Reminisce With Me/The Big New York Cons, Part I

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The following represents the 2008 fannish memories of Nancy Kippax, which she recorded on LJ in the last months of her life. Permission to archive these memories has been granted to Fanlore by April Valentine.

Apr. 23rd, 2008
Picture this scene, if you will, a mental photo snapped at the zenith of our many trips up the New Jersey turnpike to Manhattan and the notorious Statler Hilton:
A suburban back alley in a Baltimore middle-class neighborhood just after dawn. Five vehicles lined up, everything from a trusty old station wagon to a zippy new sports vehicle. All five are being loaded up with what must surely serve a polar expedition for a year-long excursion. There are suitcases, of course, Samsonite and other hard-shell cases. Stuffed tote bags and canvas backpacks. There's the brown box or two filled with pots, utensils, cutlery, and an assortment of other cooking needs. There are several little hot pots to heat water or boil coffee, and even a one-burner hot plate. Several more boxes contain a variety of quick-fix food items in an age before such were readily available, and large bags of snacks of various kinds. One vehicle is weighted down with box after box of fanzines fresh from the printer. Bed pillows in varied pillowslips are tucked neatly into corners and empty spaces. At least one vehicle has a tarp on the roof that covers an assortment of other zine boxes or suitcases. At the very last, delicate costumes are laid across the top of everything else, where they won't be damaged. And the final item added where space has been reserved – a half sheet cake with decorative icing displaying the latest zine cover!
As each of the dozen or more drivers and passengers have assembled this morning in the chill dawn light of a September morning, all supplies were laid out and the engineers of the loading shook their heads and drank their coffee and began the task of filling the vehicles, while the others hung around trying to be helpful and supportive, chewing on a doughnut or a bear claw for a quick sugar-high to get their blood moving.
"Here are the music stands Rodney brought over last night. They have to go in, too."
"Did you remember to pack the mayonnaise for the tuna fish?"
"Be careful with those wings – don't bend them!"
Miraculously, it all fits, with room left over for every passenger to sit, albeit some with a box of something under their knees, feet propped on top. No seat belts for everyone in those days, no sir. Each driver starts their engine, and the mighty caravan pulls out, up Utrecht Road toward the Baltimore Beltway and I-95 to New York!
Arriving at the perennial convention hotel, the Statler Hilton, formerly the Americana, is another hilarious scene straight out of Bedlam. Over the years, we had refined it to a system, though, and adding on additional travelers didn't change the routine. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the bellboys as our cars pulled up in front of the hotel, jockeying with New York cab drivers for a spot to stick the vehicle just long enough to unload. All that went in must now come out, and be loaded on hotel carts, which were never in plentiful enough supply. Ultimately, we'd have to stack everything on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and take one or two carts at a time up to our assigned rooms, just to bring them back and reload them. Meanwhile, as soon as the cars were empty, the drivers would get back in and head to the least-expensive garage to stow the cars and return to the hotel. In later years, we saved a good bit of money by taking the cars out of Manhattan entirely and over to New Jersey, where the drivers then got on a subway train and came back into the city that way. It took more time, but it saved a bundle. Parking in Manhattan, in those days, cost around $30 a day. Multiply that by 3 or 4 and it's over $100, and even splitting it (among the passengers), it still mounted up.
While our drivers were gone (and usually half our man-power), those of us left behind would either stay with the supplies out front of the hotel, or go in and register, which was another minefield of uncertainty.
The Statler Hilton had two kinds of rooms – bad and worse. Being directed to a room that proved to be what seemed like the makeover of a broom closet, it was back down to the front desk to argue, plead and cajole for something even slightly more decent. Or they would assign us to a room where the rug was filthy, the bed smelled like mold, and there was a ring around the bathtub and no clean towels.
Those of you reading this who may have complained about the Hunt Valley Inn's [1] imperfections have no idea! The Statler was probably typical of Manhattan hotels; it was old, it was less than hygienic, there was virtually no customer service, none of the employees spoke English as their primary language, nothing was included or provided, but for all that, we trooped back every year, twice a year, to allow ourselves to be insulted and affronted.
There is the story about the missing room. One year, Pat Stall's sister and brother-in-law, Kathy's parents, decided to join us for the weekend; they planned to see the city while we played at the convention. They phoned ahead and got reservations for the five of them. Upon check in, they were taken to a marvelous suite of rooms, a corner of the hotel that overlooked the Avenue of the Americas below. The furniture was nice, everything looked new and bright, and it was larger than anything we'd ever seen in the hotel. Well, Pat wrote down the room number and said that the next time we went up, she was going to request that room. And she did. And when she arrived, she was given another room. She asked about the room number she had requested, and was told, "Oh, we don't have such a number." She described the room, and they looked at her like she was crazy. And you know, in all the subsequent trips we took up there, we never found that room again.
