Ed Koch and the City I Almost Knew

Ed Koch and the City I Almost Knew February 4, 2013

One afternoon in June, the student body of my primary school trooped out to the section of Central Park facing Mt. Sinai Hospital to watch the faculty play the eighth-graders in softball, an annual tradition. Around the third inning, a very tall, very thin African-American man wandered onto the infield. In a sequence of events that transpired too quickly for me to reproduce with complete confidence, the man began shouting at the shortstop, a girl named Kimberly, and slapped her face, breaking her glasses. Before anyone could react, he stripped off his clothes — I seem to recall he wasn’t wearing many — and sauntered off, naked, in the direction of the reservoir.

This episode took up maybe three and a half minutes of my 13th year. It made no great difference in anyone’s life, including Kimberly’s. But it came back to me the moment I decided to write something about Ed Koch. Koch, who died last week at the age of 88, first ascended Gracie Mansion in 1977, two years before my mother and I moved from north Jersey to Manhattan. He lost the mayorality to David Dinkins in 1989, the year before I began college in Arizona. For me, he should be New York. Koch stamped the City with his personality; the City stamped me. By some distributive property, I should have Kocherei all over my consciousness.

My problem is, I have a hell of a time spotting it. That’s what happens when you spend half your childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons and the other half smoking weed that you bought by stuffing ten-dollar bills under a door in Spanish Harlem — discrete events flash by without leaving a trace. Right now, I’m reading Koch’s Wikipedia entry, and nothing sounds familiar. Koch ran against a guy named Frank Barbaro? Opposed the creation of the 718 Area Code? Begrudged the Giants, victors of Super Bowl XXI, a victory parade in the City? Why didn’t anyone tell me? All I’ve got in my file are dim memories of a tetchy, mahogany-skinned exhibitionist, and of a Zeitgeist in which he seems to fit perfectly.

That leaves me with no choice, I guess, but to unpack that mood, hoping to do the great man some justice.

The dominant feature of Koch’s New York, as I experienced it, was a general lubricity. Koch himself had an authoritarian streak — he closed the City’s gay bathhouses and pan-sexual swingers’ clubs. He cracked down on graffiti, too. But nothing he did stopped New Yorkers from going completely nuts. The unofficial drinking age was 15 — at least according to the Derry-accented barman at an East Twenties dive called Glocca Mora, as well as the Derry-accented barmen in half a dozen other dives whose names and locations escape me presently. And, believe me, it was only total rejects like your narrator who wasted their Saturday nights in dives, learning the lyrics to “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” Cool kids got into the Limelight or the Tunnel.

In attracting a streaker, our school softball game was by no means unique. Even before New York State formally extended topfreedom to women, Manhattan must have been one of the nakedest places in the continental United States. Every May, an international band of hippies who called themselves the Rainbow Family of Living Light would hold a drum circle on the slope outside the Sheep’s Meadow concession stand. It was not uncommon there to see a woman wandering around wearing nothing but a pair of bandannas, twisted together into a loincloth. Whenever the drumming achieved a particular level of frenzy, some satyr in sideburns would strip down to his altogether, grab a large American flag in which the primary colors had been replaced by additive ones, and run howling past the Falconer statue all the way to the road. It was not a place to be shy.

But for all the fun, in Koch’s New York, we — meaning the races — could not for the life of us anticipate Rodney King’s advice by getting along. The Wall Street Journal refers to the mayor’s “somewhat dismissive” attitude to concerns raised by his African-American constituents. According to Slate's Forrest Wickman, Michael Stewart’s death in a nightstick choke hold led hip-hop artists to drop Koch’s name as a shorthand for the tyranny of whiteydom.

Obviously, this can’t be the final word on the man who gave the City its first African-American police commissioner and got it to invest in low-income housing after the federal government pulled out. Even Al Sharpton now gushes his praise for the Second Chance program Koch sponsored, along with Harvard professor Charles Ogletree, to help non-violent drug offenders rejoin society. But when I was growing up, hardly five minutes went by without the Post or the Daily News or Channels 5 or 11 shouting about some poor mug who’d been beaten or shot by a gang of differently-colored people.

