By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 11/12/2019
Occurred: 12/7/2008
Topics/Keywords: #Travel #NewYork #JeffHarnar Page Views: 4062
In which I spend a day and a night in New York City, visiting an old friend and meeting a new one.

As regular readers of this blog know, my daughter, Karen, recently became a flight attendant which means I can fly for free (or nearly free) anywhere her airline or its partners go. So, this weekend, I decided to spend a day in New York City.

The impetus was to see a show starring my Internet friend Jeff Harnar. Jeff is a singer who performs regularly in New York as well as doing the occasional cruise. I first encountered him in the form of a cassette that Michael owned when we first got together. The cassette was a live recording of Jeff's "1959 Broadway Songbook". I was very impressed with Jeff's singing and style, and promptly looked him up on the Internet and bought all his albums. I also created a Wikipedia page for him and emailed him to tell him about it; he wrote back to thank me and we've kept in touch ever since. When I learned he was doing an expanded version of his "1959 Broadway Songbook" in a limited performance at the 59th Street Theatre, I decided that since I now could fly to New York at no cost, and therefore could attend, I would!

This would be only my second free trip, and I am still learning the ropes. These trips are made on a standby basis and it's entirely possible I might not be able to board the flights I'd hoped. Still, I was confident enough to buy a pair of tickets to the show (one for me and one for Michael's and my friend Carol, who lives in New York), and to make reservations at a bed-and-breakfast located just across the river from Manhattan in Long Island City. The place's name, "Citiview", implied breathtaking vistas of Manhattan from across the river. The place was advertised along with other B&Bs.

To be honest, I usually stay at the Chelsea Pines Inn, which doesn't offer breakfast but does have good prices, comfortable beds, beautifully decorated rooms and a terrific Chelsea location. Unfortunately they were booked up. So the Citiview it would be.

Since Carol and I would be attending the 6:30pm performance of Jeff's show, I decided to take a red-eye from Phoenix to New York. JFK airport is the one closest to the Citiview, but United doesn't have a direct flight to JFK from Phoenix. So I had to go by way of Los Angeles. Michael dropped me off and I boarded without incident.

When flying standby, the risk of not being able to make a connection obviously increases with each connection. On my previous trip I had excellent luck. On this trip, not so much. I got to L.A. but my flight from there to JFK checked in full. At first it seemed I would be able to go anyway, as one passenger had checked in but hadn't actually shown up. I actually got as far as being led through the gate to the doorway of the plane. But then the bastard did show up, and I was returned to the gate area, glowering at him as we passed.

I was then directed to a Customer Service kiosk where a helpful agent did her best to get me on another flight. Her best solution was to put me on a flight to Chicago, and from there to Newark.

I agreed, because I've flown into New York via Newark many times and know the drill. I can only imagine how disconcerting this might be to someone less traveled, however.

I was able to board the flight to Chicago and slept pretty well the whole time. In Chicago it was now early Saturday morning and I was able to continue on to Newark as well (50 unused seats, in fact!). In Newark, I left the terminal and boarded a comfortable bus that took me into the city, specifically to Grand Central Station.

I hadn't been to New York since shortly before 9/11. The sun was low to the Eastern horizon, making everything glisten, even the aging buildings and crumbling pavement. Especially after spending time in newly-built Phoenix, the antiquity of New York really stood in sharp relief.

Interestingly, I didn't miss the World Trade Towers, probably because, for all my previous visits, I had only spent a total of maybe 40 days in the city. I'm sure most people look to see where the Towers aren't as soon as they arrive. But I didn't even think about it until I began writing this paragraph.

Grand Central Station

The bus discharged me and a handful of other passengers just outside of Grand Central Station. That's where I intended to catch the subway to the Citiview, but first I wanted to have breakfast. I even knew what I wanted: A cheese Danish from Hot & Crusty, a marvelous chain of bakeries that exists nowhere else that I know of. Alas, I couldn't remember where they were located. I did find a food concourse and was hungry enough that I decided to eat there. I ordered a "low carb platter" consisting of two scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and a few strips of bacon, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice. And then, to make up for not being able to find the Hot & Crusty, I got an almond Danish that turned out to be almost as good as the cheese Danish I really wanted.

