Monday, May 3, 2010



Sometimes memories return to me with uncanny clarity. It is not just the clarity that strikes me. More often I wonder why certain memories return to me so long after the event. After all, of all the things I have experienced in my life, why would one day's details suddenly reemerge? What triggered it? And then a more vexing thought crosses my mind: As clear as my memory seems to me, perhaps reality was very different from what I remember? Who can say now? That is one reason why memory fascinates me so much. It is exquisitely subjective. It seems real, but only to ourselves.

I got up this morning and suddenly remembered December 31, 1999. On that day, I worked from morning to night and beyond. Back then, I was a 22-year-old kid with a "bowl haircut" and a jean jacket. I wore ripped $30 pants for days at a time. I was a college senior who memorized Nietzsche quotes without fully comprehending them. I basically had no money; my mother gave me about $20 a week to spend. So starting in 1997 I worked as a DJ to make a few extra bucks. Much to my good fortune, I met a much older guy named Joe who had been DJ'ing parties around the city for decades. He used to tell me stories about going home with women after disco parties in the 1970s. He was a Vietnam veteran and--to be kind--rather eccentric. He lived alone in a food-strewn apartment on 122nd Street brimming with records and 5 or 6 yappy Chihuahuas (one or two died over the years; but a few more were born, so I can't remember the exact number). Basically, the place was squalid. But somehow Joe kept getting gigs and holding his life together really well. He kept a zillion post-it notes all over his bedroom to remind him to do this and that each day--and he always got it done. For years, we worked really well together. He farmed me out to jobs he couldn't do and I gave him a cut of what I made. Plus we became really good friends.

Both Joe and I knew that New Year's Eve on Y2K would be a gangbuster night for DJ's. After all, everyone was partying that night. Some people thought the world was going to end. I knew it wouldn't. But it was an unprecedented atmosphere. And most importantly, entertainers like us were in demand that night. So we could charge huge fees and we knew people would pay. We could name our price for a change.

Joe wound up scheduling a $2000 job. At the same time, he booked me a job for $1800. We agreed I would get $1500. He would take a $300 commission. That seemed fair to me; in fact, I was thrilled. For a kid who wore torn pants and got $20 a week to spend, $1500 was a treasure trove. I could live the whole semester on that--and all for just one night's work.

I remember the job exactly. We did it in a brand new loft apartment on 21st Street near 6th Avenue. Some nouveau riche woman and her husband were throwing a party. Joe and I drove down to the apartment the morning before the gig to set up. Joe drove a virtually unroadworthy mid-80s Chevy station wagon. It had no muffler and a pretty disgusting, food-like crust clung like a glaze all over the interior. The car had roaches. And Joe stuffed in so many speakers, wires, amps and record crates into it that I was amazed the bumper didn't scrape the pavement as we drove. In short, despite all appearances, Joe was a master of limited space management. The cops never pulled the jalopy over, either.

I remember schlepping all our equipment two flights up to the apartment. The woman and her husband were frantically decorating the place and setting up long tables for the hors d'oeuvres. I had a few words with her. She said she liked hip-hop and R&B. I said that was great because "that was my specialty." She seemed to like me. She didn't seem to like Joe too much, though. After all, at first glance he looked really gruff and he spent his time hauling speakers and wires all over the place. He was always polite and even charming. But he just didn't look the part. Some customers really used to treat him badly, and that hurt me.

After we set up the equipment, Joe and I sat in the car for a few minutes and talked about the plan for the evening. I would show up at the gig and do my thing. He would go to his gig and do his. Then he would pick me up from my gig and I would give him his cut. We would drive back uptown together and call it a night around 4 AM. It was a good plan. We then went our separate ways.

I remember the party went very smoothly. I got to play the music I wanted. The crowd was easy and did not complain. My DJ station faced east; the crowd looked west out the windows over 6th Avenue. Joe set up the lights and I controlled them with a little hand console. It took a while for the alcohol to get the party moving; eventually it did. I started off playing 70s funk and rare grooves. That gave a nice ambiance to the early part. Later, people started asking me to play hip-hop and assorted Top Ten pop. I obliged. I remember one Asian chick kept asking me to play Lauren Hill's "That Thing" over and over again. That tune always generated a huge crowd response, so I waited to play it until the place was really hopping. I kept telling her "it was in the pipe." She never quarreled with me; she just kept going back to her friends and dancing.

