Photo by Kayleigh Morin.
By Ket Lamb
In 1993, nineteen-year-old Courtney Bess caught a glimpse of a tall, lanky, happy-go-lucky mystery guy with a shock of black hair on the Upper West Side, but it took her twenty years to learn this handsome stranger’s name. In the interim, she dubbed him “Teen Idol.”
Courtney had just moved from Florida to the UWS to attend The American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) when she first saw him. She lived at what was then a ramshackle residence and dorm, The Lucerne on Amsterdam and W. 79th, where her neighbor was Grace LaRue Graham, one of the last remaining Ziegfeld Follies girls. Everyday, on her way to class, Courtney was delighted if she could snatch a smirk from Bruce Willis in passing on 79th street, collect a business card from the “model scouts” that seemed so prevalent on Broadway, and catch a glimpse of Teen Idol.
She would see Teen Idol eating outside of Big Nick’s with friends, rounding the corner after a game of basketball in Riverside Park, and running errands at the bodegas on Broadway. She couldn’t help wonder about him. After a while, she suspected he was a local, and she was right.
Teen Idol, or as he was known to the rest of UWS, Robert “Meatball” Thompson, lived catty-corner from The Lucerne, house-sitting half the year for a friend. Unbeknownst to Courtney, Rob split the rest of his time residing at his family’s apartment and managing friends’ brownstones – all within the W 70s. Since he was born, Rob’s entire life had revolved around a six block radius. From loitering by Joe’s Candy Store as a kid, working at various antique stores on Columbus Avenue as a teen, and later at Panda Copy and The General Store, Rob had seen the neighborhood change as often as the faces of the AMDA students he’d occasionally get to know at work.
Courtney, however, was not one of those students. In 1994, she left AMDA for a European touring show, then she returned to work Off-Broadway. To pay the bills, she juggled auditioning and acting with working as an Upper West Side nanny. Escorting her little charges to the Calhoun school or Levain Bakery, she would often spot Rob on the curb, chatting with people.
After Courtney moved to Los Angeles in 2001, she focused on her West Coast endeavors. Always an East Coast girl, she jumped on occupational therapy internships at Mount Sinai and Visions in 2007 and carved out time to visit her old neighborhood. Gentrification, 9/11 and the economy had taken its toll on the UWS, so it was comforting whenever she saw Rob walking by. While he had grown a little grey around the temples, he seemed the same, friendly-looking guy, though he was still blissfully unaware of her.
Everything changed when Courtney walked into the building of one of her new clients on the UWS, in March of 2014. There, she was shocked to see Teen Idol working in the lobby. Since she would be visiting her new client regularly, Courtney decided to finally introduce herself to Teen Idol. She joked she had accidentally been stalking him for twenty years. Teen Idol laughed and said his name was Robert. He was enthralled by her sighting recollections, and it was obvious something was simmering between them. It didn’t hurt that they were geographically desirable.
Courtney was excited when two decades of random sightings finally led to a first date at the New York Historical Society. Afterwards, Rob asked Courtney where she would like to have dinner. Without hesitation, she replied, “Dallas BBQ!” A romantic walk in the mist and a first kiss in front of the fountain at Lincoln Center spun their relationship into high gear. Courtney couldn’t believe someone she had noticed for years might be The One. After a couple of months of dating, pointing out brownstones of their dreams, recounting significant Upper West Side sites of coming-of-age stories, and swapping, “Remember when…?” tales about locals, Rob confessed he had always yearned for a “small town romance, like in the movies” — and now, he had one. Together, they had turned the UWS into their own quixotic small town.
One year later, in a Central Park scene right out of a Woody Allen film, complete with picnic, rambunctious kids playing in the background and a dirty pup named Rocky eying their food, Rob proposed to Courtney. That’s them below after the proposal. After 22 years of “seeing” each other, Courtney and Rob are finally getting married downtown at City Hall on June 12, 2015. They will take each other’s hands and head uptown where they belong, home to the Upper West Side.