Whatever Gets You Through the Night


I was born in New York City, but it’s not where I grew up.

When I was two years old my family moved to Southern California. When I remember my childhood I remember sunshine and sand and gorgeous young mothers in bikinis made of fabric that was blue and yellow and brown.

In 1978, when I was 12 years old, I made my first trip back to NYC to visit with my uncle (over the next 15 years there would be four more of increasing length before I settle out here permanently.)

The New York of today is nothing like the New York of 1978, and the New York of 1978 was nothing like the San Diego at the end of the 70s. In 1978 New York was dirty and dangerous. 

What do I remember most? The smell; pretzels, piss, sweat and sex. Yes, in 1978 New York actually smelled like sex. At the time I didn’t have a name for the smell, but I recognized it, was excited by it, was intoxicated by it. My uncle lived at Seventh Ave. and 12th St. and we ended many of our long days touring the city with hamburgers at David’s Pot Belly on Christopher St., in the gayest heart of Greenwich Village. On Christopher St. the smell of sex hung in the air almost like the perfume of lilacs on a Spring day, save that the oder sex wasn’t light and floral, it was heavy and portentous.

30 years later New York is changed. The smell of piss is occasional, rather than pervasive. The smell of sex is gone. I don’t find myself in the neighborhoods where the pretzel wagons ply their trade that often. The city is safe.

And it’s a little boring.

I almost feel ashamed to say this, but I feel nostalgia for the bad old days. Peggy feels it too, and she wasn’t in New York in the 70s as a tourist. As a child she lived with the smell and the danger every day of her life. We watch films like TAX DRIVER or SUMMER OF SAM or GAY SEX IN THE 70s and we feel wistful – ”It used to take grit to live in this town, now all it takes is a bank roll.”

But don’t be fooled by our nostalgia. Time has a way of white washing the muggings and the dog shit and the four locks on your apartment door and two more on the building itself. Time has a way of white washing the daily diet of petty indignities and the personal violations that used to be part and parcel of being a New Yorker.

New York in the Seventies was a shithole, and I miss it.

The only version of this scene from TAXI DRIVER I could find is dubbed in Spanish, but you get the idea.

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One Comment

  1. Tony's uncle
    Posted June 24, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    What a surprise to read this. I had no idea that 1978 had made such a powerful impression on my 12-year-old nephew’s mind.

    This is all so true. New York was a scary, dangerous, sexually overheated place back then. I remember always looking far ahead on the sidewalk where I was walking, ready to cross over to the other side of the street in a flash if I saw something or someone menacing up ahead.

    But no matter how threatening and dirty the city was, I still loved it. You needed plenty of moxie to survive in it, and to me that was what New York was all about.

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