Early December 1992, my second time in New York City—the first over the holiday season—I was near the end of a week-long stint for the aerospace company I worked for, troubleshooting production at a Long Island vendor manufacturing the refrigerator for our McDonnell-Douglas C-17 project. I’d witnessed the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center, and had seen the Rockettes kicking high in the icy air with snow falling around them. And made a second visit (the first had been in February 1979) to both the World Trade Center and Empire State Building adorned in their Christmas lights and colors. Didn’t get to see Saturday Night Live this time (would not have been the same as with the original cast back in ’79) but a pleasant trip and a wonderful time to be in the city… but freakin’ cold.
On my only weekend for that visit, Sunday, December 6th, I had one more thing to do. I wanted to get my 4-year-old daughter Karen a unique Christmas gift and knew where I must get it. Taking the subway from my hotel near JFK, I got off at the Lexington Avenue/59th Street subway station and walked four blocks to 767 5th Ave. There, at the southeast corner of Central Park, was (at that time) the oldest toy store still operating in the United States. Founded in 1862, FAO Schwarz was a ‘must go’ place on my list of things while in NYC.
I might have mentioned it—I—was freakin’ cold. Wearing far more clothes than I was used to in Florida, even an overcoat and hat—jeez Louise, I felt like Dick Tracy—and was still freezing to death.
I didn’t know the protocol for the store during the holidays and so close to Christmas. As I approached, shivering in the bitter, cutting wind, I didn’t pay any attention to the line at the right-hand entry that ran down the sidewalk for a full block. I walked up to the front just as someone was leaving through the left-hand door, and before it closed, slipped inside. [Not realizing I had just bypassed about one hundred people queued up to get inside; a store employee that manned the entry door to control how many came in at a time didn’t catch me go through the exit door.]
The store was packed with shoppers. I pushed through them—only able to move inches at a time without starting a ruckus—to get to displays and shelves and make room for myself just so I could see what they had. An hour and a half later, purchases in my arms, I came down the stairs from the second floor. At the landing where you turned left into the main floor entry/exit area, was a side door marked ‘Emergency Only.’ I looked at how jammed the main floor remained—shoppers twitching like sardines put in a can with a little life left in them—decided, ‘Screw that,’ and reached for the door to duck out that way. Just as I did, it opened, and in came a man in a parka followed by an FAO Schwarz manager.
The man had his head down and bumped into me. As he looked up, his hood fell back, and I recognized him. I had read and heard the news on TV that he was in town performing. All I could say was, “Neil Young….”
Neil looked at me, smiled, raised a finger to his lips—that shhh, be quiet motion—and said, “Merry Christmas,” then flipped his hood back up.
“Merry Christmas,” I said and stepped aside so he could get to the stairs. As I watched him go, lines played in my head from my favorite Neil Young song, After the Gold Rush:
I was lying in a burned-out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky.
There was a band playing in my head,
And I felt like getting high.
Singing that song from the beginning, my shopping chores done, I found a cozy bar to have a drink, think about the moment just experienced, and watch the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. I enjoyed the glitter of decorations in the late afternoon sun slanting down between skyscrapers and the silver, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and gold of Christmas lights that blossomed and spread as the day faded to sunset, turned to twilight and settled into nightfall.
Two days later, back in Florida, I thawed out. But I had left New York with gifts for my wife and daughter… and a Neil Young story.