In the summer of 1982, my parents took us on a road trip that included New York City. I have wonderful memories of that trip, and some old pictures screaming to be scanned… you know the kind of pictures that have been stuck, and unstuck, in different photo albums, and then tucked away in envelopes and pulled out from time to time. Since coming back to New York, I feel like my memories have also been stuck, and unstuck, and lately I’ve been pulling them out of their envelopes as well.
There is this weird then-and-now overlay effect in my head. Here’s one example:
In 1982, Dad got us a room at the Milford Plaza. It was a very “New York” hotel on 8th Avenue between 44th and 45th Street. The location was just around the corner from Broadway and Times Square. While we were here, we watched the Radio City Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall. We also saw Victor Borge perform at Carnegie Hall (I knew him from Sesame Street… but it turns out he was a “real” comedian. I remember laughing till I cried!).
Mom introduced us to fresh bagels with cream cheese and lox (something that, to this day, never seems to taste the same anywhere else). We ate at the last remaining Automat (a kind of cafeteria-meets-vending-machine) on 42nd Street, and mom told us about her childhood memories of eating there. (They have since completely disappeared, which I find very sad.) We rode the wooden escalator in Macy’s and ate in the basement coffee shop.
Back at the Milford, I remember the room being the tiniest hotel room I had ever seen. We pulled open the curtains to reveal a view of the adjacent building’s brick wall. I remember finding a telephone in the bathroom and feeling like I was at the Ritz! Down in the lobby, we relaxed before leaving for the theater. I remember a man coming over and asking us if we wanted anything (snacks/drinks). I ordered a Seven-Up, and he returned with the world’s teensiest short/fat glass bottle of Seven-Up I had ever seen. It was sitting on a silver tray with a fancy glass full of ice. He placed it on our table, along with the check. Dad turned the check over to pay, and realized it was $3.00! This was about twelve times what a 7-Up would have cost anywhere else. I will never forget his reaction. I took the empty bottle home as a souvenir. As a family, we talked about that $3 Seven-Up for years. Funny the things that stick with you.
I was 17 that summer, and possessed blonde “Farrah” hair, tan skin and spectacular tits. While standing on the corner one night in the theater district (wearing a hot-pink, terry-cloth tube-top summer dress), a man driving a carriage was pulling up to the curb. As he got closer, he looked at me and stood straight up in his seat, took off his top hat, and literally swooned. I remember the moment, not so much because I was flattered (I actually wasn’t. That stuff happened to me all the time and I took it for granted. Holy hell what I wouldn’t give for 48 hours in that body again!), but because of my parents’ reactions. A man crossing the street earlier in the day had turned to stare at me and walked into a pole. Mom was still cracking up over that one. Dad was not as impressed.
On that same trip, we visited the top of the Empire State Building as well as the World Trade Center. I met a man on the elevator ride to the top named Mohammad Ali Al Habibi and we talked so much that I don’t remember most of the actual tour. He was from Kuwait. He told me about where he was from, and how he and his brother had left (escaped?) Iran at the start of the war. These details are sketchy because I hadn’t realized there was a war. I am embarrassed to admit I hadn’t thought much about life outside of Great Falls, Montana or (at the time) New York City. I suppose my excuse is that I was a teenager. But it’s not a good excuse. Anyway, he told me that “Al Habibi” meant “My Love” in Arabic. We exchanged addresses. Then we took a picture together at the top of the building. I still have that picture of his smiling face. We exchanged letters for a year or two. He would write in Arabic on one side, and then the English translation on the other. I often wondered what happened to him over the years. I remember digging up the picture of me with my Muslim friend at the top of the World Trade Center not long after 9/11.
The Milford Plaza ran a national commercial for years to the tune of “The Lullaby of Broadway” which featured the lyric “And in the center of it all, is the Milford Plaza.” I would see that commercial in Montana, Texas and California and it would tickle my memory each time.
Flash forward to September, 2017. I am “living” in New York, and I had just left the Shubert Theater after seeing Bette Midler perform in “Hello Dolly!”. I strolled around the corner and gleefully discovered a Shake Shack. For anyone who doesn’t know, I am more than a little obsessed with their Double Smoke Shack and Cheese Fries.
