Oct 12, 2023, 06:29AM

Hold That Tiger, Mr. Kenneth Stark

Huntington’s Blue Devils and Manhattan off-kilter, but hardly dead.

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The author and Michael Gentile at Shun Lee West last week.

This is the New Modern World. Last Sunday morning I was walking on W. 56th St. in Manhattan, around seven a.m., Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee in one hand, a Marlboro Light in the other, and was stopped by a trio of young guys, all around 20. “You got a light, man,” one of them said, and I handed over a red Bic so they could fire up some skinny joints. We had a friendly, if brief, conversation, but what struck me was this never would’ve taken place decades ago when I was their age. It’s not that I was wearing a suit—just cords, polo shirt, sneaks and a Fetterman hoodie—and didn’t appear threatening; it was the bridge of generations.

I asked if they frequented the smoke shops open all over the city, got a quick negative response—“rip-off yuppie hangouts,” and though I was surprised by the anachronism “yuppie,” we spoke for a few more minutes, and one said, “Have a great day, sir!” This was unthinkable in 1970: one, friends and I wouldn’t be hanging out on New York Ave. in Huntington at that early hour; two, the low-grade paranoia of smoking weed would’ve precluded any interaction with a gray-haired older man. A representative of The Man, really, skedaddling back in time. Say what you will about today’s polarization between so many cultural/political factions that I can’t list them all, but this interaction put a jump in my step as I returned to a different world from theirs, the Peninsula Hotel (an old favorite that, sorry to say, is just a touch grubbier—newsstand gone, elevator lights burned out—and hardly crowded, than in pre-pandemic New York).

I was in town for a visit with several high school friends—snafus too complicated, and exasperating, to get into conspired against attending the formal 50th reunion of Huntington High School’s ’73 class that Saturday night—which gave my son Nicky and me the opportunity to have dinner with longtime friend Michael Gentile. As I’ve noted many times, Michael (a Splice Today contributor and art director for both Baltimore’s City Paper and New York Press) and I go back to around 1917, and today, as then, he’s street-wise, witty, curious, a talented painter, and filled with stories that might make your hair stand on end. His lurid language (with muffled voice) could grow hair on a bald man’s head.

I foolishly chose a favorite restaurant from the past instead of trying somewhere new, and was disappointed that Shun Lee West, although pretty packed, has fallen several notches; the food’s so-so and the service has deteriorated markedly. Despite flagging waiters, I waited 25 minutes for the bill, which never happens at a spot that’s zipping. Truthfully, it didn’t matter much: seeing Michael, fit and bursting with NYC anecdotes, was the occasion’s purpose, and he and Nick had a ball debating, and commiserating, about the state of modern cinema, and the oft-mentioned fact that so many people today have limited attention spans, with little desire to spend two hours in a movie theater. My younger son Booker was supposed to join us, but, in another example of This New Modern World, was stuck in an airport in Detroit (explanations for the delay were typically vague) and his scheduled four p.m. arrival at LaGuardia was jettisoned until after 10.

It was pouring on Saturday, which truncated our trip to Huntington—the boys have heard (and read about) my youth there and were naturally curious to see the town—although we did have the Uber stop at the home on LaRue Dr. where I grew up, and, umbrellas in hand, we took a gander at the old homestead, which, predictably, was spruced up, although that wouldn’t take much considering how our family of seven made a ramshackle of the Levittown-style split-level. I showed them “the Initial Tree” where you’d take out a pocket knife and add your name; but the oak was bare of carvings, which irritated me for no rational reason; and they saw how steep the hill was and could imagine their dad sledding with friends, dodging stuck cars and making a full stop on the treacherous (for bicyclists and sledders) Southdown Rd. We drove around and I recalled West Neck Rd., Mechanic St. and Marie Dr., where I spent so much time. We did miss Bobby Ringler’s home on Strawberry Lane, a street that in retrospect reminds me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I’d procrastinated on precuring suitable lodgings in town, so we had rooms booked in a Huntington Station dump—no need to be polite: it was a suck & fuck joint with bedbugs, yellowed towels and a nasty clerk at the front desk who, in the old days, would be derided as “retarded,” but I’ll let that slip. We secured another night at the Peninsula instead, and Nicky and Booker hung out for an hour—until they couldn’t stand it—while I met eight friends at the hopping Café Buenos Aires on Wall St.

Hazel, Betty and Elena.

I hadn’t seen the lovely and soft-spoken Betty Odenwald Founds, now living in Louisiana, for half-a-century, and that was swell, along with Hazel Dunnigan, Howie Nadjari and his wife Patti, and Rich Hoblock. And—along with Howie—my best pal Elena Seibert, just back from Dublin, a top-of-the-line professional photographer who has stories to burn, good and bad, about celebrities she’s worked with. Memories come and go, but one that sticks out is Elena calling me in Baltimore, and, nearly out of breath, saying she took a photo of the reclusive longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn sitting alone at a restaurant with a cup of coffee (just after his ouster), a milestone in her long career. And, as This Is The Modern World, everyone was taking snaps on their cells, and the adrenaline, trying to catch up as much as possible in a short period of time, was rushing. There was so much to blab about: regular meetings at a Friendly’s near Huntington High (often with Ruthe Poma, unable to attend last week); the tree pockets where we stashed hash pipes between classes in the hill behind the school; the jaunts to the Walt Whitman mall, stopping at Sam Goody’s and the restaurant Cookies, as well as the Korvettes across the street (where Elena and I got into mischief, a variation on the five-finger-discount, half-quaint, and by no means a smash & grab); the concerts at Heckscher Park; and hanging out at Kropotkin Records on New York Ave.

I did remind Rich about one night in 1971, when he was designated driver (a term not yet invented) for three of us who were mildly tripping on mescaline, which, while not Doors of Perception-level, was really fun and the bursts of sunset-orange and blue hallucinations were fucking cool. Anyway, the next day at school, Rich, perhaps feeling left out, told me in a God-fearing tone, “Hope it was worth it, Rusty, since now you’ll never be able to have kids.” I told him he was out of his mind and suggested laying off the Billy Graham-aped anti-drug propaganda his parents railed about and copies of Reader’s Digest. It was a long time ago, and Rich, happy in San Francisco with his partner of 41 years, which he said was “123 years in the straight world,” was a good sport and laughed at that anecdote. As novelist Colin Walsh writes in Kala, “Time is archived in the lines of [our] skin,” and some of those “archives” are forgotten, as some of my youthful indiscretions have mercifully disappeared from my noggin, although perhaps not to others. We were all high-school sinners.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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