My life and my creative perspective are tied up in a knot with New York City. It happened during the course my almost fifty years that I somehow became part of a handful of native New Yorkers that never left. It wasn’t totally a choice in so far I made any formal decisions. Time passed and I always had so much to do, raising a family, working that all of a sudden twenty, thirty years passed and I just never got around to leaving. Most of my friends growing up slowly and methodically found nicer, quieter places to live one by one. Sometimes, it was the job or sometimes it was the spouse. Sometimes it was just genuine fatigue with the crowds, the bad parking, the subway and the noise. Sometimes it was a desire for more space, curiosity about what life outside the metropolis involves. There are a few of us left and we run into each other every now an then on the street or at Fairway. I never had a problem with people needing to get out of New York, there’s a lot to hate about it. I also never really had a problem with staying either, there’s a lot to love.
My great-grandfather came here at the turn of the last century from a tiny town in Italy named Gragnano, seeking his fortune, bringing with him a big family along with a lot of stubborn peasant determination. I’m not really sure how much of that made it down to me but it feels good to embrace the Italian that’s in me at least, especially after watching the Godfather or Raging Bull. The reality is that I probably have more blood from white, English settlers that came here three hundred and fifty years ago and somehow managed to keep from getting slaughtered by angry Indians. By the time both blood lines converged in New York City fifty-something years ago it didn’t matter, we were New Yorkers, part of the flock that had settled here from hundreds of different places and countries.
I grew up in New York during the sixties and seventies when the “white flight” was fully under way and practically crippled the city. Soho was empty except for a handful of artists, the Upper West Side was dangerous, and no one came to Park Slope unless they lived there, especially the cabbies. Taking the subway train was called “riding the beast”. Walking down the street was a hopscotch game of dodging dog crap. And the icing on the cake was when the city almost went broke, the president of the United States told us to “Drop dead”.
But during this time of estrangement, scarcity and filth, there was a vibrancy and character that kept it alive. Never pretty but always interesting, never safe but always exciting, exhausting but invigorating. Living in New York then and now is living with the hypocrisy every day. There was life in the streets; people used the brownstone stoop like a porch. There were never a lot of tourists then, just a lot of people who lived and worked there. It was our city because no one else wanted it. We were proud of our mess when we weren’t cursing it out. We were the best and the worst. We were the Yankees and the Mets.
Growing up in Brooklyn always felt like being in a separate city, like a cross between being in a ghetto and a private club. Parents booted kids out in the streets to face the traffic, the drug dealers and child-sex offenders on their own. It was truly a Dodgers culture, always second best. We were the place were you lived because you couldn’t hack it in “the city”, our name for Manhattan because few of us actually felt part of the same place that resided on the other side of the East river. The only things that connected us were a few bridges, a subway that never slept and a lucky cab ride that would actually take you into Brooklyn after sunset.
But small town Brooklyn life for me as a young man was quickly becoming too small. There’s a certain amount of irony of thinking of Manhattan as the outside world but that’s what my Dodgers mentality made of it. I thirsted to drink from the chalice and grab at the fruit I believed lurked there for me there across the river. I felt claustrophobic not being able to walk down Seventh Avenue without bumping into someone. I couldn’t have an uninterrupted breakfast at the Purity diner. I hungered to be anonymous.
Not ready yet to go to college I began my professional life hand washing dishes in the West Village and in turn began my daily move back and forth across the river. Over a short number of years I eventually worked up to cooking and came of age in the thick of the restaurant world with a colorful bunch of cooks and chefs leading me along the way. My connection with this gang pulled me the rest of the way out of Brooklyn and I took a small room with the chef I had worked for. I continued to make my way through a number of New York kitchens over the next ten years, honing my skills as a cook and a young adult and celebrating my citizenship of Manhattan.
Through the course of this adventure I decided to go back to school and study film. So I applied and was accepted to New York University. When I finished I slowly peeled myself away from the restaurant business and worked as a production assistant on movies and music videos. My interest in cinematography drew me into the lighting department and soon I had gotten into the union and had access to the big shows that came to New York. My relationship with the city deepened lighting, photographing and working on its streets for so many years. To this day I feel a sort of giddy pride moving lighting equipment through the places I grew up.
I met my wife Laura on a movie and my life seemed to move very fast from then on. She grew up in Canada but came to New York to be with me. The next year we were married and the year after that we had daughter Phoebe. A year and a half later we were in Park Slope, living in a row house we had bought and renovated ourselves. Moving back to Brooklyn brought up many mixed feelings about coming back to my old neighborhood. There was ambivalence over the feeling of backpedaling and all my old Dodgers feelings came flooding back. Did I just prove that I was second best, not being able to hack it in Manhattan?
But the reality is that I was also happy to come back. When I left, found that I missed being on a first name basis with the guy at the hardware store and the deli. I missed the quiet(er) streets. I missed Prospect Park, my back yard. Now I have it back again and am pleased to find that Brooklyn along with the rest of New York has edged its way back from the abyss I grew up in forty-something years ago. My occasional nostalgic waves are met with what my life has become today. And I still live with the love and the hate of the city every day. Being a film technician many have suggested the idea of moving to Los Angeles and the vast film community it houses. The temptation is certainly there. There weather is nicer. The city is easier, less crowded. But my feeling is that the next move will be somewhere far from any city to someplace in the middle of the woods. But wherever the road takes me New York will always be a passenger in my conscience.