I sat in a little alcove filled with tables to eat. It wasn't hard to find a vacant table. As I ate, I noticed a thin, raggedy man going from garbage can to garbage can, rummaging in them and occasionally coming up with a discarded leftover half-sandwich or pastry. He would examine his find briefly but thoroughly, then wolf it down and return to the hunt. I considered leaving him part of my Danish but by the time I got to it he had left the area and I could no longer see him. So I had to eat the whole thing myself.

I had first discovered the Citiview through PurpleRoofs, an online gay and lesbian travel guide I've had good luck with in the past. But, of course, when one is staying at a privately-owned bed and breakfast, it's kind of a crap shoot. It could turn out to be absolutely delightful, or a nightmare. But that's all part of the charm! So I had hopes for the best but was would have been okay with the worst. After all, it was only for one night and it was reasonably (almost unbelievably) priced.

Despite the ad, the instructions I received via email were from Allan, not Max. They were, I presume, correct for someone leaving JFK and I was coming from Grand Central Station. But they ended with the 7 line so I boarded a 7 train headed into Queens. I did overshoot my mark by one stop and had to go back one. But soon I was out of the subway system and on Jackson Street. The Shannon Pot pub was easy to spot. However, it was surrounded by closed up store-fronts—and when I say "closed up", I mean the entire front of the store was hidden behind a metal pull-down, sort of like a garage door, to protect the glass window from vandalism. Of course, the metal guard wasn't safe from vandalism and so the neighborhood gave the impression of being long-deserted.

The Citiview Inn, located next to the Shannon Pot at 2250 Jackson.

When I double-checked the address, I found that the Citiview was apparently located in an apartment above the shuttered store. But the name of it wasn't on the door. And the phone number the proprietor had given me turned out to belong to someone else who didn't own a B&B and didn't really want to discuss the matter. I was just about to call Carol and take her up on her offer to let me sleep on her sofa, when the door opened on its own and a man who was exiting, spotted me and my rolling duffle bag and said, "Paul?" When I admitted to it, he said, "I was about to give up on you!" It was Allan, and he led me up a steep, poorly-lit flight of stairs and into his apartment.

He seemed like a nice enough guy, a middle-aged gay not unlike myself. Before I could pay him, though, a huge Doberman barreled over to me and began to sniff with suspicion.

"We have a ritual," Allan explained. He went to the kitchen and returned with a jar of doggie treats. He handed me one and instructed me to give it to the dog, whose name was Roland.

"Here ya go, Roland," I cooed, as Roland nearly took my hand off in his eagerness to get the treat.

"Now, another one," instructed Allan. Roland again snapped the treat off my open palm.

Allan showed me to my room, which was relatively plain but "gay-painted" by which I mean, the walls were painted in dark dramatic colors that went together in challenging ways, the kind of thing an interior decorator might do while rolling his eyes if you paid him extra. This room was painted a sort of deep blue while the trim was forest green. The door was natural wood.

Allan hadn't yet put clean sheets on the bed so we arranged that he would do that while I took a shower. As soon as I mentioned the shower, Allan said quickly, "I'm having some remodeling done. I'll have to show you how to work the shower." We went into the bathroom, where he indicated the bathtub, clearly original equipment in this 1920s building, stained from decades of use. "You'll want to set the temperature before you turn the knob to run the water through the shower head instead of the faucet," he explained. "And not all the water goes into the shower, a little will trickle through the faucet, so don't worry about that. Oh, and sometimes the temperature fluctuates a bit, so be ready for that."

As it turned out, Allan wasn't wrong about anything he'd said; just understated. Almost none of the water went through the shower; it gushed through the faucet while the shower head just trickled. And the temperature fluctuated between icy cold and lobster-cooking scald.

