It's 6:45am in New York City. Last night I walked back to the hotel alone from dinner at The Atlantic Grill with my daughter Jeanie and her boyfriend Daniel down. I walked down Broadway and across on 53rd here to the New York Hilton Midtown. At 10:30 at night, there were people everywhere. Wednesday must be garbage pick-up day because there were plastic bags of refuse lining the streets the whole way.
The Atlantic Grill is across from this magnificent yellow-lighted square called Lincoln Center. I talked to a woman with a Jamaican or some other Caribbean accent. She was all dressed up in a tiara and diamonds. She helped a really old white man with a walker into a restaurant. They had just come from the ballet. "I love the ballet," she told me out of the blue. "They changed the name of Avery Daniels Hall to that of David Geffen. He gave one hundred million dollars so they changed the name of the hall from Avery Daniels Hall to that of David Geffen."
This woman in the green suit that cost a ton of money explained this to my daughter's boyfriend Daniel and I as we were waiting on 67th Street outside of the The Atlantic Grill. We were carrying out a generations old tradition of waiting for a woman to go to the little ladies room, which how one might have said it during the time that Jean Shepherd roamed New York. It could have been an awkward moment, the father from Indiana standing on a street corner with the daughter's boyfriend from New York. Daniel from all angles of observation is a solid partner. He left New York to go to the University of Wisconsin, where he and Jeanie met early on in their studies. They stayed together there and then moved to New York together. He works for Bloomberg, which is about as New York and prestigious as you can get coming out of Badgerland. It all lines up except for one thing.
He doesn't have a freaking drivers license. Yesterday at dinner when he ordered a beer, the waitress asked for his ID.
He showed her his learner's permit. I'm not kidding. He's so New York that he doesn't have a license to drive a car. He has a learner's permit, which means something like if someone 25 or older is sitting in the front seat with him, he can drive. This is the same condition that is placed on my niece Katie Dedelow, the sophomore cheerleader at Munster High School.
But I digress. It was a warm, Spring night and I walked by at least a dozen bars that were calling me to come in and sit down and have a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or maybe even a craft beer. There were Irish bars with brass railings. Italian restaurants with rectangular bars in the center where people all dressed up sat laughing. I walked by the 5 below bar in this New York Midtown Hilton. Everything is made of ice in this bar, including the seats, the bar, the decorations, the glasses that you drink from. Before you enter, you get fitted with winter overcoat and hat and gloves that could double as fireman's wear, if not for the ice blue color. You'd need the black vinyl look with some striping that looks like yellow duct tape for it to be more firemanish.
I thought, and I think, of Jean Shepherd. He left his hometown of Hammond, Indiana, where he worked at, you guessed it, our radio station WJOB. He left to go serve in the Army, then he did radio in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Cincinnati again, and ultimately New York City. That's where he flourished, in this city that is tantalizing and disgusting at the same time. You never feel so small as when you walk around New York City at Rush Hour. You know that no matter how much weight you lose or how much money you spend at a tailor, you're never gonna look as smart and put-together as the many men and women rushing past you. You will always be the frumpy-looking guy from the Midwest.
I wonder what lured Shepherd to this madness. Sure, it was then and is kind of now the top of the heap in terms of doing radio. He talked at nighttime to what he called his "spies." These members of the intelligence community were up and down the Eastern seaboard because that's how far the signal boomed and still booms.
But what made Shepherd successful here in this land of Pastrami on every other corner and suits of impeccable design?
His stories. He told great stories at nighttime into a microphone and people listened in their cars, in their beds, to the transistor on a shelf as they loaded trucks. He told these people stories of the Army, of his day walking across 5th Avenue almost getting hit by a cabdriver from Barbados. He told stories of lots of things that happened to him in his life, but mostly Shepherd told stories of his childhood in Hammond, Indiana.
He told of his best friend Flick and of the parade in downtown Hammond and going to the department stores there. He told of Warren G Harding school, which is still there, and of "some woman down in Griffith." These of course are examples from Shepherd's "A Christmas Story," which the three or four of you have no doubt watched a couple dozen times in your life, but there were many other stories of many other people and places and events from his youth in Hammond, Indiana.
At the heart of it, what made Shepherd successful is that he came to New York and told stories about his hometown of Hammond, Indiana. Now isn't that a hoot. All this way to talk about Cleveland Street.
But that's what those people loading strawberries wanted to hear. That's what those hippies driving around at night on their way to smoke pot and evade the draft wanted to hear. That's what senior citizens winding down to sleep wanted to hear. The same goes for Jerry Seinfeld the comedian and Donald Fagen the musician and a ton of other young people who later became famous wanted to hear.
They wanted to hear Shep tell stories about growing up in the Midwest. Why? I don't have a definite answer for that other than that there's a simplicity, a wholesomeness and a ton of comedic elements to life between the smokestacks and cornfields. And besides, Shep could tell a really great story. A really great story.