Dirty Secrets of the Hidden Industry

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Near the end of 1981, I stumbled across a promising job opening, at yet another publication I’d never read or even heard about: Video Marketing Newsletter. Though I didn’t yet own a recorder, I knew video cassettes were the future. Right away, I was sold: the future had potential. The future sounded like a solid commercial proposition.

At a couple hundred bucks per subscription, business newsletters only required a few thousand subscribers to turn a profit. Production costs were almost non-existent on these glorified brochures; they were stapled, picture-less, ten-page pamphlets. Veteran rock critic and folk music maven Ira Mayer ran Video Marketing Newsletter. He’d just rented a five-room suite on a tidy midtown side street between Lexington and Third Avenue. Next-door was an enclosed concrete park with a fountain and a snack bar that operated in warm weather. On the other side was a synagogue, housed in a modestly handsome modern building. Across the street was an outlet of the “Erotic Baker” chain, its display window stocked with a grotesque assortment of penis and breast-shaped layer cakes. New York City was so tacky sometimes. Little did I suspect that the porn presence was prescient.

A few weeks later, I was introduced on the back page of VMN as a “veteran trade reporter.” From that point on, I knew we were all in trouble.

During the six months I worked at VMN, every so often I answered the phone and heard this: “Who the hell writes this crap?” I was never quite sure how to answer. Naturally I knew who wrote it, and so did the film studio executives and video store owners who called to complain about the subtle shadings of their quotes. Our sources were also our subjects, and our subscribers. Businessmen – successful executives – paid good money to read VMN musing on the future of consumer electronics. And consumer electronics was about to change the world. Ira and his California-based partners foresaw the all-conquering acronyms: VCR, CD, DVD, and PC.

Though I still hate to admit it, my bosses were right. On the money. Considering how much of the specific short-range stuff they consistently got wrong – such as laser discs overtaking videocassettes – only makes their omniscience on the big picture all the more incomprehensible. Video Marketing Newsletter was a high-tech oracle, a handbook for nerds before being a geek became cool or insanely profitable.

“In the future all our media, all our entertainment will be consumed and delivered on machines made in Japan” — this was our mantra in early 1982. Churning out vague yet obvious predictions turned into a lucrative business for Video Marketing Newsletter. Too bad I spent most of my time there writing freelance music articles for little or no money.

The videocassette market, in terms of movie content, resembled Times Square circa 1982: evenly divided between Hollywood blockbusters and the vast tawdry empire of pornographic films.

Times Square was hands-down my least favorite place in Manhattan. Relentless sleaze permeated the neon atmosphere. It was, literally breathtaking, and depressing beyond words. The grim aura of human exploitation extended from the joyless porn movie palaces to the various personal services offered in strip clubs and on the streets. Obvious and not-so-obvious whores of various genders bantered with the tourists who stood around gaping at the marquees: Live Nude Girls 24 Hours, Peep Show/Private Booths and XXX All Male Cast Triple Features Daily.

There were still first-run movie theaters on Broadway in those days, too. The Times Square audiences were lively, let’s say: openly smoking pot, yelling at the screen. Watching a movie in these conditions may not have been dangerous, but it wasn’t remotely pleasant either. As a rule, I tried to avoid those sorts of potential-mob-scene situations.

The mass popularity of pornography (and prostitution) was simply astonishing. Not merely the prevalence, but the demand and the apparent frequency of consumption. Put it this way: I knew porn was popular but I had no idea how popular. The proximity of Times Square to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station only partially explained the lurid proliferation. How many commuters made a secretive sex stop on the way home?

Though porn movies accounted for roughly 50% of the burgeoning video cassette market, you (understandably) wouldn’t have read about that in Video Marketing Newsletter. The retail outlets and video stores that serviced the new market couldn’t afford to be so discriminating; the “adult section” was discreetly situated in the rear of the store.

A crucial issue for VMN was sales versus rentals. Most consumers preferred to borrow video cassettes for $2 or $3 and return them to the store, rather than purchase and own a movie for $20. Columbia Pictures tried to squelch the new videocassette rental market in early 1982 by announcing that it would begin restricting movies on tape to “sale-only” but the video dealers weren’t having it.

