Sunday, January 18, 2009

"It was a gray city, a weary one, an older one"

Novelist Kevin Baker has an op-ed in the Times today. It's about his arrival in NYC in the late 1970s. Here are a few excerpts from the piece titled "New York was so much older then."

It was a dirtier city then, more violent, more interesting — more accessible to poor, eager young people. We lived four and five to a railroad apartment, the bathtub in the kitchen in some places, the floors lined with clumpy chalk lines of boric acid that were our useless defense against the cockroaches.

We feasted on $4 platters of Indian food in restaurants on Sixth Street where you could bring your own wine. We went everywhere by subway, riding in gray, graffiti-covered cars where half the doors didn’t open and a single, sluggish fan shoved the air about on summer nights. We took a cab sometimes, when there were five of us and we could get a Checker, one person riding on the jump seat, staring out at the long avenues of the city.


It was a gray city, a weary one, an older one. There were, in those days, pornographic theaters in good neighborhoods; Bowery-style wino bars with sawdust on the floor on Upper Broadway; prostitutes along West End Avenue slipping into cars with New Jersey license plates. It was a city, too, that seemed to open up into an infinite series of magic boxes, of novelty shops and diners, delicatessens and corner bakeries, used record stores and bookstores.

Like Barack Obama we read everything we could get our hands on. It was a movie-mad town then, and we lined up for hours in the cold on the East Side to see the latest Fassbinder or Fellini, the new Woody Allen. We nailed long, flapping schedules of all the revival houses to our walls, from the Thalia and the New Yorker, Theater 80 St. Marks and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. I saw my first Broadway show, “Equus,” for $3, and sat on stage.

[Photo of the 1970s East Village by Litter Bugged via Filthy Messes.]


Ken Mac said...


Anonymous said...

it was a great time. one correction, though--obama came here about as poor as I was. we were both from middle-class backgrounds, from nicer places that were a far cry from nyc in those days. the poverty myth should be put to bed already. he won, it served its purpose....

mikestill said...

Beautiful column. But as someone who is nearing the end of his 20' and has spent the last half of the decade making a career for himself in acting and comedy, I'm not sure if the experience he describes is lost. My new york experience has been one of dive bars, a hunger for art, friends mugged, communal living, run-ins with the beautiful and horrible all on the same block. Sure, New York is not the place it was in the 70's, with soaring murder rates, but that hunger for life felt by the young artist still lives on.