In order to make my move from Ohio to New York City even more momentous, I chose to do it on my twenty-third birthday. The entire episode was timed and choreographed to be as theatrical as I could possibly make it and of course the production was starring me. Leaving West Buttfok was something I had been dreaming of since high school, and living in NYC was a mission that began the very first time I stepped foot in Manhattan. It seemed only fitting that it deserved to be as big a production as I could possibly make it.
It was December, 1972 and I had spent the first week saying goodbye to family and the friends I still had left in the area. Few tears were shed on my part, and I have always been a crier, but I was just too damned excited to get weepy and so bloody happy to finally be escaping the Buckeye State. This would not be just a move, you see, but an entire rebirth, complete with name change. I was dropping my first name (which I neither liked nor ever identified with) and using my middle name, which had been my paternal grandfather’s. I was looking for a total change in life and pursued every avenue I could to make it as different as possible. At twenty-two, although University had coerced me to grow up, I still felt that my life had not yet really begun. It was as though my plane had been circling the airport for years, but hadn’t been given clearance to land. I would finally be bringing in my plane all on my own on the day I turned twenty-three.
But I would not be flying from Cleveland to New York.1) It was way too expensive. I had worked my summer job through November and had managed to scrape together $750, the most money I had ever before amassed and needed it all to live on until I became a working actor in the city. 2) It was only about a fifty-five minute plane ride, plus no airline had a flight to NYC much past early evening, therefore, air travel would just not be impressive enough to suit my melodramatic scenario. No, I wanted to arrive in the city as close to midnight on my birthday as possible and the train schedule didn’t fit within my plans either. The Greyhound Bus certainly did. I could take a bus midday on the day before and arrive at the old Port Authority Bus Station just before midnight. I also wanted to get a true sense of the distance between West Buttfok and NYC, and certainly the eleven-hour-plus bus ride would help me on that account – and then some.
My parents seemed to know me, but they seldom understood me and this particular brand of birthday celebration struck them as very odd. “Why don’t you just wait until we can celebrate your birthday with the whole family, and then move?” my dad asked. That wouldn’t work with my plans, I patiently explained to both of them. “But why not go after Christmas, so you won’t have to go and come back in just a few weeks?” Mom questioned. “I can’t come home this year. It doesn’t make sense”. My final bombshell was launched. It didn’t make either of them happy, but they knew not to push the issue further. It was my ball game and I was setting all the rules.
My birthday fell on a Saturday this particular year. Thursday night my parents chose to celebrate my ‘Birthday / Bon Voyage’. It was only the three of us – I can’t remember why my younger brother wasn’t there. No one was saying very much and it seemed like a sad sort of non celebration. I had to be cautious and not show too much enthusiasm for my pending trip, and my poor folks were nearly funereal. I said I didn’t want a cake, just a nice supper together so my mother made some of my favorite comfort food. It was nearly silent at the big, round kitchen table that had been the home of so many loud arguments and wonderful family fights. I had always connected mealtime with acrimony and sparring matches. Tonight, the peace and quiet was deafening. Oh yes, it certainly was time for me to leave, I thought with every swallow of food.
After dinner they gave me a present – a small box to open up. I was hoping it was several hundred dollars in travelers checks to supplement my survival kitty. It was a carved elephant “with an upturned trunk” my mother eagerly pointed out, “so the good luck doesn’t spill out”. She said it was to bring good fortune into my new home wherever that might be. I was to make sure that the elephant’s ass was always pointed in the direction of the front door to guarantee it worked. It was such a cool, totally impractical and heartfelt gift it brought me to tears. As I thanked them, she broke down too, while Dad sat somberly in his recliner, smoking his cigar. Thus ended the celebration as I remember it.
My mother taught high school and left the house very early, so she said we’d say our goodbyes that night, since Dad was taking me to the bus station alone. I told her to wake me up anyway, but she said I’d need plenty of sleep for my bus trip. So before bed that night there were more tears. Early the next morning I awoke when I heard her getting ready and thought about getting up to say goodbye again. At that moment I heard the door to my room open slowly, so I feigned sleep, as I opted to not begin this day of days with another flood of tears. She came to the side of my bed and I felt her hand ever so gently brush the hairs back from my forehead. I remained motionless in my imaginary doze as she patted my head and whispered “you were my favorite”. It sent chills through my body, because I felt like a corpse conscious of its mourners. I wanted to jump up and yell “I’m not dead, for christ sake, just moving!”, but I remained in my faux comatose state. As she tip-toed out of the room, I saw her stuff a small envelope into the pocket of the jacket over my chair. Once I heard her car pull away, I dove for the envelope. It contained a wad of twenty dollar bills with a note that read simply DON’T TELL YOUR FATHER. It made me smile.
