Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Summertime Nostalgia At The Twin Towers

The Stage Between The Twin Towers at Austin J. Tobin Plaza

Writing a novel which takes place in the early 1990s in New York City had me frequently thinking back on what life was like in that not-so-long ago era. It’s remarkable how much things have changed in a relatively short time period. Not just the skyline, the ballparks and the presence of Uber cabs on every street. For as sophisticated as the big city is, our existence was notably simpler back then. Email was in its infancy. Amazon was solely a desert without prime customers. Wi-Fi was not yet a concept (let alone a civic requirement). Security was far less of a presence. And you didn’t have sidewalks cluttered with distracted pedestrians checking their phones and texting their friends persistently.
          One of the simple joys that I recall both with fondness and a tinge of melancholy is a summertime ritual lost to time and terror. From 1987 – 2001, thousands of downtown workers would gather each week at Austin J. Tobin Plaza during their lunch hour for a series of free concerts. Tobin Plaza served as a park, performance venue, and crowd-funneling area in the open space directly between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It was the ideal spot in lower Manhattan to entertain a large mid-day crowd.
          I’ll never forget the pure joy of escaping work for an hour on a warm day to grab a Frozefruit bar and join thousands of fellow New Yorkers for a free lunchtime concert by some of rock & roll’s legendary names.
          I first learned about the summer concert series from my late cousin, Michael Greenberg, who worked most of his adult life in lower Manhattan. It was June of 1995. I’d been employed a few months at a direct mail agency down on Hudson Street. Mike, who had been working just blocks from the Trade Center, often met me for lunch when the weather cooperated. We’d regularly wander the neighborhood, shopping for CDs at Tower Records, or duck inside the basement of the Century 21 department store.

          Like me, Mike was an aficionado of classic rock & roll. He and I attended many memorable concerts together. Through his broker “friends,” he’d often manage to score us tickets to some of the most in-demand shows including Paul McCartney in ‘89 at Giants Stadium and Fleetwood Mac with Squeeze at Jones Beach in 1990. But by the summer of ‘95, work had mostly overtaken play. And in my case, office life was exceptionally demanding.
          The job I had interviewed for was an assistant accounts manager, helping with the subscriber renewal campaigns for some popular magazines. I was hired at a low salary, trained by my supervisor for two weeks, then handed over the full responsibility of these clients when she departed ten days later for something more lucrative. My employer offered me none of the compensation, or perks of my predecessor. He even continued to refer to me as an “assistant” to justify the entry-level pay. It was delightful.
            The one perk that I was sure to make full usage of was my one-hour lunch break. Each day around 12:30, I’d forward my phone line to an answering machine (this was the pre-voicemail days) and step out to grab some fresh air and a sandwich. I’d even found a favorite pizza hangout down on Chambers Street, near Broadway.
          Personal calls at work were more difficult to manage in the era before cell-phones. Still, Mike and I did touch base regularly, usually late in the day to chat about last night’s ballgame, or a recent family gathering. Then came that Wednesday morning call in early July. “Hey Lonnie, come on down at the Trade Center at noon. Peter Noone and Herman’s Hermits are doing a free show.”
          We met up at the bustling curb just before Tobin Plaza. Mike knew we weren’t likely to get much closer for a popular attraction on a sunny afternoon. I’m not quite sure how we managed to find each other in the crowd without cell phones or GPS. Yet somehow, this is exactly what people did over the centuries that proceeded today’s technology. We each bought a snack from the Good Humor truck on the corner, then maneuvered about halfway through the crowd toward the stage area.

          What I best remember about these summer concerts is the incredible backdrop that the towers provided. Each Wednesday, another musical star of the 1960s would play a free mini-concert on a wooden stage, framed by metal stanchion and draped with a huge rectangular banner for WCBS-FM, NY’s Oldies Station. At 12:15, the classic artist and his/her band would be introduced by a CBS-FM on-air personality, like Cousin Brucie or Norm N. Nite. The audio system was powerful enough for passerby’s to hear the music even a couple of blocks away. And the sight of the soaring steel and glass directly above the stage was dramatic, even breathtaking.
          Peter Noone’s free show was the first of many we would gather for that summer. The following week it was The Grass Roots, followed by Lesley Gore and later Felix Caveliere and the Rascals. Each week, the artist would perform a set of 6 – 8 of their best known tunes, sometimes interrupted by a lesser-known album track, or cover song. They would usually save their biggest hit for last, which resulted in a joyous sing-along. It’s My Party by Leslie Gore and Good Lovin’ by The Rascals had the crowd in whipped up in a frenzy. Midnight Confessions by the Grass Roots saw hundreds of New Yorkers playing their best air guitar and keyboards.
          One week in mid August, we headed to the towers for a show by The Association. Even as a listener of “oldies radio,” I didn’t recall the band’s name being terribly familiar. An overcast morning kept early crowds to a minimum. I met Mike at the iconic bronze Sphere sculpture right in the center of the plaza. We were fortunate enough to get just steps away from the stage; the closest we had gotten for any of the shows. To our utter amazement, The Association were fabulous. For 45 minutes they played hit after hit (Along Came Mary, Cherish, Windy, Never My Love), as the crowd swelled in numbers and volume. So good were they that the group was urged on to play an unscheduled encore. It was the only time we witnessed something so spontaneous at one of these tightly scripted performances.

