AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.
There’s a scene in The Godfather I’ve always loved. Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, is sitting with his future wife Kay (played by Diane Keaton) at the wedding reception of Michael’s sister, Connie. Kay makes the mistake of asking Michael how the family knows Johnny Fontane, a famous crooner who’s singing for the adoring crowd. A stoic Michael reveals that his father, Vito, had helped Johnny with his solo career…by threatening to shoot a bandleader who wouldn’t release Johnny from a contract. Kay is shaken. Michael assures her, “that’s my family, Kay, that’s not me.”
It’s a foreboding line that can’t be fully appreciated until the end of the film, when Michael, who could have chosen a pure life, assumes control of the Corleone crime family after getting sucked into a bloody gang war. Moral: despite your best efforts, you just can’t deny where you came from. I was recently reminded of this sad lesson, fittingly by another singer, when I attended one of Billy Joel’s sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Try as I might, I can’t deny the painful fact that I grew up on Long Island.
To be clear, I have no shame in what Long Island is: an extension of New York City style and cuisine, home to the world’s first suburb and many honest working class families like the one I was fortunate to be born into in Flushing, Queens, before my parents moved us to the hamlet of Merrick in Nassau County. Instead, my shame lies in what Long Island has come to be known for: its loud, uncouth creatures that inhabit its bars and strip malls — reminders of the lifestyle I ran away from by moving to Manhattan in adulthood. And there were a lot of reminders at this concert, because local boy Billy Joel (or “The BJ,” as I like to call him) is Long Island’s unofficial ambassador.
I don’t remember the first time I heard his music; it always just seemed to have been there, like the All-American Burger in Massapequa or the lighthouse out at Montauk or the crack houses in Uniondale (oddly, BJ never sang about those). Local anthems like “Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Hey, Fuck You, I’m From New York” had been drilled into my head since childhood. You don’t become a Billy Joel fan on Long Island, you’re conditioned to be one. And when someone offers you the chance to see him live at MSG, in floor seats, no less, you don’t think. You just do it.
After taking the 2-3 line down from my apartment in Harlem, I popped into Rose Pizza in Penn Station for a few pre-show slices. For the unfamiliar, Rose is the social crossroads of Penn, where Long Island Railroad-riding meatheads converge for pizza and beer before venturing out into the wilds of the Manhattan club scene — like Dodge City if Wyatt Earp’s weapon of choice was the lethally repugnant stench of AXE Body Spray instead of a Colt .45. On this particular night, Rose was packed with an eclectic mixture of twentysomething frat bros in stripy button-downs, their underfed, over-tanned basic white girl dates, and middle-aged white collar couples old enough to be their parents — all of whom appeared to be pre-gaming for the show. I squeezed into a table not 12 inches from a bro who was fighting with his girlfriend. I couldn’t tell what it was about over the din, but things hit a cringe-worthy critical mass once he began banging his clunky Android phone on the table and she began to cry. I pretended like it wasn’t happening, finished my slices in silence, and left.
Inside MSG wasn’t any better. I decided that the only way to deal with the guidos and party girls in the crowd was via copious amounts of hard liquor, which the fine folks behind the bar of the Delta Sky 360° Club provided. I might as well have been in a Long Island watering hole judging from the number of Debbies, Tonys, and Brendas shouting over one another and jockeying for position for drinks. Memories of New Year’s Eves at Mulcahy’s, summer nights at Croxley’s, and college days at Effin Gruven — when my hair was a little too spiky, my eyebrows a little too well groomed, and my sneakers a little too white — came flashing back to me like an Iraqi War vet playing Call of Duty. I heard a voice: “One of us, bro, one of us…”
Back at my seat, I waited for Billy Joel and his band to take the stage, and when they did, the place exploded. He sounded phenomenal as he ripped through hit after radio hit. The energy and musicianship were overwhelming, and undeniable. The crowd rose to their feet, and I followed in kind, standing shoulder to shoulder with the same people I’d been trying to distance myself from. I wanted to think I had escaped Long Island. I wanted to think I was better than they were. I was not.
CUT TO: Two hours and a few glasses of Glenlivet 12 Year (neat) later. The music is still going, and I’m singing “Uptown Girl” at the top of my lungs, and I don’t give a fuck. And suddenly I realize I’m Michael Corleone standing in that big office at the end of the film. Clemenza is kissing my hand. The door is closing on Kay. The transformation is complete. We fade to black.
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