January of 2018, I revisited that same Shake Shack and posted a picture. A friend commented that he recognized that particular spot because it was across the street from Smith’s Bar, which he highly recommended.
In July of 2018, I found myself walking around in Times Square and feeling a little miserable. Of all the things I love about New York, I’m not a fan of the hoards of tourists. And people-watching is nearly impossible for a short girl in a tight crowd. I fought my way out and found myself on 45th Street. I happened to glance up, and was stunned to see a large, unlit sign about 12 stories up on the side of a building. “Milford Plaza” it read. I did what you are never supposed to do in New York City…in the summer…in a touristy area…in a crowd… I stopped dead in my tracks.
I ignored the grumbles of people trying to maneuver their way around me. Then I stepped into the building. It was a large, fluorescent-lit souvenir store. I was numb. I realized I was standing in the same spot where I had once ordered a $3 Seven-Up. Instead of a glamorous New York hotel lobby, I was surrounded by t-shirts and keychains and snowglobes. I felt tears begin to sting my eyes. I stepped back outside, and on that corner I was hit with the memory of that carriage driver a million years ago. Now the tears began to flow, and I needed to get off the street. I crossed 8th Avenue and found myself at the entrance to Smith’s Bar. I knew exactly where I was! I was standing in the same place from three separate times. I walked inside, took a seat at a table at the window, ordered a shot and a beer, and stared back out onto the street.
I was lost somewhere between the people walking up and down the sidewalk in front of me, and the memories of that same space 36 years earlier. The nostalgia began to overwhelm me, so I ordered another beer. Another shot. I wanted to stop my brain from carrying on. I walked home that night. 24 blocks. I was sober before I reached the front stoop.
Last night, I went to see Hamilton on Broadway with a friend. When it let out, we made a beeline for Smith’s Bar and grabbed a drink. We sat in a booth. I was okay with not staring out at the building that wasn’t. Then we went next door for some cheese fries at Shake Shack because HELLO have you not been paying attention? We walked out to the street to catch a cab, and as I looked across at the building, I noticed what looked like the front entrance to the Milford Plaza from my memory. What?!! Above the entrance was “Row NYC”. I made a mental note before hopping into the taxi.
This morning, I woke up and remembered that sign. A quick Google search told me that it was a hotel. THE hotel! And I learned more. The original hotel opened on February 13th, 1928 as Hotel Lincoln (one day after the 119th anniversary of the birth of its namesake… can I just add that I’ve learned more history in the past two days than in the entire time I was in high school?). It was remodeled in 1958 and renamed Manhattan Hotel, at which time they installed an enormous letter “M” sign. It was sold again in 1964 and became the Royal Manhattan. Count Basie, Lester Young and Artie Shaw all played in the Blue Room nightclub of the hotel. It was boarded up during the crap years of Manhattan (late 1970’s… anyone remember?) but the Milstein family purchased it in 1978, and it reopened in 1980 as the Milford Plaza Hotel (thank you Milsteins!) because they didn’t want to change the huge neon “M” sign on the roof. In 2009, the hotel was closed to begin renovations. Renovations were suspended in 2010, then it was sold and new renovations began. The giant “M” was removed in 2011. In 2013, the building was divided and sold in three parts: the land, the hotel and a 26,000 square foot retail unit (which became the souvenir store I had wandered into). It was briefly renamed The Milford New York Hotel before being renamed Row NYC in 2014.
If I hadn’t revisited the same place that had made me happy, and then sad, I never would have discovered that it was still the same hotel. The “Milford Plaza” sign remains on the side of the building, even though it isn’t the name of the hotel any more. It doesn’t light up, and I imagine not many people realize it’s there. But it was my portal. The hotel was amazing long before I ever stepped foot into it. It had a history. Then my history with it began. We both spent years going through renovations, changing our names, nearly ending, making comebacks, and ending up better than ever.
I am headed to Broadway again tonight. I will sit in Smith’s Bar, which now has a piece of my history, and toast to change.