Afterwards I decided to take a nap so I'd be rested for dinner and the show with Carol. Allan told me he was going out briefly but would be back soon, and I should just close the blinds and wear the earplugs he'd provided in the bedstand. "You won't have any trouble sleeping," he assured me, waving his hand dismissively. "It's a tomb."

Somehow that didn't comfort me as much as he'd plainly hoped.

In trying to close the blinds, I noted that the "view" was of the ancient, elevated subway train which was not only close to the Citiview but actually thundered over it…every fifteen minutes. But I was so tired, I fell asleep anyway…

Only to awaken to Roland the dog howling piteously at Allan's absence. Every few minutes he would howl, followed by a sob and a whine. I opened my door to let him know he wasn't actually alone, but then he just stared at me with just a hint of a growl. So I closed the door and attempted to go back to sleep.

The alarm built into my phone (there was none in the room) beeped me back into consciousness about 2:30pm. Carol was to meet me at 3pm. By now Allan had returned, and I asked if I could print my Pass Travel Documents for my return flight (something that can only be done within 24 hours of departure). He said I could but we would have to do this downstairs. It turned out the storefront belonged to an elevator maintenance company at which Allan worked, though he didn't own it. After I had printed the documents, we stepped outside and a car horn beeped. It was Carol, arrived slightly early. I said good afternoon to Allan and got into her adorable little car.

My dear friend, Carol

She took me to a little Italian restaurant in her neighborhood, which wasn't far from Allan's but was worlds away in terms of scale. Carol's neighborhood was also filled with older buildings but they'd been consistently maintained and so looked solid rather than squalid, in fact almost new. The restaurant was intimate and delightful, and I ordered my favorite, the veal parmesan.

In my hurry to go with Carol I had left my jacket in my room at the Citiview. The temperature was quickly dropping so we returned there so I could pick it up, then continued over the 59th Street Bridge (celebrated in Simon and Garfunkel's "Feelin' Groovy"). Manhattan was already decorated for Christmas, with strings of twinkling white lights festooned over the trees and even a giant, sparkling Star-of-Bethlehem ornament suspended over the street between two buildings. Carol dropped me at the door of the theatre to pick up the tickets while she found parking. It took her about fifteen minutes to return, but the theatre itself wasn't open for seating yet so that was okay.

The 59th Street Theatre, located at 59 East 59th Street (and remember we were there to see "The 1959 Broadway Songbook") actually consists of three small theatres, each on its own floor. Jeff's show was in theatre C. When we entered we found it to be small, with maybe twenty small tables scattered around, each orbited by a cluster of chairs. The stage was barely large enough for the grand piano occupying it. A number of tables were reserved (one for Jack Benny's daughter, June!), but Carol and I quickly found a good spot—there weren't really any bad ones. The curtain behind the piano was deep red, matching red lampshades suspended over the tables. In a few minutes the pianist, David Gaines, came out and began an overture, a sort of pastiche of West Side Story and Gypsy.

Jeff Harnar

Then Jeff stepped onto the stage and set the scene. "In 1959," he said, "the Hula Hoop was new. The Barbie Doll was new. The Etch-A-Sketch was new. I was new. And there were 21 musicals on Broadway, older shows still in production or new shows just opening. They included The Sound of Music, Gypsy, West Side Story…about 600 new show tunes. And we're going to sing them all!" He then backtracked, of course, allowing how singing all 600 songs would be impossible…but he and his company then proceeded to attempt it anyway, singing medley after medley of love songs, anti-love longs, juxtapositioning tunes from The Music Man with Once Upon A Mattress and other, lesser-known shows whose songs deserve to be remembered even if the show from which they came do not.

We didn't have a good view of David Gaines, the pianist (and occasional backup vocalist). But Jeff, Klea and Anna were right there in front of us, as if we were being entertained in our living room. It couldn't have been more delightful.

