Charlie O’Connor was behind the bar of a damned Irish pub on a street near the Port Authority bus terminal. It was late November in 2002, somewhere off Ninth Avenue, in the terrain that streaks grimly west to Hell’s Kitchen, one of the last unsmoothable zones of the island, a place that had until then and has perhaps still been spared the cinnamon waft of gentrification. I remember a long and narrow dive bar with a squelchy carpet underfoot, a line of swivel stools by a zinc-top bar, and an apocalyptic toilet out the back—it was the sort of toilet you prayed the lights weren’t working in, and they weren’t. The regulars were mostly men but a couple of hardchaw women also were slumped on the stools, drinking shots of blended whisky chased by long-neck bottles of unspeakable American beer. This was an establishment of the professionally morose, and the afternoon happy hour was grimly unfolding. We stared out to a ferocious rain, one of those needling assaults from a bruised, thundery sky that the city seems to specialise in at this time of year. The regulars along the barside were neither unwelcoming of a stranger nor especially interested but as I waited for the rain to break—for the steam to rise as though from a soothed Hades, for the complex Manhattan light to reform—I managed to learn a tiny something of Charlie O’Connor. He had been dead for years but he was still behind the bar of the old Irish pub. No family had shown up for the cremation and no kin had been traced. Alcoholic pragmatism instructed the regulars to simply bring Charlie back to the place where he had served for many years—apparently with good cheer—and his urn sat snugly up there beneath the optics. The rain was ceaseless and all-powerful and might never wash away the taint of the neighbourhood and we all sat beneath Charlie’s urn, and he seemed happy enough with the situation.
In early 1973, a musician named Chris Stein made the short migration from Brooklyn into the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was drawn to a fresh venom and shrillness about the music that was being played there. He joined a proto-punk outfit called The Stillettos, and he was very much taken with one of the girl-singers, a former waitress, Deborah Harry, of bee-stung lips and platinum streaks, and soon the two broke free to strike a romance and form their own band, which they named Blondie. The band quickly became a fixture in the Lower East Side clubs, and then a cultish success, and then it had some hits in Britain. But a New York culture typically ascends to the high mark of its potential through appropriation, and it was when the brittle new wave ethos of the Lower East Side miscegenated with the lush stylings of Giorgio Moroder-patented synthesiser electro from the Manhattan gay clubs that Blondie achieved its gilded moment. The 1979 single ‘Heart of Glass’ is the key document—it is three minutes and forty one seconds of pop perfection, and it remains a landmark text in the literature of the city.
New York is built out of bricks and lights and sentiment. It is addicted to its own nostalgia. Its heyday was so fine it cannot escape that day’s velvety and romantic shadow. It is the city of the twentieth century, and it lingers there. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, when exiled in dreary, provincial Boston, where everything seemed to shut down at the first threat of evening, wrote so wistfully of the excitement of the Manhattan avenues at dusk, in the 1950s, with the yellow cabs teeming towards drinks, supper dates, assignations, and the bristle of the sexual charge on the air. It is a key trait of so much of the city’s art—the novels of Don Delillo, or Jonathan Lethem, or Edith Wharton, or the comics of Art Spiegelman or the music of The Strokes or the films of Woody Allen—to fetishise its own (often very recent) past. This summer, the department stores of the city were full of menswear collections inspired by Mad Men. It is a city that can’t get over itself.
But also it wants to be someplace else. Maybe it is a symptom of a city built by immigrants that, at its true heartfelt core, it seems to yearn for an Otherplace, a place that is almost palpable but just beyond grasp. Thus, it is the transplanted capital of Mitteleuropa—the great Jewish city. It has traces in its DNA of Berlin, Vienna, Budapest. And, as is any city surrounded by water, it is susceptible to daydreams of escape.
The consensus is lately general that the golden time is past. The artists have been priced out, Midtown is a theme park, and most of the interesting bumps and carbuncles have been airbrushed from the picture. Its great challenge now is to refute and challenge a sterile present, and maybe to do so it must at last let go of its past.