I managed to avoid any serious scrapes by passing the test for Stuyvesant High School. Though racially diverse, Stuy was so competitive that no student would have chased anyone onto a busy highway with a baseball bat or swarmed, cossack-like, onto an unsuspecting jogger without assurance that Harvard’s admissions office had started awarding points for antisocial behavior. But the possibility of victimhood was ever present. Riding the subway, a number of my classmates fell prey to an African-American gang whose members called themselves — I’m not making this up — the Decepticons. When Dr. Lefkowitz, our vice-principal and master-at-arms, caught me smoking in the boys’ room, he reduced me to a blubbering, pustulent heap of surrender by threatening to transfer me to my zoned high school, Julia Richman. “THOSE SHVARTZERS’LL EAT YOU ALIVE!” he screamed. In Koch’s New York, subtlety was no virtue.

But tolerance, somehow, was. Or maybe I mean insouciance. There seemed to be a general understanding that a violent fleshpot, for all its faults, was simply where man was meant to live. My mother once fled Carl Schurz Park at the sight of a masturbator. But the next day, this woman, who grouped her pens by color and type — black felt-tips here, blue razor-points there — returned to the very same park, spread her blanket on the grass, and lay down in a bathing suit to catch whatever sun was there to catch. Table talk in our house went like this: “I saw Ted, your guitar teacher.” “Did he say hi?” “No, walked right past me. He looked high on heroin.” If it was peace and quiet you wanted, you were supposed to move to Suffolk County, like the mafia.

This might have not have been Koch’s view, exactly. When our school’s headmaster deserted the pitcher’s mound, picked up the interloper’s clothes, and followed at his heels, begging — or so it looked from a distance — him to dress again, no one would have mistaken him for an officer in New York’s Finest. But any man who liked to brag, “I don’t get ulcers, I give them” is a man who’s comfortable with a certain amount of chaos. When Koch went on record calling the suburbs “sterile,” and later, when he wrote against a fussbudget successor in a tone that inspired publishers to gather his polemics in a book titled Giuliani: Nasty Man, he let on he thought it essential to his existence.

Well, Koch’s New York preceded Koch to the grave. Its replacement, the one I still manage to visit occasionally, is cheerful and safe and high-end. Central Park has been swept of dope-dealers and dope-smokers. So have the stoops of the East Village. Policemen have multiplied, and — this feels significant somehow — shaved off their Saddam Hussein mustaches. There may be a peep show or two left in Times Square; but, once blinded by the neon, who could hope to find one? Maybe bars still serve teenagers, but judging by the price of the drinks, they’d have to be pretty rich teenagers. (Of course, the City still has no shortage of those — some things never change.)

But some of that old give-’em-ulcers spirit lives on. On 9/11, after phone service was finally restored, I called my Mom and Bob. I was an advanced state of panic, but they sounded unruffled, if a little dazed. I called back after Sandy and got the same response — really, natural disasters and terrorist attacks were all part of the disorderly order of things, nothing I should get my boxers in a twist over.

I have no choice but to contemplate Koch’s New York from a position of failure. I was just a little too young and a little too uncool to enjoy it to the fullest. (I must have sensed I’d only get uncooler with age, or else I wouldn’t have picked up and moved to Terry Goddard’s Phoenix at the first opportunity.) When I want to appreciate my childhood home, I have to supplement my own hazy memories by watching crap movies like Basquiat and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, or by reading The Basketball Diaries. In my dotage, I’ll probably start telling Jim Carroll’s stories as my own — it’s not like he needs them anymore.

Ed Koch once got himself into trouble by suggesting his election reflected the will of God. It may have taken a person of some faith to love the fallenness and folly that New York was in those days. And that, finally, was my takeaway — a sense that humans are at their most lovable when they’re at their most incorrigible and in need of violent correction. As takeaways for a future Catholic go, it’s not bad. Inter faeces et urinam nascimur, St. Augustine wrote — “We are born between feces and urine.” Survivors of Koch’s City of God, including me, are proud to say we lived there for longer than most.

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