I remember standing with my dad, December 22nd, 1988, at Rockefeller Center. There were hundreds of people in a circle, staring at a bunch of shiny balls and tinsel laying on the ground.
While the tourists looked on confused, every New Yorker knew exactly what had happened:
Somebody had stolen the tree again.
New York City in the '80s was rough.
Take the subway ride home, for example. The biggest mistake a father and son could make was to ride in the same car. Thieves were abound in those days, and in fact, several moonlighted as subway conductors. A father and son looking like they left their posh Upper East Side mansion on their way to Yankee Stadium was an easy target. And so, my father would get on one car and wrap a dirty blanket around himself. He’d even pee his pants if somebody got close. I would go into another car and sit by myself. A 4-year-old sitting by himself might seem defenseless, but thieves would assume I was either a. a trap or b. a ghost.
“Weren’t there police in the '80s?” people often ask me.
Oh there were police, but before “Broken Windows,” barely anything was illegal. Today, even having a broken window is illegal. In the '80s? You could set a park bench on fire and a cop would just call you a knucklehead and ask you to “take it to the next block.” Somebody even kidnapped Mayor Ed Koch for a month, but they had such a good time together, he let the Mayor go and nobody thought twice about it.
One of the biggest differences between the 1980’s and today is that today the police have something called a “Commissioner.” (It’s an idea they got from the Batman comics.) In the '80s, people just went to the Police Store, bought a uniform and baton, and beat the shit out of anybody who averted eye contact.
My father and I get to our stop and are walking home. We’re together now, except I’m on his shoulders with the blanket wrapped around my body and his face as to appear like we’re just one 8 foot tall man. Somebody opened a fire hydrant, cool in the summer but deadly in this -10 degree weather. We walk around it.
When we get to our stoop, my father makes me wait there while he goes inside to make sure my mother isn’t making love to the landlord. I look around. Cars with their wheels stolen sitting on bricks. Apartment buildings boarded up. Women stepping out, having their purse snatched, going back in, only to come back out and get their purse snatched again. NYC in the ‘80s was the wild west, except way worse.
“It’s gotta get better,” I think.
And it does.