I never take a drink unless I'm alone or with somebody, but solo boozing is less fun and more dangerous, so I'd rather have company. The easiest time for mingling with convivial strangers in New York City is St. Paddy's Day. When the parade ends uptown, some of the marchers and many of the crowd of spectators stroll back downtown toward the midtown forties, along Third or Lexington, since bars are very rare on Fifth Avenue, and a man needs a bite and a beer every few blocks to sustain him on his journey.
So, with my green tie on and a Derby hat for authenticity, (since I'm Swedish, a little camouflage is needed) I'm nestled at the bar in a cozy pub, enjoying the jolly Irish hubbub, when an older guy strolls in and sits adjacent to me on the last empty stool, and says, "Howdy" with a definite Texas twang. Maybe it was my friendly Derby, or possibly the effect of the brews he'd inhaled on his trip down Third Avenue, but he instantly recognized a friendly ear and began to unfold his saga.
"Ya know, I ain't been back to the big city in over fifty years, but I was here for a couple of years during the war. I was lucky, part of an M.P. unit stationed in Brooklyn. Our job was to keep G.I.s on leave or whatever from raising too much hell; we'd hustle them off the streets into safe confinement overnight. We all felt a little guilty at that job, because we were safe and sound here in the states while lots of them were either going or coming back from the real war overseas. So we tried to be brotherly."
"Sounds right to me," I said.
He took a few swallows, nodded, and continued. "I was born and raised near Rankin, Texas, which is like being near nowhere.The biggest city I'd seen in my young life was Lubbock, 180 miles north. Went there once. Then I enlisted, and by God, only nineteen years old, I'm a Pfc stationed in giant New York City. What a shock! But I settled in and kinda got used to it; when not on duty I wandered all over and stared at everything."
"A lot of people do that," I said, motioning for another beer, "even if they come from places like Cleveland, or San Antonio."
"I guess so," he said, "but I was pretty green, being from the boonies, like I said. Still, I'm a Texan, and we hold our own pretty good. I settled down, except for one thing. I still can't quite get over it, and what I did about it, even after all these years. What's more, after I got back here after fifty-seven years, I went and checked, and it was still going on."
"I was born on 86th Street, and I still live here, but I can't even guess what the hell you're talking about. What's this marvelous thing?" I asked, washing down some green potato chips with my beer.
"Lemme tell you how it happened," he said. I sensed he'd kept his saga stored up for a long while, and was delighted at the chance to startle a genuine Gothamite with it.
"Okay, shoot." I said.
"After I'd settled for a few months," he began, "Met a few girls. One night after dinner at Horn and Haydart cafeteria in the Bronx, this young thing, I think her name was Jessica, suggested we take a horse and buggy ride in Central Park. I hadn't never been so far uptown as the Bronx before, and was hoping to get Jessica downtown where I knew the territory better. She was pretty, and I got hopeful when she said buggy rides were romantic. I took that as some sort of come-on hint. So I invested in a cab to 59th street, hired a buggy, and took off with her into the park. It was May, and there were lots of leaves on lots of trees as we rode along. We were kissing and petting, when the buggy stopped for a red light. I looked up to see what had stopped us, and there was a piece of open sky between the trees. Then I saw it. Almost jumped out of the buggy. I started laughing and couldn't stop. Jessica thought I'd lost my mind, but I couldn't help it, ‘cause I'd never seen anything like it before."
"Like what?" I asked. "I've been through Central Park a million times. I've seen joggers in tight shorts, crazy cyclists cutting each other off , cop cars chasing dealers. But I've never seen anything to make me stop kissing a hot girl. What was it?"
"Sex House!" he almost shouted, and his crinkled Texas mug seemed to shed fifty years with the recollection. "Sex House, right up there on the skyline. Letters thirty feet tall. Right then I figured I didn't need Jessica, or the buggy and all that to loosen her up. Hell no! Good old New York had a Sex House and a sign to tell the world.
"Right then the buggy started up again. The space between the trees widened up so I could see the whole sign. It said Essex House. Essex House! I felt stupid and irritated at the same time. Jessica thought it was her, or that I was nuts. Either way, I didn't get to make out with her."
"That's too bad," I said, "after you spent fifty bucks on the cab and the buggy ride."