One convenient aspect of the summertime shows was that each artist actually played an identical set both at 12:15, and then again at 1:15. Latecomers who caught the tail end of the early performance could hang around and see the balance of the show after a 15 minute intermission. This format worked wonderfully for artists with a solid catalog of hits. Then there was Chubby Checker.
 It was a beautiful August afternoon when Mr. Checker took the stage between the towers for his summertime spotlight. A strong crowd filled ¾ of the standing room on the plaza. And things got off to a roaring start with his biggest song, The Twist. Hundreds of New Yorkers were clapping and swiveling their hips. Next came his follow-up hit, Lets Twist Again, also fondly received. And then… the singer – apparently short on worthwhile material - elected to repeat the same two songs twice more. And this just to round out the opening set! A good portion of the early crowd left, looking perplexed during the first repeat. Later arrivals headed for the exit after the second duplication, leaving just a handful of spectators to take in the 1:15 show. The confused faces of the departing fans summarized the shortcoming of this sometimes limited format. Especially when the headliner was a legendary two-hit wonder.
Davy Jones of The Monkees at the World Trade Center

          The biggest crowd that summer at the Trade Center was for a concert by Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones of The Monkees. Mike and I arrived at 12:10 to find the audience stretched all the way out onto West Street. Getting anywhere near the vicinity of the stage was a pipedream. But from our vantage point at the curb, we were at least able to hear the full performance and the roar of an adoring 6,000 fans. That didn’t even include the hundreds of workers watching through the glass inside the north tower. Monkey-mania was still very much alive in the summer of ’95.
Back in 1995, cell phones were not as commonplace, or as sophisticated as we now know them to be. As a result, few photos and even fewer videos exist of these magical summer freebies. One would have had to have owned a bulky camcorder and been close enough to the stage to pick up both the audio and video of the show. Only a handful of YouTube clips have surfaced.
By the next summer, I had been firmly ensconced in a new job up on west 34th Street. Lunch-breaks were infrequent at best. And the Trade Center was now a good 25 minute commute. Mike still worked downtown and would often call me to meet him for the ’96 concert season. He mailed me a tri-fold pamphlet (which I still keep to this day) listing all the shows including Opera Mondays, Swinging Tuesdays, Jazz Wednesdays, and Country Fridays. But only Oldies Thursdays held any appeal to us. Just once was I able to escape work that summer. And that was to see a revamped lineup of The Mamas and the Papas featuring Papa John Phillips and a trio of non-original members. Uninspiring as the performance was, it was still great to bond with Mike and get away from my desk for a mini-summer vacation. Hard to believe that this would be my last time standing in the formidable shadow of the soaring Twin Towers.
The summer concert series continued to draw large lunchtime audiences right up to the tragic morning of 9/11. An afternoon show had been scheduled there for that very day. One which would obviously never be played.

When I gaze upon the skyline of lower Manhattan today, my heart aches for what is no longer there, rather than to admire the structure that stands in its place. So much of our youth, our past and our history was robbed from us on that fateful September Tuesday morning. That and the lives of nearly 3,000 New Yorkers, some of whom I likely rubbed shoulders with down on Austin J. Tobin Plaza on those warm summer afternoons.
In spite of all of the unfathomable destruction from the 9/11 attacks, one singular landmark from Tobin Plaza remains mostly intact. The 25-foot tall bronze Sphere sculpture that served as a meeting-place for thirty years somehow emerged from the rubble of two collapsed skyscrapers with only some punctures, dents and scrapes. Today, it has been relocated to nearby Battery Park where it now stands next to an eternal flame as a memorial to everything and everyone we lost.
When I tell my daughters about what life was like in the early 90s, I get a quite an array of surprised reactions and eye-rolls. They find it hard to believe that society once functioned without wireless tablets, Instagram and streaming video. “You mean you didn’t get a cell phone until you were 33? How’s that possible?” It’s a foreign concept that they will never quite wrap their mind around. But when I share stories of my summer afternoons with Cousin Mike, catching free concerts at the foot of the old Twin Towers, I detect a gleam of comprehension. An appreciation and disappointment of a time and place that they will never get to visit outside of their imagination.
Quite an irony that a series of shows intended to celebrate an earlier yesteryear has now become my own nostalgia.
Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE to order your copy.

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