Wednesday, October 8, 2014

NYC, 1985

NYC, MOMA, October 1985

WHAT HAPPENED WAS THERE WAS A GIRL. That's probably the only thing that could have made me get on a plane for the first time and fly across a border to a strange city at 21, so excited and afraid that I thought I'd be sick. As the jet banked long and low over Manhattan - it used to do that in those days - I'm sure I was shivering; I was having an adventure.

We had met the previous Christmas, working together at Simpsons Toytown; there was a thrilling date just before she went home for the holidays and a promise to see each other again when she got back. Months passed, then one day my boss at Toytown remembered a letter in her desk, sent to me care of the store: There had been a family tragedy and the girl had to stay in Fredericton but she was moving to New York to take acting classes. There was an address and a phone number.

She was living with roommates way out in some place called Throg's Neck in the Bronx but they were cool if I slept on the couch. I packed the Spotmatic I'd bought a few months before and a tape recorder: I'd arranged to interview a band, The Minutemen, before their gig at Irving Plaza. I was a rock journalist now, I told her. She'd never heard of them.

NYC, MOMA, October 1985

I took the subway into Manhattan with her every morning to her job as a receptionist in the same building as MTV. I had time to kill all day so I saw the sights: the Village, Times Square, the Frick and the Met; MOMA and Rockefeller Center. I brought my camera and a couple of rolls of Plus-X and pretended I was Robert Frank.

New Yorkers were more extroverted than people in Toronto. They looked at art with casual intensity and moved with more purpose than anyone I'd ever seen. Rich women wore furs and hats and wandered the galleries during the day. The city had a sound and a smell I'd never imagined - a din that cut through a dozen empty city blocks and an odor like charcoal and old clothes.

NYC, Rockefeller Center, October 1985

It was a cold autumn. She got cross at me one day as we were walking. "Stop looking up all the time," she said. "You look like a tourist." Hard as I tried we could never find that brief spark from months ago that had brought me all the way out there.
I wasn't the brash, confident college journalist that she'd met at Christmas any more, but a lonely and anxious young man who'd just dropped out of school and didn't know what was next. I suppose I might have been a bit disappointed with her as well. After all, she'd cut her hair.

NYC, midtown, October 1985

This was Koch-era New York, the Manhattan of Bright Lights, Big City and Bonfire of the Vanities. This was the New York that got up after Gerald Ford told it to drop dead and said "Fuck You," then marshaled its wealthy and its talented and reminded them that they lived in a palace with a thousand towers and suddenly everyone wanted to be there again to paint and write and act and play music. I'd just read Winter's Tale and New York felt like magic was hidden there, not in plain sight but just at the edge of my eye.

NYC, midtown, October 1985

Looking at these for the first time in almost thirty years, that probably explains why I didn't shoot the skyscrapers or the subway trains still covered in graffiti. I might have been - annoyingly - goggling at the endless canyon-like streets but I photographed the people, and while these shots won't win any awards, they succeed for me as stills captured from my memories, still vivid three decades later, mostly because, even in spite of a little heartbreak, I was giddy with the sensation that life was finally underway.

NYC, midtown, October 1985

Amazingly, I'd go back to see the girl a few months later. There was a February blizzard where I saw boys surf the snow-packed Bronx streets hanging on to the rear bumpers of MTA buses, and another show - Husker Du at Columbia University. A long year had nonetheless doused the spark and the girl told me that she'd sort of met someone back home over the holidays. But I'd be back in New York sooner than I imagined, following another girl.

(2023 UPDATE: I was never crazy about the scans I did for this post so I've gone back and updated them, adding an extra photo or two from the original shoot.)



  1. Lovely little essay, Rick. It took me back to my first view of N.Y.C. and my first reading of Winters Tale - both wonderful memories.
    Thank you.

  2. Love it, Rick. The story first, then the photographs. Which is a new one, for me ; )