Monday, September 14, 2015


A few people have asked me what I thought of Edmund White’s NYT magazine essay, “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About New York in the Late 1970s?” — which title some youngbloods will probably impudently echo, in the manner of do we have to have leftovers again? I think White, a writer I admire, was doing a job of work here, and I suspect his catalogue of rough street scenes (“rats galloping underfoot or a stickup in broad daylight on busy Christopher Street”) and his Roll Call of Great Names ("the representative figures of this New York were Susan Sontag, Jasper Johns, George Balanchine, Robert Wilson, Robert Mapplethorpe” etc. etc.) have more to do with packaging (see NYTM's “related coveragephoto features) than with Wordsworthian commotion recollected in tranquillity.

But I enjoyed it anyway, of course; I enjoy any summoning of the old town as it was in my youth. I don’t get up to New York much anymore, mainly because I miss it too much to even look at it -- it just breaks my heart to be reminded that it goes on without me. But pre-gentrification New York, that’s something that does not go on, but remains as it was. It can be viewed as a gutter-glittering object of exploitation, in simulacra like that crappy CBGB movie and (I assume) the upcoming Scorsese thing and so on. But it also lives in the sustaining blood of old guttersnipe hearts like mine.

As to the question: Why do we still talk about it? I have spoken on this many times before. But allow me to make one or two more points on the subject:

One reason we talk about 70s New York is because there’s not much else to talk about. I’m sure there are plenty of exciting things going on in New York right now. I read, for example, about those painted topless ladies in Times Square, and recognize and admire their place in the time-honored New York Circle of Hype: First, someone aggressively pushes a right, and then someone else exploits that right for money (and the New York Post exploits it as part of their “Democrats bring back Son of Sam” horseshit, and so on).

All well and good. But if we are talking about the arts, and the developments in New York life that cause them to not only survive but also thrive and coalesce into movements that inform and uplift American and even world culture, someone will have to explain to me how the current era is ever going to make that happen. Mind you, that may not be the era’s fault; we are in a famously atomized social media environment, where it’s not as easy as it once was for a few critics and artists to bum-rush the show. But when your idea of the Next Big Thing is not, say, punk rock, which is still happening (albeit in a debased form) decades later, but artisanal hobo bindles from Williamsburg, then you have to at least consider the idea that the problem is not the tide of history, but you and your buddies. (Then again, maybe it is history -- they don't make that like they used to, either.)

Bigger than that, though, in the imagination of a public that still swoons for The 70s City whether they were there or not, is the freedom, I think. They don’t usually mention that in the essays and the biopics. What do you mean, freedom? Isn't safety the first freedom? Aren't we much safer in our lovely gated communities than in any city?

But when ordinary people look through the peep-show glasses at the dirty streets and the sketchy characters of 70s New York, I don’t think they thrill to it because they desire to be mugged; I think they like it because they suspect that the danger came with something they would want, but can no longer get on any terms. And they're right.

White alludes to the fact that you could live cheap in New York back then: “…would-be writers, singers, dancers could afford to live in Manhattan’s (East, if not, West) Village, before everyone marginal was further marginalized by being squeezed out to Bushwick or Hoboken,” he says. “Face-to-face encounters are essential to a city’s vitality, even among people who aren’t sure of each other’s names, for the exchange of ideas and to generate a sense of electricity.”

To get at why we really still talk about New York in the 70s, let’s look beyond what that meant for artistic critical mass, and at what that meant for day-to-day life. Because not everyone I knew back then was an artist, but everyone I knew back then — people I befriended at CBGBs or at after-hours coke bars or in public parks or in ill-lit little apartments with the music turned up — was living where I was and as I was, and we all knew the deal. When I went to New York with some promises of couches to sleep on and $20 in my pocket, I knew I was making a trade: I would be endangered, and in some unimportant ways constrained, but I would be free. I took the trade. The first place I had of my own was a railroad flat on 11th Street between First and Second; it was so roach-infested I had to get a friend who worked in a factory to slip me some industrial foggers (the place smelled of bug spray for months after I used them, but never saw a roach again). Because all the windows were on one wall, which made fans nearly useless for drawing air through the place, and because I couldn’t afford an air conditioner (and it was on the top floor of a six-story walkup), on summer nights I would douse myself with cold water sprayed from a rubber hose in the tub in the kitchen, and immediately go lay in my single bed sopping wet. Some nights I had to get up once or twice and do it again.

It sounds like poverty, and it was — I had a job as a busboy and I still qualified for food stamps, and I didn’t have a lot of walking-around money. But it was an old-fashioned kind of poverty — the kind you could actually work your way up out of (or at least, up into a more self-sustaining kind of poverty) — and still get your kicks. I got that busboy job within ten days of coming to New York. And I was able to save money — cash from tips that I stuck under the cushions of those couches — to put down a deposit on an apartment. And that railroad flat? $125 a month. I think the monthly electric bill was like $12. I’d go to CB’s, have a few beers, go to the Kiev for pierogies after, and be down less than $20 on the night. And when I had a day off, I didn’t have to make plans — I was in New York City. I could walk out my door and be on the best vacation ever. Someone might get me high. Someone might fuck me. Someone might kill me, true. But you took the good with the bad.

This reminiscence sounds highly personal, but really, hundreds of thousands of people at the time, and millions in the aggregate, had a pretty similar experience, and I lived not just in my own private pleasure but in the jet-stream of everyone else’s. The place Edmund White describes was not just a stage on which the 70s art heroes built their careers. It wasn’t just Richard Hell’s and Chuck Close’s and Susan Sarandon’s New York. It was mine. And it was anybody’s who wanted it, pretty much, because it barely cost anything beyond the guts to live it. Maybe it’s too bad that we can’t have another punk rock scene, but it’s a fucking disaster that we can’t have that.

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