Some of us can’t even remember New Year’s Eve last year. But New York poet Thea Schiller remembers a special one more than fifty years ago.
What does staying at a fancy hotel in New York City and drinking coffee with a famous jazz player at 2 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1968 (which is really New Year’s Day, 1969) have to do with gratitude?
If you’re 18 years old, a motherless child since you were 12, with no date in sight but an itch to do something outrageous and live on the edge, you find out fast.
You take your yellow chiffon prom dress in your attaché case (which you proudly bought yourself when graduating from a posh secretarial school and landing a job at the prominent public relations firm Hill and Knowlton) and drop off what’s inside at a pricy cleaners near Central Park. You tell a big gaffe (translation: lie) to your father, your sole parent. No pity. Don’t feel sorry for me. You’ll see as my story continues.
You tell dad that The New York Quarterly, just put out by your poetry mentor, Bill Packard, is having a party, and you are going to sleep over at your friend Liz’s house. What does smart Dad, a sergeant in WWII, who was in charge of where armaments went in the Pacific arena, say? “Wonderful, have a wonderful time, darling.”
You get the cheapest room, I believe it was number 38 at the PH, which is short not for acid from the scientific chart but for the Plaza Hotel. You arrive at 4:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to pick up your lemon dress that’s so lemony you can almost taste its sour cloth. At seven, you’re hailing a taxi, holding on to your mother’s Harry Winston pearls, getting off at the Metropolitan Opera House.
The year is 1968. You place a $20 bill in the hidden palm of an usher and you stand two hours and listen to Tosca. You are alone. You don’t know what’s going to happen after but you’re not scared because you are living the dream, living the poem. You recite in your mind your favorite, by good ole William Blake. Eternity. “He who binds himself a joy, does the winged life destroy, but he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
Eternity here I come, to say to your angel mother looking up as you walk away from the fountain and Chagall’s magical paintings. The blue-black night dazzles in stars and you saunter back to the Plaza as if you will live forever. You see a sign. “Plaza 9.” It’s 11:30. The night is young.
You enter, and smudge your mother’s red war paint that you had absconded on your lips. “How many?” the waiter asks. “A party of one,” you say.
Near the stage, you see the redhead play the clarinet. He asks you out after his set. You go with him. It’s 2:00 a.m. You, a Long Island nymphet, are drinking coffee with him at Bickfords. You remember his name as Larry Ridley, but when you google that name you see that’s someone else. You can’t find his name anywhere, but you know he existed. You existed.
He brings you to the door of your room. 4:00 a.m. You don’t let him in. He’s a gentleman, you’re one lucky gal. At 9:30 there’s a knock on your door, and Buddhists from the Nichiren Daishonin come in with a Gohonzon and Jitsu Beads. All stand in the middle of your suite chanting Namyo Rengae Yo.
You don’t know what the rest of your life is going to be, and you don’t care.
Because you know you are going to be able to walk across Washington Square Park Monday night with a poem to bring to Packard’s class about this experience.
You won the lottery of life. You could keep secrets and you would never have to tell anyone this story. But if you did, you knew you would be eternally grateful that you were able to live it, and it was true.