The Day That Changed My Life...Forever!
I'M STILL HERE!
This is a very special day for me. Today's blog is VERY PERSONAL to me.
It was 32 years ago today that I came to New York. Some may say "so what"? But those that know the circumstances that led to my coming here know that I beat insurmountable odds to not only get here but to survive here. The day that I came to New York, I had never flown before, I had NEVER been to New York before, I had never been away from home before, I had never slept in another bed except my own (except for when I stayed at my grandparents), I could count the "friends" I had on one hand...and I did this WITHOUT any support of my family. I was a joke. This entire "thing I was doing" was ridiculous and my father felt I would be home within three weeks.
From the time that I had announced 5 years to the day (August 5th, 1973) that I would be going to New York on August 5th, 1979 (when I was 18), my family and almost everyone else who I told, laughed at me. Sometimes I just wanted to cry that no one had any faith in me.
I want to take you on that journey. Fasten your seat belts. Sometimes it gets rather bumpy!
I've written about my humble beginnings many times before, I'll reiterate for those who don't know. I was born in Conway, South Carolina. Conway is a small town just outside of Myrtle Beach.
Conway is a city in Horry County, South Carolina, United States. The population was 16,317 at the 2010 census.
It is the county seat of Horry County
It is the home of Coastal Carolina University.
I truly do not want to offend anyone, but from what I could see, most people that lived in Conway (at least when I was growing up there) are born there, exist there, and die there. Most never reach beyond their own borders. I wanted and needed a little bit more than that.
The tobacco industry was big business when I was growing up there. I come from a farming background.
On both sides of my family tree. My Grandfather Skipper had one of the largest tobacco farms in the state.
My Dad was one of 10 children to Emory and Getha Skipper.
My Mom was the oldest of 16! I'm not kidding!! My parents opted for 4. I was born in 1961 (2/11), my sister 13 months later.
A brother in 1965, and my baby brother in 1971.
When I was 13, I started working on my Grandfather's Skipper's tobacco farm in the summer. I made $36.00 a week.
I truly was a television baby. My mom once said that when she was pregnant with me, she got hooked on AS THE WORLD TURNS. I also used to watch, yes, AS THE WORLD TURNS with my Granmother Skipper. Years later, I would become friends with Eileen Fulton!
I grew up watching LOTS of variety shows and specials. Boy do I miss those! Of course in 1973, every Saturday night was spent with The Carol Burnett Show.
I had often heard Carol tell the story of how she got to New York. She was going to UCLA. A boyfriend of hers and she performed at a party one night.
In 1954, during her junior year, a professor invited Burnett and some other students to perform at a black-tie party. A man and his wife approached her afterward, as she was putting hors d'oeuvres in her purse to take home to her grandmother.
Instead of reprimanding her, the man complimented Burnett's performance and asked about her future plans. When he discovered that she wanted to go try her luck with musical comedy in New York, but did not have enough money, he offered her and her boyfriend Don Saroyan each a $1000 interest-free loan on the spot.
The conditions were that it was to be paid back in five years, his name was never to be revealed, and if she became a success, she would help others attain their dreams.
Burnett took him up on his offer. She and Saroyan left college and moved to New York to pursue acting careers. That same year, Burnett's father died of causes related to his alcoholism.
I felt that I had SO MUCH in common with Carol Burnett and I used to fantasize that the same thing would happen to me! Where was my benefactor? Alas, it would never happen!
Well, when I was 13, I got hooked on "self-help" books and around that time I was reading one of these books. I don't remember the author or the book, but I read to set your mind on a goal like a homing pigeon and go after it. I closed the book and walked into our living room and announced that 5 years from that day, I was moving to New York. It landed on deaf ears. Everything I said and did always did. Still does! But my mind was made up...and there would be no turning back. Every year on August 5th, I would announce 4 years to go, 3 years to go, 2 years to go...etc. And I told EVERYONE within earshot. I felt that if everyone knew, I would HAVE to go! It was my magnificent obsession. I lived, breathed, dreamed New York. I read every book about New York and the theatre. I would have the upper hand when I got here. Trust me, you don't learn NEW YORK from a book!
