Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nick Valensi's Eighth Birthday Party

Pinnacle Bagels was Valensi's parents' restaurant in the '80s.
The Gap on 42nd and 3rd was the nation's last automat until 1991.
The Strokes are currently on tour again. Little known fact, but I was once, very briefly, good friends with guitarist Nick Velensi in the second grade. For some reason, there was a time when we were around seven when he really liked me. As true then as it is now, he always seemed a little bit cooler than everyone else, especially kids like me and my brother. To prove what was already obvious to us all, Nick Valensi threw the party to end all parties at his ultra-hip parents' restaurant on 3rd Avenue at about 45rd Street in honor of his turning eight years old, and invited Mrs. Turner's entire second-grade class at P.S. 183 on East 66th Street between 1st and York Avenues.

I wish I remembered more from that night, or at least that my parents did, but all I remember was that it was a very sophisticated, adult party, set in a very loud, dark bar/lounge/restaurant, that we all seemed to be about ten to fifteen years too young for. My father remembers a large staircase leading up to the second level, lined on both sides with girls all about eight to ten years old, dressed and made up to look like they were in their twenties. Nick came with an entourage of mature-looking girls on his arm and mixed and mingled with the rest of us.

In the meantime, my dad headed out after dropping us off. My mother was at home under the covers at the time, with just about the worst case of the flu she had ever had, plus eight month pregnant with my brother Joe. So my father decided to give her some time to herself and walked down three blocks to the automat on the southeast corner of 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue. Automats, considered the height of modern-day eating-on-the-go, and an iconic symbol of New York City around fifty years earlier, were already far past their golden age, and this one on the corner of 42nd and 3rd would be the last in the country, closing two years later. Some folks tried to give the automat concept another whirl in 2006 in the East Village, with BAMN! on St. Mark's Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, but it closed three years later due to lack of interest. This type of dining that was once so quintessentially New York had rapidly declined in popularity due to fast food joints and people wanting fast food that was (supposedly) fresher. It was all too evident on that Saturday night in January 1989 that the automat had long past its height of popularity as my father sat there with five bums, trying to give my sick mother at home some peace and quiet.

But you know how little kids get sometimes about late-night parties in nightclubs, and only about a minute after our dad walked out the door, my brother Patrick freaked out and wanted to go home immediately. Nick's mother's only choice was to call our apartment. With that, our mom had to somehow drag herself out of bed, drag herself down the stairs, and hail a cab to come pick up Pat, all the while unbeknownst to us all that Dad was just a few blocks away. Such was life before cell phones.

Looking back on it now, my mom says it seems like such a dated story. There were no cell phones so my parents couldn't communicate (something that is so easily taken for granted now) and my dad was hanging out at the automat, one of the most dated of New York City institutions. It finally closed in April, 1991, and there's a Gap store there now.

I walked up Third Avenue the other day to try to find the building where that restaurant used to be, and I think it's Pinnacle Deli and Hot Bagels, between 45th and 46th Streets. Nick, I know you're a big-time rock star now, but remember me -- Jamie Meehan -- your old pal from Mrs. Turner's second grade class?

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