What a strange thing to start writing this post on a trainthrough the Lake District, snow covered hillsides and far off misty mountains whizzing past, listening to the Blade Runner soundtrack on my iPod. Going north – one of my favourite journeys. Stopping at a station which once upon a time was my local – makes me think about all the places we inhabit in a lifetime and how even when we’ve moved on we leave parts of ourselves there.
One summer long ago I landed in New York City with nowhere to live, not much money and the address of a Puerto Rican boy from Brooklyn in my purse. Head full of movies, music and dreams and every single thing seemed romantic: proper skyscrapers – metal fire escapes – steam coming out of manholes in the roads (just like the opening scenes of Taxi Driver!) – yellow cabs with their black and white chequered bands – little kids showering in erupting street fire hydrants – street drinkers with their bottles in brown paper bags from the A&P – practically every street name a reference to a song or a TV show or a film.
My head was already steeped in cinema, film noir, James Cagney gangster flicks, “The Godfather” and Martin Scorses’s hymns to the city.
So when I found myself living in a tiny apartment on 139 Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy, just a few doors down from Umberto’s Clam House, immortalized by Bob Dylan and “The Godfather”, LIVING IN THE STREET WHERE JOHNNY BOY BLOWS UP THE MAILBOX IN “MEAN STREETS” – I did actually think that I must have died and gone to spaghetti-scented heaven.
No matter that it was 120 degrees that summer in the city and there were five of us sleeping in one room, way too poor for air conditioning. Or that the smell of calms and garlic from the restaurant kitchens below soon became sickening in the heat. Or that on my first day the Exterminator came round like a spaceman in a full body suit and mask to spray poison on the cockroaches in the bathroom.
Who cared when you were waking up every morning in the city that never sleeps?
That summer I gorged myself on film – art house, new releases, blue movies, all nighters. Experimental films projected on a basement wall. The Eighth Street Playhouse, where Woody Allen takes his girlfriend to watch old movies in “Manhattan”. Truffaut triple-bills of the whole Antoine Doinel story all in one go.
Midnight screenings of “A Clockwork Orange” (totally banned in Britain at that point) “ “Eraserhead” and and “Pink Flamingoes”. The dress-up screenings of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” that Alan Parker filmed in “Fame”.
To fund my movie habit I sold fresh-squeezed orange juice around Central Park (my favourite pitch was at Columbus Circle, just opposite the coffee shop where Travis takes Betsy for coffee in “Taxi Driver”) and traded on having an English accent at a time when there were maybe not quite so many Brits in New York –
“ You’re English, huh? Love your accent “ –or sometimes – “ You’re from England? So that’s in London, right?”
And then every evening, back to our tiny smelly apartment in Little Italy, past the Clam House and all the other street vendors and lotto sellers and hustlers and old ladies on their way to mass at St Patrick’s, and it would just feel like home.
New York is probably the most filmed and photographed city in the world since the movies began, and everyone who visits there will have their own images. But it’s hard to disentangle your own memories from the cinematic ones.
Martin Scorsese added music to the mix to recreate the sounds and atmosphere of his youth. “Mean Streets” is his first break through film, the one that got people noticing, and that’s what we’re showing this Sunday.
We’ll be talking about memories of places this week and collecting snapshots of cities and streets that we lived in or were particularly happy. We’d love to hear about your memories, your virtual postcards from other places and we’ll talk about them at the screening. We’d love you to join us.
And in the meantime…greetings from Glasgow!