I just re-read this post prior publishing and it occured to me that it positively reeks of self-indulgence. To be fair, find me a weblog that doesn't wallow in this brand of inane narcissism. While my memories of the Manhattan of my youth are still vivid and important to me, I realize their ultimate irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. I believe I was inspired to write it from walking on the very streets I'm detailing on an almost daily basis during my current commute to work. As such, it invariably has much more resonance for me than it might for the reader. When my wife and I walk around Manhattan, she's routinely amazed that I have an anecdote or reminiscence attached to virtually every other street corner. New York is just like that for me. Please bear that in mind if you choose to continue reading.
I can't remember exactly when my parents stopped dropping me off at school in favor of letting me walk the arguably perilous four and a half blocks myself, but I imagine that it must have been when I was in fourth grade or so. Even though this was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this was still the mid-1970s. New York City was a very different place than it is today. It's not that the walk from East 93rd Street to East 89th Street was comparable to a scene out of "The French Connection" or "Death Wish" (although I did witness the filming of the opening scene of "Marathon Man" on the street in front of my sister's school), but my mother probably wasn't entirely thrilled at the prospect of her little boy braving the pavement on his own. Still, one has to leave the nest at some point. Sure enough, at one stage or another, I was indeed "mugged" -- it sounds like such an antiquated term now -- a couple of times. To use a well-worn cliche, that was life in the big city.
In relatively short order, my newfound ambulatory freedom was extended to incorporate extracurricular activities. My initial roaming zone as a grade schooler basically extended from East 96th street to the north down through East 86th to the south. My geekier pursuits swiftly had me testing, pushing and invariably breaching these borders. After I'd tired of the pizza parlors (those with the right arcade games) and comics shops in that area (notably Supersnipe, a legendary comic emporium on Second Avenue on East 84th street, long since closed), I yearned to explore further. My obligatory "Star Wars" fixation found me scurrying to East 83rd and Madison to a dusty toy store called "Youth at Play" (long gone), who sold the coveted action figures at a fraction of the price they fetched at Blacker & Koobey Stationers five blocks to the north (amazingly still there).
Then of course, there was East 86th Street itself. To a person of small years in the mid-to-late 70s, East 86th Street between, say, 2nd Avenue and Lexington was the like the Vegas strip. This was home to a then-tantalizing selection of fast food franchises, record stores and movie theaters. Those attractions are mostly all but a memory now (I think one movie theater remains from that era), but at the time, East 86th Street was the epicenter of fun for the Upper East Side. Regrettably, it was also the turf of the semi-notorious "86th Street Gang," a fabled collective of self-styled hoods with names like Gino, Slocko and the Red Twins (a pair of red-haired identical twin brothers) who purportedly lorded over the area in a reign of relative terror. I had one or two encounters with them that, while ultimately incidental, still left enough of a lasting impression on me.
By around the age of eleven or twelve, I started using mass transit on my own. I steered clear of the subways at this age, but the bus routes of Fifth, Madison and Lexington avenues became my beat. After going to visit my family dentist on East 58th Street between Park Avenue and Lexington, I discovered a whole new hotbed of fun. Up a severely intimidating flight of smelly, graffiti-splashed stairs right across the street from my dentist's office was the Comic Art Gallery, a drafty hive of uber-geekdom. My friend Sean H. and I would spend hours rifling through their painstakingly preserved stock to fork over our dubiously earned allowances for the latest issues of "Ghost Rider," "Howard the Duck" and -- wait for it -- "The X-men". Around the corner from the Comic Art Gallery was Disc-O-Mat, the record store wherein I first bought copies of Pink Floyd's The Wall and London Calling by The Clash. One block to the north was fabled New Wave shop, Fiorucci. There was a sprawling Crazy Eddie over a couple of blocks to the east with a great import section, and up the road a bit on Lexington Avenue there was Revolution Records (I remember buying an orange sponge in the shape of the Police logo there, along with my first copy of Back in Black by AC/DC) and bong emporium -- yes, on posh Lexington Avenue and 63rd street -- called The Happy Head Shop. Needless to say, these spots are all gone today.