Ira Mayer and I attended a hastily convened meeting of the regional branch of the Home Video Merchants Association, a loose knit group of video-store owners, taking place in New Jersey at a chain-hotel conference room. The day before I had called the main office of Superstar Video (let’s call it), New York City’s popular new chain of video stores, located in the back room of what was basically an upscale pornography supermarket in Times Square. When he found out VMN knew about the meeting, the owner got on the phone. Of course he was pissed off by the security leak. Swearing me to secrecy until the story ran, he grudgingly said we could attend the meeting as long as we didn’t draw undue attention to ourselves. “Mr. Superstar” rallied the troops that night; he rocked the house.

We built this business for the studios. They wouldn’t have Home Video divisions if we didn’t risk our necks in 1978, 79. The movie companies didn’t know they were sitting on a goldmine. Retailers created the home video market. It didn’t exist back then. Now we’ve got fucking, excuse me, Fotomats renting videos. [applause] I don’t have to tell all of you. We watched it grow, the home video market. We grew it. And now the movie studios are trying to snatch it back from us. No thanks. We’re not laying down. No way. My stores aren’t carrying sale-only videos.

We were mildly exuberant on the way back to New York. A little drama made for lively journalism, even in The Hidden Industry. The story would write itself, for once.

***

A shot at establishing (or redeeming) myself as a business reporter arrived with the coming of warmer weather. The Summer Consumer Electronics Show, or CES to those in the know, was scheduled for the first week in June. Naturally my boss planned to attend, this season with me in tow. I spent the week before CES on the phone. Ira hoped to interview every – any – executive who could be corralled for five minutes on the convention floor. “Why in the world does he want to speak with me?” was a frequent response. Eventually, nearly everybody gave in. VMN was impossible to avoid before the bloody show even began.

Our hotel, more of a motel, was a Holiday Inn equivalent next to O’Hara airport. The McCormick Center was accessible via buses from the airport. My flight was delayed five hours so I the missed Thursday’s evening festivities, including Sony’s legendary all-you-can-eat sushi buffet and a luau hosted by Panasonic, among other draws. I slept fitfully in the unseasonably sub-polar air-conditioning. The first bus departed at 7:30 and I was on it, clutching my styrofoam coffee cup.

A battery of satellite dishes guarding the entry plaza imparted a militaristic Star Wars vibe to the airy lakeside complex.  Welcome the wonderful world of gadgets. Batteries not included. It was a midnight-sun environment, relentlessly bright. Natural light would’ve been inappropriate, somehow. The harsh lighting gave me a near-blinding headache after a couple hours exposure.

Predictably I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation that I had trouble putting each product in context. What makes this one different? I’d think, and then silently answer: who cares? Who would want to watch a Sony Watchman, a portable TV with a tiny 4-inch screen? Presumably not the same sort of person who would fork over $10,000 for Sony Trinitron 30-inch screen sunk in a wood cabinet, complete with monogrammed gold plate. I didn’t have anything invested in “consumer electronics” because I wasn’t an electronics consumer beyond my Walkman, cheap stereo and TV. I felt like an enemy spy behind the lines at CES – or a double agent.

I studied name tags and loitered close to the booths, zeroing in on the nerdy-looking guys who seemed to be in charge while avoiding the moderately pretty and provocatively dressed Midwestern blondes who were stationed by the display tables.

Identifying yourself as a journalist at a trade show meant removing yourself from the ranks of potential paying customers. You served no purpose, as far as the exhibitors were concerned, you were useless. These guys bought ads to sell their products, paid to publicize their companies; they didn’t need an inept trade magazine reporter to spread the word.

I had a hard time getting past “what’s new?” in other words. My problems started with “I’m with Video Marketing Newsletter.” The invariable response was “what? Never seen it.” I didn’t have a snappy answer at hand. There was no snappy answer.

The most popular exhibits at CES – by a wide and obvious margin – were situated in a roped-off section devoted to the so-called adult video industry. This was the most heavily trafficked area in the entire McCormick Center. When various porn actresses were appearing, the line of guys waiting for (presumably) autographs stretched past the life-sized cardboard statue of Jane Fonda in her workout leotards at Karl Home Video.

Naturally I ran into my boss and his business partner near the entrance to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“What are you doing here?” The tone was accusatory, as though they weren’t “here,” too.

“I came over to check out the crowd. I should’ve known what was going on.”

“What else have you been up to, Mark?”