Before midnight, nervous excitement came over the room. People started wondering aloud whether the world would end at 12:01. I remember people throwing their drinks and hooting in the minutes leading up to midnight. I also remember looking outside and seeing helicopters flying low over the city with spotlights on. There was a lot of honking and yelling on the street below. I could hear it even over the music. Finally, 12:01 came. Nothing happened. A huge cheer went up on the dancefloor. Then the party went into overdrive. "Hypnotize," "Walking on the Sun" and "Backstreet's Back" were particularly popular that night. Oh, and of course "Groove is in the Heart" and "It Takes Two" made everyone move, too, even otherwise respectable-looking bourgeois with jobs: I always laughed when I saw white bankers singing along to rap songs. But by that point at the party, the alcohol was guaranteed to make everyone dance, no matter what was playing. Even so, as a DJ, I felt like I had accomplished something. Lots of drunk, happy people profusely thanked me for "all the great tunes" as the evening approached its end. It was always a nice perk to get compliments, even if the partygoers were fall-down drunk and virtually incoherent.

At about 3 AM, Joe showed up from his party. People had already started to leave. Beer and broken plastic cups littered the dancefloor, along with squashed finger foods and dirty napkins. Everyone was shouting, hugging, hooting, caressing and laughing. The mood was very good. Almost all the food was gone and the wine was running low. Joe went over to the hostess and whispered to her. She then came over to me and told me it was OK to start wrapping up.

Within 30 minutes, almost everyone had left and I stopped the music. The house lights came up. Joe started breaking down the lights and sound equipment. I chatted with the hostess for a while. She complimented me in the highest terms, even though she was utterly shitfaced. I still felt like I had done a good job; for my part, I did not touch a drink that evening. I had a few Sprites and some ice water. Finally, the hostess pulled out an enormous wad of $20 bills and handed it to me. I thanked her. She went away and I started helping Joe move all our stuff downstairs. Meanwhile, the hostess and her husband started brushing trash off the floor with two big push brooms.

It took us a good 30 minutes to haul all our stuff downstairs. We loaded it into the car and--once again--got it all to fit. After that, Joe and I shook hands and congratulated each other on a job well done. I handed him his $300 commission. Then he headed back uptown and he dropped me off at my dorm on 114th Street and Riverside. I wished Joe a happy new year and thanked him for being so generous to me. He said no problem and drove off into the predawn darkness.

I went upstairs to my room on the fourth floor. There was no way I could sleep after the night's toils. It was about quarter to five in the morning, January 1, 2000. I walked over to my single-size mattress. I took the enormous cash wad from my pocket and laid all the money out on the bedspread. I was in awe: $1500 in cash, all for me. I never thought I could ever make that much in one night. It was unbelievable. What a way to start the new year, the new decade, the new millennium. I felt like life could not get any better than this. I even felt that time had suddenly stopped, as if I could never get older, that this moment would last forever. After all, it was the year 2000! To that point in my life--indeed, in everyone's life--it had always been the 20th Century. I couldn't really fathom that life would go on as it always did. On that night, time froze as I sat there ogling my massive money pile. For a few hours, I felt utterly invincible. I felt that I controlled time and that I would never age.

I was hungry. I went out to get some food at Tom's Diner. It was extremely quiet. All the partying was over. A few stragglers appeared here and there, but that was it. I saw a few "2000" party eyeglasses in a trash can. It was still dark. As I headed down Broadway, a New York Times truck pulled up and a man tossed out the morning edition. I bought one. It had an unforgettably bold headline: 1/1/00. Underneath, in typeface almost as big, was a headline saying that Russia's President Yeltsin had resigned. A new man, Putin, was taking over.

Wow, I thought, everything was looking up! It was a fresh new morning in a fresh new millennium. I had $1500 in cash and there was a new Russian President. One era ended. Another was dawning. Time stood still and I was in control.

Then I went to Tom's and ordered a shake and fries. I stayed there for a while. I let myself get tired. Finally, I headed back to my dorm to go to sleep. It was dawning. Time for bed. It was a good night.

I still have never made that much money in one night as I did on January 1, 2000. I think that's why I remember it so vividly. It felt really good.

Too bad life got harder after that. But on that night, I didn't think anything could ever go wrong.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I remember hoping the bank will deposit one million dollars in my account that day. too bad all the computers worked normally. But 22 and rich--now that's a great feeling!