Remember the NYC Blackout of ’77? 40 Years Ago…

Was it really 40 years ago this week that New York City was plunged into its own heart of darkness?

My now-grey beard would indicate that the answer is “yes.”

It is said that one’s memory is, by its very nature, a distortion.  Memories are not replicas of reality. Rather, they are modified and reconstructed during each recall. The “facts” of even our firmest memories drift mysteriously, ever-changing, like the dunes of the Sahara.

What I do remember is the oppressive heat and humidity of that Wednesday night, July 13, 1977. The high temperature that day was 93 degrees.  It was the start of a nine-day heat wave.

I do remember that my wife and I lived in Jackson Heights, which back then was a dull bedroom community that was the epicenter of the era’s Colombian cocaine wars.

I do remember that we just bought a seven-year old Toyota Corona from a gypsy fortune teller’s husband.  The car had no a/c, a four-speed manual shift, and 90,000+ miles on the clock.  I kept the car’s 8-track tape player/radio on a slide-out mount. I took it with me in a red plastic grocery bag every time I left the car.  On the car’s windows, front and back, I left cardboard signs: “NOTHING IN CAR!!! NO RADIO!!!”

I do remember a drug lord’s white Rolls Royce with smoked glass windows, double-parked across the street from our Jackson Heights apartment building every night, and the shell casings routinely found in the P.S. 69 schoolyard, where a few years later, a gay kid would get beaten to death behind a dumpster.

I do remember that Son of Sam had yet to be captured.

On the night of July 13th, we drove to our regular low stakes poker game in our friend’s walk-up apartment on Third Avenue and 91st Street, across from Ruppert Towers and just around the corner from where Jimmy Cagney was raised.  Our friend was just starting out in the acting world, making the rounds every day.  His apartment was hardly a showplace. But the monthly rent then was about half the price of a pair of Laboutins now.

We drove our Toyota over the 59th Street Bridge and up to Yorkville, got a spot, removed the radio, and clumped up the stairs.  I don’t remember if I was winning or losing after a few hours in that cramped kitchen.  I do, however, remember that we quickly ran out of ice, and juice and soda, and so we started to mix Georgi vodka with warm red Kool-Aid. The apartment was stifling. The window was wide open.  The wiring of those far-from-renovated tenements did not support air-conditioning.

I do remember thinking, as sweat dripped from my forehead onto the Tally-Ho playing cards and finally, onto the Formica kitchen table, that although our buddy lived in Manhattan, and my wife and I were recently cast out of Oz — that is, Manhattan — we lived large. I bought a used a/c with a broken thermostat for fifty bucks back when we lived in Chelsea just a couple of years earlier.  Because of the thermostat, the compressor was always on, and our bedroom was as cold as a meat locker in Western Beef.  We had taken the massive a/c with us to Jackson Heights, when our Chelsea landlord, Monty Cohen, jacked the rent on us, all the way from $260 to $285 a month for a one-bedroom on West 21st Street.

I remember that our friend’s place had only fan-conditioning, a small junk shop Vornado that valiantly tried to keep all seven of us poker players cool. The noisy fan whirled the cigarette smoke from our game.  The heat and the Kool-Aid/vodka cocktails made us cranky.

“This place fuckin’ sucks, man,” said Big Louie, who tossed another losing hand into the center of the table.

Louie looked like a large, even dopier version of Sonny Bono.  But Louie had been “away.” That is, “upstate.” That is, “incarcerated.” None of us fucked with Louie.

“Sorry Lou,” our host said.  “It’s hot, I know.”

And then the fan stopped whirring, the fetid summer air grew still, and the bare forty-watt bulb that dangled from the kitchen ceiling died.  The ambient hum of the broken-handled Frigidaire suddenly stopped.  It was just past nine-thirty p.m.

“Oh fuck me!” said our friend.

“Check the fuse box,” I said.

“Goddammit!” moaned Big Louie.

The room was now lit only by streetlight.  And then, one by one, even they went out. Seven of us got up from the rickety table and looked out the kitchen window.  Up and down the avenue, apartment lights were out.  Street lights were out.  Traffic lights were out.

“Put on the transistor,” said my wife.  Our pal got his battery powered radio and tuned in ten-ten WINS.

“A fuckin’ blackout?” Big Louie said.

“Oh fuck me!” our host said, again.

And then, we heard it.  A rising crescendo of fire, ambulance, and police sirens.

And then, gunshots.