I flashed my reporters’ notebook, blue ink visible on its fluttering pages. My shoulder-pouch was stuffed with brochures.

“Wait there’s something else you could do before lunch. There’s a secret meeting of retailers back at one of the hotels. The guy from Superstar Video is rallying the troops. I want you to just show up.”

“He’ll kill me. Then kick me out.”

“No, it’ll be fine. Tell him we’re sending you in my place.”

The Red Roof Inn conference center resembled a mid-sized college classroom. One notable difference: Mr. Superstar, looking fierce in a button-down shirt and warm-up suit, glowered next to the podium and empty blackboard. Everybody seated at the long tables in front of him – maybe fifty or sixty people – turned to look when I slipped in. I shut the doors behind me, turned around and smiled like a fool. “How’s it going?”

“You!…you sold us down the river with that fucking article!”

You said we could write about the dealers’ meeting. The entire piece was your quotes. Hey, we got in hot water with our subscribers for taking your side.”

“No that article was fine. The one after that pissed me off. These Hollywood pricks say we’re greedy? Don’t get me started.”

“No, no, let’s talk, let’s talk, you should do a follow-up interview.”

“Kid why don’t you come down to my store back in New York and I’ll rent you a copy of All The President’s Men.”

“How about Deep Throat?” I hoped he got the joke.

“Get the fuck out of here. Now.”

Blowing Dodge & Burning Rubber

I first read New York Rocker at my record store job in Ann Arbor during the summer of 1979. The newsprint tabloid miraculously appeared alongside slick publications like Billboard and Rolling Stone in the modest magazine rack near the check out counter. My appetite for the new rock coming out of lower Manhattan had been whetted by The Village Voice, and NYR further stimulated that hunger with deep coverage of each subsequent ripple, from radical no wave bands like the funky and confrontational Contortions to more user friendly Manhattan imports like the party-starting B-52s from Athens, Georgia.

Sharp writing and splashy graphics distinguished NYR from the amateur enthusiasm of the do-it-yourself journals that came to be known as fanzines. It proved an indispensable guide. Abrasive and syncopated, the Contortions’ Buy took a while to sink in. But the B-52s’ joyous debut became an in-store favorite. While I still loved the energy of punk and the melodic thrust of power pop, when the Knack hit with “My Sharona” that summer, my musical taste began to evolve and expand beyond the confines of rock and roll.

Controversially, I picked the latest disco singles when it was my turn to choose the in-store soundtrack. Never a dancer, I was attracted to Chic and Donna Summer by the soulful singing and sophisticated rhythmic pulse; trifles like “I Love The Night Life” by Alicia Bridges or Anita Ward’s “Ring Your Bell” felt like classic, catchy pop.

Eighteen months later, armed with a college diploma and several hundred LPs, I occupied my old bedroom in Cincinnati and fitfully plotted my next move. Sending resumes to newspapers in search of employment yielded little more than polite pro-forma rejections. Sometime in January 1981 (I’d graduated in December 1980), I noted the decreasing circulation size of the papers I queried. The prospect of obtaining a reporter’s job in say, Chillicothe and slowly working my way up to the Cincinnati Enquirer or Cleveland Plain Dealer seemed unlikely and perhaps not where I wanted to end up anyway. I continued to read The Village Voice every week, and frequented a punk/new wave record store off Calhoun Street in Clifton that carried New York Rocker along with all the latest UK imports and indie singles. The manager rudely dismissed my inquiry about part-time employment and seemed openly annoyed by my many browsing-only visits. Though I couldn’t afford to buy records, I vicariously tried to keep up.

Driving my parents’ car around town, I found myself tuned in to WCIN, the local R&B station; partially because the mainstream rock stations were so dire in those days, dominated by the Axis of Evil (Journey, Styx and Kansas), but also because the bass-heavy sound of funk and the fleet-footed swing of disco sounded so much better, frankly, than everything else available. My personal epiphany occurred not on the road to Damascus but somewhere on Winton Road between between Clifton and Finneytown. The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber On Me” came pumping out of the cheap Volkswagon speakers and I realized this funky strut rocked more effectively than any current rock and roll, new wave or old hat. I growled along with the lyrics and drummed on the steering wheel, my mind accelerating beyond the speed limit. And as my musical horizons broadened, so did my perception of my own destiny. Suddenly I realized where I’d always wanted to go and only now had the confidence to say out loud. New York City.

