tricky. I’d sidestep troughs of ginger and jackfruit, being loaded in or loaded out depending on the time. By Houston, I’d have my bearings. I’d pass beneath long stretches of rich people sleeping in Soho, nodding in recognition at my fellow nightcrawlers — mostly drunks and insomniacs.

Finally, I’d hit Central Park South: the gateway to home. The Time Warner Center hadn’t been built yet, so the nighttime population was different: men in suits coming from CNN, ladies in pajama pants walking their dogs, teenagers running into the park. When the pads of my feet burned, I would walk barefoot along the park, hopping on the hexagonal pavement. Even from a germ perspective, I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen.

And then something bad happened. During which my walking became an impossibility. Downtown was practically quarantined, and even if it hadn’t been, I didn’t want to see the city in this type of dark. I shut my window to keep out the acrid smell. How did the smell get all the way up here? I took a tiny comfort in picturing the wind blowing up the island, guessing the paths it could take. All those blocks were still there. If it could get up, I could go back down.


To Be a 15-Year-Old God

Photo: Joe McKendry

I was sewing my own clothes at a very early age, and I used to sew these things and get into Studio 54. I also knew one of the part owners, so if I didn’t get in on my own strength, I would just say to the doorman, this gorgeous blond guy at the door, who was a pseudo-celebrity himself, “Hey, could you call Jack Dushey?” and seconds later they would let me in. But I usually got in because I was outlandishly dressed. I was 15. And when you’re 15, you’re omnipotent. Like nothing’s going to kill you. Somehow, if you had the confidence to just walk up to the door, you’d get in. And I looked much older than I was, because for one thing, I was wearing all these crazy clothes and makeup and stuff, and you would never have guessed that I was a teenager. I was the king of the group, because I had this giant brown Cadillac the size of a tank. And one night, this would be 1977, I was driving my friends home at like four in the morning, pouring rain, and I had finally dropped everybody off, and I was making a right on the West Side Highway in the 70s. And the car just stopped, dead. I didn’t even think about it. I just got out of the car, closed the door, hailed a taxi, took a cab home, and went to sleep. Because I was like, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do about this?” I woke up the next day, and I went back there with my uncle to jump it, and the car was still there, completely intact, not even a ticket on it. It was shocking. Like today, you’d probably be thrown in jail or something.

Midnight Movies Screened at the Elgin Theater


El Topo, Alejandro Jodorowsky


Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel

Freaks, Tod Browning

Targets, Peter Bogdanovich

Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero

Blood Feast, Herschell Gordon Lewis


Pink Flamingos, John Waters

Barbarella, Roger Vadim

Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr.

Just Before Nightfall, Claude Chabrol

Bananas, Woody Allen

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask), Woody Allen

Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin

A Thousand Clowns, Fred Coe

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, Norman Jewison

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz

The Maltese Falcon, John Huston

Little Caesar, Mervyn Leroy

Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen

What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Stanley Kramer

The Cocoanuts, Robert Florey, Joseph Santley

Horse Feathers, Norman Z. McLeod

Duck Soup, Leo McCarey

Monkey Business, Howard Hawks


The Betty Boop Scandals of 1974, Fleischer Studios


Phantom of the Paradise, Brian De Palma

The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell

Space Is the Place, John Coney

Caged Heat, Jonathan Demme


Gums, Robert J. Kaplan

Eraserhead, David Lynch

Reefer Madness, Louis J. Gasnier

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jim Sharman


I Was Andy Kaufman’s Straight Man

We’d hit the clubs, and I’d be the plant. The deal was that he’d insult some women. And he’d say something like, “If there’s a woman who has a problem with this, then she should just come up here, and I’ll respect her if she wrestles me down!” So that was my cue to wrestle him down to the ground. I was so nervous about this because he would actually fight me. He didn’t believe in pretending, so he slammed me around. It was part of a bit, but it was real. Andy wasn’t strong, but I had to have two whiskeys before we did this. Oh, I just loved Andy so much.