I got up shortly after and showered and checked my suitcase for the umpteenth time. It was jammed with clothes, shoes and toiletries and necessaries.I had shipped a large trunk to Matty’s apartment at the beginning of the week which contained bulkier items and loads of accumulated keepsakes and memorabilia. I thought they might make me comfortable in the big, bad city if I should get homesick. I couldn’t imagine that happening. My new life would be an exciting adventure. Dad got up soon after. He was paranoid about being late for anything, so I knew we would be getting an early start, and that was fine by me. I was ready to get this show on the road. We got to downtown Cleveland about an hour before departure. He wanted to wait with me until the bus left, but I talked him into leaving beforehand, telling him there might be traffic. Truth was, neither of us were comfortable enough yet to spend an hour alone with each other. I so wanted to give him a hug goodbye, or hear him tell me he would miss me but neither of those things happened. He told me to take care of myself and stay out of trouble and went to shake my hand. As he stepped closer, he shoved a wad of twenties into my pocket and said “Don’t tell your mother”. His gesture was as good as admitting that he loved me. I watched him walk out of the bus terminal, and once he was out the door, I quickly wiped my eyes.
I remember little about the bus ride other than how long eleven-plus hours on a coach can be, especially when you just want to be at your destination from the moment you step on the bus. Looking out the window it also astounded me how nondescript was the only part of our country that I knew at this time - Ohio/Michigan/Pennsylvania. They were all the same bland blur of nothingness and nowhereness to me. But that would all be over once I got off the bus tonight into the lights of Manhattan. I do remember that never once in those eleven hours, or in the days and weeks before as I planned this sojourn into my future, did I have any fears or anxieties or doubts about this move. It simply was what I had to do to live the rest of my life.
After what seemed at least half a lifetime, we finally made it to New Jersey and the entrance to the tunnel into Manhattan. This was an amazing part of the trip, those bright lights shining harshly on the white tiled interior lining the tunnel. I watched in anticipation as the bus maneuvered its way to the opposite end which opened into Manhattan. We were just minutes away from the big finish to my opus. It felt as though my heart was lodged somewhere between my stomach and the back of my throat. We emerged into mid-town traffic – imagine traffic at nearly midnight. There were hardly any cars on the streets of West Buttfok at this hour. I had made it safely, and clumsily I jammed my way through the busy Port Authority terminal dragging my suitcase to the street to hail a cab. I breathed the cold December air, and wished I had worn a hat so I could have pulled a Mary Tyler Moore. I climbed into my cab, as I was on my way to Marie’s Crisis Cafe to meet my roommate Mattie and have my first drink as a New Yorker.
Marie’s is a tiny gay bar in the cellar of 59 Grove Street off Sheridan Square in the West Village. Matty knew of my plan to arrive a little after midnight on my birthday. I was shaking with excitement as I pulled my suitcase to the curb and paid the cabbie. I could hear the piano music wafting up onto the pavement from below and the chorus of male voices crooning a familiar Sondheim tune. It acted like a beacon of hope for the career I dreamed of pursuing and whatever life would grow from it. I opened the door, left my suitcase on the landing, and looked over the room for Matty’s familiar face. I spotted him with a tray of drinks in his hand and I waved in his direction. He smiled, and went over to Terry at the piano, who looked up and in mid stream began to pound out a chorus of Happy Birthday. It was a surprise from Matty that I hadn’t included in my grand plan, and it warmed me right through. And then from somewhere in the darkness, a face I had never seen before stepped forward with a small birthday cake covered in more candles than frosting with my new name emblazoned on top. I was smiling so hard my face ached with happiness. At a table in the corner sat Richard, the not so strange stranger who already figured somewhere in my New York life and my heart leapt. We literally closed the place and Matty and I staggered home to the apartment at 24 King Street, taking turns dragging my suitcase for blocks. It was one of the most memorable of birthdays, yet I had celebrated it with a roomful of people I didn’t know.