Everybody around me knew I SAID I was going to New York. The trouble was that almost no one supported me in that.
Christmas 1978, I was at The Conway Christmas Parade. I ran into my third grade teacher, Miss Ray. She asked me what I was going to do when I graduated in May. I told her I was moving to New York on August 5th. She wanted to know where I was staying. I told her I didn't know but that I was going. She suggested I get in touch with David Johnson (from Conway) who had moved to New York. She felt that it would be nice just for me to be in touch with someone from "home". I really didn't know David. But I did know his father, Dr. Johnson, the Superintendent of the Conway School system. I called Dr. Johnson, explained my situation, and that Miss Ray suggested I get in touch with him. He told me he thought David would love to hear from me. I got David's address and wrote him a letter. I explained that I would be moving to New York on August 5th and that I was writing to him, not to stay with him, but for advice. Did he know of any reasonably priced places, someone who needed a room mate, perhaps local YMCA's that I could stay at until I really got on my feet. Now, of course, this was before e-mail, cell phones, we didn;t even have an answering machine.
The letter or phone call never came. That should have been my first clue! On my 18th birthday (February 11th, 1979). I called David. He told me that he had gotten my letter but had lost it and, therefore, had no way of contacting me. He also went on to tell me that I could stay with him, that he had his own place and business, and perhaps I could work for him! What a birthday present! I couldn't believe it! I was jumping up and down like it was Christmas Day!
The gates were open! My official entree into New York. I grabbed a calendar and immediately started the count down. It was no longer years, but now it was months, then weeks, then days...eventually hours! Every month on the 5th, I sent a postcard reminder!!
It was all I talked about and thought about. I graduated from Conway High School in May of 1979. On June 10th of 1979, I called Piedmont Airlines. The only airline that flew out of Myrtle Beach airport at the time. I wanted to purchase a one way ticket to New York. It was $86.75! (That included tax!!) I had saved up the money (I was working at Grand Strand Amusement park at this time). My father was getting a commission off of the kiddie section of the park, my mom was working in the ticket booth, my sister was working in the concession stand, and I ran the Junior Hot Rods! I HATED IT! I couldn't wait to get out. On June 10th, I told my parents that I needed to get my ticket that day. They laughed at me. So I waled to the airport. About an hour's walk. I walked up to the counter and bought my ticket! I remember holding that ticket in my hand, not unlike The Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka, tears welling up in my eyes. I was so proud of myself! I practically flew, pun intended, back to Grand Strand Amusement Park to share the excitement with my family. I was told that I was stupid and that this was a whim! Again, I started counting down the days. It would now be two months!
As the days got closer, my friend Beth Mahar, who was then and still is now, my biggest supporter, threw me a going away party. And then my Aunt Janice, with a few friends from church, threw me a going away party two weeks before I left. All through this process, my parents were in total denial that I would leave.
I think my heart raced three times it's usual rate that entire last week I was in South Carolina. My bags were packed, I was ready to go, I was leaving on a jet plane, didn't know when I'd be back again! LOL!
The night before, my dad asked me what made me think I could "make it" in New York. Without missing a beat, I said, "You. If I can live through what I have lived through over the past 18 years, I can live through anything." I don't write this for sympathy but as a matter of fact. I think of it as a gift now. If I had come from a nurturing environment, I really don't think I would have stayed in New York. But I NEVER felt I had anything to back to. I ALWAYS had to forge ahead...no matter how tough it got. And, trust me, I had NIGHTMARE episodes those first five weeks in New York!
August 5th, 1979!
So the plan was that we would all go to The Holland Pancake House in Myrtle Beach before heading to the airport. Mr. Mike and Miss Marian would meet us at the airport. They felt that that breakfast should just be family. I called David before we left to confirm that he would be picking me up at LaGuardia airport at 2PM. He said he was so glad I called because he had lost my number and that he apologized but he would NOT be able to pick me up at the airport (CLUE TWO!)and told me to take a taxi to the apartment at 86th and 2nd.
When Mr. Mike and Miss Marian heard this, their first thought was bright eyed green kid from the sticks gets ripped off by taxi driver first day in NY! Mr. Mike had somewhat of a handle on this, him being a cab driver from DC! They suggested I take an airport limo, a shuttle bus that would take me to directly to my destination in NY. They gave me specific instructions as to what to do.
