It’s Still A Helluva A Town…
I was bored the other night and popped on that bastion of entertainment known as Netflix to find something to watch. Based on a recommendation from a message board I frequent I decided to check out a documentary titled American Swing. It is quite the interesting movie as it chronicles the rise and fall of Larry Levenson, the self-proffessed “King of Swing” and mastermind behind that ode to the decadence of the 1970s and early 1980s Plato’s Retreat. There are 2 explanations to what Plato’s Retreat was, the basic explanation and the explanation that the people who experienced going there can give you.
The basic explanation is this, Plato’s Retreat was a couples swing club located on the lower west side of Manhattan. What that means is, a club for heterosexual couples that catered to their more adventurous sides. Yes, there was a whole lot of sex going on at Plato’s Retreat but the movie also points out that there was more to it than that. Still, between the sex, the drugs, the pool and the buffet the crux of the movie focuses on the activities of its patrons and how they remember their time at the establishment. Many of these people are interviewed and they are in no way shy or afraid to tell you exactly what they did. A good chunk of them are local New York celebrities and pseudo-celebrities like Buck Henry, Al Goldstein, Jamie Gillis and Annie Sprinkle (whose own account recalls a couple engaging in incest, which creeps me out no end). One story told by a female regular at the club details goings-on in the “Matress Room”, which is exactly what it sounds like, a room full of mattresses with people getting it on. Well lo and behold this patron of the club goes home and is shocked to discover she can’t stop itching all over. Seems Plato’s Retreat had “Crab Fest” and not the kind you get at a Red Lobster.
In the end the movie really is about Larry Levenson and how his own hubris bit him in the ass. He made the same mistake that the owner’s of Studio 54 did by boasting about he couldn’t be touched by the Internal Revenue Service (Motto: We’ll have little bit of that too thank you). Boy did the IRS prove him wring on that one. The movie covers Levenson’s time in prison for tax evasion, his return to Plato’s Retreat and the club’s eventual shuttering by the New York Board of Health in 1985. All in all it is a pretty good little documentary but it makes me look back and wonder “Was that really Manhattan in the 70s?”.
I was only 5 years old when Plato’s Retreat opened its doors and 13 years old when Mayor Ed Koch had it shut in 1985. Of course I have no recollection of Plato’s Retreat since I was to young to have gone and, in all likeliness, even had I been old enough I probably would have been skeeved out by it. I have no problem with sex and one day I hope to enjoy it again but between arcs of sperm over the pool, the buffet and the crab infested mattress room, I don’t think Plato’s Retreat would be a place I’d want to visit even once, especially with my OCD.
My point is this, that the documentary makes it seem like everyone of adult age was having fun with Larry Levenson at Plato’s Retreat when this was anything but the case. That side of New York City was anathema to me growing up. Plato’s Retreat only entered my conciousness when it would be on the local news for geting raided by cops or health officials. I didn’t learn who Larry Levenson was until the late 1980s/early 1990s. My father finally broke down to my pleading and got cable TV for the family and I used cable TV to mainly watch professional wrestling. When I wasn’t watching wrestling though, I would sneek into the kitchen and every Monday and Friday at Midnight turn into Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue. Let’s make this simple in order to explain what Midnight Blue was… Do you like porn? Do you like very crude humor and satire? Do you like a guy who will speak his mind continuously even if yout don’t really care about what his topic is?
Then Midnight Blue was the show for you. It had all these things and more thanks to its producer Al Goldstein, the dirtiest old man in all of New York. It was through Midnight Blue that I actually saw TV ads for Plato’s Retreat. Nothing like having your local swing club let you know when they are having a “Ladies Night”. Again, this was me getting exposed to the seemy underside of New York City. Of course it wasn’t soon after my discovery of Public Access shows that I was shipped off to Boarding School. Good thing too since I was considering venturing to Times Square at the tender age of 15.
You may only know the modern Times Square, the place where you can take your family to see The Lion King musical and maybe grab an overproced mediocre dinner afterwards. If you tried taking your family to Times Square back in the day i.e. the 70s or 80s, odds are you were selling your daughter or wife (maybe even both) as a prostitute and maybe trying to score some heroin for you and your son. Times Square was the LEAST family friendly place on earth. It was where Disney vacations went to die.
