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.