1965 A Supreme in the Wings Diana Ross, backstage at the Apollo. Photo: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

London Opens at 3 A.M.

All-nighters are part of working on Wall Street — everyone from the greenest analysts to the top executives has to pull them from time to time. But for overseas traders, it’s a way of life. Eight p.m. here is the opening bell in Tokyo, and London opens at 3 a.m. New York time, a schedule that’s especially difficult in a crisis. In September 1992, the pound plunged against the dollar. “The cycle started in the middle of the night,” remembers Robert Johnson, then a managing director at George Soros’s hedge fund. “At 3 a.m., London opened. Then you shower and go to the office at 5:30 a.m., and stay through 4:15 p.m., when the exchange closes. You talk on the phone to Australia and New Zealand in the car back out to Connecticut, then you sit and watch Tokyo until their lunchtime,” or 11 p.m. here.

This went on for days. Late at night, Johnson would cloister himself in his office at his house in Connecticut, surrounded by a Reuters terminal, a Bloomberg terminal, a fax machine, multiple landlines, a treadmill, and a mini-gym. “You get these fight-or-flight moments watching the market,” Johnson said. “You had to burn off some of that energy or else your system would go haywire.” So he would get on his bicycle and watch the currencies move. He would lift weights waiting for a phone call. But he wouldn’t drink booze to take the edge off. “Alcohol is very hard on your system, not just because of how it distorts your judgment, but because of the inflammation,” he said. “Experienced traders taught me to always drink lots of water, because you get acid in the stomach from the stress.”

But it’s not just crises that keep traders up all hours; it’s opportunity. “There are times during the regular workday when the market is really thin,” Johnson said, because during a New York trader’s afternoon, the European traders are all offline. “London hours were very liquid though — in London, you could maneuver large positions more easily,” because the Brits (and the Germans and the French and the Swiss …) are all at work at the same time. “Being a currency trader in North America is actually kind of a pain in the ass.”

But it pays off, or at least it did for Johnson. On September 16, 1992, when the pound devalued, Soros’s fund famously made more than a billion in a single day, or night, as it were.


Puff Daddy’s 29th Birthday

Photo: Joe McKendry

The hand-delivered invite was a velvet-wrapped VHS tape. Five minutes and 42 seconds long, the video had Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, Ananda Lewis, Todd Oldham, Veronica Webb, Ben Stiller, Pauly Shore, Derek Jeter, and dozens of other ’90s luminaries hyping Puff Daddy’s 29th-birthday party on November 4, 1998. Chris Rock said to leave your posse at home, Magic Johnson instructed guests to arrive at 10 p.m. on the dot, and Will Smith directed people to a 212 number in order to RSVP for the secret location. “It’s gonna be all that,” cooed Tyra Banks.

Not surprisingly, word got out. (In fact, this magazine printed the RSVP number.) And on the night of the party, thousands of would-be crashers gathered (and chanted “We shall overcome!”) behind police barricades outside Cipriani Wall Street, while Peggy Siegal and Paul Wilmot held down the door. Inside, everyone danced on the $50,000 Lucite dance floor to tunes from DJs Kid Capri and Mark Ronson, as the initials “PD” were projected onto the walls. The rumored $600,000 fin de siècle blowout was outrageous, but it also signified the culmination of so many radical shifts: a reorientation of New York society around wealth and celebrity, the full mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, the desegregation of nightlife, a celebration of excess that would stay with us until the financial crisis. Puffy was making a statement — that a rapper born in a housing project in Harlem could throw a party as lavish as anything Mrs. Vanderbilt could have put together, and that Minnie Driver and Mark Wahlberg might have to wait outside in the cold to get in.

At around 2 a.m., following a dramatic entrance by Muhammad Ali and his entourage, the DJ cleared the dance floor, and Puff Daddy arrived wearing a light-gray three-piece suit and shouting to the crowd: “All the press off the dance floor. Leave my people alone.” By his people, he meant Martha Stewart and Missy Elliott; Serena Boardman and Ron Perelman and Timbaland and Derek Jeter and Donald Trump and Ma$e; Francis Ford Coppola and Lil’ Kim and Sarah Ferguson and Henry Winkler and Donna Karan and Jay Z, all partying together.   


