If Martians landed on our planet and demanded I teach them what a New Yorker is, I’d go no further than show them the hours and hours of videotape of Edward I. Koch jousting at press conferences in the 1980s and defiantly marching across the Brooklyn Bridge during the 1980 transit strike and his more recent “Wise Guys” commentary on the political topics of the day on NY1 news.
I was a teenager when Koch was elected to his first term, and I thought his chutzpah, moxie and general bluster was admirable and probably just what the city needed when the collective morale of New Yorkers bordered on outright despair. Edward I. Koch was bold, he was optimistic, he knew New York was better than its financial crisis and crime statistics.
He lifted our city out of its financial woes, embarked on an ambitious public housing program, made some innovative criminal justice reforms and gave New York its swagger back. When I went off to college in upstate New York in 1980, I felt that I was leaving a city on an upswing, with a mayor who was steering us to a better place.
Then in 1982, Koch overreached, and the Greenwich Village pol set his sights on the Statehouse, a job that required living in upstate New York. He stumbled, making an ill-conceived joke about the sterility of the suburbs, and my college newspaper in Ithaca wisecracked in the headline of its endorsement for governor: “Koch for Mayor.”
The people of upstate and my colleagues on the college newspaper editorial board sent the fish-out-of-New York-harbor-water a message: Stay in the five boroughs, where you belong. Koch went on to re-election in 1985, the same year I returned to the city and became the editor of a weekly newspaper, The West Side Spirit, which not only covered the mayor, but had a weekly political columnist, Dick Oliver, who was one of Koch’s chief antagonists.
Koch, in his third term (there were no term limits then) started collecting lots of enemies and critics. His administration was beset by scandal, from the Parking Violations Bureau mess that led to the suicide of Queens Borough President Donald Manes to the imbroglio over Koch’s close friend, Consumer Affairs Commissioner Bess Myerson, whose romantic life with an alleged mobster led to one of the more bizarre scandals in NYC history.
Like a marriage that goes sour after a decade, Koch’s relationship with the city and its various constituencies curdled in his third term. The African-American community attacked him for his racial insensitivity, and Wilbert Tatum, the publisher of the city’s largest black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, put “Koch Must Resign” on his front page every week. For two years.
I was an eager young journalist, in my mid-20s, who was still awestruck to be covering larger-than-life figures like Koch and his ilk. I decided in 1987, two years before his ill-fated third stab at re-election, to write a long cover story: “Can Koch Make a Comeback?”
Unintentionally, Koch taught me one of my most valuable journalism lessons when he refused to grant me an interview because my newspaper— particularly columnist Dick Oliver—had continuously bashed him.
Undeterred, I did a “write around,” interviewing more than 25 people in the administration and in the New York punditocracy, and it became one of my proudest pieces of journalism: a balanced and thoroughly reported picture of a once-mighty mayor on the ropes and hanging on for dear life.
In 1989, David Dinkins dethroned Koch in the primary and unceremoniously sent him back to private life.
In the following years, when well-wishers on the street told Koch they missed him, he would reply: “The people have spoken. And now they must be punished.”
One year after he left office, I decided to write another profile of Koch. My last question in that interview was a throwaway line: “So now that you have all this free time, how do you spend it?”
Koch replied: “I go to the movies two or three times a week.”
The next morning, I phoned Koch.
“Hey, Ed,” I said, “how would you like to be the West Side Spirit’s movie reviewer?”
“What would you pay?” Koch replied.
“How about $50 a week?” I said sheepishly, knowing that I was already committing a high percentage of my weekly freelance budget.
“Fifty dollars a week?! I wouldn’t cross the street for $50 a week!”
“But we’re a small paper,” I said plaintively.
“Well, call me when you get bigger,” he said and then dropped the receiver.
The Spirit had recently become part of a chain of five weeklies in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and the Hamptons. I phoned each publisher about my idea, asked them to contribute $50 per week for a syndicated movie column—and presto, a critic was born.
“How about $250?” I offered the next day.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll start today. But I have some ground rules: I don’t do openings. I don’t do cinematography. I just tell the reader whether the movie is worth the price of admission.”
For the next 23 years, Edward I. Koch reviewed a movie or two each week, with his trademark + or –, symbolizing his thumbs-up or thumbs-down for the everyman’s film experience.
One night a few months after he started, a friend called to tell me he saw Koch on the Johnny Carson show saying he had seven jobs in his post-mayoralty career but his favorite one was writing reviews for a chain of weekly newspapers.
Now that we all mourn the loss of a colorful New Yorker and a man who relished being called Hizzoner, I take some comfort that a young editor’s gimmicky idea to grab attention in a tough media town gave Koch some joy.
If they serve popcorn in heaven, I hope Koch has found his seat and is taking mental notes on the show unfolding before him.
This time, perhaps he’ll notice the cinematography.
Tom Allon, a 2013 candidate for New York City mayor, is the former editor and publisher of this newspaper.
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