We got up and scrambled into the hallway, as our friend locked the illegal window gate, against FDNY code because it fastened from the inside with a key.  Then, he put the thick steel bar of his Fox Police Lock in place and secured the front door.

We bolted down the stairs and into the street and looked uptown, north, to Harlem, the source of the closest commotion. Only blocks away, we saw a sky pierced by flames. Smoke billowed.  Car alarms screamed.

“Let’s book,” I said to my wife.  “Now!”

“But there are no traffic lights,” she reasoned. “How will we get home?”

“Very carefully,” I said.

We hugged all our friends.  They wished us well. We suggested that they get back inside.  I do remember that we got in the car, and I slid the tape deck into its under-dash bracket.

We drove south on Second Avenue, and the shriek of the sirens receded, chaos now in our rear view mirror.  We were safe, unlike so many others.  The morning papers would bear witness to the smoldering neighborhoods throughout New York City, where bustling business blocks looked like bombed-out Beirut.

We drove slowly, and tippy-toed from the low nineties to the bridge entrance, being extra careful at each intersection. Volunteers with flashlights manned some crosswalks, waving people through.

I do remember that the air was still heavy and the Kool-Aid and vodka took a toll. I turned green.  On the far side of the bridge, Queensboro Plaza, traffic cops held us for a moment.  I reached for the car stereo’s red plastic bag, puked into it, and threw it out the window.

“Classy,” I remember my wife said. Feeling better, I depressed the clutch, eased the shifter into first gear, and pointed the old Corona east to Northern Boulevard and home.

If memory serves, July 13, 1977 was our last card game at our friend’s place.  Our gang broke up.  Our buddy gained traction in the acting world and moved to El Lay.  Big Louie went back upstate.  In a few years, me and my wife moved from Queens to a part of Brooklyn that had been badly bruised by the Blackout, but which was slowly on the mend. There, we raised a son.  There, we lived for twenty-five years, until our brownstone neighborhood became the city’s newest Oz, and we were once again cast out.

Back in ’77, I do remember, we all had Fox Police Locks on our doors.  Car radio brackets were de rigueur. Apartments were rarely air-conditioned.  Young kids starting out in life could find cheap apartments.

You could always find a parking spot on the street, if you were savvy and had patience.

On July 13, 1977, I do remember, the riots and looting were real.  The blackout of ’77 mugged a New York City already in ruin.  I do remember, this horror came less than two years after a sitting U.S. president refused to facilitate a bailout of our crippled city.

These things, I do remember.  That is, I am fairly certain of the position of these particular Saharan sand dunes. However, forty years is a long time. My wife and I have come a long, long way.  And memories are, by their very nature, a distortion.

Hope This Isn’t the Kiss of Death

Today’s New York Times tells the world about the fine Jamaican bakery on White Plains Road and 226th Street.  Could this be a boon for business, or the kiss of death?

Gentrification is a double-edged sword.  A fine balance of old- versus new-guard is easily upended once a nabe gets hot, written up as the “next big thing” and commercial and residential real estate prices soar.  Archimedes told us about displacement.

I remember frequenting Christie’s Jamaican Patties on Flatbush Avenue, from ’85 to ’10, in Park Slope.  A patty on coco bread, with some ginger beer, was a treat, before heading off to Mooney’s, for a pint or ten.

But Park Slope became a destination for all New Yorkers.  First came the red, double-decker tour buses, disgorging camera-wielding tourists in front of the tiny shop.  The line would stretch down the block, to the American Apparel shop that just a few years earlier was the Plaza Twin movie theater.

Christie’s had to move, across the street, when the rents were jacked and a Crunch Fitness took over the space.  Crunch extended from the bakery’s spot on the corner all the way down the block.  But Christie’s hung on making patties for a few years, next door to the Asian liquor store, the one with the protective glass and the massive Rottie prowling the premises.

But, finally, Christie’s vanished, a sandcastle washed away by an incoming tide.

Will the same thing happen in the Wakefield section of The Bronx? It seems unlikely now, but I think Real New Yorkers know the answer.  Get your coco bread and beef patties while you can, kids.

Kleinman Reads at “Prose Pros”

HOLD THE DATE: I’ll be reading my story “Lower East Side Sunday” at:

* P r o s e P r o s *

hosted by Martha King & Elinor Nauen

Thursday, May 4, 2017, from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. (starts right on time!)

