One Night with Letterman

Standing outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

It is a cold and wet Monday, February 7, 2011 in New York City.  Chris and I have been in line for roughly 30 minutes when groups of about 20 people start to shuffle in to the lobby of the Ed Sullivan Theater.  We patiently wait our turn and eventually make our way to an audience co-ordinator who asks us where we’re from and quizzes us to see how big of fans we are of Dave’s show.

How big of a fan am I?  Well, I grew up watching Dave.  After learning one summer night that there was something on TV if I stayed up after Johnny Carson finished his show, I was mesmerized by Letterman’s madhouse.  There was something gritty and dangerous about the late night show that looked like it was shot in the ratty attic of 30 Rockefeller Center.

Stupid pet tricks.  The top ten list.  A low budget / high comedy distraction for adults who suffered from insomnia.  But as a kid, if I could manage to keep my eyes open I’d watch Dave.

When Letterman crossed the street to join CBS, I was there from show one.  There was something rather grand about what he was doing .  One day – I swore – I’d get to New York City and see the show in person.

And now here I was – standing in the lobby of historic CBS Studio 50, waiting for a ticket that would get me inside the ultra-refrigerated auditorium where Dave performed his show.

With a smile, the audience co-ordinator hands over tickets with something scribbled on the back, and tells us what time we should show up for the taping.  She also reminds us there are only two appropriate forms of expression in the well-microphoned theatre – applause and laughter.  Woo-ing will get us ejected.  These are rules I can live by if it means I get to see the show live and in person.

With time to kill, Chris and I head in to Angelo’s Pizzeria which is in the same block as the Sullivan theater for a few slices of pie and something to drink.  I’m nervous.  I don’t know why – it’s not like I’m going to meet Dave.  But regardless, I’m jittery.

We finish lunch and it’s time to head back downstairs and queue to for the show.  It might be Monday, but we will be watching Friday’s show – Dave likes to take Fridays off, so he does double duty when he’s fresh and ready early in the week.

The line starts moving in to the theater, and as we cross the threshold we hear Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra playing warm up music for those who have already been seated.  As we near the door, the audience member in front of us has a freakout because he wants four seats together on the floor for him and his friends.  The page thinks we’re with him, and so she ushers us in behind him (even though we’re not.)  Score!

We barely get settled in to our seats when Dave comes out on stage to talk with the audience.  Rolling Stone says he’s relished this Q&A experience in the last days of the show, spending 7 to 8 minutes kibitzing with audience members before the “on air” sign illuminates.  On the day we see Dave, he has about 45 seconds to make a couple jokes about a guy in the front row before running backstage as the floor director starts to count down to showtime.

Dave bursts out on to the stage, and tells some jokes.  In hindsight, it’s challenging to do a monologue four days in advance.  Letterman makes a joke about Hosni Mumbarak who – as of the taping – is the embattled leader of Egypt.  By Friday (when the show will air), Mumbarak has resigned.  The joke goes to air – still as relevant as when it was taped.  That’s not being lucky – that’s being good.

Sixty minutes of late night television goes by in a flash.  This is not an episode of any considerable note.  Dave doesn’t get flashed.  Richard Simmons doesn’t fly in from the rafters.  But Ed Helms is there promoting a movie (Cedar Rapids), and participates in one of those classic late night talk show rituals of taking some small thing he learned during filming and having a bit of fun with it.

During the commercial breaks, the band plays as Dave and his producers huddle at the desk.  It’s all business, and you can see them talking about what has just happened on stage, and what is coming up next.  The size of the team needed to pull of this show is staggering.

Throughout the show, my eyes are darting around the theater.  I can’t believe I’m actually here.  I can’t believe that’s actually Dave.  It’s all so surreal.

As fast as it started, it’s over.  The credits roll, we applaud one last time.  Dave comes back out and thanks everyone for taking in the show, and pages start ushering us out.

As I slowly saunter out of the theatre, I run my fingers along the back wall – it’s like pinching myself because I can’t believe I’ve actually been there.  Cross it off the list.