"Yeah," he said, "But actually, it was great, because now I had a project. A goal. Almost a military spy trick to play on the whole damned city and its city slicker wiseguys who'd been laughing at my good old Texas twang and manners. I liked Jessica, but me and my buddies, wearing that old uniform, in a city with three times as many gals and men, we could get laid any time. But nobody could pull off what I did."
"Which was what?" I asked.
"It was like this," he said, leaning closer. He put his hand on my shoulder, like a grandfather explaining puberty to his thirteen-year-old grandson. "The whole country was spooked by the war, and especially air raids. There was all these pictures of London burning up after the German air raids and the government here had all these blackout precautions and regulations in effect to turn off all the New York City lights if German airplanes were flying in. So now and then we had blackout drills, with sirens and things and the volunteer air raid wardens would run up and down the street shouting for people to turn their lights off."
"Did any nut believe the Germans had bombers that could fly across the ocean and back?" I asked.
"Naw, but it gave civilians something to think about, to believe they were saving the country. Anyway, war fever was high, all sorts of regulations on not wasting sugar, and gasoline rationing, and all kinds of inspectors and precautions all the time. So it was a cinch. Me and three buddies, including a fifty-year-old schoolteacher with glasses, sergeant stripes and a clipboard, did it. We looked like an inspection team. So on a Monday night, around ten p.m., we entered the Essex house, and told the sleepy desk manager we were here to check the efficiency and speed of the roof light blackout. It seemed real to him, so he called the electrician and we all went to the top floor together."
"Wow," I said, "Pretty foxy. But if he turned off the whole sign, how would that make sex over the city?"
"Lemme finish," he said, "I'm a rube, but I'm not stupid. First of all, we had tipped off some of our buddies, a few with cameras, the rest, maybe a dozen or so, scattered around near 59th street, southern Central Park, places with a good view of the hotel. We figured they'd record and verify our success."
This called for another beer. I ordered one for each of us.
"We were lucky," he went on, "But I guessed they would have this kind of switching arrangement because the banks of electric bulbs were so big that each separate letter would have its own circuit and switch for easier upkeep. By Jesus, they did. The electrician asked our old sergeant, who managed to look very official (and managed not to laugh), ‘Whatcha want me to do?' So our sarge said, ‘Just turn off the first two letters as a check, and leave them both off for two minutes; I'll stay here and watch you and my men will go up to the roof to verify the result.' So the guy opened a door and showed us a little stair. Me and my buddy Chuck scrambled on up to the roof. That sign was so big and shiny, all the bulbs looked so hot, I damn near pissed. And then the big ‘E' and then the big ‘S' went out. The sign read ‘SEX HOUSE,' big enough to read five miles off. I yelled so loud they must have heard me down at the Battery."
The Texan was sweating. His bliss at recollection of his feat was so real that I automatically put my arm around his shoulder in congratulation. Took it away pretty quick, though. It wasn't that kind of bar.
"Well," he said, "That's my story. I don't get much chance to tell it anymore, everybody in my little hometown has heard it. Now look here." He pulled out his wallet and extracted a black and white photograph, laminated with plastic. There it was, taken by one of his friends, the words SEX HOUSE clear as day on the hotel roof. "But when it happened that my boss couldn't come up here for a meeting, I got to come instead." He turned the photo over. "Sex over the city," was printed on the back in red ink. "I felt young again telling it to you, and I thank you."
"It was a great story, and I thank you," I said. "You didn't know it at the time, but you, a Texas immigrant to Gotham, used your genius to create the first public drama using the words ‘Sex' and ‘City.' And now, as you know, fifty years later we have a weekly TV show called "Sex and the City."
"Yeah," he said. "I seen some of it on the TV in my hotel room."
"But what you don't know," I said, "Is that there's a weird spelunker, one of those goofy guys who creep around in skinny caves, called 'L.B.' or something. A friend introduced me to him. He and his gang snuggle through old abandoned sewer pipes and down sealed-up tunnels beneath deserted hospital buildings just for fun. Now all that guy has to do is bring a friendly girl spelunker down there with him, and we could have the complete sexual geography of New York. Your invention, Sex over the City; the TV show, Sex and the City; and L.B.'s creation, Sex under the City. What do you think, Tex?"
"I think you're nuts, and he may be too. Then again, I think that sex is a definite O.K., in, under, or over. Great talking to you. See you around."
"I hope so," I said. "Maybe next St. Paddy's Day. I'll be here; over, in, and under."