I was 10 the last time I visited New York City. My father stowed my sister and me away to a convention, a businessman and two tiny illegals on a business account. "Climb in," he said, opening the door to our first taxi ride. The inside of the cab was as dark and deep as a German U-boat.
The cabbie reached back, gripped the back of my shirt and plunked me down on a fold-out stool facing the back of the rig. We lurched forward. The U-boat cut a course through the skyscrapers. Mouth open, head craned back, I watched the tops of the buildings appear and then float out of view, like passing clouds, the rear window of the cab an IMAX screen.
My memory of New York fades to black after that. Until last week. We travel light. Not luggage-wise, but plans-wise. Other than a Broadway play, which we spend our daughter's college tuition to attend, we're footloose. Of course, not making plans and not having them are two different things. Each of us arrives in the Big Apple lugging our own secret New York desire.
Maggie wants to buy a new bag. Peggy lusts for the Metropolitan Museum. Riley sets his sights off-off-Broadway for an improv set at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. I want to score seats for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Tickets to late-night talk shows are free. Reservations are accepted online as available, in advance. Stand-by hopefuls are to show up at the street entrance to NBC at Rockefeller Center at 9 on the morning of the show. Tickets are handed out at that time to all who appear. That's step one.
Step two is coming back at 4:15 that afternoon. Nightly taping is from 5:30 to 6:30. Depending on how many reserves don't show up and how low the number is on your morning stand-by ticket, you're in.
A line's already taken shape when Riley and I show up at 8:30 a.m. Arriving a half-hour early places us in the middle of what turns out to be a block-long queue.
Suddenly a buzz rises from the front of the line. It works its way back to us. Chris Kattan is tonight's scheduled guest.
At exactly 9 a.m. a pretty woman in a navy blue NBC suit who looks like she would have been four years old when Kattan quit Saturday Night Live appears on the sidewalk. She's carrying a clipboard. Oh how we all look at that clipboard.
"One stand-by ticket per person," she says with no preface. "Come back here at 4:15 today with your ticket. No one under 17 years old will be allowed in. They will be ID'ed."
After she speaks I expect her to shoulder her rifle and return down the long corridor toward the Great and Powerful Oz, slamming the arched door behind her.
Riley is 16.
"If you guys don't go without me I'll be pissed," he says on the 20-block trek back to our hotel room, handling the setback a whole lot better than I would have at his age.
Eighteen-year-old Maggie and I are back at NBC at 4 p.m. This time we march straight into the lobby, blue stand-by tickets in hand. We're directed to the second level (second level!), where another NBC suit awaits, clutching another power clipboard.
She looks for our ticket numbers on her clipboard. We stand in nervous silence the way one waits out a doctor's read of lab results. She points and then speaks with the authoritative monotone of a cultural technician. "Go to the bottom of those stairs and wait. Someone will be there at 4:15."
"Stand against that wall," the next suit tells us at exactly 4:15. "I'm taking only numbers one through 30 upstairs." A fuzzy murmur as people peel away or gather in the lineup to stay. Maggie and I know our numbers but we look at our tickets to be sure. 27 and 28.
Back upstairs we're told to arrange ourselves by number and wait behind a red velvet rope. The next suit appears in 10 minutes. Her expression shows the weight of the incredible responsibility she's charged with: telling people who will see Jimmy Fallon and who won't. She looks at her clipboard.
"Numbers 1 through 10 will see the show today," she says. "The rest of you must go back to the lobby." It's over.
Maggie and I look at each other and shrug. We walk back to the hotel and stop at shops along the way. Buy a couple Statue of Liberty bottle openers for friends back home.
Peggy gets her Metropolitan wish. We all dig the improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. Maggie finds a bag. The night of our NBC adventure we lie in bed and work the TV remote, dead tired from hours of walking the city. One at a time we drift off to sleep, yours truly at 11:30, just as Jimmy Fallon tells the world that Chris Kattan is in the house.