75: Kindness of Strangers (5)
And I'm like, oh, there she is tapping, and I don't want to do this. I'm tired. I'm like [SIGH]. And then I had to reach for her name in my little-- what's this thing-- pocket day timer. And I'm like, OK, it's Laraine.
Then I walk down the street, and I say, hi, Laraine, how are you? And she goes, oh come on out Nick and join me, blah, blah, blah. And I think she assumed I'll bring out some music. That was it. I don't think she was expecting a suit and microphone stand and the PA, the CDs, the cassettes, the whole number.
Thanks to Laraine Goodman. This is the brains behind this wonderful event here. Say good evening, Laraine. Laraine Goodman Good evening, Laraine. Blake Eskin Nick's initial gesture of kindness to Laraine, a near stranger, made her into a local celebrity and made himself into an even bigger one. There were only a handful of people watching Laraine tap dance when Nick went outside with his instant Sinatra kit, which includes a few CDs from a series called Pocket Songs. The discs have the full Sinatra arrangements without a vocalist. The slogan is "You Sing the Hits."
Nick began with "I've Got the World on a String." The crowd built steadily. And right away, Nick had the crowd on a string, standing on the stoop, had the string around his finger. What a world. Nick Drakides [SINGING "I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING"] Blake Eskin Nick showed me a picture taken when he was 15. He's wearing a tuxedo, his hair parted to the side, standing at a microphone and pointing back at the camera. It is a picture of a 15-year-old boy from Poughkeepsie, New York in Frank Sinatra drag. Nick Drakides Basically, what I'm doing right now, I have been into since I was a kid, since I was 10 years old. Blake Eskin Nick trained as a jazz vocalist at Boston's Berklee College of Music, moved to New York, and after a while he found a job with the Starlight Orchestra, a 16-piece band that performs at high society weddings and corporate events. The Starlight Orchestra has five vocalists, and Nick is their Sinatra specialist.
Each of us in the audience had been lured by the improbability of the situation, but Nick's stage presence kept us there. Most street performers in New York go where the tourists go, since most of us natives are too busy to stop and listen. Nick singing from his stoop, however, was a gift to his own neighborhood. Nick really knows how to work a room, even when it's not a room. He weaves his neighbor's names into the lyrics. Nick Drakides --anytime he moves his-- that's Brendan, our lovely neighbor here. Lucky me-- how ya doin' Richie-- can't you see I'm in love? Blake Eskin He plugs Gary and Wanda's thrift shop and thanks them for their help. He salutes a couple watching from a nearby fire escape. He dedicates "Witchcraft" to a pretty blonde standing in the back row and flirts with her at the end of the song. Nick Drakides [SINGING "WITCHCRAFT"] Ooh! I got a crush on you too, baby. Ooh, you're a fine witch! Blake Eskin Just like Frank would have done. Now, it's a safe bet that if Nick and Laraine had been break dancing or playing conga drums, the police would have shut them down in 20 minutes, tops. But the officers of the 9th Precinct fell under the same spell as the rest of us. And they couldn't bring themselves to get out of the patrol car to enforce the mayor's quality of life rules. Nick Drakides The first week they would circle around the block, speak through their megaphone. They would say, people, please don't block the streets. Please keep the streets clear. And that was it. That was the first week. The second week they requested "Summer Wind." Blake Eskin They requested "Summer Wind" through the megaphone? Nick Drakides Yes, through the megaphone as they were passing. The third week, the police came and they stopped their car, held up traffic, and they said, OK, "Summer Wind." They wanted to hear "Summer Wind." So I finished "Night and Day." I put "Summer Wind" on. And I went up on the steps. They manipulated their lights on the top and threw a white spotlight on me. And I started singing "Summer Wind." The crowd went crazy. They went nuts. And they were really into it. it's that whole New York, macho Italian, police, Irish, street-- it is, man. And evidently, what I'm doing, they connect with that.
[SINGING "SUMMER WIND"] Blake Eskin Of course they do. So do the black men with dreadlocks, the young white guys in Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts, the teenagers immersed in the swing lounge scene, the pot-bellied Italian men of a certain age smoking cigars. And sitting front row center, wearing a party colored muu-muu, Nick's next door neighbor Jean, who has lived at 124 East Fourth Street for the last 48 years. For all of them and for me, there is something about Frank Sinatra and something about how Nick Drakides interprets Frank Sinatra that bewitches us, that touches us. Nick Drakides There's a guy who lives next door. And he embraced me. He hugged me, this old Chinese guy, man, with a hearing aid. I'm like, I touched this guy. And I don't how I did it, but I did it. Blake Eskin For any New Yorker to do something as big as this for his neighbors again and again is more than an anomaly. It is as rare and unstable as the elements at the bottom of the periodic table. The key ingredients of this event, neighborliness, generosity, free time, good weather, cooperative police officers, are hard to come by in this city. And they are nearly impossible to find together in the same place week after week. The Nick and Laraine show has had a longer run than anyone could expect. And something-- rain or the first frost or the 9th precinct or a Friday night gig with the Starlight Orchestra-- will soon bring it to a halt.
There's a gossip columnist in the New York Post named Cindy Adams. And it is tempting to resort to her mantra "only in New York folks, only in New York" to explain this phenomenon. But in Nick's case, the wisdom of Cindy Adams does not suffice. This is not the stuff of New York, not of the real New York or even of the New York of a bygone era, but of a mythical movie New York, a lower east side block built on a studio back lot. It is the first reel of an unknown MGM musical from just after the war, and it stars Nick Drakides. What happens in the rest of the film is anyone's guess.
[MUSIC - "STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT" BY FRANK SINATRA] Ira Glass Blake Eskin in New York. Credits Ira Glass Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor for this episode of our show is Paul Tough. Seth Lind is our production manager. Production help from Rachel Day, Aaron Scott, and WHYY in Philadelphia.
[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS] This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
[FUNDING CREDITS] WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says, no, no, no, no. Do it like this. Joel Kostman Move it up and down slowly, bobbing the end of the tool slightly from side to side. Ira Glass I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life. Announcer PRI, Public Radio International.