The other day, one of “The New York Times’” film critics, AO Scott, had a video piece about William Friedkin’s 1971 movie “The French Connection.” I watched the piece, including about two minutes of a seminal chase scene and realized I hadn’t seen the movie since I was 14 or 15 and lit out of school to see it with friends—even though we were probably too young to properly get into the theatre.
What I saw in Scott’s video review was the New York I grew up in. A faster and more brutal place than the New York I live in now. A threatening place where it seemed like people were lining up to kick the shit out of other people and the cops were too busy kicking the shit out of people to prevent people from kicking the shit out of you.
I remember playing a high-school baseball game in Central Park. The grass on the Great Lawn was brown, there was little actual growth. The outfield with rutted by car or truck tires—park vehicles drove willy-nilly over the park. In the outfield ruts you would see drug paraphernalia. Needles. Syringes. I was playing outfield one game, in the white double-knit uniform we wore in those days and two guys walked over to me—it was quiet in the outfield--and tried to sell me drugs. That was par for the course, just the way things were. Everybody or nearly everybody had a mugging story. My friend Jill was a fairly adept runner, capable of a 7-minute/mile pace over the length of a 10K. She was mugged during a race and she wasn’t even running alone. Many of my friends also had run-ins with cops, cops who would harass you if you had long hair, suspecting there was a legitimate link between hair-length and marijuana possession.
Today, New York is a much more benign place. The brutality comes not from petty street criminals but from Wall Street speculators, manipulators and profiteers. They wear suits and get their pills legally from their doctors. Their crimes are harder to see. The regular cops don’t intimidate anymore, though one did give a citation to one of my kids for drinking beer in public. However there are those who carry assault rifles who are meant to protect us from terrorists. They make me think of collateral damage and scare the crap out of me.
It all makes me think of the Ferris Wheel scene from Carol Reed's "The Third Man," with lines delivered by the inimitable Orson Welles' Harry Lime. "Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."