I lived a sheltered existence in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Yorkville was a nice quiet strip of land, stretching from 72nd street and York Avenue to 96th Street and Lexington Avenue. It was mainly settled by Eastern and Western European immigrants, mainly German, Polish, Czechs and Hungarians. They took over that area and made it a thriving community of families and locally owned stores that catered to people that were looking for that feel of the “Old Country” yet stil was different to be called “American”. This corner of Manhattan thrived from the late 1800s until the turn of the 21st century. With the old families have dying out and their children having moved out of Yorkville, it allowed the Yuppie movement to s latelowly creep into the neighborhood between the late 1970s and mid 1990s. The former thriving family run business started dying out one by one.
The Best example I have of this gentrification of Yorkville is my favorite restaurant in all of New York City. Hell it was probably my favorite restaurant on the entire fucking planet. I speak of Mocca Hungarian Restaurant. This was a place I went to as a child with my family and every time I went I went home feeling full and content. It was always that feeling of “My parents took me here to show me they love me” becasue the food and atmosphere were that amazing. The restaurant, if I remember correctly from bits and pieces of conversations my mother and father had with me, was run by Hungarian Jews, who emigrated to the US after World War II. It is a safe bet to assume they spent many of those years during the war either living in fear for their lives or even in “The Camps”, especailly given the fact they were Jewish and being Jewish in Hungary during that period in time was a dangerous thing indeed.
Despite all that, the owners came to America and opened a small restaurant on 2nd avenue between 82nd and 83rd streets. For nearly 30 years I went to Mocca and dined on the finest meals I ever had. The portions were large, especially so given the low cost of what they charged per entree (between$7.99-$19.99 depending what section of the menu you ordered from). Even then if you wanted a full meal without great cost they a tremendous Prix-Fixe menu that got you an appetizer, entree and dessert all for under $15. That didn’t even invlude the bread and cucumber salad that came with every meal. N wonder my folks loved eating there with me and my sister. Eating out in NYC was pricey even back in the 70s and 80s so to take the family out to eat and spend $40-$60 on a full meal that actual seems like a meal and not a tiny speck of food on a large platter, really was something special.
Even after I left NYC my mind would always think of Mocca. I savored their weiner-schnitzel, adored there noodle soup and their stuffed peppers remain to this day the only stuffed peppers I actually like to eat. But of all those dishes the dishes they served over theyears, the one I alway came back to wa the Breaded Porkchops. I’ve never had pork chops so crispy, juicy and peppery all at once. Served with skillet potatoes and the vegetable of the day Mocca’s Breaded Pork Chops remain the food I want to eat in Heaven all the time. I dream of their crusty hot bread that you never needed put butter on because it was so tasty. I’ve had cucumber salad many times over the years but none of those can compare to the sweet and vinegar laced cucmber salad at Mocca.
I used to tell all my friends in Toledo “One day we are all going to New York and I’m taking you to Mocca. Then you’ll really have a great meal!”. It was quite a boast. A boast I really wanted to happen but sadly Mocca closed in 2004. Like the rest of Yorkville,it was a slice of a bygone era that modern New York City couldn’t afford to keep around due to NYC being a constantly evolving organism that does not tolerate the “Old World” any longer than it has to.
So what exactly did a now dead Hungarian Restaurant from my childhood have to do with Plato’s Retreat?
The point is I cherish every facet of growing up in New York City, from the innocence of a god meal with family, to the sleazy side dealing with pseudo-celecerity and sleazy sex. The New York of my childhood is a dead thing. The march of “progress” has driven out some of the things I love, while also cleaning out some things I probably could ahve done without. A part of me misses the “Old” Times Square but realizes that the “New” Times Square is better construct, even if all it does is simply gloss over the old dirt with a new coat of neon and paint. Do not be fooled, just becasue it was Disney cleaned up Times Square does not mean that what is there now ISN’T pornography. Its just a more sociable kind of pornography, a modern corporate pornography. It reminds me that as dirty and scummy as New York used to be, it was still where I grew up. A part of me longs for that more grimy and dirty New York., The “Real” New York. Then the man I am now shakes his head and chuckles. New York City will always be New York City. Nothing can ever change that.