Well, there we were at the airport, my mom crying (was reality finally settling in), my baby brother who was 8 (he is now 40) begging me not to go. A lot of that is still a blur. It was pre 9/11 flying. I was told at the counter that my parents and family (including Mr. Mike and Miss Marian) could just wait with me until the final boarding was announced. The last thing I remember is "LAST BOARDING FOR FLIGHT 86 NOW FOR LAGUARDIA AIRPORT." Like a bat out of hell (literally!), I shouted my goodbyes and ran to get on the plane! I didn't even look back.
Miss Marian later said my eyes looked like saucers. I got on board, got to my seat, and proceeded to cry. I was scared to death. It dawned on me. I had no idea what I was doing. What did I know about being on my own. I had never had that opportunity before!But I had a lot of determination and I was determined that I WOULD SUCCEED! I cried all the way to LaGuardia. When i first saw the skyline of New York, my heart started doing the loop de loops!
I got off the plane probably looking like Dorothy Gale when color appears in her life for the first time!
I was really here and it was not a dream! I got my suitcase and searched for "airport limo". I saw a sign for Limos and got in line. I was told to wait out on the curb and I would be picked up in about 5 or 10 minutes. Boy, was I shocked when a black stretch limousine pulled up to take me to my destination. I arrive in New York in STYLE! We got to 86th and 2nd and I rang the buzzer. When David came down to get me, boy, was he surprised to see a limo. We walked up five flights to his railroad flat apartment. We had a little chit chat. He told me that he loved to get high and he was hoping I wouldn't be offended by that. I told him I didn't care what he did as long as he didn't involve me in it. He was fine with that and he offered to show me a little bit of Central Park. We walked over to Central Park on this incredibly hot day! And boy did I get an education like Patrick Dennis in MAME! First stop Bethesda Fountain. In 1979, this was a BIG drug hangout. David made a deal and we were on our way. Next stop, The Rambles. Now for those of you who do not know, The Rambles was a huge gay cruising area in 1979.
Since at least the early 20th century, the seclusion of the Ramble has been used for private homosexual encounters. In the 1920s, the lawn at the north end was referred to as the "fruited plain" and in the 1950s and 1960s the Ramble was feared by many as a haven for "anti-social persons".
In the early 1960s, under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the parks department proposed building a senior center in the ramble with the hope of curbing gay encounters and anti-gay assaults.
Today, the Ramble's strong reputation for cruising for sex has given way somewhat to nature walks and environmentalism. However, some in the gay community still consider the Ramble to be "ground zero for outdoor gay sex", enjoying the "retro feel" of sneaking off into the woods.
A tradition much older than Christopher Street and Fire Island, the Ramble continues to be a gay icon even in the more open environment of modern New York.
And for a wide-eyed innocent kid from South Carolina, this was a little too much...especially on my first day in NYC. We walked back to the apartment and David informed me that he was going to be "staying with a friend" that night and that I would have the place to myself! This was more than I was expecting! He also informed me that I would be meeting his room-mates Brad and Lisa the next morning(THAT is a blog in itself!). At no point had he even mentioned Brad and Lisa. I asked him how they felt about me being there. He said they will meet you tomorrow morning. He had not even mentioned my coming there! When he left, I was alone in a space I did not know, in a city I did not know, and I did not know anyone else in New York! There was a jar of honey and a half loaf of wheat bread in the refrigerator. I didn't even know how to order a pizza, and if I did order a pizza, how to tell anyone where I was. I cried myself to sleep that night! And that, my folks, is HOW I got to New York and my first day! Do you think I have a memoir in me. I have forged out a wonderful life for myself, with wonderful friends who support me, and a wonderful husband. I thank EVERYONE I have encountered, both positively...and negatively. You have ALL had a hand in shaping who I am today. I also feel that as much as I was running towards something, I was also running away from a very confining past. But it's ALL been worth it!
Here's to the next 32 years!
"If I have offended one person, I have offended one person too many"
Here's to an INCREDIBLE day for ALL!
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Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com