I had a decision to make when the power went out on August 14, 2003.
Seeing as I was at work in Hoboken and, thus, separated from home in Staten Island by a few different bodies of water, getting home was not going to be easy. Of course, when you live on Staten Island and don't have a car, getting home is never really "easy" in the average person's definition of the word. But without any trains running, it was more challenging than usual.
Still, I had some options:
(1) Go to my sister's apartment in Hoboken and wait out the power outage there. This was clearly the easiest, most sensible option. I dismissed it almost immediately.
(2) Take a ferry from Hoboken to downtown Manhattan, then walk to the ferry terminal and take the ferry to Staten Island, and then grab a cab or walk home when I got to Staten Island. Not too much of a hassle, but still a bit too easy for my tastes.
(3) Walk to the uptown ferry terminal in Hoboken (about a mile away), then walk past the Hammerstein Ballroom to see what the deal was with that evening's scheduled Bob Dylan concert, then, assuming Dylan wasn't doing a special candlelight acoustic show, walk from 34th Street all the way to the ferry terminal to see what the city looked like without power, and then grab a cab or walk home when I got to Staten Island.
So that's how I wound up on the uptown side of W. 35th St. in Manhattan, across the street from the Hammerstein Ballroom stage door, staring at two tour buses and wondering which one Bob Dylan was in and if maybe he might come outside to soak in the experience.
It seemed like a fun thing to do during a blackout.
Granted, I didn't hold out much hope for Mr. Dylan coming out to take in the sights. I figured I'd stare at those buses for a bit, try to find out when and where I could get my money back for the show, and then head for that 60-block walk to the ferry before it got too dark out. Truth be told, I was fine with the show being cancelled, as I had already seen the first night of the scheduled three-night run. Nils Lofgren sat in for most of the set, a fact entirely lost on me, as I spent most of the show wondering who the tiny gentleman on guitar was (please relax; I did not live in New Jersey at the time -- I have since, as a requirement for my residency, audited some E Street classes and learned some things). It was a fine show, but it was still in that period where Mr. Dylan had switched over to the piano, and that took some adjusting on my part. I would've been perfectly happy to get my money back for the cancelled show and put that toward my "Get Out of Staten Island" fund.
But before I found out about how that would happen, there was that staring at the buses to take care of. It wasn't very exciting, but my time as an autograph collector has made me quite good at staring at vehicles of many different shapes and sizes, so the time passed pretty quickly. There was enough activity going on around the buses that it seemed like something could happen. And the thought that something could happen is generally enough to keep your average (or, in my case, slightly below-average) autograph collector intrigued enough to stick around.
So when I saw the door of one of the tour buses open, I figured, "Ooh, activity! That means I can justify another 10 minutes of staring!"
And that's when I saw Bob Dylan come out of his tour bus.
I should point out that I wasn't the only person who had decided to spend the blackout staring at buses on W. 35th St. There were a few other Dylan fans with the same idea I had. And when we saw Bob Dylan from our various spots on W. 35th St., we looked at each other, then back at Bob Dylan, then back at each other, and thought, "Well, what do we do now?"
There was a brief hesitation. Then we advanced.
I would like to tell you that we all calmly chatted with Mr. Dylan about various things. But we most certainly did not. Naturally, the craziest people were the most eager to begin the conversation, which is how Bob Dylan was given a pair of panties with "Bob" in a heart over the crotch. These were not from me, but rather from an exuberant woman who, I guess, likes to carry these sorts of things around should the occasion arise.
There was also a lot of discussion about the then recently released "Masked and Anonymous," most of which centered around commending Mr. Dylan for his acting in said film (to which he responded, "I've been taking classes"). Lots of ass was being kissed, which I suppose was appropriate given the proximity of Mr. Dylan at the time. I, having not seen the film at the time, stayed quiet. I, having since seen the film, would have a very similar reaction if this exact situation were to present itself again.
I came up with nothing to say to Mr. Dylan, standing about ten feet away from me and, to the best of my recollection, holding on to a cup of beer (I seem to think there was a cigar involved, too, but now I think I might just be drawing my own picture). It's hard to figure out what to say to a hero. And sometimes saying nothing is probably for the best.
But as Mr. Dylan broke up the conversation and said he had to head inside the ballroom to see what was going on, I realized this was probably going to be my only chance to ask Bob Dylan for his autograph. So, as he went one way around the buses, I went the other and waited by the stage door. He soon came by and I presented him with the liner notes to the only Dylan CD I had in my bag. Unfortunately, it was the live "Hard Rain" CD, a CD it is widely believed Mr. Dylan is not very fond of. It is my favorite Dylan album, though, and its fury and anger (it was recorded at the end of a rough tour, as Mr. Dylan's marriage was falling apart and, it is said, he was frequently depressed and hitting the bottle hard) was the perfect soundtrack to bus rides to and from high school, on the days when things weren't going so great and the idiot wind was gusting pretty heavy. That is why I hold that album so dear, and why it was in my bag that day, and why it was all I had to put in front of Dylan as the only autograph seeker at the stage door.
