I used to be terrified of New York City. Admittedly Just Ice and Kool G Rap’s crime rhymes didn’t help my perceptions, gleefully painting a picture of an urban hell in the ’80s, but the picture above was the true scaremonger for me. I mean look at it – isn’t that some guy being mugged at gunpoint on the subway? And the attacker’s so bolshy in the act that he’s unphased by a photographer snapping away? Now that’s gully. Actually, after years with this brutal image etched into my psyche as a textbook example of how hardcore New Yorkers can be, the reality behind the photo proved a little more benign. Still gritty, but hardly the brazen act that had me shook way back in the day.
By the time I actually visited, the city’s claws had been clipped – there’s obviously still boroughs that are hard as hell, but Guilliani had cleaned up Times Square in spectacular style – and those tag-filled trains were replaced by something more sterile. NYC dwellers have moaned about the loss-of-character since grittier times. As a self-confessed yankophile, the edginess of the city promised a certain vicarious thrill. This presumably would have been at the expense of my personal possessions had I ventured over as a tourist a decade earlier.
The city of eight million stories has actually had one rewritten from the savage plotline I’d concocted. The ‘mugging’ is actually a typically madcap undercover operation with shades of ‘Serpico’ about it. The shot is taken by Bruce Davidson’s 1986 book of photos ‘Subway’ – a classic documentation of the NYC subway system circa. 1980, which if you’re a graf historian looks like heaven, but judging on the grim faces of the subjects captured (in the photographic rather than apprehension sense), fairly hellish for many. Swiftly going out-of-print, the 2003 reissue didn’t stick around for long either. Check out the pictures here. The shot that caused me such trepidation, even on paying the new sterile New York a visit in the very early ’00s, and made the front of a 1993 Fuct t-shirt I loved, is explained,
“Bruce, after having been mugged twice on the subway, agreed to accompany undercover police to get the picture of a mugger in action. One cop dressed as a Hassidic with a gold chain around his neck pretending to be asleep. Bruce sat on the other end of the train as they waited past stop after stop. A crook come into the car and decides to snatch the chain. The undercover cop springs into action, apprehending the thief and with one shot Bruce captures the moment.”
A 2004 ‘Chicago Tribune’ interview with Bruce to coincide with a gallery show explains even more about how the image came about,
“Q. This is the much-talked-about photo, on Page 91, with a man in a red jacket holding a gun up to someone’s head . . .
A. New York magazine called me, and they were doing a story on a series of subway undercover detectives, who dressed themselves and behaved in certain ways to entice muggers.
And one detective was dressed as a rabbi with a beard, and he wore a gold chain. Of course, rabbis don’t wear chains, but the robber probably didn’t know that. I volunteered, since I had been mugged previously when I was alone. . . . I volunteered to be a decoy so, I acted in such a way to get mugged. Now, I always had my camera out around my neck when I took pictures because I can’t just hide the camera and then approach people. It has to be out there, in the open. I took a subway map out and pretended I was lost.
The robber came into the car, robbed the sleeping rabbi/detective — took his chain right off his neck — and came towards me at the end of the car. He said, “Give me that camera!” And just at that moment, I lifted my camera and photographed him. And as I photographed him, [the detective] Billie moved in with the .38 and arrested him, so it was a simultaneous thing. One frame.
Q. So what we’re seeing, the gentleman in red is actually a police officer.
A. Yeah, he’s an undercover. And you see, he’s sitting there in the middle of the train with a boombox and dark glasses in that kind of hip-hop clothing, and the robber [thinks], “Oh, I got a brother. He’s going to help me. He’s not going to say anything.” And that was his fatal error.
The group was disbanded after awhile because the bait was too good. Sometimes the cops looked so good, I was going to rob them myself.
Q. What happened afterward? Are there other images from the incident?
A. He was arrested, and I felt sorry for him. As soon as he robbed me, they took him out and cuffed him. They took him right off the train at 42nd Street.
Then, I felt I couldn’t photograph him being arrested at that moment. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, because he was cuffed and helpless.”
Ah, the power of perception. But I can’t help but think many denizens would prefer that I kept on fearing a daylight robbery for the sake of their rep. Still, a sting like that proves that things were hardly a bed of roses. While we’re on the subject, I’ll single out some other root causes of my onetime NYC-phobia. ‘Mad’ Bernie Goetz, who got his Paul Kersey on by shooting down four alleged muggers.
While we’re talking ‘Death Wish’, there’s a further betrayal, when it becomes clear that the cartoonish urban jungle of ‘Death Wish III’ is actually a recreation of Brownsville based in London. In the seminal British documentary ‘Bombin’ (which someone’s kindly uploaded recently) -go 18 minutes in), a supremely pissed off looking Brim complains, “They always be making it look like the Puerto Ricans and blacks of New York be like animals…” before painting the set.
On an equally daft and exploitative note, albeit at least filmed on location, the opening titles of ‘The Equalizer’ were the tip of a particularly fearsome iceberg for me. With an obsession with violent b-movies intended for an audience just slightly older than my pre-teen years, ‘Fort Apache: The Bronx’, the Times Square freakshow of ‘Basket Case’ and when we could get tape dubbed bootlegs, the ultra violent sleaze of ‘Maniac’* and ‘New York Ripper’ showed, well…a shithole. ‘Night Hawks’ didn’t help, and nor did ‘Cruising’**. Chief offender was ‘Maniac’ helmer William Lustig’s grindhouse classic ‘Vigilante’ which had me believing that a multi-racial gang in chains and leather would shoot me down before I’d even stepped off the plane.
I miss being scared of the old New York.
* It’s always worth noting that Michael Sembello’s ‘Maniac’ from ‘Flashdance’ was originally lyrically inspired by this lurid classic, reputedly carrying the chorus, “He’s a maniac,maniac that’s for sure/He will kill your cat and nail him to the door.” I’m not making that up.
** If you’re still confused by the scene where Pacino gets slapped to the ground by a large black policeman dressed in nothing more than a jockstrap and a cowboy hat, apparently the NYPD would use this technique to get information out of suspects, assuming that noone would believe the testimony of someone claiming to have been beaten in custody by a naked black cowboy.