Martin Kleinman & Bradley Spinelli

at the SideWalk Café

94 Avenue A at 6th Street, NYC        212-473-7373

F to Second Avenue (exit at First Avenue)

 WHERE: All readings are in the back room of Side Walk at 6:30 PM (sharp). Please buy a drink or some of their good food. No cover charge but we do ask for a generous contribution to fund our sound technician and supplement the sum collected for other readers.

There are hundreds of poetry readings in New York City every month, but until Prose Pros came along in 2007, no reading series dedicated solely to prose.  ”Friend” Prose Pros on Facebook or send us your email for our mailing list for 1 monthly reminder

Martha King: gpwitd1@gmail.com

Elinor Nauen: Elinor@elinornauen.com

Past readers include: Martha King, Elinor Nauen, Hettie Jones, Siri Hustvedt, David Wilentz, Ron Kolm, Lenore Skenazy, Sharon Mesmer, and many more.

Kar Krazy in New York City? You Betcha!

It’s New York International Auto Show time here in The Big Apple’s Javits Center.

There are Real New Yorkers who have never had a driver’s license, and never owned — or driven — a car.

Outer-borough New Yorkers, however, frequently own cars, despite the constant battle for on-street parking, theft and vandalism, high insurance and parking lot rates, and filling-rattling pot holes.  One needs transportation options for those times when a quick trip to the beach, or upstate, or cross-town to visit a new “friend” is just the tonic.  Yes, the roads were — and still are — rather rough.  There is a reason why the Kosciusko Bridge is littered with hubcaps.

I love cars, and always have.  I could tell makes and models of cars before I could even read.  I knew the cars by the hubcap shapes, eye-level for a three-year old.

So as soon as I learned about the NY Auto Show, held at the long-gone Coliseum on 59th Street, I would beg my father to take us on the D train from Fordham Road to Columbus Circle every year, to “see the cars.”

Luckily for my Dad, he “knew a guy” who would facilitate our entry to the car show.  This was Henry.  By day, Henry was the Good Humor ice cream man in Devoe Park.

He pushed a rig like this, and pulled sandwiches, cones, ice pops and more from within the dry ice smoke within.

But, like many of our Bronx buddies, he held many jobs.  And one of Henry’s was as a Brink’s guard at the Coliseum.

My dad and I (mom would stay home, no doubt popping her black diet pills, smoking Old Golds, and watching Million Dollar Movie, typically a Tyrone Power picture) would exit the subway, buy hot pretzels from one of the vendors near the park, and walk around the corner to a side entrance.  My dad would give the “shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits” knock on the service-entry door. We’d hear footsteps.  The door would open and, silently, Henry would wave us in, quickly escorting us through a passage until we reached black industrial curtains.  It was a six-year old’s version of the Copacabana scene in “Goodfellas.”  But unlike Henry Hill, mobster, this was just Henry, the Good Humor guy.

The curtain would part and, voila!  Lights! Slinky models! Music pulsing through an overworked PA.

And cars…cars…cars!

I was in heaven.  I went every year, both to the car show and the separate Rod & Custom Show, where I would see the latest chopped, channeled and modded vehicles from the Kalifornia Kustomizers.

George Barris…Ed Roth…Gene Winfield!  All the dream-car guys I eagerly read about in the magazines. Oh how I lusted after a reworked ’32 Ford, with rolled white naugahyde seats, triple four-barrel carbs into an Edelbrock manifold, straight pipes, Hurst shifter, and more.  And while I never got the Corvette Stingray of my dreams, 

I did manage to mod a  blue ’69 VW Bug, with 2-barrel Holley carb, Hurst shifter, competition clutch, fiberglass fenders, low restriction exhaust and 14″ Chevy wheels in the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My passion for cars and bikes drove my professional career arc, and as I progressed through the working world, I covered the car industry for a trade publication and was invited to all manner of new-car intro junkets.  And, once inside the world of public relations, I — at various times — represented Audi, Kia, Infiniti, Nissan, Peugeot and, yeah, Yugo. Don’t laugh.  I got to meet the smooth-talking, automotive entrepreneur, Malcolm Bricklin.

And, from time to time, I was asked to man the marques’ exhibits at cars shows, and talk to the dads and little kids, eyes agape at the lights!  Slinky models! Loud music!

I saw myself in the faces of every new crop of six-year olds, as the kids posed with their dads alongside their favorite cars, How could I not remember what it all meant.

Power!  Freedom! The promise of the grown-up world!

Today, for the Real New Yorker, it’s all about Uber.  Tomorrow, it will be the driverless car. But this year, the cars are still exciting.  They’re well-made.  Efficient.  They handle great and they’re fast.  And electric cars are coming and they will be super.

