There is knowledge that predates memory. There are things that you learn, and so things that you know, before you remember actually learning anything at all. This woman is Mommy. That man is Daddy. The sky is blue. Ed Koch is the mayor. These things were just facts. Incontrovertible, wonderful little facts.
I should back up. I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I was about six years old. My friends with whom I went to High School1 like to give me a hard time about this. They like to tell me I didn’t live there long enough to get to say “I’m from Brooklyn” in any kind of serious way. But they’re really very wrong about this.
I remember when subway cars were covered in graffiti. I remember those little metal handles that I couldn’t reach on the bus instead of the metal bars that transverse the coaches of today. I remember walking over the bridge with my mom into Sheepshead Bay. I remember the teenagers walking down the street with giant boomboxes slung over one shoulder. I also remember that mugging was a think that really happened and that we never went to Coney Island because that’s where drugs were sold, and whatever drugs were, they were bad. Most important of all, perhaps, I knew people who believed it was a cardinal sin to like the Yankees because once upon a time they were Dodger fans.2
My friends, on the other hand, were from the suburbs. They came from towns that probably didn’t even have mayors, or if they did have mayors, children certainly didn’t know their names. But I knew who my mayor was. He was Ed Koch. And he was a big deal, even to a kid.
Why was he a big deal to a kid? I honestly don’t know. In my own head, I have a memory of him being on Sesame Street once. I’d swear on my best bottle of scotch that this is true, but I did a (brief) Google search tonight and could find nothing to corroborate this memory. Still, if it is true, then he was trading in some pretty high valued child-currency. So that’s one thing, at least.
For another, from the perspective of a Jewish kid, he looked and sounded and acted (through child-eyes at least) like somebody who would be your favorite uncle. In fact, somebody you’d prefer to be an uncle over some of your actual uncles. Beyond this, it gets fuzzy. He was a presence, and no there’s doubt about that. He was as much a part of the city as those graffiti covered subways and Delmar’s pizza and rainbow cookies. Although when you’re a kid, you don’t think of these things as being a part of the city, but simply as being a part of life.
Keep in mind, Ed Koch was the mayor every single day of my life, from the day I was born until the day we left Brooklyn. And I think he was still mayor when we moved back to New York two years later, though this time to Long Island. In fact, he must have been, because I remember David Dinkens running for mayor and thinking it would be great if the black man won.3 So maybe this not only starts to get at why Ed Koch was an important character in the background of my childhood, but why to this day he has remained one of my favorite public figures.
We have a funny way of romanticizing things from our childhood. Most things that we take for granted as children tend to take on a sort of warm glow as we get older. The crenellated brickwork around neighbors front yards that I used to walk on, where the space between the bricks was just big enough to fit my little feet in, for example. We had a pool in the backyard, which I barely remember. But I remember the bricks. And I remember Ed Koch.
Fast forward to 2009. I discovered a program called Road to City Hall on NY1.4 And to my infinite delight, I discovered that Mayor Koch had a weekly segment where he sat with retired senator Al D’Amato.5 The two of them would shoot the political breeze for ten or fifteen minutes. They would crack wise but they would speak wisely underneath it all. The segment, by the way, was called Wise Guys.6
And do you know what? I still loved this guy. This wasn’t about nostalgia anymore. Here was the real Ed Koch, in the flesh. There are lots of words you can use to describe hizzoner, but the two words that fit best – and I think he’d agree – are “New” and “Yorker.” Yes, he had the attitude. And yes, he had the wonderful accent. But there was more to it than that.
I once heard somebody describe New Yorkers this way: People in other parts of the country are nice without being kind, but New Yorkers are kind without being nice. That was Ed Koch, I think. He didn’t pull punches. He didn’t sugar coat. He damn well never told people what they wanted to hear. But there was a kindness underneath this. He loved politics. He loved New York. And he loved its people. This last bit, I think is the most important.
I remember I met Governor Pataki once, at a museum function. When I shook his hand, he looked right past me and his handshake was so weak I wondered how he ever got a job in his life. I never got to meet Ed Koch. But he was famous for being out on the streets, throwing his “How’m I doin’?” line at his fellow citizens.
“How’m I doin’?” That’s something that stuck with my parents, I can tell you that. Years after his mayoralty, if the name Ed Koch ever came up, my parents would look at each other and say, “Hey! How’m I doin’?!” I’m sure there are people who think this was shtick. But emperor Bloomberg, who supposedly rides the train to work,7 you don’t see him asking regular joes how they’re doing. And Rudy? “America’s Mayor”? Fuggedaboutit.
Today’s New York is a bit sterile. I’m not saying it’s worse. It’s probably a better city to live in today than it was back then, by most measurable standards.8 And yet, it feels like it’s lost some of its soul, some of its grit, some of that edge that New Yorkers fancy themselves as being proud of.
To that end, I think Ed Koch reminds us – reminds me, anyway – of a city that doesn’t exist anymore. A city that had CB’s and the Ramones. A city without surveillance cameras. A city that had xxx shops in Times Square instead of Disneyland. But also a city with hookers and muggings and drug deals and a real AIDS problem. Sometimes I want that city back, and sometimes I think that’s an insane idea. But I’ll tell you this, I want that mayor back.
I want to say Ed Koch was one of a kind. In a lot of ways that’s true. You better believe there was only ever one Ed Koch. But it’s also not true. Because he was really just a regular New Yorker. An exceptional New Yorker, to be sure, but a regular New Yorker all the same. And there were lots of people just like him. I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of Ed Koch again, as much because he really was one of a kind as because, well, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Farewell, Mister Mayor. Rest in Peace. Ya did great.
- On Long Island. [↩]
- A point which probably deserves a post of its very own. [↩]
- Paging Dr. King; Idealistic child, line 1. [↩]
- It’s properly called “Inside City Hall,” but they change the name during the run-up to elections, and this is when I happened to find it. [↩]
- Who I’m pretty sure is more crooked than a dog’s hind leg, but who is also endlessly charming. [↩]
- Perfection. [↩]
- I say “supposedly” because I’ve never seen it. Never even met anyone who’s seen it. But that’s his story and he sticks to it. [↩]
- If you have the money. But then, I suppose that’s always been true. [↩]