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, monitoring and prodding 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 Square 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 (it 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 to get it. Taking the subway from my hotel near JFK, I got off at the Lexington Avenue/59th Street station and walked four blocks to 767 5th Ave. The oldest toy store still operating in the United States was at the southeast corner of Central Park. Founded in 1862, FAO Schwarz was a ‘must go’ place on my list of things to do while in NYC.
I might have mentioned it—I—was freakin’ cold. Wearing far more clothes than in a Florida winter, even an overcoat, and hat—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. It ran down the sidewalk for an entire block. I walked up to the front just as someone was leaving through the left-hand door. Before it closed, I slipped inside. [Not realizing I had just bypassed the queue to get into the store. An employee at the entrance to control how many came in at a time missed me going 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 held. An hour and a half later, purchases in my arms, I came down the stairs from the second floor. A side door marked ‘Emergency Only’ was at the landing where you turn left into the main floor entry/exit area. I looked at how jammed the main floor remained—shoppers twitching like sardines put in a can with a bit of life left in them—decided, ‘Screw that,’ and reached for the door to duck out that way. It opened just as I did, and in came a man in a parka followed by what seemed an FAO Schwarz manager (suit and tie-wearing, and managerly looking).
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 a news article that he was in town performing. All I could say was, “Neil Young….”
He looked at me, smiled, raised a finger to his lips—that shhh, be quiet gesture—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. To 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, scarlet, emerald, blues, and gold of Christmas lights that blossomed and spread as the day faded to sunset that 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.