How I Came to NY With Nothing… to Start the Career That’s Left Me With Nothing

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It was a little before the Christmas of ’75 when I first got to New York. My filmmaker friends Julia Reichert and Jim Klein had driven me from Dayton, Ohio and dropped me off at the West Fourth Street Station. Hugging my duffel bag to my chest—everything I had was inside it—I pushed through the turnstile and got on the downtown F. I had a buddy who had agreed to let me sleep on his floor in Park Slope until I could find a place to live.

I’d only planned to spend my first summer after college in Dayton, and get to New York by September.  I’d taken a job designing a catalog for a local film distributor called Twyman Films, with the idea of having a little more money in my pocket before I hit the big city.  Unfortunately, I was robbed the first day I got to Dayton. The guy cleaned out everything I had except my clothes, so I had to stay until December to make up for everything I lost on the first day.

In addition to my duffel bag, I had a check for $2000 in my pocket. I didn’t realize that Citibank was going to hold it for two weeks until they would let me get access to any of it. So I basically had the hundred bucks I had on me to pay for the next two weeks. But stuff was cheaper in those days. The cost of a subway token had just gone from thirty-five to fifty cents. My Park Slope pal thought that fifty cents was outrageous so he used slugs.

I had run a film club back at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so I started my job hunt by visiting the offices of all the companies I’d been booking films from. The prize of my duffel bag was a pale blue denim leisure suit with ultra-wide lapels and huge white buttons, the kind of thing Fred Willard would wear on “Fernwood 2-Night.” Today you could get laughs just putting on this 70s atrocity as a Halloween costume, but I sincerely intended it as a classy presentation for job interviews. Luckily for me, on my second meeting, a guy kindly told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to dress up.

After a few meetings, I found my way to a guy named Josh Balgley, who was setting up a distribution venture called UA Classics. Unlike all the studio classics divisions that would follow it, Balgley’s classics division actually handled classics… as in Humphrey Bogart movies, and other treasures in the UA collection. Josh liked my Twyman catalog and hired me to design one for him.

In the coming months, I spent a lot of time at the UA building at 729 Seventh Avenue. It had its own ad agency, Carluth, and I was very intimidated by the hardboiled guys who worked there. They smoked cigars and said weird male things like, “you should move that logo a cunt’s hair to the right.” I felt like I’d wandered into an X-Rated version of “The Front Page,” and was totally cowed by the sexist smog of the place.  It was hard to believe that a few months ago I’d been in my Earth Shoes, spouting off on “Ruby Fruit Jungle” in Women in Literature class. 

Balgley wanted to have unusual stills in the catalog, so I was granted access to a room where the “Linen Books” were kept. These were beautifully bound copies of all the contact sheets from classic movies. I remember going through all the stills from “Some Like it Hot.”  That movie was an obsession of mine and I’d written a term paper on it.  Now I was following the whole history of its making as if it was a comic book. Maybe I had heard too many stories about its production, but I thought I could see how pissed off people were waiting for Marilyn to show up on set. I lost all sense of time down in the Linen Book room and I often had to be nudged when office hours were over.

As these were the days before computerized graphic design, I did this catalog old school: drafting table, t-squares and triangles, typesetting, photostats, technical pens, X-Acto knives, Best-Test cement, and pickup squares. You had to know what you were doing back then—you couldn’t futz around endlessly with the fonts and sizes--you had to make your choice in your head with no budget for second tries.

I shared a duplex apartment with five people on east 22nd, near Gramercy Park. Rats scurried around under the floorboards under my head as I tried  to sleep. I put poison down there, which shut them up, but then I had to deal with the smell for a few weeks. Still, as roommates left I kept moving up into better bedrooms until I had one with four windows, a fireplace, and a breathtaking city view--the best New York City room I’ve ever lived in to this day.

As long as I had slugs, all the boroughs were mine, but I preferred to walk. The New York streets provided an endless source of free and illicit feasts for the eyes: the NYU girls of summer, who, luckily for me, cut the class on keeping breasts inside tank tops. the 3 card Monte dealers of Times Square, whose skillful and shameless fleecing of tourists provided excellent prep for the people I would soon meet in the film biz; the junkies in the east village with the razor blade necklaces circling their necks, the drag queens, magicians, the singers, the drug dealers, the hookers… particularly the hookers. It was so dirtily glamorous to be in a town that had so many prostitutes. “Wanna date?” That was always such a nice, friendly question.

Balgley kept making changes to my design, which was costly for me as I was on a flat fee. I kept struggling to find some rhyme or reason to his perverse decisions. His assistant had a very concise explanation: Balgley was an asshole. He called him “Bag-of-Shit.” When I would come home, my roommates would all laugh and ask me, “How’s Bag-of-Shit?” The unpleasantness of working for Balgley snapped me out of my reveries in the Linen Book room and I got the job done.

Around that time, an opening came up at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films. I went to their office in the Sofia Building on West 61st Street. When I walked in, I was confronted with a brick wall painted “La Chinoise” red. This was it! The temple that housed all my favorite films! I was dying to work there. I was ushered by my longtime phone buddy Jose Lopez and introduced to Dan Talbot, the legendary crowned head of foreign film. As I nervously pulled my Twyman catalog and college film posters out of my portfolio bag, I was happy to see Dan’s eyes light up. I could do all the other work, and save him money on graphic design too!  As I would learn, any opportunity to not spend money filled Dan with glee. When he told me the job would involve working with critics, I started jibber-jabbering about how thrilled I would be to meet my idols Sarris, Kael, and the rest, until I saw his look of pity and shut up.

Once I had proved I was reasonably film-literate, knew how to thread a projector, and could save them money, there was one final hurdle—I had to submit a writing sample. Right after the interview, they dispatched me to the office screening room with a 16mm print of Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.” The next day I dropped of my “Petra Von Kant” blurb at New Yorker, so that the quality of my just-out-of-college prose could be adjudicated by Dan’s wife Toby. That night I splurged on a bottle of Mateus and tried unsuccessfully to not think about how badly I wanted the job.

The next day Jose called. I would start the following Monday. I had no way of knowing it then, but that phone call would, as the cliché goes, dramatically alter the course of the rest of my life.

But I was young and it was impossible for me to think too much about the future. I was just happy I didn’t have to work for Bag-of-Shit anymore.