Fragments toward a Memoir of New York

Read for the first time by the author, Tim Tomlinson, at APWT’s 2015 conference in Manila.

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If I’m strolling up a boulevard in Paris and I step in a puddle, I think, wow, I just stepped in a puddle in Paris. Mais pas de probleme.

If I’m ambling along a lane in London and I step in a puddle, I think, Right, I just stepped in a puddle on a London lane. Jolly good!

But if I’m walking down some block in New York and I step into a puddle, I think, God, I hate this fucking city.

That’s what New York does to you—it conspires against you, you can feel it. It boils your blood, and that boil boils out onto the streets, the subway platforms, in the steam coming up through the goddamn grills, and it seems like everybody’s head’s about to blow.

And you hear yourself saying it like a mantra: God, I hate this fucking city.

 

It wasn’t always that way. When I moved to New York in 1977, it was still the New York of legend. Times Square like a porn palace, hookers loitering at the bus shelters on the Upper West Side. Crime like a virus, graffiti on every surface, people like human ATMs for muggers lurking in shadows. You get back to your apartment, you turn the cylinder lock, set the dead bolt, secure the crossbar, insert the security chain, set the Medeco, and you still didn’t feel safe. The two blocks walk from the Union Square R to the Strand Bookstore was like walking Spanish, and if you got waylaid by muggers on the return, you hoped they’d take your money, not your books. I fucking loved it. Music everywhere. Patti Smith, Talking Heads, James White and the Blacks, the Mudd Club, CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City. Alternative cinema houses uptown, downtown, crosstown. The Orpheum, the New Yorker, Cinema Studio 1 & 2, Bleecker Street Cinemas, Anthology Film Archives. You could catch the new Fellini, grab a slice, hear the Ramones, and get back home before the 11 O’clock News. But you weren’t going home. This was New York. When I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, I used to stare at the pages of the Sunday Times Arts & Leisure, or new issues of the Village Voice, and think, is it possible that all this shit is actually happening, at the same time, in the same place? Now here I was, right in the midst of it, dizzy with all the choices.

 

In summers, I worked for a furniture moving company called Graduate Movers. Most of us studied at Columbia University—undergrads, Masters students, doctoral candidates. We had painters and opera singers and historians on our crew. One day, I’m working with Carl Johnson from Oklahoma. He’s in the second year of a PhD program in Philosophy at the New School. Usually he’s talking some heavy shit, Kierkegaard’s dizziness of too many possibilities, or Pascal’s wager. Most days you beg him to shut his yap. But today he’s silent. Today he’s got something real on his mind.

“What’s bugging you?” I ask him.

He shrugs me off.

“Tell me,” I say, “I’m listening.”

“No, it’s just this city, man.”

“The city? What about it?”

“I fucking hate it.”

“New York?” I say. “Are you shitting me?”

Carl says, “If New York is so great, where’s all the celebrities?”

“Celebrities? They’re all over the place.”

“Yeah? Well I been living here for two years and I haven’t seen a single one.”

We’re driving down Columbus Avenue in the West 70s, heading for our second job.

“That’s odd.” I tell him. “I see them all the time.”

He says, “You see celebrities?”

“All the time.”

I turn east onto West 73rd, one of those tony tree-lined blocks with classic brownstones.

Carl Johnson says, “Yeah? Like who?”

Up ahead, a man emerges from a car. He crosses the street holding the hand of a little boy.

“How about him?” I say.

“Who?” Carl says, swinging his head.

“Guy with the kid,” I tell him.

He leans closer to the windshield and his eyes go wide.

“Holy shit!” he says. “That’s Dustin Hoffman!”

“What’d I tell you?”

“That’s Dustin Hoffman,” he’s shouting.

I grab him before he can roll down the window.

“Take it easy, Carl. You scare them away if you crowd their space.”

He says, “Dustin-fucking-Hoffman.”

I drive slow so Carl can appreciate the full effect. Ratso Rizzo in khakis and running shoes, walking his kid home from school.

We approach the corner at Central Park West. Across the lanes, a tall slender woman is hailing a taxi. She’s got long flowing hair and legs up to her neck. She looks like she’s on the cover of a record album. I tap Carl.

He says, “Carly Simon?”

“You’re on a roll, Carl,” I say.

“Is that Carly Simon?” he says, his nose flat on the windshield.

“Buckle your seat belt,” I tell him. “You’re gonna go right through the glass.”

Carl was catching it, the New York bug. Tonight he’d be phoning home so excited he’d have half the Oklahoma town packing its bags.

New York can do that to you—it’s infectious. That weird feeling you get seeing total strangers who feel closer to you than family. Over the years, I’d seen them all. John Updike outside The Armory, Sam Shepard at Café des Artistes, Matt Dillon in the Dublin House, Patti Smith at her table in Dante. I met Lou Reed on a coffee line in Zabar’s. I saw Mick Jones of The Clash, in daylight, walking up Amsterdam Avenue in the low 80s. Sometimes you’d go parties and the starlet you’d just seen in a movie would be standing right next to you eating a cracker with cheese. I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of theater producer. A huge place, several floors, hundreds of people, the walls covered with musical instruments from all around the world. You could bang a gong, pluck a zither, shake a green tambourine. In the countdown to midnight, the noise grew unearthly, you could float away on the volume, and you did, and you felt like you were entering the constellations along with all the other stars. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you still felt that way in the morning.