A bout of my own unearned nostalgia took me from my hotel bed at 4am one morning in October of 2004. I slung on my camera and aimed a cab for the Fulton Fish Market. It was in its last days and would soon relocate to a shiny new warehouse premises out in the back arse of the Bronx. A prime location on the East River, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, had simply become too valuable a swathe of real estate to be left to a stinking old fish market.
The Fulton Fish Market was set up in the eighteen-twenties. It quickly became the prime wholesale point for the North Atlantic fishing fleet; later, most of the catch would be trucked in. There were rumours, always, that Organised Crime held the runnings of the place. The city never got on with its fish market—it was an unknowable world within a world, and treated with suspicion.
When I arrived, well before dawn, buyers from the restaurants of Little Italy and Chinatown were already thick on the cobblestoned ground. Everywhere the stones were slick with fins, washed-out guts, silvery skins. The buyers pored over the glistening trays of iced fish on the trestle tables and haggled the prices hard with the dealers. Side-mouthed insults were traded and everybody smoked furiously. An old lady swaddled in many coats and wearing several hats sold Marlboro Lites in cartons of two hundred. I drifted around the cobbles and the open-sided warehouses in a half-dream haze, and there was the sense of the market crowd as an impenetrable fraternity. They had their own language, gestures, body moves. Trucks glided in and out from the city beyond, and the crates of fish were hooked and grappled from the trucks’ chilled interiors, and money changed hands from wads of grimed twenties; the count was so dizzyingly made. There was a tang of boiled coffee on the air, and the scrape of raw commerce along the cobbles, and nobody noticed as the light came up and crept across the river.
Trucks from Montauk, Saint John, Portland, Long Island, New Bedford. Everybody in fleeces and with steel grapples hung from the belt loops of their jeans. Fish for the chowder and fish for the grill—the dead eyes of the salmon and the pollock; the alien squirming of the still-livid shrimp. A truck sold bacon rolls and doughnuts—salt and sugar to keep the workers fuelled. The daylight as it rose didn’t suit the place. The last of the fish went for the low money, and the shutters were dragged down for another day, and the market was left to its rats and ghosts.
My photographs were hopeless—they caught the bustle and glare but not the voices and not the life.
Can the city’s true Moment be named?
For one of its contemporary chroniclers, Luc Sante, an obsessive denizen of the Lower East Side, it has been all downhill for a good three decades now. He is elegiacal for what he remembers as a wild, lawless, piratical time:
In the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, no golf courses, no subdivisions. We thought of the place as a free city, where exiles and lamsters and refugees found shelter. Downtown we were proud of this, naturally.
But for an older flâneur, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, the nineteen-seventies would have been thin soup indeed beside the great burbling broth of the nineteen-forties. Mitchell’s beat frequently took in the Fulton market, and he caught it perfectly:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market… The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me…
For each generation, the cast of the city changes, and as we journey back through the decades, the lustre seems to thicken, the characters become larger, the intensity of the life all the more pronounced. The present can never live up to the past. This may say less about the city and more of a sentimental yearning for the heat and vivacity of our own lost youths.
Jet lag has a sole advantage. After you’ve arrived, typically in the late afternoon, and you have suffered the airport bus run past the endless cemeteries of Queens, and you’ve checked into your cheap, bathroom-in-the-hall hotel, and you’ve eaten something and had a drink or two, and you’ve conked by 10pm, and you’ve awoken—ping!—at 4am on the button, and the city outside is as quiet as you’re ever going to get it, this is the time to rise and go walking, when only the scant night traffic roams, and maybe you go and circle Washington Square Park, and dawdle for a moment under the Arch, and look up the great unfurling parade of Fifth Avenue, and hold it there for just a moment, because the moment will come when there is not a car to be seen nor a person, and there is just the great silent brooding of the buildings, the low-rise of Greenwich Village giving way to the towers of Midtown, and for that moment it’s as though you have the place entirely to yourself and are alone in a sea of souls.