As I mentioned in last week’s post, I got to New York in the winter of 1975 with a duffel bag, a hideous suit, $2000, a graphic design portfolio, and high hopes built on a bedrock of terror, as in “what the hell would I do if I didn’t make it in New York and had to go back home?”
But I realized it would take more than money to keep me here. A town is never your own until you fill it with friends. I had to do that somehow. The obvious thing was to start with people I knew from home that were living here.
The first person I called was Pam, a good friend of my ex-girlfriend Barbara. Over coffee at Reggio on MacDougal, she told me she could never get the two of us together. “She was so beautiful, so glowing with life and wonder,” she explained. “And you….weren’t.” Ouch.
I was a little dumbfounded by the offhand cruelty of Pam’s remark, but on the long subway ride back to Park Slope, I realized that Pam had taught me an important lesson. Now that I was here, I wasn’t going to be held back by the way people saw me back home—I could be anything I wanted to be. It was square one. New York was just like Jewish summer camp.
I remember when I got to Herzl Camp in northern Wisconsin at age 16 with my long hair and red Gibson SG, that it didn’t matter what the girls back at Monona Grove High School thought of me. When I got up on the stage of the auditorium and started playing The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl,” I was shocked to discover that I could be sexy. Being good at sports didn’t matter at Jewish Camp. Crooning pop songs, knowing a few Mickey Katz jokes, and being an intellectual poseur did. And after the few week session ended, I went back to Monona with a lot more spring in my step.
New York was going to be my new Herzl, my Aliyah, as it were. Nobody knew me in the Big City and therefore I could pretend to be anything and then maybe I’d really become whatever I was making up. Or maybe New York’s alchemy would wash over me and I’d just become something I wasn’t clever enough to think up by myself. If I willed it, it would be no dream.
But where to start?
That question began to be answered when I got the job at New Yorker Films. Even though I wasn’t being paid squat, I still worked at one of the leading companies distributing foreign films in the USA. I got invited to parties at places like the French Consulate, and Goethe House, and the New York Film Festival. All I needed was to look presentable and there were endless opportunities to meet all kinds of people. And the more people I talked to, the more lists I got on. After a few years I had a game to get through the entire New York Film Festival without paying for a single evening meal. I would have done it too, if it weren’t for those cheapskates from Senegal.
Clothes, of course, were the essential part of the disguise. Put good clothes on, you can kind of fit in, even if you’re a clodhopper from the sticks with a tendency to spill the canapés on your tie. I spent as much time at Barney’s, Fiorucci, and Charivari as I did at movie theatres. I’d like to pretend that I always waited for sales, but the truth is the deficit spending practices that went into on my clothing expenditures would give John Boehner a heart attack.
I met cinematographer Ed Lachman at a party that Dan threw in his apartment for Werner Herzog. Ed had just come back from shooting “La Soufriere” for Werner. Ed was fascinating to me because he had one foot in the art film world and one foot in Hollywood. He worked often as a “Standby Cameraman” on films shooting in New York. When a celebrated director of photography would come over from Europe, they often weren’t members of the New York union locals, so the union would insist that one of their guys would “stand by” (i.e. get paid for doing nothing). I thought that was a pretty sweet deal. Ed went to the world’s greatest film school, apprenticing with some of the greatest cameramen in the world… and got paid a ton of money for it! At the same time, Ed shot some independent films like “The Lords of Flatbush,” “False Face,” and “Union City.” As Ed’s career proceeded after “La Soufriere,” I worked increasingly on the films he shot. As our lives interweaved, Ed and I became good friends.
I started bringing 16mm prints from New Yorker over to Ed’s huge loft on 19th Street every weekend. As the months went by, more and more friends began to turn up, and it became something like a salon. We’d watch the movie and talk about it for hours. Often the conversation would continue at Pete’s Tavern or some other local bar. There were regulars, but when filmmakers and actors came through town, they’d turn up, everyone from Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla to Wim Wenders’ sound man Martin Muller, whose girlfriend, Fatima Igramhan (now Parsons), hosted a German TV show about New York City, that Ed sometimes shot for. Other frequent guests were photographer/filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard and her photographer sister, Erica, Philip “Philippo” Haas (later the director of “Angels and Insects”), the late Federico de Laurentiis (Dino’s son), the late writer Carlos Clarens, Werner Herzog hagiographer Alan Greenberg (“Land of Look Behind”), TV journalist/screenwriter Laurie Frank (“Making Mr. Right”), model/actress Audrey Matson, aspiring songwriter Tessa Marquis (now a successful businesswoman/political activist), Fassbinder editor Ila Von Hasperg, and as I mentioned in a previous post, Kathryn Bigelow. Sometimes it was a very relaxed affair, with ten or fifteen people, but on other occasions we would go all out, like a showing of Leone’s“Once Upon a Time in the West,” which was a huge party complete with rented scope lenses and pasta sauce served up for the crowd by “Philippo.”
A few months into our film club, I realized that I was surrounded by an exciting new community of friends, very similar to the one I had back in Wisconsin. I was doing well with my work and having a lot of fun. I wasn’t just faking sophistication any longer, I was legitimately gaining it. I didn’t have to worry anymore about making myself into someone good enough to survive in New York and not be sent home. These people knew me and liked me and it was time to relax. It was okay just to be me, because after all, like so many of my new friends who had come here from all over the world, I was now a New Yorker.