The Bad Old Days

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“No one should come to New York City unless they are willing to be lucky.”  E.B. White, “Here is New York”

I moved to New York City From Toronto, Canada in the spring of 1978.  I was 23 years old.

New York was in rough shape. It had bottomed out a few years before with its famous bond default; “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” was the NY Daily News headline that best caught the spirit of the thing.  

This picture (below) of 45th St. between 5th and 6th Ave. is fairly reminiscent of how things looked.

I remember walking up Broadway from Battery Park to Houston Street shortly after I got here, and almost every building was boarded up. Dead. It was an opportunity for someone willing to be lucky for sure. I dreamed of being lucky; I certainly desired it. But willing... ?

     The impetus for my migration was a girl, but looking back, I suspect that was just a lubrication.  We barely lasted my first summer here.  The real reason I came here was because of “Taxi Driver”, and a thousand other New York City movies before it. I wanted to make movies.

    I was a working film editor in Toronto, but in those days Toronto wasn’t a big film place. I worked on TV ads. I had come across the work of the then completely unknown David Cronenberg, because we used to get reels of his bad work print from the lab to use for track fill. When I had nothing better to do I would put it up on the flatbed and watch some of it; gobs of what looked like shaving cream spilling out of air conditioner vents. People screaming uncontrollably, assorted other weird nastiness.
    “This guy is nuts”, I thought. “No way for him. I want to go to NYC where they make real movies.”  


    Anyway, back to E.B. White and the willingness to be lucky.  I have pondered on this quote a lot since I read the book, (which I can’t recommend highly enough.) and here is what I think; willingness is not desire, or ambition, or even persistence. Any or all of those things will lead to disaster, misery or unrequited dreams unless accompanied by willingness. To me willingness implies getting out of your own way, and allowing something else, or someone else,  to happen to you. It is a humble virtue.

The best thing about NYC in those days was it felt like no one was in charge. The city just sort of ran itself. So what if it was falling apart? It was a big house party, with minimum adult supervision. I remember being on a lunch break once, when I had a job, and wandering over to Central Park. I copped a loose joint for a buck, (which was easy anywhere) and started smoking it as I wandered down the cinder path. I heard a voice behind me asking if it was “good shit”. I turned around and there were two policemen looking at me, balefully. I didn’t really know what to say. I did something stupid; like a three-year-old, I hid the joint behind my back. One of the cops wrinkled up his face and said, “Put it out, asshole.” and then they walked away. I got a strong feeling they were embarrassed for me.

I smoked it later, when they weren’t looking.