Come On Feel The Noise

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“What’s the best way to play guitar with drumsticks? Well, when Thurston Moore jammed one up the neck of his electric during Sonic Youth’s Sunday afternoon set at CBGB it sounded great. Just as the quartet seemed to be on the verge of a melody, boom! A downstroke from bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Richard Edson’s cymbal crashes pushed the guitarists into glorious chaos. The room got drenched with droning feedback, ear-splitting harmonics, tangled rhythms and the amplified whir of an electric drill. A week later and I’m still not sure what hit me, but I know I loved it.” – New York Rocker 1981

In retrospect I was in the right place at the right time entirely by accident. My second assignment for New York Rocker was a live review of a new band called Sonic Youth. (The first was a John Cale show billed as solo piano that wound up being his full band circa Honi Soit LP.)  I’d actually witnessed the prototype version of the band (without Lee Ranaldo) at the noise fest the previous summer. But even that couldn’t have prepared me for what I heard and saw when I walked into CBGB one autumn night in 1981. The band was raw and still working out their radical approach to making music but the now-familiar elements were all in place: clanging harmonics and ear-numbing feedback, yes, but also moments of atmospheric calm and twisted beauty plus Kim Gordon’s hypnotic vocals on a song or two. I approached Thurston Moore after their set and told him I’d been assigned a review; this was long before the days of publicists, hangers-on and backroom protocol on every level of the music scene. Downtown in those days was democratic. People were equals on both sides of the stage. If you ask am I surprised that Sonic Youth went on to achieve everything they did my answer is a resounding NO. While I never could have predicted what happened to them – and me – in the years to come, I knew it would be something. It’s hard to pin down, but the sound of possibility was everywhere in New York City then. There was music in the streets.

All Aboard Amtrak

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My actual point of departure for New York City turned out to be less than romantic: a forlorn platform in the freight yards outside the grand old Union Terminal. One of Cincinnati’s architectural treasures, with murals by German artist Winold Reiss, thirty five years ago Union Terminal was functioning – fitfully — as an upscale shopping mall. Just a few stores huddled beneath the sprawling paintings, and customers were scarce, or at least they had been on my aimless exploratory visit the previous week.

The Amtrak Cardinal pulled through Cincinnati on its way to Washington D.C. from Chicago. It must’ve been about 6:00 pm, because I remember saying goodbye to my apprehensive mom and dad in something approaching daylight, après an early dinner at home. It was a frigid Tuesday in February 1981.

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Rural West Virginia passed by my window most of the night: a sea of pitch-black nothing, occasionally interrupted by random islands of illumination: the pointless blinking of a traffic signal over a deserted intersection, a beacon spot-light shining forth from the side of a windowless corrugated shed.

Changing trains in D.C. passed by as a blur. Somehow I managed to get aboard the Metroliner. The window view looked decidedly different from the day before: disused factories, decayed warehouses. A sign hanging on a huge smokestack in Wilmington, Delaware grabbed my attention: Documents Shredded. The gory details of Watergate, Nixon’s secrecy and paranoia, were fresh enough memories to render this service both wildly funny and slightly ominous. I was entering the part of the country – the east coast — where information mattered. Documents, words, data, ideas and writing: it was all taken quite seriously. Or so I presumed.

Pulling out of Philadelphia, the north side of the city stunned me, a vision out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. North Philadelphia really did resemble a bombsite: crumbling row houses, junked autos, cracked concrete walls further pockmarked with cartoon-letter graffiti, bumper crops of broken bottles harvested in vacant lots.

The concluding hour or so of the journey consisted of a very leisurely crawl through a tunnel deep below New Jersey. This delay lent a starkly claustrophobic air to the already uncomfortable (cold, crowded) train car. I survived by fantasizing about the way my friends and I used to cruise to downtown Cincinnati via automobile, watching identical acres of ranch houses with lawns gradually shrink and give way to row houses, apartment complexes and office buildings. No, the east coast was different. Dive right in the muck.

Talk about being fresh off the boat, wet behind the ears you name it: I got played for a sucker not half a dozen steps into Penn Station. The entry-level exam in urban savvy is easy to flunk.

“Hey my man you need a cab?”