30+ years in late night come to an end for Dave on Wednesday.  It’s the end of an era in late night, and one I’m glad I had a chance to witness up close and personal – if only for one night.  Thanks, Dave.

Scenes from Shinjuku Station

Shinjuku Station at night (Photo credit : ©Yasufumi Nishi/© JNTO)

The doors open, and a torrent of people flood out of the train.  I am among them, having just endured yet another 30 minute train ride with no personal space, no room to plant my feet, and not even a single straphanger to steady myself.

Men in business suits and women in dresses jockey for position to mount the stairs near the doors of the train.  They – along with hundreds of others who’ve just completed the same journey – will soon emerge at the surface, heading off to destinations far and wide.

A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.
A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.

Normally, I’ll join the hordes trying to rush up the stairs.  But today, as I cross the threshold of the automatically opened doors, I walk past all the people who are in a hurry and continue to a far-flung end of the train platform.

As I look back and take in just how massive a ten-car train looks at its terminus, a young woman in heels and a smart black dress breezes past me and rounds the corner.  Except for a security guard, she is the only other person I see at this end of the platform.  I stand still for another half-a-minute taking in the sight of the trains before I follow in her footsteps, up a narrow flight of stairs.

I pause as a reach a landing in the stairwell.  I look up the next flight of stairs, and back down at the stairs behind me.  It is in this instant I realize there is no one else around.

Let that sink in.

36 train platforms, nine distinct commuter train lines, three subway lines, six department stores, two underground shopping arcades, and over 200 exits make up Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station.  This massive transportation hub is used by 3.5 million people (or 10% of the population of greater Tokyo) every day.

And for a brief moment, I am alone.  In a stairwell.  It’s a rare moment of privacy in what is arguably one of the busiest places in the world.  I smile and carry on.

Shinjuku Station at night (Photo credit : ©Yasufumi Nishi/© JNTO)
Shinjuku Station at night (Photo credit : ©Yasufumi Nishi/© JNTO)

This is Shinjuku Station’s South Gate.  And in my eyes, it is as beautiful as it is functional.

Plain grey floors and white walls are periodically interrupted by flashes of colour – a blue sign directing people to the Odakyu train line; red walls surrounding the lift to reach the dining floors of the Mylord department store; vivid green facia and signage encompass the JR Rail travel service centre. Bright lights give the space an institutional feel.  The wide corridors – big as they are – can still seem tiny at the height of rush hour.

And yet… of all the entryways in to Shinjuku Station, this is my favourite.  It is my most romantic.  Because of the people.

In the morning, office workers flood through the turnstiles to head off in to the city to go earn their paycheques.  It’s not a matter of whether they want to go to work – it is their duty.  Even if they are having a “case of the Mondays.”

Confused foreign tourists loiter around the edges of the gate.  Some are trying to figure out which direction to go to leave the station.  Many others are simply unsure of how to buy a train ticket at the automated machines, and are too embarrassed to ask for help. (Protip : buy the cheapest fare, and then adjust it at your destination.  The locals will thank you for your efficiency.)

In the heat of the daytime sun on the black tarmac sidewalk just outside the gate, political protestors hand out pamphlets while unintelligibly shouting messages using a bullhorn.  Sometimes, volunteers with non-profits are passing the hat to raise money for their cause.  Even marketing squads assemble here, handing out plastic-wrapped packages of tissue emblazoned with the logo of a brand they’re promoting.  Nobody turns them down – they’re handy for hayfever season, or if one encounters a squat toilet in their travels.

When the sky opens up and the rain begins to pummel the city, it’s the South Gate where everyone can easily take refuge.  Shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, everyone watches as the torrential downpour turns the front sidewalk in to a dark black pond.

Night falls, and musicians set up instruments, battery-powered speakers and microphones along a barrier opposite the gate.  They belt out songs as passers by stop to form an audience.  Polite applause accompanies the end of every song.  Some people even get in to the groove, shaking their stuff to the tunes.

The South Gate is a meeting place as friends gather for a night on the town and locals wait to pick up family and friends who’ve flown in Tokyo and are taking an express train to Shinjuku.

