Friday, July 15, 2011

Echoes of a Past Life: New York City Snapshot 1981

I was looking through some papers and found a carbon copy of a letter I had written to a friend almost thirty years ago, a few months after I moved to New York City. It's not particularly profound, but it had a nice description of my impressions of my new home. Following is an excerpt.

November 24, 1981

In general New York and my job agree with me. I like the city a whole lot; there's lots to do and see, and a lot of it's quite new to me.

I've been going on long walks to see the city, and the walks always prove worthwhile. There's Washington Square, down in the Village, which on Saturday afternoons is filled with people; one weekend there were at least two jazz groups playing for change, plus a few individual musicians, a fire-eater, drug sellers, etc.

The street people here are all interesting. Near my office was an amazing old black woman playing a cheap portable plastic organ: she had a huge smile on her face, a couple American flags stuck on a table, and played old favorites that somehow came out sounding like bizarre avant-garde classical music (Penderecki?). I remember also a young white guy playing guitar and singing folkish popular music (not very well at that) with a youngish black lady doing harmonies at his feet,

All of this is not to mention the transvestites in the gay part of the Village. Notable is black drag-bag lady named Cec (short for Cecily?) who wanders around at 3 in the morning giving profound advice. Last weekend after a bunch of us went out dancing we stopped in a 24-hour coffee joint around 5 am; sitting at the counter was an immaculate dressed and clean man having coffee and bagels with a bag lady. My friends tell me the guy is also a derelict, but sometimes he dresses up and cleans up, but always goes back to the gutter.

There is a frustration to the city: it's very crowded and this means one just has to accept a number of things. One has to accept the long lines everywhere, the crowded subways, the rot and decay. There's a fatalism here; people just die all the time for walking down the street and having a building fall down on them (or part of it anyway).

Living so closely with imminent non-discriminating death doesn't seem to make people value life more; I think people take life pretty much unseriously a lot of times, but this means people are peculiarly more tolerant.

Every once in a while someone just blows up — if a subway train is pulled out of service in the middle of its run often an older woman (usually) just decides she's upset that she has to get off the train and wait — it's a feeling of helplessness: they'll start to yell at anyone within earshot, not as though the victim of their yells could make things better, but that becomes irrelevant. It's more a way of letting off steam to be able to cope with the frustration of living here. The bureaucratism of city services is incredible here; but you just have to put up and shut up.

(The photo is not mine: it's a still from the movie "Style Wars," about NYC graffiti; it came out in 1982 so it seemed to fit.)


  1. My first trip to NYC was the summer of 1955. I had just graduated from high school, I was 17 and getting ready to fly with a group to Switzerland to attend summer school at the University of Lausanne.

    I remember New Yorkers at that time being very protective of these two young girls visiting their city. Later years would see changes, like you mentioned. A hollowness where people could and I suppose would, step over dead bodies in the street.

    My first visit to NYC after 9/11 saw the people return to a friendlier, softer city once again.

    I suppose NY as with any city has its own separate and unique little areas with their own personalities, trials and tribulations.

    I wonder if there really are any places that you can return to after years of being away and find it as it was the day you left - nice that you have this time documented and I think especially so because it is written.

  2. There's a blog I link to called "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York" that documents the bittersweet changes in the city. Having lived here these thirty years I can't say everything that has changed here is bad at all: it is cleaner and safer and less uptight than when I moved here. It's also far more expensive and the mixed blessing of gentrification continues to be dramatic. But people do seem to be less mean to each other, which is worth a lot.

    I think I visited here the first time in the very late sixties. It's very hard to place the NYC of my childhood memory with what I experience as a resident. My mom decided we should, of all places, stay in the Plaza Hotel. I have no idea how she afforded that since she did not make a lot of money. But being young and wide-eyed is definitely the best way to experience this place.