I sure did. However, this helpful stranger – a thirty-ish African-American with mustache and what I interpreted as a jaunty taxi driver’s cap – grabbed my battered Samsonites just as I nodded in the affirmative, lugging my suitcases toward a distant exit sign. About a minute later the truth sunk into the pit of my stomach. This guy was no cab driver. His “help” would consist entirely of steering the unwitting customer – me — toward the clearly marked cabstand where other potential passengers waited in an orderly line and the real drivers remained snugly behind the wheels of their cars. My guy demanded $10 and accepted $5, while I silently thanked him for a quick education in the potential hazards of public transportation and by extension, the city itself. People looking to take advantage waited around every corner.

“Just look for a red door under the cow sign…”

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For exactly one year, from fall 2012 to fall 2013, I went to work every day just a block away from where I lived in the early 1980s. Walking the same route thirty years later, I quickly concluded that no other Manhattan neighborhood could’ve changed as much as the meatpacking district. And after a few months of plowing up and down that still-familiar stretch of west 15th Street, I heard echoes of the 80s and the music in the street.

Home was the stark white three-story building on the north corner, across the street from the Apple Store today. A nameless Greek coffee shop, run by three separate men called “Georgie,” occupied the entire first floor. On 14th Street other neighbors included: faded Irish bar with live bluegrass music, failing Metro supermarket, busy beer distributor’s outlet, busy bicycle shop, gypsy fortune teller living with her family in a storefront that doubled as her salon. According to the sign, that is. I walked past the picture window every day and never once saw Madame with a client.

Around the corner on 9th Avenue neighbor sat The Old Homestead Steakhouse. A hulking neon-lit replica steer stood guard over the restaurant’s canopied and carpeted entranceway. Our front door, next to the Homestead’s satellite butcher shop, had just been painted a flagrant shade of red. Look for a red door underneath the cow sign, I’d tell my infrequent guests. You couldn’t miss it.

There was no intercom system in the building. Visitors had to bring a dime for the pay phone, and call me from across the street.

Crossing 9th Avenue and continuing west on 14th Street felt like falling off the map. During the day the meat-packers’ market formed a bleak panorama. By noon the butchers were finished with work and mostly gone. Even after the cobblestones were cleansed of the pre-dawn bloodbath, the streets still reeked. Open dumpsters and rubber trash barrels lined the sidewalks, filled to the rims with freshly rendered hunks of peppermint-striped animal fat. Forget about the rats; in the meatpacking district the flies were scary.

After dark the warehouses turned into hives of activity, much of it furtive. Camouflaged in black leathers, men prowled the shadowy blocks all night long, loners and duos stalking past the packs gathered near a doorway or loading dock. Were there dozens of people walking around on any given night, or hundreds, bar-hopping between the murky nightclubs and after-hours spots? I can’t say. It always looked like a lot of guys from across the street.

Around the building I hardly ever laid eyes on the other tenants. And when I did, passing them in the hall, the vast majority registered as taciturn, reluctant, grunting avoiders of eye contact.

There were exceptions. Bette lived right across the hall, with her husband Abe, a disabled man who barely left their studio apartment. She played Mom, always asking how I was doing even though she was obviously struggling with her husband. He must’ve been nearly 80, she looked younger, maybe 60. Her face was wizened, worn-out, yet Bette had a ready, raspy hack of a laugh. I’d see her at the Irish bar, through the window, smoking and nursing a Bud bottle. Between her warm drawl and crooked teeth, I pegged her as an Appalachian immigrant, though I never inquired.

The local equivalent of Frank and Jeff lived down the hall. Barry occupied the relatively spacious corner apartment; he was an obvious-gay type of guy, clean-cut and genial, always smiling. We got along on the smallest of small talk. Mr. Charles lived alone, next door to Barry’s place. A portly man in his 60s, Mr. Charles wore a bad toupee and insisted that I take his card the first time we bumped into each other. Stanley Charles: Theatrical & Show Business Agent. I endured his inevitable recruiting pitch. After that, I enacted a policy of not saying more than “hello” to Mr. Charles.

Gradually, even the eye-contact avoiders became familiar figures.

My apartment was located next to the stairwell, conveniently allowing for quick ins and outs as well as guaranteeing a bare minimum of neighbor sightings. A pair of virtually identical women lived next door on the other side: dyed-blondes with masculine haircuts, fire-hydrant bodies and the hard-bitten demeanor of old-fashioned stereotypical lesbians. For months or maybe longer I assumed they were the same person and I’m still not completely sure. Perhaps my memory has perfected cloning.

