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Peter Mehlman

Peter Mehlman

Posted: February 15, 2011 12:25 PM

"The details of that summer day in 1987 remind New Yorkers of what a different place the city was then. Murders were trending toward a historic high, with street crime ingrained as a fact of life." ~ New York Times, January 25, 2011.

Somewhere in the soup of DirectTV's four million channels, you see William Shatner interviewing Bernhard Goetz. (The pairing itself is a subject, but not this one.) Looking oddly unchanged in the twenty-six years since firing five bullets on the Downtown 2 Train, Goetz is at no loss for clichés about the horror of New York in the Eighties: "Anarchy." "Crime-ridden." "People were afraid to walk out..."

Serving seven months after shooting four people might make another man recall the old days more fondly. Not our vigilante. Shatner blinks as if gauging whether Goetz's memory is uniquely hysterical.

The answer is: hysterical, yes. Uniquely, no.

All kinds of people say, "It was like New York in the Eighties." They say this with no wistfulness, no nostalgia. Instead, their tone is one of lost time usually reserved for ex-hostages as they recall a city trisected into rich people on cocaine, poor people on crack and quaking innocents stuck in the middle.

It's anyone's guess how collective memory warped so badly but the acceptance of New York in the Eighties as an extended-run horror show is wrong and so depressing -- especially if it was your sole adult decade in the city. A key clump of your life feels slandered. Somehow, every New York era was the good old days except one. Only the Eighties is lined in yellow tape.

There are loads of psycho-sociological reasons that just the Eighties dystopia is seen as all dys and no topia, but comparing decades is so pointless, let's leave it at this: like every other artificially bracketed era in New York history, the Eighties were fine. Just fine.

People were not afraid to leave their buildings. Women wore shoulder pads for style, not protection. Knock-off Cartier Tanks kept good time, Ground Zero was Rocky Lee's, you started winning at three-card Monte, you almost understood arbitrage, big trials were theater, you gave up your cab for Warhol and Von Bulow, saw IB Singer at The American Restaurant twice a week, the whole city mobilized when a 63rd Street construction crane fell on a woman and the only people living in a constant state of pre-traumatic stress were purebred mugging targets like Bernie Goetz.

Okay. Maybe that's an unduly rosy picture.

Yes, there was a spike in violent crime before Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point put New York among the America's safest cities. There was untamed garbage, epidemic homelessness, rampant corruption, the quality of graffiti was spotty, some window washers lacked fastidiousness, Washington Heights popularized crack, wonderfully thin co-workers disappeared for mysterious meetings in the middle of the day and, at certain locales, it was dicey to go out and Wang Chung tonight.

The thing is, you dealt with it.

You didn't stroll Avenue B because, in lieu of homey-cool cafes, it was full of drug dealers. You waited in the well-lighted middle of the subway platform but you didn't know which train went to the meatpacking district because the area's appeal was exclusive to those who packed meat.

Tompkins Square wasn't great either.

But then, what's so bad about perpetual vigilance? Really, it was a big part of the city's magic before it (and the world) became a heads-down society. The platter of urban blight made you warier, cannier, pointier, angrier... more entertaining.

For example, historians blamed the homeless problem on Reaganomics, but a dark Eighties hypothesis was: People became homeless because one night they left a Tribeca party at 3 am, stood on the corner to grab a cab and... it never came.

See? Now, that's a fine theory built on a life happily lived on the jagged edge of blasé. That attitude gave you the jaded joy of reading in the Times about which of your favorite restaurants were cited for health code violations. You got subversive prestige when John Gotti and Al Goldstein started recognizing you on the street. When a blind date said Robert Chambers was her type, you fell in love anyway. When a trick-or-treater showed up with a paper bag over his head and a cigarette hanging out of the mouth hole, you gave him candy and went on with your life.

Or you didn't.

Unlike people in Hollywood who always say they have to "get out of this crazy business," when people said, "I have to get out of this crazy city," they often did. God knows what chaff is, but the Eighties definitely separated it from the wheat.

Those who remained were those who could cope. For them, life was possible... in Manhattan. The romance of the starving artist/actor/freelance animal acupuncturist hadn't yet been hedge-funded to Bay Ridge. The way you barely made the rent but still went out to dinner every night was such an exhilarating sleight of cash, it felt like...

...Like...

When you see Goetz in the studio with a gun reenacting his big day, you hit mute and recall a day in the early Nineties when you called your brother in New York from an office in Studio City. You told him you'd just seen Heather Locklear on Ventura Boulevard.

He told you he'd just seen Jay McInerney on Bleecker.

You left behind a great time.