You Can Always Get an Appointment in K-Town

Everything in K-Town is open all night. I’ve had many nights where I had one too many drinks, stumbled around, had great food at four in the morning, and actually went for a spa treatment afterward. If you walk down 32nd Street, you’ll see ads for spas, and they’re not that … they’re for real. You can get a facial, sauna, steam room, the whole nine. It’s never happened on purpose, by design. It’s always four in the morning, and you’re like, “Now what? Let’s go in the sauna for a while.”


Peak Brooklyn

An excerpt from “The Passing of Brooklyn,” a poem read by Will Carleton upon the midnight occasion of Manhattan’s annexation of the boroughs on the steps of what had very lately been Brooklyn’s City Hall.

When Father Time, the white grave

garments bringing,

Sharpens his scythe with twelve strokes

loudly ringing,

“You with me must die!”

Then will the maid, with her azure

eyes seeming,

Not with dismay, but with

wonderment gleaming

Ask the world “Why?

“Is it that far from stern Commerce’s molling

I have built homes for the weary and toiling?

Windows have made where the

welcome-lamp glistened,

Music, for which the heart eagerly listened?

Pleasures whose memory sweetened existence,

E’en in yon city that frowned in the distance?

Homes that let toil step to measures

of lightness,

Hearths that made night bring a vision

of ­brightness,

E’en down from the sky?

If then the boon with such services mated,

Is it but to forfeit the homes I created,

If as reward for in home-craft excelling,

I must be proffered the tomb for thy dwelling,

Then, sadly, I die! [...]

This is not death, but a second creation;

Greater New York is your new incarnation;

You are no corse, fit for tears or for pity;

You are the soul of the great coming city;

Higher than ever shall shine your position—

Greater and grander than over your mission!

Rich with the gems of your

home-crested highlands,

You shall make glorious this cluster of islands

Crowned with a city of toilers and sages

Greater than ever was known to past ages;

And never shall die!”

1969 Party Animals of Westchester Grand Central station, after New Year’s Eve (and the last train of the night). Photo: Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

An Oral History of the Mineshaft

“This unremarkable-looking building … a black, metal door, and the words ‘Private Club — Members Only’ … This was the door that separated you from the demands and preoccupations that made up your life, for when you entered the Mineshaft, you left the world behind,” wrote Leo Cardini in Mineshaft Nights, a collection of stories about the kinky gay sex club founded by a former theater stage manager named Wally Wallace in 1976 (and backed by the Genovese crime family). It occupied a building at 835 Washington Street until it closed down in 1985. “It was a legend of the 1970s,” says Michael Kester, an actor and former bartender. Al Pacino came in one night to research his role in Cruising; Rock Hudson dropped by; Rudolph Nureyev once was refused entry because he wouldn’t coat-check his fur. “It was the most infamous gay sex club of its time — the fastest, hardest and, dare I say, most desperate.”

Michael Denneny, book editor: In ’69, the Stonewall uprising hit us like a bomb. Suddenly, our sexual appetite was ravenous. Looking for sex wasn’t something you did occasionally — it was a way to be in this new gay city we were creating parallel to the “real” city.

Mayo Roe, former owner of the Paris Commune restaurant: I have goose bumps right now from memories of the great friends I met there, the boys I fucked, pissed on, slapped around, and took home.

At the top of the stairs, there was a sign that read “Mineshaft Dress Code: Approved Are Cycle and Western Gear, Levis, T-Shirts, Uniforms, Jock Straps, Plaid and Plain Shirts, Club Patches, Overlays and Sweat NO Cologne or Perfume or Designer Sweaters; NO Suits, Ties, Dress Pants or Jackets; NO Rugby Styled Shirts or Disco Drag; NO Coats in the Playground; NO Lacost[e] Alligator Shirts.”

