30 Years Ago in NYC (Because I’ve Now Been Here That Long)

Taken a couple of years later; the tee shirt was a promo for David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”

I marked this on my calendar to write about today: 30 years ago (yesterday and today) there occurred a curious alignment of stars and planets that New Age people called “the Harmonic Convergence“.  It was a topic of chatter that summer, in the media and amongst ordinary people, in the same way that the “2000 bug” was, or the upcoming solar eclipse is. The Harmonic Convergence was like the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, it was said. The alignment meant there would be this unleashing of positive energy, that everything would be beautiful, and auspicious, and right. It was a crock, of course. It proved to be an ordinary day. Why I note the date at all is because I remember where I was. I was in New York City.

I generally count the summer of 1987 as when I moved here, although in the fall I did return to school in Providence for several months, and then spent another few months in Maine before finally moving here for good. But ’87 was my first experience living here, working here (at temp jobs), taking the subway to get around, carrying around my morning coffee in those Greek themed cardboard coffee cups that say “We are Happy to Serve You.” It was my first time learning what it was to walk around in the shoes of a New Yorker, even if I wasn’t one myself yet.

I’d come here before as a tourist of course, about a half dozen times as a teenager, had been to Broadway shows, the Met and MOMA, and so forth. I grew up in a small town roughly equidistant between New York and Boston. Though I was closer to Boston, ironically I’d spent much more time in the Big Apple. My first visit here, at about the age of 13 changed my life. I always knew I wanted to move here. In 1987 I actually began the process. I was a baby at the time, about the same age that my oldest son is now. About seven years ago I passed the crucial milestone of having lived the majority of my life here. New York is now my home in a way that even my hometown is not.

So, this is one of those hokey “how things were different” posts; bear with an old timer and his memories at this milestone.

Checkered Cab

It was the NYC of Working Girl, Desperately Seeking Susan, After Hours, and Sidewalk Stories. Some of the cabs still looked like those cabs on Taxi.  Hizzoner Ed Koch was still the Mayor, and a wonderful ambassador and booster for the cityRonald Reagan was still president and it was still the Reagan economy. And in 1987 Newsweek did a cover story on this local asshole, who was still two years away from helping to railroad the Central Park Five:

Temp jobs were plentiful. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street and midtown, and took other odd jobs. There were no cell phones. Computers in the workplace were new. Macs and IBMs were entirely different; the latter didn’t yet employ Windows or a Mouse, so you had to learn keystrokes. There was no Internet. Documents were exchanged long distance via Fax Machine.

At the same time homeless people seemed to be everywhere. Crime was higher. The subways were covered in graffiti. Though the Walkman existed, belligerent dudes would carry boom boxes everywhere blasting their personal music. When they got onto subway cars it was a tense experience, because they annoyed everybody but it wasn’t worth fighting about. The Guardian Angels, a proto-vigilante group, were highly visible as a volunteer, if largely cosmetic, means of dealing with the crime situation.

Because there was no Internet, everyone read The Village Voice, which then cost a dollar, to see what was going on. I literally read the whole thing cover to cover, not just for the news, but for jobs (they had the best, most relevant classifieds), and for what to do socially and recreationally, because of the reviews and pages of paid ads. Later competition would follow from the New York Press and Time Out New York, but those weren’t a factor for several years.  (How thrilled I was when I started writing for the Voice and Time Out a decade later!) We went to see bands at places like CBGBs. Political performance art by people like Karen Finley and Penny Arcade was on the ascendant. It had been only a few months since Andy Warhol and Charles Ludlam had died (weeks in the case of Ludlam); Basquiat and Keith Haring only had months to live.

Times Square was the worst sort of pit you can possibly imagine. The following year I got an internship at a Theatre Row theatre on the opposite end of 42nd Street. Getting there was a terrifying gauntlet past crack dens and porn theatres, and criminal low lifes of every description. When people tell me they want that back I want to knock their block off. By contrast, today’s Times Square is a scene of vitality and health. It used to be a disgrace, a showplace of rot and disease.

As I’ve written many times, Indie Theater was not yet a thing (wouldn’t be for a long time), and there was an enormous need for it, because the original Off Off companies like La Mama had gotten big. You couldn’t just walk in off the street and do a show anywhere anymore. The Off Off places seemed just as hard to get into as Broadway. Coffee houses and galleries and so forth were no longer scenes of artistic ferment in the same way as they had been in the legendary 60s. We did go to art events, poetry readings and the like, but as I say, it was against the backdrop of the Reagan years; the climate was more like winter setting in rather than a flower unfolding. Subsequent years were better in certain ways. Certainly in terms of access to venues, although that’s always a struggle in one way or another.

In those days (as Penny Arcade has articulated so well) we were drawn to New York for its storied diversity, yes for art, but for breadth of culture — food for example, from a 100 different countries. Now it’s safer and cleaner in ways that newcomers may take for granted. At the same time, the experience is not as rich, for the new comers seem to have tamed it somewhat, to have suburbanized it. It is more like a mall now, more like the American provinces than the Capital of the World. But I’m not sure I could live anywhere else. In fact, I know I can’t. I can’t drive!


    • Thanks! If it makes you feel better, many’s the time I wished I’d stayed in Providence or spent more time in a smaller city to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. New York City is a tough nut to crack, lemme tell ya


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