I know many New Yorkers will read this and shake their heads.  “Cars? Ugh!”  But to outer borough types like moi, cars were and still are a magic carpet.  Without a car, how would me and my buds have been able to trek across hundreds of yards of Jones Beach sand, in our tank tops and black Banlon socks (forever marking us as Bronxites), every summer?

How would we have been able to get to the track?  Go camping in Canada? Impress a special someone on an activity known as “a date”?

The New York International Auto Show closes April 23rd.  Go!  Even if it’s just an anthropological exercise for you.  Henry is long-gone and the hot dogs are way overpriced.  But that’s hardly the point.  Go with a kid.  Look at her or his face light up when they see the ocean of four-wheeled excitement. The dinosaurs won’t be here forever, you know, especially for Real New Yorkers.

 

Goodbye to Jimmy Breslin, a Hero

Until I read “The World of Jimmy Breslin”, everything I owned was second-rate.

My clothes were either cheap, used, or “irregulars.”  My apartment was a dump. Sporting goods? Used.  Someone else’s football cleats and ice skates were good enough, so what if they were a size too big, or too small. My first used car, an eight-year old VW, was more rust than road warrior.

When, at sixteen, I began my college studies at CUNY – Hunter, I got a clunky, stuck-keyed Royal manual typewriter discarded by my dad’s company. My teeth would gnash with each clash of the dirty keys, every effort a labor of hate.

But then came a part-time job at the very company that provided this massive metal machine, which thrust me into the world of my office-boy co-workers in what was called the Bursting Room.  My department was crammed with deafening machines that de-collated and then separated carbon-smeared, multi-part reports for the various departments of this financial services company.

And the operators of these dirty, rackety machines were life-hardened guys in their late teens and early twenties.  Some were of Polish and Italian descent, but most were Black and Puerto Rican.  They were either just back from Viet Nam or, at age nineteen and with the draft in full bore, about to be inducted.  These were guys who carried knives and handguns, skin-popped smack in the men’s room, and smoked nibs of hash while at their machines, curls of smoke burning seductively off the lit tips of their Kools.

All drank during work hours and at liquid lunch, Ballantine Ale, Colt 45, Schaefer, Olde English 800, Night Train, Bali Hai, Gallo Paisano, Ripple, and Bacardi and Coke being the beverages of choice.

And then, back in that Woodstock year, 1969, there was the sixteen-year old me, quietly reading “The World of Jimmy Breslin” during break time, as Sly Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” blasted across the 77WABC airwaves twice an hour, taxing the Bursting Room’s cheesy plastic AM radio.

the world of jimmy breslin 1969

I read Breslin’s 1963 piece, about the guy who dug JFK’s grave.  Here’s a snippet of what Breslin wrote:

“Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”

And, as I read, tears streamed down my face. “Break’s over.  Get back to work,” my supervisor screamed.  Then he looked at me.  “What the fuck are you crying about?”

What I couldn’t tell him was that I was crying for our collective loss of innocence, when JFK was murdered.  I was crying about how that loss would explode as the body bags in southeast Asia piled up.  I was crying about how the good vibrations from Woodstock — for me, seen only from afar — curdled into the counterculture crisis at Altamont.

All that year, the ear-splitting Bursting Room machines screamed in righteous indignation, as did Jimi’s guitar jimi cavettwhen he debuted “Machine Gun” on the Cavett Show. Cavett fished for laughs when he asked Hendrix about his sleep habits.  “I try to get up every day,” Jimi answered, prompting the audience’s raucous response.

I kept reading Breslin, and followed him from paper to paper.  Finally, in the seventies, I moved to Jackson Heights.  There, I discovered the perfect pints of Liffey Tavern on 75th Street and Broadway, poured by bartenders Tommy and Joe.  “You just missed Breslin last night,” Tommy once said to me.  This was back when Breslin’s wife was very sick, and Jimmy, I was told, descended into hell.

Then the serial killer summer of Sam happened, 1977, and Breslin was the linchpin in son of sam photosthat lunacy.  The financially strapped city circled the toilet, and the madness reached new heights with each murder.  Joe the Bartender cried whenever someone played Paddy Reilly’s “The Town I Loved So Well” over the jukebox.  But there was a lot to cry about that year.

In time, a new generation of Real New Yorkers, city-guys all, picked up the call and began to write for my hometown papers, guys like Lupica, Daly and Flynn, Dwyer, Kilgannon and LeDuff.  Ruiz, Torres, and Gonzalez.