Kester: I was finishing my degree in theater at City College and wanted to work in the most outrageous leather bar in the city. I started on the coat, or clothes, check, and then I was working the door. On the weekends, there were hundreds of guys, ten or 15 on the stairs, waiting to get in. If someone showed up who you thought was really hot, you could tell him to take all his clothes off so you could see him naked, even if he was dressed correctly. Hardly anyone refused.

Edmund White, novelist: In the late ’70s, it was chic to be gay. A lot of straight men were claiming to be bi. A friend who was in with the Andy Warhol crowd told me that Andy used to go to the Mineshaft on the evenings when there was a foot club. Andy liked to lick guys’ feet.

Kester: One night Mick Jagger showed up with Jerry Hall in tow, but I couldn’t let them in because women weren’t allowed. I told him very quietly, “Oh my God, I would do anything for you, but I can’t let you in because of her!” I called a bartender at the Eagle [a nearby leather bar] and told him they wanted to check out the gay leather scene. He said, “Send them over. They can sit at the bar and drink for an hour.” Robert Mapplethorpe was a regular, always in full leather. He wasn’t famous yet. He met a lot of the leather-men he photographed at the Mineshaft.

Upstairs there was a Western-style bar in the main room. The walls were painted black, the windows were boarded up, the red lighting was dim. There was a pool table off the bar area, with stools for sitting and posts for leaning — “Western” style.

Kester: Wally played disco, Broadway musicals, and opera. A lot of guys in full leather would stand around up there talking about who they heard at the Met last night and what kind of quiche they made while all these gorgeous guys were having sex.

Keith McDermott, actor: I was always supremely excited to get in the door, excited and scared. My entire body would be trembling. I would have thought about it all day, dressing for it and planning what character I was going to be. I always pretended to be a different sex persona, and I always gave my name as Pete Marshall.

Kester: A passageway led to the back room — “the Playground” — which had slings for fisting and plywood cubicles with glory holes. I was on drugs almost every night I was working: mostly grass, coke, even mescaline or LSD. I would say 90 percent of the guys were on drugs. Everybody had their own thing. It depended on what kind of sex you wanted to have.

White: I remember one night being in the back room and seeing a naked man wearing a collar who fancied he was a dog. He would come out from this dark corner that was his “doghouse” and bite people on the ankle, and then his owner would whip him back into the corner. In the middle of the Playground were the stairs down to the basement — the “shaft” to the “mine.”

Kester: There was a room in the basement covered in tiles and with a drain in the floor. When the building was used for meatpacking, I guess it was where they hung up the carcasses and let the blood out. That was where the bathtub was — guys would get into it to get pissed on. When you worked there, if you had to pee, you just went over there and peed on someone. It wasn’t practical to go upstairs to the bathroom, which was filthy anyway.

McDermott: When you wanted to explain the Mineshaft, you would say, “It has this bathtub and someone is always in it and guys piss on them.” And people would say, “Oh my God! That really is a far-out place.” If the Mineshaft had a logo, it would have been the bathtub.

Kester: The club stayed open at least till 6 a.m. When the lights came on, you always found shoes, hats, cock rings, gloves, even pairs of pants. People would just shit on the floor, mostly in corners where you wouldn’t step in it. The Mineshaft was really a disease-ridden place … I left in 1979 because I got hepatitis B. AIDS came a short time later, but it didn’t sink in for a year or two, and the action was still heavy. My first friend died in ’79. Very quickly, one friend after another started getting sick. It seemed like the fisting guys were the first ones — they had been the most extreme. But all the guys in the leather scene went in one piece in the ’80s … What saved me is that I only made it with guys 20 years older than me. If you didn’t have a strange sex thing like that, or like being exclusively a top, you got aids and died. All of my close friends died, I mean, all of them.

The week after his reelection in 1985, Mayor Ed Koch announced a crackdown on the city’s commercial gay sex venues, starting with the Mineshaft. The New York Post cover read AIDS DEN DISCOVERED.