Ann Bergman Klea Blackhurst

I knew of Jeff, but his costars were a thrill to encounter. We who do not live in New York tend to imagine that anyone who is any good can be heard on our car radios, but this is simply not true. Klea Blackhurst and Anna Bergman were easily talented enough to appear in movies; like Jeff, they were attractive and had absolutely awesome voices. One of the things that particularly amazed me was that, for all that each was a superb and powerful soloist, they had no problem blending their voices for duets, trios, and even (with David, the pianist) the occasional quartet. Klea has a powerful voice reminiscent of Ethel Merman's, but more musical in tone. Anna is a strong soprano who effortlessly and pleasantly hit the high notes in tunes such as "The Sound of Music".

The time passed all too quickly. And then, to my surprise, Jeff and Klea and Anna met the audience out in the lobby. I introduced myself to Jeff, who seemed as genuinely delighted to meet me in person as I was, him. He even gave me a hug, despite his wearing a tuxedo that made me acutely conscious of my blue-jeans and veal-parmesan-stained sweater. We also chatted with the women, though I couldn't say anything useful other than that everyone's performance had simply blown me away.

City lights on our way to the parking garage.

We finally tore ourselves from the theatre. It was a good six blocks' walk to the parking garage to which Carol had entrusted her car. It was still getting cooler; city dwellers hurried by, laughing and talking with each other, bundled up against the chill. A valet turned the car over to Carol and we got in, raving about the show as she drove me back to Citiview. Before I got out Carol insisted on returning at 9 in the morning to drive me to catch my flight out of JFK.

The keys Allan had given me were stubborn but after some jiggling I was able to open the armored door into Allan's apartment. Allan asked how the show had been, and I told him how much we had enjoyed it. I then asked him what time he served breakfast. "Uh…I don't actually do breakfast here," Allan replied. "I make coffee."

Uh-huh. So the Citiview, listed as a bed and breakfast in Purple Roofs, didn't have a city view, or breakfast. At least it did provide a bed.

It was still early, 9 pm New York Time and only 7 pm Phoenix time. But I was tired enough to go to sleep early. Allan was watching some Woody Allen movie in the living room. When I closed the bedroom door, most of the sound was blocked. However, I had no sooner pulled the blankets over me when the door opened: Roland the dog had pushed it. I got up and petted him, escorted him out, and shut the door again. He again opened it. We repeated this dance several times; finally I gave up and went to sleep. The last thing I remember hearing was Woody Allen arguing with Diane Keaton over whether they should sleep together or not.

That is, until I awoke around midnight, dying of thirst. Someone had closed my door and my room was now very cold and very dry. I also realized that the bed, while soft and comfortable, wasn't quite level. The sheets and pillows and I had all drifted to one side of it. I poured a glass of water in the bathroom and drank it, then returned to bed. This happened three or four times during the night.

I had set my phone-alarm to 8:30 am, having decided I wouldn't try to take another shower in the Marquis de Sade bathroom. When it went off, I dressed and packed, then returned to bed to await Carol's call, which came promptly at 9.

It only took us 15 minutes to reach JFK, since there was no traffic that hour Sunday morning. We said goodbye and I promised I would give Carol a call when I got home.

My return flight to Los Angeles was not overbooked and I boarded without incident. I had bought a sandwich in the airport, knowing they no longer serve much in the way of food on United flights. The flight was over five hours in duration; I slept most of the way, dreaming I was at some sort of school in Vermont which was struck by a series of earthquakes. When I awoke I realized almost constant turbulence in the air had been translated into earthquakes and aftershocks in my dream.

At L.A., my final flight to Phoenix was delayed due to the crew's being late to show up. (The jet we were originally supposed to have flown on, and its crew, had been held up by weather; this was a spare jet and this crew had to be roused from their days off to work.) We left about two hours late, but we did leave and there was room for me on the plane so I viewed it as a success.

I remarked to Michael as he drove me home that these little one-day jaunts are kind of like backpacking trips: They are long and physically demanding, and even though they provide payoffs in the form of amazing sights and adventures, you're still pretty zonked when you get back home.

So, I'll certainly do this sort of thing again…but probably not every weekend.