Beside Barry two other residents appeared to be roughly around my age. Subject One was a spiky peroxide-blond scarecrow, the kind of dude who dutifully wore the punk rock uniform year-round: black leather jacket, jeans, t-shirt, Converse high-top sneakers. I nicknamed him the Horror-Rocker. Naturally I suspected he was a junkie.

His apparent friend or sidekick or partner in crime was a middle-aged Hispanic woman who lived down the hall. She wore the uniform of a school crossing guard. (I often saw her in action at the P.S. near the housing projects on 17th, leading the children across 9th avenue.) Theirs was an unlikely relationship to say the least. It only heightened my unease about the Horror-Rocker.

Even more disquieting was Subject Two, whom I unimaginatively nicknamed the Crazy Guy. He sported shoulder-length reddish blond locks and the bushy beard of an Old Testament prophet, or Charlie Manson. Every Sunday his elderly mother came to visit. I ran into them all the time: sitting in the diner or walking arm in arm, painfully slow, the little old lady and the lug. She was, of course, the only person I saw ever with him.

Most of the time the Crazy Guy hurried past me, eyes fixed on the ground. The few instances when we established eye contact were frightening. His pupils glowed like bloodshot lasers, inflamed with anger, fueled by unfathomable rage. He made me step back.

Occasionally, a knock on the door would interrupt my reverie. On Sunday mornings I received regular visits from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists – I learned how to tell the difference. One Saturday evening I fielded an inquiry from a determined young black guy who insisted his sister was hiding from him inside my apartment. “I know you’ve got her in there!”

I let him take a quick look over my shoulder, and the sight of an empty room apparently calmed him down “Sorry, my man.” After he disappeared down the hall, I realized my heart was pounding.

For the most part nobody bothered me. I became absorbed by the solitary pursuits of reading, writing, listening to music. I learned to cook on the creaky stove, bought discount groceries from the Western Beef retail outlet one block west on 14th Street.

When I wasn’t going out.

Living in cramped quarters propelled me outward, into the world. And the immediate environs, the neighborhood right outside my door, propelled me further still, to another – any other – part of town. More and more, beginning in 1982, my life occurred in public places.

“What the hell do they expect for their lousy 35 cents – to live forever?”

The NYC subways are still frustrating. There are delays due to construction, signal malfunctions, sick passengers, police activity etc etc.  One friend (who’s lived here longer than me) hears “this train is being momentarily held in the station by the dispatcher” and insists there’s no central dispatcher behind the (at times) seemingly random service. But he’s never seen The Taking of Pelham 123. Walter Matthau plays the train dispatcher who cooly and calmly negotiates a safe outcome when a ruthless and well-organized gang of four hijack a subway train on the Lexington Avenue 6 line. Forget the remake: the 1974 original captures all the dread and danger of daily underground commuting during the dirty decade in New York City. Even in 1981, when I arrived, the subways were still limping along, covered with graffiti inside and out, prone to break down at the slightest provocation. Beggars, assorted crazies and gangs of rowdy teenagers patrolled the cars, intimidating passengers at will. I once looked up from my book and saw a man flashing a smile at me – with a razor blade between his teeth. Another time the train halted between stations, and stayed there. Eventually we were led off the train by flashlight-toting MTA employees and walked along the rat-infested tracks, avoiding the third rail, until we reached the nearest stairway.

So the idea of a train being hijacked wasn’t exactly far-fetched. The Taking of Pelham 123 is a taut thriller with convincing low-key performances from Matthau and familiar 70s faces Robert Shaw (as the gang leader), Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and James Broderick. Fans of Quentin Tarantino will spot strong similarities with Reservoir Dogs. What really makes the movie, apart from the action and suspense, is characterization. As Roger Ebert put it at the time of release: “These aren’t machine-made characters, but individuals and more specifically, New Yorkers with gallows humor, paranoia, warmth and residence.” Those traits are still in abundance among New Yorkers today, even if the subway isn’t as filthy and threatening. Oh, and the hapless mayor in Pelham totally resembles Ed Koch though it was a few years before his election. Prescient.

