By Rich Figel
DING-DING-DING! One million and counting -- nope, didn't hit the Megabucks slots jackpot in Vegas, but saw my Career Changers TV YouTube Channel cross the one million views mark this past weekend. In an age when videos of cats jumping in boxes or people dancing around to pop hits easily surpass that number in a day, it still represents a big milestone for me because five years ago I wasn't sure my OC16 TV show would even last more than two or three episodes. Posting segments on YouTube was an afterthought. Now, we have subscribers from all over the world. People we featured have been contacted by producers of nationally-broadcast television shows for segments on the Food Network, Travel Channel and Discovery Channel because they saw those pieces on the CCTV YouTube Channel while Googling around for leads on Hawaii stories. You can see our latest videos by clicking here. But you should watch this month's episode on high def widescreen if possible to appreciate the beauty of the quilts that were on display at the Hawaii Quilt Guild Show last month. Just amazing.
As noted in my May 21 post about the end of the Dave Letterman era and Mad Men show, I've been in a New York state of mind (love that Billy Joel song). With Diana Ross coming here to perform this weekend, I had another flashback that reminds me how much things have changed in the past three decades since I left NYC. I was at her 1983 free concert in Central Park -- the one attended by more than 350,000 fans when it started raining, then turned to chaos as young black kids began snatching purses and knocking over stunned, mostly white people who had laid out picnic blankets and brought bottles of good wine and primo pot.
At the time, I lived on W. 89th Street a block from Central Park, where I shared the ground floor apartment of a brownstone with a time share law attorney, who traveled frequently... which meant I often had the large two-bedroom place to myself (brick walls, fireplace, small garden area in back). The Upper West Side was just starting to show signs of gentrification, so there was still a good mix of lower, middle and upper class incomes in that area. But if you went further uptown about 20 blocks or so, you'd find yourself in the heart of Harlem. Rarely did the twain meet in Central Park. Prior free concerts were for musicians like Simon & Garfunkel, who weren't big draws for young African-Americans in NYC, as you can probably imagine.
When all heck broke loose, I was in the vicinity of a group of young preppy types who were distraught and shook up. Two of the girls had their pocketbooks stolen, the guys got punched, they were soaking wet from the sudden downpour, and they needed help. I took them back to my apartment, where they were able to dry off, make phone calls and compose themselves. Turned out they had summer jobs in the Hamptons, where wealthy New Yorkers and the jet set vacation or own second homes. Part of the Hamptons was also a hot spot for gays to hang out during the summer season, as I learned from my boss at a publishing company in Greenwich Village.
The preppy group I rescued were grateful and invited me to stop at the restaurant they worked in if I ever got out to the Hamptons. That didn't seem likely, until my boss -- who was gay and diagnosed with AIDS -- asked me if I'd like to go with him one weekend to his beach house. He wasn't interested in me that way, and he knew I was straight. But his boyfriend was living abroad, he was lonely, scared and knew I liked to party hard -- and that's what people did in the Hamptons. He collected vintage Thunderbirds too, and had a couple at his Hamptons place. We stopped at the restaurant where the preppy kids worked, and they were surprised to see me. I don't know if it was seeing me with Marc (not all gays are obvious in their orientation -- he was though) but instead of greeting me with open arms, they were a bit stand-offish. They didn't offer to show me around town or meet up with me later.
At Marc's beach house, he had disposable plastic utensils, paper plates and cups for me to use because he knew straight people were afraid of catching AIDS from gays, infected with HIV or not. He also had Kaposi's sarcoma, a type of cancer that leads to telltale purplish lesions on the skin. Maybe the preppy kids noticed that when he and I sat down at the restaurant table for lunch. In some ways, being with him was like hanging out with a leper and trying to act like everything was normal while knowing that person was going to die soon. That night, I went to a bar by myself, got very drunk, then took a cab back to his place. He smiled as I attempted to tell him how sad it was for me to see him like this. I started crying, and we hugged. I was too smashed to be afraid of getting the "gay disease" through physical contact. He was just a human being who was dying and all alone. Marc passed away not long after that weekend.
The other lasting memory connected to that Diana Ross concert was what transpired a day or two later in the jazz joint I regularly visited after work. I had become good friends with the bartender, Lee Dobson, a talented actor who never got that big break to launch his stage or screen career. He was black, smart, funny and we used to joke that I was his "Samurai Brother" after he found out that I was half-Japanese. Most of my friends at the Seventh Avenue South jazz club were black, and when race came up, it was usually joking around about the differences between whites and blacks -- how we danced, dressed, talked. Jazz music was our common language though.
Anyway, the topic of the Diana Ross concert came up and I told Lee how terrible it was "those animals" came down from Harlem and ruined everything, or something to that effect. There was a look of pain and hurt in Lee's eyes that I will never forget. I didn't consider myself prejudiced, but yes, I had to acknowledge that I viewed blacks from above 125th Street differently than the blacks I knew at Seventh Avenue South. Lee felt things were blown out of proportion because the kids were black -- and he was probably right. Words like "mobs" and "riots" were thrown around by the media, and even myself afterwards. He tried to get me to see things through their eyes -- the have-nots on the outskirts of affluence, watching the wine and cheese set take the best spots in front of the concert stage while they had to push and shove their way through the crowds just to get a glimpse of Diana.
Today, we have an African-American President and I live down the street from the beach the Obama family has stayed at for their Christmas vacations. We've seen attitudes about gays and gay marriage progress a great deal in recent years throughout the country. It's a long way from Central Park and that summer weekend trip to the Hamptons... but there's still too much prejudice, racism and intolerance in the world. New York taught me how to deal with it. Hawaii has shown me that we can do better.