Famous New York Widows.

In 1980, Nicholas Pileggi at New York Magazine assigned me to arrange for a group photo of New York’s most famous widows. After months of fruitless overtures, I was utterly defeated. Maybe someone like Truman Capote or George Hamilton could have pulled it off. Rich doyennes are suspicious of people’s motives. They become the prey of “tombstone ghouls”—Earl Scheib-types who try to persuade them to erect bigger graveside monuments over the phone. Perhaps they feared I was scheming for their jewels.

Read Full Text

Chasin’ Jackie Mason.

Around 1982, I went to see Jackie Mason at Dangerfield’s in New York. Mason had slipped into obscurity since the 60s when, legend goes, he made what seemed like an obscene gesture toward Ed Sullivan on the air. His TV appearances had long since dried up.

That night, Mason laid me out on the floor. There were exactly six people in the audience, and two walked out. “Too Jewish,” muttered an aging housewife, as she and her husband left their table. His performance, with barely an audience, was stunning. This throwback Yiddish stand-up would eventually become the only comedian in modern times whose solo act alone became a hit Broadway show.

Several years later, Mason was headlining Carolines, and I filed this report in my Naked City column.

Read Full Text

Joe Monk.

When my guitar teacher, who was a hippie on Long Island in the 1960s, exhausted his limited repertoire, he said, mysteriously: “There is a man called Joe Monk. I have no more to show you. You must now go to him.” As if I outgrew the local dojo in ancient Japan, I then left home to train with a great samurai.

The sojourn led to a tiny, smoke-encrusted studio above a dumpy boulevard in Little Neck, the border of Queens. And there sat Joe Monk, a Long Island institution, hung over, cigarette dangling from his lip, an old Gibson ES-175 on his lap. He dashed off arrangements by rote on a music stand. There were yellowed 8×10 publicity pictures affixed to the wall, photos of forgotten jazz trios and quartets from which a younger, more ambitious version of him posed in the guitar seat. The kind of guy you’d call a “cat.”

Read Full Text

My imaginary Coney Island.

I have a recurring dream, which I will embellish only a little: It is of an old, but not entirely abandoned, amusement park that once rivaled Coney Island—but apparently never existed. An alternate Coney Island on the other side of the borough, North Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard. They have their own trademark mascot, a competitive cousin of the Steeplechase Imp. They have their own famous hot dog joint, an alternate Nathan’s. An abandoned subway El runs alongside their own famous roller coaster, both casting rusted-iron shadows. The cityscape is sepia-toned. Nothing is gentrified here whatsoever. When I awake, I feel certain this place exists.

Read Full Text