A Walk On The Wild Side

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Nobody sat me down and said, Go East Young Man, while I was apartment searching for the first time. Frankly, I had no idea where I was going or what I was getting into, or I wouldn’t have gone. Not so soon, anyway. Negotiating the area around the alphabet avenues – A, B, C, D between 14th and Houston Streets — was no joke. I learned the hard way: all that time-honored guff I’d bought into about living in a bohemian garrote suddenly stunk like bullshit. This was a ghetto.

I read “East Village” in the apartment for rent ad and assumed this signaled a geographical and spiritual connection to Greenwich Village, the famed bohemian quarter I’d visited a couple times as a tourist during college breaks. My grasp of the terrain was tenuous enough that I didn’t realize how far east “The Village” extended, way past the historic McSorely’s Ale House and the baroque subway station at Astor Place. Geographically, and spiritually, the East Village was another neighborhood if not another world.

Naturally, as a cultured young person, I’d already made the pilgrimage to CBGB on the eastern periphery. The grungy punk bar was a well-lit oasis on the Bowery amid the sleazy hotels, storefront Jesus missions and restaurant supply stores with hulking old stoves left out on the sidewalk. Here the squalor was contained. The Bowery bums of legend were definitely still around, just not stumbling into the club (too often).

Indeed it was the deluge of fresh, outrageous music coming out of New York in the mid 70s – punk rock, new wave — that triggered my fascination with the city itself. Just reading the names of all those bands playing CBGB and Max’s was so exotic, so exciting in those heady days of discovery: Theoretical Girls on the same bill with Sick Dick & the Volkswagens! In late 1977 I subscribed to The Village Voice in order to keep up with the scene. Pretty soon I was devouring the entire newspaper every week: the sharp-shooting columnists and critics, the zealous investigative reporting and most important, the weirdly mesmerizing features, where more often than not the writer became part of the story.

Even the advertising in back was a constant source of wonder. Next to the club and concert notices, there existed a nether region: page after page of in-your-face ads for pornographic movies, massage parlors, escort services. The Voice also boasted a hefty and slightly more conventional classified ad section. Next to the infamous personals was column after column of apartment listings. Upon arriving in the city, the Voice classifieds were, naturally, the first place I turned to look for housing. I felt somewhat confident, now that I was reasonably assured of a job at a business magazine. With only a few days left on my hotel room, obviously I also needed to move soon. The only Manhattan apartments in my price range — $200 max – seemed to be in the East Village. Armed with a roll of dimes, I commandeered a phone booth in the lobby and started dialing. Out of dozens of calls, two struck pay dirt.

Pitt Street, the youthful-sounding woman on the phone explained before I asked, was the continuation of Avenue D south of Houston St. I felt relieved at this evidence of Pitt Street’s obscurity: apparently other people hadn’t heard of it either. “Eve” blandly described both the apartment overall and the vacant bedroom in particular as being small; she shared the larger bedroom with her husband. We arranged a meeting the next day.

Feeling edgy, I also hedged my bets with a long shot at an actual lease, inquiring about a one-bedroom apartment for rent on 5th Street east of Avenue B. An unfamiliarly accented voice on the line gruffly scheduled a tour for the next afternoon, conveniently timed right after my Pitt Street interview at noon. “Yus’ buzz thee super,” he said before abruptly hanging up. After awhile, I realized he meant ring the superintendent’s doorbell.

Turn left on Houston Street when you get off the subway, Eve said with a rehearsed chuckle, and keep going till you hit Pitt.

Houston I vaguely knew as the east-west artery that bisected the Village and the lower depths of downtown. To the immediate south lurked Soho’s cast-iron corridors, the old country bustle of Little Italy and Chinatown, and nearer the river, the Lower East Side proper, where narrow side streets lined with ancient tenements huddled beside the block-long housing projects. My East Village odyssey began as a stroll along the southern outskirts of Greenwich Village: an Italian neighborhood, with a huge Catholic church and many small restaurants, old row houses alternating with modest modern apartment buildings, clumps of medieval elderly people and shrieking kids crowding a “park” of concrete and benches. Despite the proximity of cross town traffic and its attendant exhaust fumes, olfactory evidence of pizza and bakeries in the vicinity was everywhere: more nauseating than appetizing, but perhaps I was nervous. Heading due east, the dorms and lecture halls of New York University soon occupied the north side of my vision, almost campus-like. So far, so scenic.

