Gotham's Glorious Throes

04.21.2005 | Tim Marchman | Urban Affairs

From The New York Sun

One night six or seven years ago, I got drunk in mixed company and found myself on that stretch of Eighth Avenue that straddles Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea, which several rather determined schemes have not been able to make look any less like a shot out of “Taxi Driver.”

Having no clear idea of what we wanted to do, my two friends and I wound up in the back room of an adult video store, passing a bottle in a booth meant to barely fit one person. We fed quarters into a slot and a corrugated metal screen went up on a small plastic window, through which we saw an enormous and gap-toothed woman without a top snoring atop a three-legged stool.

While we weren’t sure exactly what was supposed to be happening, we were fairly sure this wasn’t it, and we apologetically informed the manager that his star attraction was catching 40 doubtless well-deserved winks. He picked up a long, thin stick, opened a hidden door, prodded the woman in the side, and motioned us back into our booth.

We watched with astonishment as she burst into vivid life, wriggling and gyrating even before she had fully opened her eyes. When she finally did see us, her eyes goggled. “Oh, snap,” she said. “What you want to see?” The manager leered at us, patted his trusty stick, and went on his way. Soon enough, we were back on Eighth Avenue, where at a certain time of night everyone you see looks like either a pimp or a potential murderer.

When I think of what New York was like in the late 1970s, I imagine that back room - a gratuitous and unnecessary place where a handful of quarters and some free time allowed you to watch people degrade themselves in the least imaginative ways possible - on a scale large enough to evoke thought of the apocalypse. It’s what you see in Martin Scorcese’s films, hear in the music of Television, and read in the pages of Jonathan Mahler’s excellent new book, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx Is Burning” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 368 pages, $35), which captures the full dimensions of the time - both its nightmarish and heroic qualities - better than any other account I’ve read.

Take his description of a surreal bathhouse for sexual adventurers that opened in 1977 - “Modeled after the bathrooms on subway platforms, formerly gay trysting spots, the IRTeamroom boasted stalls lined with tiles coated with graffiti and urine stains. The screeching sound of subway cars was piped into the room to enhance verisimilitude.” Cheap and tawdry as such a place might have been, it was the product of a sense of limitless possibility the city really doesn’t have anymore, save in isolated, anachronistic corners.

On one level, Mr. Mahler’s book is a straightforward history of the summer of 1977, in which the city, recently bankrupted, was in a state of transition - to what, no one knew.

It seemed that the city was dying. My mother, who that summer saw Talking Heads at CBGB and was followed down a dark Queens boulevard by a man in a car who, she realized in retrospect, was Son of Sam, moved out of the city that fall, and wouldn’t return for a decade. She was hardly alone.

The mayoral race pitted incumbent mayor Abe Beame, an inept accountant, and Bella Abzug, a congresswoman and a veteran radical, against the confounding Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. If the outcome of the race was not the embrace of the future it might have seemed at the time, it was at least a convincing repudiation of the past.

At the same time, a full-scale newspaper war erupted, as Rupert Murdoch turned the Post from a stodgy relic of an outdated liberal ethos into the emblem of democracy and crown jewel of America’s glorious vulgarity it remains today. A massive blackout saw certain areas of Brooklyn - those that inept social engineering had reduced to slums worthy of the Third World - erupt in a massive orgy of brutal, unrestrained violence. And a serial killer stalked the streets, which were awash in cocaine and promiscuous sex.

It was also that summer that the Yankees exploded. The Bronx Bombers have always reflected the state of the city. Today, in an era of soulless and myopic technocracy in government, when no one’s even certain why the mayor is in public life, the aimless and poorly focused spending of a soulless and mercenary Yankee team fits. So does the remnant of a spark of life in the team, in old holdovers like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and new blood like Hideki Matsui.

In 1977, New York got something a lot more primal. The manager was Billy Martin, a violent and repellent drunkard who was annually fired.

Martin’s star that year was Reggie Jackson, a monstrous and outsized talent whose ego was matched only by his insecurity. Their conflict was one of the great manager-player clashes in baseball history. Martin was the self-appointed guardian of a game and city - of Yankees tradition, of Mantle and Ford and dynasty - that had collapsed, ultimately, because there was no place in it for black men. Jackson was the son of a Negro Leaguer, unfathomably devoted to his own glorification, and a home-run hitter who never learned how to avoid the strikeout or the error.

In all, Mr. Jackson was the worst possible fit for Martin’s managerial style, premised as it was on the subordination of the individual to the team. The situation devolved to the point where, in the midst of a nationally televised game against the Red Sox, the two men actually fought in the dugout. At the World Series, in one of the great feats in the game’s history, Jackson hit three home runs on three pitches to drive the Yankees to the world’s championship.

Mr. Mahler’s decision to emphasize what was, no matter its resonance, a trivial feud between two pride-addled baseball men is audacious and inspired. He leaves the parallels between Martin, Beame and Abzug, the former publishers of the Post, and the rest of the city’s past implicit, but they are unmistakable. All shared an ideal of collectivism and mutual responsibility, fostered in Depression-era childhoods, which conflicted with their rough individualism.

Jackson, on the other hand, had much in common with Koch and Murdoch and the sexual narcissists of the West Village - and even, in some sense, David Berkowitz. Jackson not only referred to himself in the third person but genuflected before “the magnitude of me,” and was as ahead of his time as Martin was behind his. As Mr. Mahler puts it, in one of the few passages of the book in which he passes explicit judgment on the meaning of 1977, “The city that had once dared to fly in the face of capitalism could no longer aspire to be all things to all its people. New York’s future belonged not to labor bosses, political power brokers, or social visionaries but to entrepreneurs.”

There is a great deal of truth to that. People like Jackson, Murdoch, and Cuomo, who were willing to neatly package their vainglory for their own benefit, were the architects of the New York of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, even the neo-utopianism of such projects as the West Side stadium seems more a sort of civic entrepreneurship than the LaGuardia-esque surrender to visions that gripped the city from the 1940s through the early 1970s and nearly ruined it.

But as all good histories of New York must, this one ultimately belongs not to anyone capable of referring to “the magnitude of me” but to the small and irrelevant. At the heart of the book is a long, meticulous re-creation of the circumstances that caused New York’s entire power grid to melt down in barely an hour. It reads like something out of the September 11 Commission Report, from the simple incompetence and fear of systems operators to the chaos on the ground as the residents of Bushwick burned it to the ground while fighting the police in a scene as close to actual modern warfare as the city is likely to ever see.

There isn’t really anything like the Bushwick of 1977 in the New York of today, and there’s relatively little danger of such a place arising again. The real danger is that, in an age of entrepreneurship, we might forget that the assertion of the self can lead to crises as bad as those engendered by old-style liberalism, that utopian schemes enacted for the benefit of no one can be worse than those enacted for the benefit of all, and that there is still more than a hint of the late 1970s on the fringes of certain city streets.

Whether or not that turns out to be a bad thing will probably depend on whether the city ever ends up with leadership that serves any clear and distinct purpose. For now, the spirit of accountancy thrives.

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