McDermott: If there had been no AIDS, all that Mineshaft edginess would have peaked and then things would have settled down. I don’t think we would have kept going until the whole planet was fisting!


“Can I Get Your Number?”

I started out in the heyday of hip-hop, so I’ve run out of more clubs from gunfire and fights than anybody in the world, I think. I’ve also run out of clubs because stuff sounded like gunfire. A firecracker. Somebody’s knee could have popped and I would have ran out of there. It doesn’t have to be gunfire — I’ve seen people get hit in the head with Champagne bottles. People are gonna run out of there if there’s a fight. Girls will just run. Shoes on the floor. Some of the clubs are so big that the fights will just happen, and then it’ll be over and people will keep dancing. Meeting women, having a great time, getting phone numbers. That was our thing. When we took the train back, we would compare how many numbers we got. And we were trying to get numbers while our girls were running out of the club. We didn’t care! We calmed them down, “It’s okay, it’s okay! What’s your phone number? It’s gonna be okay, it’s okay, this happens all the time. Don’t worry about it. What’s your phone number? You can hang out with me and my friends.”


Debutantes at Dawn

I came out in 1963. I was 17. I had just graduated from Convent of the Sacred Heart. I wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn — very simple. Instead, I got a dress from Gone With the Wind. But at least I got my way with my escort. I met him at a party my aunt was giving in the courtyard at Barbetta. There were lots of these types of parties, before the balls. Because the girls didn’t know a lot of boys. We literally went from knee socks to a ball gown. I asked Carty Saunders. Carlton Earl Saunders the Third. His mother was on the committee. And he was cute. He had gone to co-ed school, so he was with it.

Toward the end of dinner, they’d come and herd us to a room for the presentation. The spotlight goes on you, and they play a little song: “New York, New York” or “Sidewalks of New York.” And they say: “Ms. Margaret Stewart, daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Stewart. New York, New York.” And then you make your bow. And then the spotlight hits the next girl.

They had cherries jubilee at my coming out. The fire commissioners won’t allow that anymore. They came out with their chef’s hats on, at dessert time. And they made a big fanfare with all these flaming chafing dishes. I’d never seen cherries jubilee before. It was sort of like — this is what happens when you grow up.

Then, you dance till dawn. And then, in the wee hours of the morning, you’d have a breakfast that some of the parents arranged — eggs and sausage and bagels, right there in the Astor. They’d play what we called disco — “The Twist,” songs like that. When I was up in the room afterward, in the Astor, getting ready to go to bed with Mama, I remember looking down on Times Square. I saw some poor souls walking around, and I remember feeling sad because we’d had such fun.


The Most Magical Thing That Ever Happened to Me

Photo: Joe McKendry

I was with this guy, and it was two in the morning or something, and we were walking down Fifth Avenue, the big wide street totally empty. In the distance we see two other people, a man and a woman walking, and we were a little stoned. And, with no words at all, the woman coming this way and I grabbed each other’s hands, spun around, and then continued walking on our way.


Miles Davis’s Personal Shopper

Miles Davis lived at 279 for a number of years. One of the first nights after he’d moved in, he came home rather late. He was pretty old, so I really had to help him out of the limo. I hold the building door open for him, and as soon as he comes in he just starts kicking at my shins. I’m thinking, What could I have done to make him so mad? I was so confused. I said, “Sir, can I help you with something?” He kept kicking at my shins, but pretty slowly. “Do you need something, sir?” I asked. With the raspiest voice, he asked, “Where’d ya get your shoes?” I really do care about fashion; I’ve always been the best dressed in my building. I told him, “Saks.” Then he said, “Size 11 and a half, will ya get me a pair?”

2015 Hot-Tub Time Machine The artist N. D. Austin threw a party in a water tower for “Operation Birdbath.” Photo: Benjamin Norman

This Happened Last Night

When my mother was wing up in the city, in the 1940s and ’50s, summers took place on tar beach. She and the other kids from the neighborhood would spend as much time as they could up on the roof of their tenement on West 80th Street, where the blacktop got hot enough to burn their bare feet. Sometimes they would take lemonade for a makeshift picnic in the shade of the water tower.