Passing Broadway and that rarest of sights in Manhattan, a gas station, I was engulfed by a stunningly different vista to the east. Reaching Third Avenue a few minutes later felt like entering an alternate universe, at least to my naïve imagination. I had crossed over into an apocalyptic sci-fi landscape that could’ve been dreamed up by my then-favorite authors Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard. Everything — buildings, sidewalk, street, cars and trucks, even my fellow pedestrians — looked older and neglected, if not flat-out damaged by the passage of time, and definitely dirtier than the rest of the city, if that was possible. Layers of indecipherable graffiti and grime covered every exposed surface. Tumbleweeds of windblown trash bounced on the streets. An alarming number of parked cars appeared to be abandoned. Every third or fourth building sported broken windows and barricaded doors.

The distance between avenues seemed to shorten as the numbers on the street signs turned into letters; the buildings got smaller, narrower, more residential than business. Here the ubiquitous corner grocery stores or delis all displayed the same yellow awnings with red-lettered bilingual signs. Bodega. Crossing over to the south side of Houston, my path traced the perimeter of a two block-long park. Ten yards away, a cluster of lost souls shivered on a pair of benches, despite the fact it was unseasonably warm. Three big Latin dudes in ski parkas and sweat pants stood facing the benches and before I could avert my gaze, the biggest one turned and fixed me in his: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT…

When I turned around two breathless blocks later, the coast was clear. Nobody had followed me, but the sidewalk was teeming with people – for the first time I really understood that hoary old expression. Hot and flushed from speed-walking, I slowed down as much as possible without stopping. Another concrete park loomed up on the next block, and I glimpsed a vast empty swimming pool, complete with lifeguard chairs, lying behind the rusted fence. As predicted, the street sign above read Pitt Street so I made a right turn. In the middle of the block sat my destination: a decrepit brick building, shuffled into a deck of near-identical structures, each one hastily painted in muddy shades of brown. As instructed, I had telephoned Eve from a pay phone on Houston and she met me at the front door. She looked even younger than I’d imagined, too young to have a husband. Short and pixie-like, with streaks of black in her bottle-blonde hair, Eve confidently padded up the warped staircase like a mountain-climbing guide. The incline made me feel light-headed.

When we got to the apartment on the fifth floor there wasn’t a whole lot to see. The long narrow living room opened into the kitchen area where a greasy white refrigerator and range shared space with a bathtub. I was shown the windowless bedroom for rent – more like a storeroom or closet – in a manner of seconds.

We sat in the living room for a few semi-excruciating minutes, I stared at undecorated walls and dusty, half-full shelves while Eve bluntly apprised me of the dangers of the neighborhood. But I’d decided against the place before she told me there’d been two break-ins just in the year they’d lived here. The drug scene, she said, shaking her head. My share of $400 a month would’ve been $150, cheap for New York. But for all that you paid an exorbitant price in terms of personal safety, and maybe in self-respect too. At any rate I wasn’t ready to live like this. Not yet, at any rate.

Down on the street, I easily retraced my steps on Houston for two blocks and then proceeded due north on Avenue B. Every corner was occupied by a bodega and loud, shuffling groups of young men. Glancing down the passing sidestreets, I saw children milling around the front stoops, and older men sitting on upended crates, drinking beer and playing dominoes. I carefully avoided all eye contact and briskly made my way to 5th Street. Rounding the corner on the home stretch, I was stopped in my path by one of the locals hanging out in front of the store. He looked to be my age.
“Works, works.”
“Uh what?”
“Works! Five, five bucks.”
Oh shit, I thought, he wants to sell me a syringe. This was serious.
“Look no thanks man, I don’t use that stuff.”
“Then what THE FUCK you doing here…”

It wasn’t the way he said it that intimidated me as much as the accompanying look: cruel, cold, crazy. Walking down his block no longer seemed like a practical idea – forget living on it – so I beat a retreat before our conversation went any further. As I continued up Avenue A, headed toward 8th street and eventually the subway, a squad of beefy men in shiny suits plowed past me on their way downtown. Now what? Stepping aside, I spotted a telegenic bald spot bobbing up and down amid these obvious bodyguards. It was Ed Koch. Not yet an official constituent, I held my tongue as the mayor passed. What I wanted to ask him was “how’m I doing?”