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Charles ‘Chuck’ Gomez has “had a remarkable journey”. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants “who worshiped the American Dream”. As a journalist, he covered civil wars and “had a grenade tossed my way in Nicaragua”. He met well-known world leaders in his travels as an Emmy Award-winning reporter — including Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, Baby Doc Duvalier, and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Chuck survived AIDS, lived through a massive heart attack, and quadruple bypass heart surgery. His book “Cuban Son Rising” has just won Best Autobiography in the International Latino Book Awards. We asked Chuck about his West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I’m a Miami native but I fell in love with New York City when I got my MA from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1975. In 1984 I moved here to work as a local TV news reporter. In 1986 I moved for two years to Los Angeles and was an NBC News West Coast Correspondent. I moved back in 1988 to work for WWOR-TV and I’ve lived here ever since. That’s more than three decades that I’ve proudly called NYC my home.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I was always attracted to the vitality of Hell’s Kitchen. I moved to my first HK apartment in 1990. It was on 52nd Street just off 10th Avenue. It was a scarier neighborhood back then but I still loved it. I lived with three roommates and a cat. We loved the edginess of HK and thought we were embarking on an exciting adventure. Since then I’ve lived in three additional HK apartments but two years ago ended up in Manhattan Plaza with my husband Matthew. He first moved to Hell’s Kitchen 23 years ago — a fifth-floor walkup on 9th off 48th. We both adore HK.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
My favorite thing about HK is the diversity. As a Cuban-American, I embrace all cultures. I find Hell’s Kitchen to be the city’s true melting pot. Businesses are owned by folks from all different places. When I walk down the street I see African-American, Hispanic, Asian, European, and African faces. We are all islands in a common sea — the sea being HK. That always puts a smile on my face and brings a song to my heart.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
My HK pet peeve is when dog owners fail to pick up after their pets. I always wonder why they don’t leave home with their baggies. What are they thinking? Also during this pandemic crisis, another peeve is people who don’t wear masks — or wear their masks under their noses.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The most interesting thing I’ve learned during the pandemic is to relish personal relationships. You don’t have to go out on the town and throw back rums and coke to have fun. I’ve found (as corny as it may sound) that home is where the heart is.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
Random acts of kindness have given me hope during the pandemic. My neighbors cook meals for the elderly tenants who live alone. And I’ve run to the supermarket to get food for fellow-tenants who require assistance to live from day to day. It’s nice to be treated with kindness and receive help, but it’s even nicer to be kind and helpful to others in need.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I walked into Pinkberry on 9th to grab a frozen yogurt and ran into a CBS News cameraman I hadn’t seen in 30 years. You’ll never know who you might meet in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s the Grand Central Terminal of neighborhoods — teeming with people, but very personal at the same time.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
As a network news correspondent I’ve met and interviewed everyone (heads of state and dictators) from Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton. I got to ask Imelda Marcos of the Philippines about her famed 3.000 pairs of shoes (“It’s an exaggeration,” she told me, laughing). I also have had the privilege of meeting luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor and Chita Rivera. But the people I met who touched me the most were a seven-year-old girl in a Salvadoran orphanage who handed me a tiny doll made out of twigs as a gift. And then there was the wizened Miskito Indian matriarch on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, wailing for the grandchildren gunned down by government troops. They were trying to escape across a river to freedom.
What’s your superpower?
My superpower is super-intuition. I can look into someone’s eyes when I first meet them and capture their entire essence with one look.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
“Believe” from “The Wiz”. As the water rushes out of the showerhead and engulfs me, you can hear me singing at the top of my lungs: “If you believe you’ll know, that nothing can change the path that you must go!” At the moment I transform into the Cuban Stephanie Mills!
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
I have two. My best friend Sheila Stainback came up with “Paranoia borders on perception.” But a personal favorite is: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” That’s from Maya Angelou.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
I adore Times Square. The neon lights invigorate me. And before the pandemic, the bustling crowds energized me. I always tell my family in Miami: “Times Square is the center of the universe.” It’s Mecca!
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
I have not had the opportunity to actually visit Hudson Yards. Photos I’ve seen of “The Vessel” are stunning. I worry whether the development caters primarily to the affluent. And I’m saddened by the nearby businesses which have been there for decades. I’m troubled that many have had to close because they can’t afford the astronomical rents living close to Hudson Yards has brought.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I would bring back Hispanic theater playwright and director Manuel Martin. He was legendary in the world of Latino theater in Hell’s Kitchen (the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater for one). He died suddenly of a heart attack, walking between the Towers of Manhattan Plaza where he lived. Hell’s Kitchen was his home for more than three decades. When someone so influential dies, it’s like a flame has been extinguished. It’s all the flames that burn brightly and in unison in Hell’s Kitchen that give our neighborhood its allure and vibrancy.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Buy my memoir “Cuban Son Rising” on Amazon.com. I was a closeted CBS network correspondent at the start of the AIDS epidemic which ultimately ensnared me as well. Now I’m a long-term survivor who’s lived through riding a roller-coaster of horror and hope. And after six decades I reconciled with my father regarding being gay and having AIDS. He accepted me unconditionally, That’s what my book is about and I believe it offers an important life lesson. No matter how many times we fall in life, we can always pick ourselves up and rise again.
Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Holy Cross Catholic Church on 42nd Street. When I walk into the church and see the candles flickering, it gives me comfort and I feel hope. I also feel my mother’s presence. She died from Alzheimer’s some years ago. Holy Cross is my refuge.
Pier 84. When I walk to the Hudson on the path next to the grassy knoll and feel the river’s breeze wash over me, I feel all is well with the world. I love to watch the graceful sailboats glide by. And before the pandemic, I enjoyed watching the water taxis drop off their passengers. The Hudson River soothes me and when I turn around and see the buildings reaching toward the sky, I’m reminded why my neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen thrills me so.
Manhattan Plaza Park. The park between the two towers is a place to sit and contemplate the neighborhood and the people who bring it to life. I see the mothers walking with their children to school. I observe the mailmen with their carts walking by, I watch the dog walkers and their barking pooches. It offers me a moment of calm in my busy neighborhood.
Hell’s Kitchen Gourmet on the corner of W43rd Street and 10th Avenue. I love how this “bodequita” offers a vast array of food, including my favorite four egg whites on a roll. The staff is so friendly. They also have beautiful flowers for sale. It’s open day and night.
Fresh Cut Flowers on W43rd Street between 9/10th Avenue. This is my go-to place for beautiful orchids. Until he left his business, the owner Robert was a familiar and friendly face in the neighborhood. Although it’s under new management, the level of service continues to be top-notch. I love their peonies in season. This florist provides the spectacular arrangements that grace the lobby of both Manhattan Plaza Towers.
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