"Mr. Dylan, could you please sign this?"
He looked at the liner notes briefly.
"Sorry, I gotta get inside."
And so ended my chance of getting Bob Dylan's autograph. Tragically, I'd had the liner notes to the "Masked and Anonymous" soundtrack in my bag earlier that week. I feel that if I had put that in front of him, he might've reacted differently.
But the experience wasn't over yet. As all the crazy Dylan fans recapped what had just happened, the Hammerstein security set up a barricade by the stage door. Knowing that Mr. Dylan had to come out at some point, more crazy people had gathered for his next appearance, though there were still no more than 25 people around, including some people who, as often happens in New York City, just saw a crowd and a barricade and assumed something must be going on.
So, after a few minutes, Mr. Dylan emerged and came over to the barricade and started talking to people. Once again, crazy people reigned. Or, more to the point, one crazy woman reigned. I don't think it was the same woman who gave him the panties, but she was just as bizarre. Mr. Dylan was right in front of her (along with his stone-faced security guard, whose name I used to know but it's probably for the best that I've forgotten), so she grabbed the proverbial mike and peppered Mr. Dylan with several bizarre questions.
I can remember two in particular. The first was "Does your wife breastfeed your kids?" Yes, I am serious. That is the question she came up with for Mr. Dylan. Granted, it was more than I came up with, but still it seemed a touch odd. And I think I have the tense correct, which makes it even more odd, as, as far as I know, Mr. Dylan had neither a wife nor a child of breastfeeding age at the time of this inquiry. And, in fact, hadn't had either for quite some time. I do not recall Mr. Dylan's reaction to this line of questioning, but, to his credit, he did not recoil from it and run back to the bus.
I do recall his reaction to her other question, which was something along the lines of "Do you work out?" Now, I have much love and respect for Mr. Dylan, but I have never looked at him on stage and wondered, "Hey, I wonder what his fitness routine is?" But this was an important issue for the crazy woman, who then followed up with "How do you stay so buff?" And, then, Bob Dylan turned to his security guard (who fought hard to suppress a laugh) and, in what might be the greatest thing I've ever heard come out of Bob Dylan's mouth, said the following:
"Buff? What is buff?"
That's maybe one of the greatest moments of my life, which may speak poorly of my life, but so be it. It was incredible.
As the woman continued to rattle on about buffness, Mr. Dylan finally had enough of the conversation and turned to an elderly couple further up behind the barricade and asked, "So what are you guys doing?" Soon after, he pulled away from the barricade and stood over by the buses talking to his security guard in a conversation that I can only imagine began with "See, that's why I don't talk to people."
Mr. Dylan stood there away from the crowd for a while, and it seemed like our audience with him was over. I was still lingering around trying to process everything, but I moved away from the barricade and went to the barricade on the other end of the buses, where I was talking to two other Dylan fans about what had just happened. They were a husband and wife and they wore matching Dylan shirts, which I either surmised or was told was their thing at Dylan shows. They told me about some other times they had seen Dylan by his bus at various venues, and they seemed reasonably nonchalant about it. Then as the three of us were talking, I saw Mr. Dylan pull away from his conversation and start to walk toward us. "This is it," I thought. The three of us are going to get to have our own personal conversation with Bob Dylan, without interference from crazy people. And Mr. Dylan was going to sign my "Hard Rain" liner notes and apologize for not doing so earlier. It was going to be awesome. Stay cool.
But then the people at the other barricade saw him walking toward us and bolted down the street. So by the time Mr. Dylan made it over to the barricade, a crowd had formed. He just looked at the three of us and said, "We're gonna try this again tomorrow." And then went back to his safe spot in between the barricades. So much for that meaningful conversation. And autographed "Hard Rain."
By then, the sun was gone and the city--and, W. 35th St. in particular--was dark. I spent a few minutes with the crazy people as we sought to track Dylan's movements by his white cowboy hat. But then it became sad and pathetic to me (surely a sane person would have reached that conclusion much earlier), so I headed out for my walk to the ferry terminal in quiet, dark Manhattan. It was a fun walk, and the memory of being that close to Bob Dylan made it go pretty quickly. If all blackouts led to something that cool, I think I could learn to like blackouts.
Sure, it would've been a cooler story if I had gotten an autograph out of it, or even a picture with Mr. Dylan (I had a camera in my bag, but I knew if I took it out, he'd bolt), but it was still a night to remember.
And the most important lesson of all (other than always have something other than "Hard Rain" in your bag)?
Always choose the most difficult option. You get the best stories that way.