For me, all roads point back to Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, who died today at the age of 88.  Here is my tribute to Jimmy Breslin:

In 1969, when I picked up “The World of Jimmy Breslin,” I cried.  Which I admitted earlier.  But I never told anyone that I also cried from the excitement of knowing that a guy from the outer boroughs — A Real New Yorker — could put words together in such a brute force, powerful way.  On-deadline.

And so, the young me saved part of my Bursting Room salary — $2 an hour, at first — went to 23rd Street (Typewriter Row, at the time) and bought my very first top-shelf possession: olympia typewriterthe Olympia typewriter you see right here.  Jimmy Breslin, you helped me dream.  Bless you, Jimmy.  Slainte.

 

 

 

I’m Coming Back

So much has happened since my last post, and not all of it is good.  We are in unchartered waters now, with a weak-minded electorate and a complicit news media establishment.

We carry on.  I am pledging to share several posts a week on where we are, as Real New Yorkers living in a post-truth world.

Let’s make this a virtual water cooler.  Please chime in with comments, questions and ideas for upcoming posts.

My best wishes for a safe, healthy and reasonably sane 2017.  See you again, in the days ahead.

Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood

La Lupe

 

The great writer Tom Beller curates tales of Real New Yorkers.  La Lupe hailed from Cuba, but she was a Real New Yorker and plays a pivotal role in my new story, “The Tape.”  It appears here, as the featured story on www.mrbellersneighborhood.com. Please read, share and “Like” it (if, of course, you do!).

I think the story will resonate with you, and here’s the link: http://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2016/04/the-tape

Who’s the Real New Yorker: Trump, Clinton, or Sanders?

inwood 207th street subwayI hate his guts, but stylistically the REAL NEW YORKER is Trump. He’s fast on his feet, dismissive, sarcastic and comes off like the asinine uncle your family loves to hate every Thanksgiving. Sanders has the accent, but he’s no NY’er, having fled to lily white Vermont in 1970.

Sure, he wraps himself in pastrami (metaphorically) for political points, but his decades in Vermont disqualify him from Real New Yorker status.  Bernie, doll, you’re not landed gentry. Your people didn’t come over on the Mayflower. Your doppelganger, Larry David, is the RNY’er, not you, bro.

As for Hillary, she is the sharpest knife in the drawer, but as a NY’er, her persona reads as “successful A-lister from a toney suburb.” To her credit, she doesn’t do the gratuitous NY’er political shtick, so I give her style points for keeping it real and not trying to be someone she’s not.

Of the three, I’d have to say that Bernie is the real poser. He looks like he walked out of a Malamud novel, but he thinks like Gene McCarthy. No wonder he resonates with a good number of millennials in Brooklyn, the crowd that has come here in the years after 9/11 and now think they’re dyed-in-the-wool NY’ers.oh god tribeca

And, by the way, I’m a native NY’er, PS 86, 143, De Witt Clinton and Lehman, and I’ve lived in 4 of the five boroughs. Staten Island? No chance.

Kumbaya? Please?

Marian Fontana is a Real New Yorker, through and through.  Believe me, this author/performer knows of what she speaks.  Here is her latest plea, in response to social media vitriol spewing throughout the Interwebs:

“An uncharacteristically serious post:

“Overwhelmed by the divisiveness of social media, I never post anything political. I have friends to the left, to the right and in between and know that WHATEVER I post would be like throwing meat into a pack of wolves.
It all makes me sad.

“We live in a place called The United States and yet, we have not been united since 9-11.
How sad that it took nearly 3,000 people to die in the worst terror attack on our country for us to finally hold hands and join together against extremism, terrorism and hate.

“It was a moment short lived.

“How quickly 9-11 became politicized and used as an excuse to attack countries, marginalize immigrants and achieve personal power.

“The ripple effect of 9-11 continues as Vets return home injured and traumatized, Muslims are discriminated against and firefighters die of 9-11 related cancers.

“So, as this endless stream of negativity fills my newsfeed , I will choose to remember how so many of you reached out to my son and I after Dave died. I will recall that unique moment in history where the best of humanity was revealed and I will hold out hope that in spite of our differences and the issues that divide us that we have the capacity to be the United States.”

Right on, Marian!  (FYI, the photo here was taken on Isham Street, just west of Broadway, in Inwood, NY.  The cross is made of structural material from the World Trade Center.) Crucifix Inwood