Nostalgia is big business. The biggest concert tours in the world are, for the most part, fueled by people’s nostalgia for their youth, when they gave a shit about music. eBay exists primarily to supply upwardly-mobile adults with rescued and rehabilitated toys from their childhoods. I think that the business of nostalgia was invented by Joe Franklin, who used to have a late night talk show on WWOR TV that ran for something like ten billion years. People have always gotten wistful for the good ol’ days, but it was Joe Franklin who dusted off those relics of the good ol’ days and stuck them under harsh studio lights for people to fawn over. Stories of yesteryear no longer need to be passed down from generation to generation, you can now record and relay the actual artifact for future historians and pop culture junkies to puzzle over for all eternity. So you have many lenses through which to view history, be it through the land disputes and wars which have created the world’s borders we know today, or through a subtle progression of the Coca-Cola logo.
There’s so much media reference for the twentieth century that it’s difficult to know which memories are our own and which have been created by nostalgic reverie. I remember when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in the sixth grade and a special assembly had to be hastily arranged to inform students and allow teachers a space to cry. In my mind’s eye, I can recall sitting in a classroom with a bunch of students, watching the space shuttle lift off and soar towards the clouds, then suddenly vanish in a bright puff that spewed two other smoke trails to either side of the craft. I can recall everyone gasping and holding their hands up to their mouths, my teacher wide-eyed in shock at the occurrence. The thing is that I didn’t watch the Challenger lift off live on television, my sixth grade teacher didn’t arrange for us to watch it during class like some other teachers had. However, I saw repeats of the disaster after school and for many days afterward, viewed footage of classrooms around America watching the horror unfold on television sets rolled in by maintenance. So my actual memory of the event, which should include that I knew nothing of the space shuttle’s planned takeoff or that it had civilian passengers until after the fact, is faulty.
Despite my not actually being aware of its scope, I was alive and cognizant for Challenger’s fatal flight. But I can’t remember a thing about the 1970s. In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching President Ronald Reagan speak on television, Jimmy Carter a forgotten footnote already by the time I was five years old. I grew up on the Northeastern end of Queens, and if my parents took me to Manhattan before I was in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. I recall going into “the city” with my parents during the 80s, terrified of the rocking subway with its windows and maps darkened by spraypaint and indelible ink, the lights flickering off for minutes at a time, conductor announcements crackling loudly through distended speakers that rendered them completely inaudible. I remember a lot of filthy winos and fat cops who lazily watched people drinking and smoking dope outdoors from behind inscrutable mustaches. It all scared the shit out of me and made me want to rush back to my native Flushing with its endearing neighborhood drunks and white trash weirdos. These were the last vestiges of 1970s New York, though I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. And it looked fucking awful.
It’s easy to romanticize New York City of the 1970s, what with all of the books, movies and music that make it seem like a hedonistic utopia. Sure, flicks like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123 ain’t all sweet. There’s a lot of anger and tension in the works of The Last Poets. But the ideal is that 1970s New York was a place where you could get away with shit, where you could drink a beer while walking outdoors past peep shows, savoring the aroma of unwashed junkies. The subways were glittering canvases of color, punk rock an urgent expression of malaise. One gets the impression that budding artistic geniuses populated every block in Manhattan, each of them coiled and ready to splatter game-changing mindfucks on a street smart populace thoroughly jaded by repeated mindfucks. This was a time before AIDS, a time before crack cocaine, when potential rewards appeared to outstrip their respective risks.
I love it when some goatee-having hipster dressed like Sammy Davis, Jr. on vacation complains about the current state of New York City and whines that he wishes it were more like it was in the 1970s. What the fuck do you know about it, dude? You like the Talking Heads and you watched The Warriors and thought you had it all figured out. Buddy, you would be the first to get robbed. The very same cop who might look the other way while you smoked a doobie in Lincoln Center would likewise ignore the four teenagers digging through your pockets while holding a box cutter to your throat. Is not being able to read any signage or see out of subway windows worth bringing back graffiti on trains? Because from my experience in the 80s, for every spectacularly-painted train car there were twenty that looked like they’d been through a war. Yeah, you’d like to have seen Blondie’s inaugural performance at CBGB’s but you probably aren’t willing to be on the receiving end of a Doc Marten steel tip to the mouth. Your version of 1970s New York City mercifully dismisses the homicides, the disenfranchised non-white people living on blocks of burning buildings, the squalor. Your favorite bagel joint on Bushwick Avenue. was once a looted storefront when the neighborhood was held under siege for two weeks in 1977. And if you resided in that neighborhood then, you would be dead.
Today New York City is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified with vitamin D. Its teeth have been capped, its nails have been tastefully filed, and you can enjoy a shopping mall experience like you might in almost any other major American city on the map. What made New York interesting has all but been eradicated. But what made the place interesting was never the danger, it was not the filth and grime. It was the people who challenged the status quo, who refused unjust and pointless laws and who knew the value of minding your own business. I know you like running around Bedford Avenue with your can of Montana spray paint, scrawling inanity on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. But you should know that if you tried that thirty-five years ago, you could have gotten your meat lumped. Not by picky residents on a coalition for neighborhood beautification, but by other writers who wanted to steal your shit. And that would have been a blessing, because if the Savage Nomads caught you out there, it would be over.