One Slightly Crazy Night on East 52nd Street

Imagine it’s the mid 1970s, and that you’re flying high above the earth – you’re unfamiliar with its terrain – and you come across the narrow strip of land known as Manhattan, its dense mass of tall buildings jutting irregularly like crocodiles’ teeth. Probably, you’d reduce your altitude and take a closer look, no?

You might even, as happened on the night of 23 August 1974, hover right over East 52nd Street. And from there you would have seen a man on a roof terrace, blinking in his glasses, a naked man calling to his girlfriend, ‘May, get out here will you? NOW! – bring the camera too.’ But you shouldn’t be too surprised by him, his bare body, or anything else you see that night. The world wobbles during the summer months in New York City – things become a little febrile on balmy evenings.

There are others too, in and around the island, who witness the low flying craft and contact the NYPD. Whether the police do anything with the infor-mation is doubtful. Perhaps an officer makes a careful entry in a ledger. Maybe there are conversations in canteens; jokes about drugs, excessive lager consumption in warm weather.

Years later, the naked man’s girlfriend, May Pang will recall the space craft tilting as it flew over their heads; presumably the occupants were angling for a better look. She and John took many photographs as it drifted like a disorientated tourist through the skyline.

The following week, the film is returned blank by the developers: ‘Are you sure this didn’t go through the radar at customs?’ the young boy sniggers to the man in sun glasses, not recognising the ex-Beatle, which was often the case.

The week after the sighting, John Lennon gets to talk on public television about what he saw. Dressed in a yellow and black striped scarf and corduroy newsboy cap (you’ll find the clip on YouTube), he points upwards to the tall block of flats.

‘Up there, I saw a UFO. It turned right at the United Nations, then left again, then carried on down the river. It wasn’t a helicopter. And it wasn’t a balloon. And it was silent – completely silent. I could hear the traffic on the streets below.’

The interviewer nods, and – hell, yes! – wasn’t that a wink to the camera?
‘I know what you’re thinking!’ Lennon says. ‘I’d just finished Walls and Bridges and I was straight as a die. It was a good clear summer night and the UFO was dark, shaped like a spinning-top, with these bulbs going blink blink blink, and a red light on top.’

The interview is watched by Karl Stevens, the agent still nominally assigned to John Lennon’s case, the FBI having assembled hundreds of files as part of the President’s effort to deport him. Nixon believed Lennon’s support of left-wing causes could jeopardise his chances of re-election. Then Watergate made it academic.

Karl meets his manager and the two briefly discuss UFOs.
‘Whether they exist or not,’ the manager says, ‘that screwball Lennon claims to have just seen one. Make a report, Karl! We may need to calm a hysteric public.’

‘The public doesn’t need calming – and we don’t need to record this bullshit either! Haven’t you heard? Nixon resigned two weeks ago!’

He was right. Post Nixon, the authorities became less fixated on throwing Lennon out of the country. A judge will soon reverse the deportation order against him, an event which will coincide with him moving back into the Dakota with Yoko Ono after their eighteen month ‘lost weekend’.

For the time being, he and May Pang are of course widely ridiculed in the press and on television, which Lennon knew would happen. He is used to being the media’s favourite clown.

‘That’s why I didn’t want to tell anybody, May. You know how frustrating this is? To be practically the only person who sees extraordinary things?’
May doesn’t exactly answer the question. ‘I saw the space craft too,’ she says.
‘That flying saucer was so quiet! Why can’t we make anything so quiet? I’m going to start a new campaign: Give Silence a Chance.’
‘Don’t do it, John. The world has already labelled you a lunatic.’
‘Too right they have. Those aliens should’ve parked on our roof and taken me on board! I’d have gone just like that.’

We may wonder if the occupants of the flying saucer had any idea about the rumpus they’d be creating as they sped vertically and silently away from Manhattan. What we do know is that their first reports were met with more than a little incredulity.

They’d been familiar with the Beatles on Planet ║╗╗╧╧║║ since successfully capturing radio waves in 1965. And their first surveillance trip to earth yielded a fanzine found in a suitcase floating in the Atlantic. Opinions varied on the peak of the group’s creativity, though it was agreed the White Album marked a particular low point.

‘So you fly over New York, right? And who is the first person you just happen to see, ╓║╓╓╓? Oh, it’s John Lennon!’
‘It’s the truth, ║╬!’
‘Of course! And I forgot the other choice detail. He’s stark naked! Not even shoes? Really, ╓║╓╓╓ – really?’
‘Not even shoes.’
‘The surface of those New York roof terraces heat right up in the summer, you know!’
‘Sure they do.’
‘So he’s naked – apart from his glasses of course. Just like that crazy album cover they discussed on the Andy Peebles show!’
‘Why’s it so unbelievable? His girlfriend had clothes on.’
‘So why film the sky, and not him? That’s kind of crazy too!’
‘We were so mesmerised we forgot to point the camera.’
‘Let’s agree on one thing. We won’t mention Lennon by name in the report. We’ll be the laughing stock of ║╗╗╧╧║║.’

It’s likely that rumours of the sighting began circulating in any case, knowing the planet’s obsession with anything connected to the Beatles. But they will remain unaware of the small printed note that Lennon added to the Walls and Bridges album cover:

                                                                         On the 23rd Aug. 1974 at 9 o’clock
                                                                                         I saw a U.F.O.
                                                                                                  J.L.

James Woolf was shortlisted for this Bridport Short Story Prize 2016 and highly commended in the London Short Story Prize 2015. His work has appeared in various publications, including ‘Good Morning, Azar’ in Ambit 229 and ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Blanche’ in Ambit 227. He recently completed his first novel, Three Steps Behind, a psychological thriller set in 1970s Yorkshire. He also writes plays.