It was commonplace to change rooms, for one inadequacy or another, two or three times before you were settled. Greeting newcomers to the hotel, one would ask, "How many times did you have to change rooms?" Sometimes you'd encounter someone who had "settled" on their second or third selection, on a room you had deemed unworthy on your first selection!
Getting back to that hotel arrival. One of the nicest parts of the whole weekend was walking into that lobby, which was as familiar to us then as the Hunt Valley lobby is to many fans in the northeast today. From across the expanse of space, your name would ring out with excitement and glee from a friend across the lobby. With great big hugs from everyone, you couldn't move two feet without being embraced again. All the fans were swarming around the lobby, celebrating the occasion of being together again, happy to be there. It was like a hive of bees, and we all had our place, our complete acceptance as a part of the whole. Nothing I've experienced before or since can equal it. It was Star Trek fandom.
A word here about some of those supplies I mentioned earlier. For some reason, we had decided early on that eating out in New York was far too expensive. This was especially true for Bev, who dragged her entire family with her. Feeding five in Manhattan could certainly get pricey. And there was also the issue of not wanting to miss a moment of the programming. So we began to take up the food we would need to eat breakfast and lunch, with only our dinners eaten out. There wasn't a lot of instant variety back then. And we became quite inventive and resourceful in how we managed. We would buy, for example, small cans of tuna. I remember snatching individual packets of mayonnaise from the cafeteria where I worked, so we could make tuna salad for one. We had no refrigeration, so we couldn't bring anything fresh except perhaps a bag of oranges or apples. Bev would bring individual packets of oatmeal and a hot pot to boil water. Instant coffee. Powdered creamer and sugar packets. A loaf of bread. Peanut butter, and jelly packets. Instant noodle soup. It varied from con to con, but we always kept a box at home with supplies we would use next time. On our first morning, Russ would run over to Pennsylvania Station, just across the street, and buy a bag of New York bagels with butter or cream cheese for our breakfast. Mmnn. . .good eating! At the winter cons, he'd buy a small container of milk for the cereal, which Bev would keep on the hotel room's windowsill to keep it cool.
And while we're on the subject of good eating. . .about those dinners "out": for the first several years, we used to always take a "long" trip across from the hotel to a quaint little old Chinese restaurant whose name I've forgotten, if it ever had one. It was always just "the Chinese restaurant" (not to be confused with "The Chinese restaurant", back in Arlington, VA, a frequent stop when visiting the DC fen). The New York institution was an extremely dingy second-floor walk-up, whose entrance on the street was a tiny sign. I'm also not sure who originally discovered it, but the food was cheap, and to my taste, good. We'd march over with our expanding contingent and usually the Washington crowd, plus whoever else wanted to tag along. It varied from con to con. But I remember it was there that Ginna LaC. taught me to eat Mooshu Pork, with its tangy plum sauce and taco-like construction. I ordered it nearly every time we went up. Ultimately, after someone in our party objected to the fact that the garbage cans had been dragged out across the dining room as we were eating, we decided that perhaps we needed to vary our selection of restaurants.
One year we decided we wanted to eat at the famed Italian restaurant, Mama Leone's. We had heard tales of the seven course meal served there and were curious to find out if we could stuff it all in! There was a huge party that piled into taxis and ventured to the busy establishment. And the food was, indeed, awesome! Appetizer, salad course, soup course, pasta course ("I'm full already!), meat course, desert course ("Surely there's room for one canolli") plus I think I've left one course out! An institution in Manhattan since the 40's, they've closed their doors now, so if you never had the opportunity, I'm sorry for you! They had strolling Italian musicians, and when Kathy Burns asked one of them about his guitar, before we knew it, the OC III was standing up and serenading the patrons along with the regular musicians! Another year we returned there with a slightly different group of fen, and the wait was rather long, even with reservations. After standing peaceably quiet for a while, the wait began to wear on us, so we all started singing the songs of OC III to amuse ourselves and the rest of the line waiting for service. I think the line moved a bit faster after that! We were in and seated – and shushed – quite quickly!
This has dragged on for longer than I intended, so I'm going to have to split the recollections of the New York cons into two sections. I hope you don't mind, and I hope I'm not getting too wordy. It's hard for me to tell. Please leave comments of any nature and also chime in with your own reflections on your life in fandom. I'm still hoping to hear from some of the other "dinosaurs" out there --- where are you??

References

  1. She is referring to ClipperCon's location.