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.

Brooklyn days & Broadway nights

I saw Saturday Night Fever not long after it was released during the holiday season of 1977. But I never appreciated the phenomenally popular disco movie until I moved to New York City three years later. There I watched it, more than once, on my tiny black and white TV. In Manhattan, SNF registered as both a modern musical landmark – the tipping point of disco – and a classic coming-of-age story, a syncopated hymn to big city aspiration. Today it’s hard to explain, or imagine, just how remote the outer boroughs once felt. In a Village Voice profile of John Travolta published when the movie first came out, Frank Rose wrote: “In Saturday Night Fever, Travolta plays a kid who lives in a world where it’s like the 60s never happened.” There are remnants of this working-class Italian American culture in Brooklyn and Staten Island today, if you squint, but this old world is fading fast. The shocking thing about Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was its newness. Not only the music, though the ensuing disco fad triggered an earthquake with repercussions still heard today. The characters in Saturday Night Fever, the seemingly hopeless post-1960s teenagers drawn from Nik Cohn’s semi-fictional New York magazine story, represented a new lost generation with their own sounds and their own sublimated dreams, struggling to be recognized or just staying alive. Pauline Kael sums it up eloquently in one of her most perceptive and far-sighted reviews: ” …this movie has a new subject matter: how the financially pinched Seventies generation that grew up on television attempts to find its own forms and of beauty and release.” And find them they do: even if the escaping Brooklyn for “the city” angle doesn’t move you the way it does me, the music and dancing haven’t aged a whit. There’s nothing else like it. The Bee Gees were never better and Pulp Fiction aside, neither was Travolta.

And here’s the story upon which the movie was based: a fascinating example of New Journalism. http://nymag.com/nightlife/features/45933/

A Walk On The Wild Side

lower east side 1981 photo by Brian Rose

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?”

Fasten seatbelts: scenic drive ahead!

“When Mayor John Lindsay began his efforts to attract the movie-production business, it probably didn’t occur to him or his associates that they were ushering in a new movie age of nightmare realism.” So wrote Pauline Kael, negatively assessing The French Connection in the October 23 1971 New Yorker. The sainted film critic didn’t stoop to review The Seven Ups, the de facto sequel released in late 1973. Directed by Philip D’Antoni, who produced The French Connection, and featuring Roy Scheider, who co-starred in the previous film, The Seven Ups works the same theme on the same blasted urban terrain: organized crime VS the cops in New York City. Scheider heads an outlier investigative unit pursuing violations good for seven years or more in prison. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby described The Seven Ups as a “vicious, mechanical, clumsy thriller” that portrays the city as “just a lot of geography, even when it’s flipping by in the obligatory chase sequence.”

I beg to differ. The Seven Ups is nightmare realism perfected, deft and energizing to watch if not exactly artfully rendered. It’s only gained resonance, and depth, with the passing of time. The outer-borough settings are especially evocative, capturing the isolated industrial sections of Queens and the Bronx in their rusted-out pre-gentrification desolation. Check the scene where a mafia renegade chops wood while wearing a flannel shirt with the remnants of a three-piece suit: the New York hick look. Scheider’s cop character engages in a fraught exchange of secrets with his mob-connected boyhood pal played by Tony Lo Bianco, a relationship which inevitably sours. It’s a cliched plot, I suppose, but not handled all that differently here than in many more-respected   movies. And then there’s that car chase: if you want an authentic ten-minute drive through ’70s Manhattan, here it is. Like I said before, watching this put me off city driving for 30 years.

Big Apple, small screen

As a teenager, I imagined New York City as it appeared on TV shows: gritty urban terrain on Kojack, benign sidewalks on The Odd Couple. I hadn’t seen a lot of old movies. That all changed when I moved to the city. Before the VCR revolution, you could see all kinds of movies on TV. It just required good timing, and a little patience.

Just as WCBS-FM programmed every rock & roll oldie that mentioned New York, the local TV stations padded their schedules with a staggering array of classic New York films. Virtually any movie set in the city – from vintage musicals like West Side Story and On The Town (“the Bronx is up the Battery down”) to deservedly obscure horror flicks – qualified as classic. Watching them was an education as well as great entertainment.

My cheap Samsung TV wasn’t a limitation when it came to these New York movies; in fact, the stark contrast of black and white enhanced the city’s “local color.” The grandeur and glamour of midtown Manhattan radiated in flickering shades of gray. Black and white vividly conveyed the trademark grit and grime of the city, too. Even the most colorful action movies of the 1970s (another staple) were diminished far less than you’d expect.

Certain scenes became emblematic, indelible, through loop-like repeated viewing. I can still picture the panoramic opening scene of Shaft!, for instance: Detective John Shaft striding through 70s-sleazy Times Square, accompanied by the strut and throb of Issac Hayes’ immortal theme song. Most spectacular was the trans-Manhattan chase scene in The Seven Ups, two boat-sized 70s sedans careening all the way from the lower east side up to (and over) the George Washington Bridge before a harrowing crash on the Palisades Parkway. Repeated viewings of this sequence (and a similar scene in The French Connection) put me off city driving for years.

Sweet Smell of Success seemed to be on every week. I memorized chunks of the hard-boiled dialogue (“match me, Sidney”) and marveled at the black-and-white glamour of 50s Manhattan. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were mesmerizing as respectively, a tyrant gossip columnist and toadying press agent. I’d never read a gossip column until I moved to New York.

Watch this space for further explication of these films and other small screen NYC classics like The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Warriors.