As the night draws to a close, salarymen stumble through the gate after an evening of drinking at nearby izakayas and pubs.  Those living on the fringes of Tokyo pile through the gate.  Exhausted as they may be, they need to hustle if they hope of making it on the last trains out.

Stand here long enough, and you’ll see it all – hellos, goodbyes, long-time-no-sees, hurry-ups, gotta-gos, you’re-the-one-who-got-us-losts, and almost every other moment of humanity you can think of.

The East Gate of Shinjuku Station on a Friday night.
The East Gate of Shinjuku Station on a Friday night.

It is Friday night in Tokyo.  More accurately, my last Friday night in Tokyo.  Chris is just getting off work and should be arriving at Shinjuku Station within the next 45 minutes.  I arrive early and wait for him outside the East Gate.

As much as the South Gate is a meeting place for family and friends, for those who are looking to party, East Gate is the preferred exit point.  Every two to three minutes, a new swarm of people pushes out these doors.  Young and old – although mostly young – emerge from the industrial lighting of the train station to a block illuminated by the bright jumbo video screen above the legendary Studio Alta TV soundstage located across the street.

Behind Studio Alta is Kabukichō – Tokyo’s “entertainment” district.  Restaurants, bars, and the more risqué edges of Tokyo’s hospitality fill the neighbourhood.  If you’re looking for bizarre, this is the neighbourhood.  As reserved as the Japanese are, they are known for sometimes letting their hair down in peculiar ways.  Most of those ways can be found here.

As I hang back against a metal railing waiting for Chris to arrive, I people watch.  It’s a great activity in a city with so many people.

A group of Japanese teenage boys next to me are dressed in what is a loose Tokyo interpretation of “urban” clothing.  (In fact, the Japanese interpretation of American culture is worthy of a blog post all on its own.  It is fascinating.)  The teens spend the better part of 40 minutes hanging around, pounding out messages on their smartphones, laughing, joking, and seemingly waiting for a buddy who never arrives.   The group eventually agrees it’s time to take on the town, and they depart.

In front of me is a guy in his mid 20s.  He’s American, but has clearly lived in Japan for a little while as his style is more like the locals – fitted chinos, a small messenger bag, a smart cardigan for this cool night.  He waits around as slowly – one by one – his group of friends assemble for the night.  It’s a mix of Japanese and gaijin (foreigners.)  What becomes evident with the numerous introductions is this is in fact two or three groups of friends which are intersecting for the first time on this night.  The missing link – a tall, lanky, and boisterous young Japanese guy shows up.  He’s the one they’ve been waiting about ten minutes for.  They celebrate his arrival, and head off in to the night.

A little later than he planned, Chris emerges from the train station and we too head off in to the neon light of the shadiest part of Tokyo.  Not for a night of debauchery, but rather to get some ramen.  In fact, probably one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had.


The stories of Shinjuku Station are many.  If people watching is your thing, you could easily spend the better part of a day here observing.  But the perpetual motion of the station will eventually get to you… you’ll feel compelled to move.  Because that’s what this place is – a place to move through.  And does it ever move people through.

To learn more about the world’s busiest train station, check out this documentary from the UK broadcaster Channel 5.

Weekend Playlist : Scenes from a Mall

I’m a fan of great storytelling.  It doesn’t matter the form it takes – audio, video, text… it’s all the same to me.  A great story is a great story.  So, on the weekends, something I’ll make a point of posting up is my weekend playlist.


This weekend’s recommendation is a 2008 episode of the fabulous This American Life – the weekly public radio documentary series that appears on PRI affiliates across the US and is buried at 11pm on Sundays on CBC Radio 1. (Why, oh why, don’t we private news/talk broadcasters throw more money at PRI and liberate it from the corp?)


The episode – Scenes from a Mall – where host Ira Glass and his production team descend on a Tennessee shopping mall two weeks before Christmas to tell the stories of a number of people they encounter.


If you have time for only one story from this episode, it has to be act three’s “Santa Fight Club.”  It’ll leave you gobsmacked.

Here’s to a productive – and hopefully enjoyable weekend…