Water towers, first built in the 1880s as the city yearned vertically toward its current proportions, have always been tempting propositions for kids. According to the 1903–5 report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, the towers were “liable to be broken, allowing the entrance of dirt, refuse, and even young swimmers in the summer time.” My mother remembers them as “scary and cool,” and kids from the gangs would brag about swimming in them. Her block was dominated by the Irish Cavaliers, who would take over a rooftop to ambush their rivals from 84th Street. Her cousin Kenny, less delinquent than accident-prone, was famous in the family for falling from one of the towers and breaking his arm.

I thought of Kenny recently, on a frigid February night at 10 p.m. when I was waiting, at a mid-Manhattan location I can’t disclose, to join a group of strangers for something called “Operation Birdbath,” created by the artist N. D. Austin. At a little past the appointed time, 20 people followed a young women in a red fur coat and matching crushed-velvet boots into a narrow, nondescript office building, where we were instructed to move quickly and remain quiet. There was a hiccup when the elevator stopped — “Office door open on two,” our guide whispered anxiously into her headset — but we continued without incident to the eighth floor, where we got out and walked the four remaining flights to the roof. A ladder had been placed against the parapet, the razor wire shoved aside, and we climbed over to the neighboring roof, where a pair of water towers rested on 25-foot stilts. One was dark and quiet, but the other gave off an orange glow, along with the faint strains of Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues.” A shaky extension ladder led to a trapdoor in the tower’s base, festooned with icicles.

Inside, Austin and his crew had turned the disused tower into a Jacuzzi, with the help of some heavy plastic sheeting, a sump pump, and a heater. Steam rose from the tub; votive candles guttered on homemade wooden shelves; and a bird-cage candelabra occupied by a stuffed songbird swayed overhead, dripping wax on the guests. The band, a violinist and bass player dressed in what looked like 19th-century mourning costume (the stand-up bass had been brought in through the roof), played Tom Waits covers from a perilously tiny stage. Champagne was served — a floating care package also contained a lemon martini in a glass bottle, a light-up rubber duck and a pair of water wings — but there was a little hesitation. It was hard to feel cool enough for the space. An auctioneer explained his Ellsworth Kelly tattoo, while a soft-spoken emergency-room doctor confided the name of a celebrity he’d recently pronounced dead. A striking young woman in a mismatched bikini introduced herself: “I’m a street artist! I paint vaginas!”

Austin disputes the idea that the city has become inhospitable to artists. In fact, the amount of absentee ownership is part of what makes his work possible. “Everyone says New York is over,” he told me. “I actually don’t think that’s the case. It’s still possible to do this stuff in the middle of New York City.” Austin doesn’t think of transgression as essential to his work, but it’s indisputably a part of the appeal. His email invitation advertised the possible dangers: “This experience may include sketchy stuff like asbestos, icy stairwells, very tall ladders … chance of arrest. You know the drill; this is risky.”

It would have been the risk — then as now — that lured my mother’s cousin up the ladder. What did it feel like to grab onto a rung, gritty with flakes of rust and pigeon splat, take a fistful of the city and pull yourself up? What if the only devices to record your “experience” (which no one, surely, would have referred to in that way) were the lungs of the kids underneath you? Ken-ny. Ken-ny. Ken-ny. What was a broken arm, compared with that?

Interviews of Matthew Broderick, Bebe Buell, Dick Cavett, Daniel Dae Kim, Lydia Lunch, Isaac Mizrahi, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rosie Perez, Colin Quinn, J.B. Smoove, and David Zayas by Jennifer Vineyard. Laurie Anderson interviewed by Jamie Sharpe; Alec Baldwin interviewed by Bennett Marcus; Lee Quinones interviewed by Matt Giles; and Sarah Silverman interviewed by Adrienne Gaffney.

Additional reporting by Matthew Giles, Jennifer Kirby, Alex Ronan, Katy Schneider, and Katie Van Syckle.

*This article appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.