The building that housed the Comic Art Gallery was torn down and a garage was built in its place. The Disc-O-Mat is now a Payless. Crazy Eddie on 57th is now a furniture outlet. The old site of Revolution Records -- I think -- is now a pizza parlor and the Happy Head Shop became an upscale boutique of some kind.
My reasons for exploring Manhattan weren't all about blowing my allowance, though. My friend Danny -- a frothy-mouthed BMX fanatic -- and I spent virtually every weekend for several years tearassing around the city on our bikes. The vast, verdant sprawl of Central Park was our main haunt, but we often took to the streets -- oddly frequenting a courtyard on East 49th that inexplicably came equipped with concrete ramps ripe for jumping.
Soon, midtown wasn't enough for me. I found myself taking the long bus ride down to East 33rd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison to visit another hive of lamentable nerdery, The Compleat Strategist. Because feverishly collecting comic books and heavy metal records was evidently not geeky enough for me, I'd gone and immersed myself in the deservedly maligned realm of role playing games, spearheaded by the entry drug that was "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons." That might sound all well and good now, but in the late 70's/early 80's, people didn't really know what to make of shit like that. A few sensationalist headlines in the media led many to speculate that this newfound fad was steeped in the occult. Were that it was only that interesting. In actuality, the community that sprang up around AD&D and other games was populated of the sort of character that made your average comic book fan look like a Navy S.E.A.L. Regardless, I bought right into it and was soon a regular at the Compleat Strategist, scrupulously forking over cash for gaming modules, Monster Manuals and twenty-sided die. After a couple of years, I lost interest (though I still have all that stuff locked in storage somewhere). Amazingly, the `Strategist is still there today. I often walk by it on my way to the office. I haven't stepped inside the place in decades, but I bet it still smells the same.
There were other reasons to visit this neighborhood, notably the record stores of Fifth Avenue. There were three or four between 35th street and 43rd street on Fifth Avenue, notably Record Explosion at one end and Record Hunter at the other, and I was a frequent visitor in each of them. There was another great one on Madison on 43rd or 44th Street whose name escapes me, but it was here that I procured copies of Speak of the Devil by Ozzy Osbourne, Business as Usual by Men At Work (yeah, I'll admit it) and Beyond the Valley of 1984 by The Plasmatics. As I type this, however, each and every one of these record stores are long, long gone.
Eventually, I became a subway rider and after that, all bets were off. I'd regularly go down to Forbidden Planet on 12th Street & Broadway (its original location) or down to The Trader on Canal Street with Danny. The Trader was an endearingly shady shop on the corner of Canal & West Broadway that sold Army-Navy gear. Looking for a pair of camo cargo pants? The Trader was your stop. Camo clothes are de rigeur now, of course, but they were hard to come by at the time. The Trader also sold weapons like shurikens (Japanese throwing stars) and ersatz martial arts gear like nunchucks. For acne-battling, BMX riding, Judas Priest-listening comic geeks, this was probably the coolest thing in the world. As Soho swiftly gentrified, The Trader actually hung in there for a great while. When the Soho Grand was built in its gravelly back yard, however, the Trader was squeezed out of Canal Street like a zit. I have no idea where I'd procure a Japanese throwing star today, although I still have one of the ones I bought at the Trader here in my desk drawer. One never knows when Ninjas are going to strike, after all.
I've spoken about it before, but once I discovered the record stores (and, later, rock clubs) of Greenwich Village, Soho and the East Village, I practically renounced uptown entirely. In time, virtually all of Manhattan became my playground and nowhere was off limits. Over a comparable span of years, the city itself changed, largely becoming safer, arguably much to the detriment of its gritty character. Most of the spots wherein I'd been seemingly taking my chances (Station Break -- a gloomy, labyrinthian video arcade smack in the roiling, sweltering undercarriage of Penn Station chiefly among them) have long since vanished. Entire neighborhoods are now totally unrecognizable to their former incarnations. One rarely hears of a mugging. People don't walk the streets in fear.
Now that I'm a father of two, I can't say I look forward to the day when my kids want to roam around the city on their own. That's a few years off -- and who knows if we'll still be here when they hit the appropriate age -- but I know it's coming. While Manhattan may now be a comparatively bland grid of safe, boring streets to my mind, the idea of my little ones out there on their own still gives me the fear. But that's universal, I'd imagine. Who knows what Manhattan will be like by then?