New York City of the late 1970s defied any easy and comfortable categorization. Really: at all.
Peace, loving and the 1960s had given way to something a little harder and more wised up. It was an NYC moment now only glimpsed in cinematic slices like The French Connection, Taxi Driver and, less dystopically maybe, Manhattan, The Goodbye Girl and that wonderfully overwrought Saturday Night Fever, among a few filmic touchstones.
At the time, I was a ballsy city kid through and through, heart, soul and fascia, hailing from Cobble Hill, Crown Heights and eventually Flatbush: Brooklyn-bred. High school took me to lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High–back when it was on 15th street, not the current swank Battery Park locale.
I’d head over the Manhattan Bridge on what used to be the D Train, arriving in a city not so much like Capote’s Southern take à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but a city that was Scorsese through and through: hitting the gym after school with mafiosi out in Ridgewood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, and getting into the odd assorted fistfight. My life in “the City” was never lived much above Max’s Kansas City and Union Square.
We were forced to wear tight t-shirts emblazoned with “Fast & Natural,” designed to denote good health and wholesomeness…
Punk rock had hit, hip hop was born, disco raged, new wave was ascendant and AIDS was almost unheard of. Celeb-crazy New Yorkers performed all kinds of acts unspeakable to get from the outer circle to some sort of inner circle, and making it there was about nothing if not being in THE best spots. And the pulsing center of it all was at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
Journalistically speaking, Interview was sort of a soft sell, just like Warhol’s latter-day art aesthetic. Its modus operandi was a fly-on-the-wall set up of unlikely interview twosomes. Kind of like the odd pairings you might have found spread across couches during one of Warhol’s Studio 54 hangs; the mag kept the upmarket tuned in to downmarket doings, and vice versa.
I had the distinct pleasure of working at Dennis’ Fast & Natural–naturally, a fast health food store–located down the street from Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue, and across Union Square from Interview’s offices. Being a competitive teenage bodybuilder–and regular habitué of Andy Bostinto’s NGA’s early flex festivals– made a job working in the first bloom of fitness foods a more than perfect fit. I was a cashier and, when business was slow? A delivery guy.
Not wan and waif-like at all, Warhol was taller than me and, even with my weightlifting, physically more substantial and imposing.
No amusing hats, name tags, or massive ceramic statues of clowns in the lobby, but Dennis’ did have one distinction at the time: the sky blue, tight, French cut t-shirts emblazoned with “Fast & Natural” that we were forced to wear. They were designed to denote good health and wholesomeness, and to those customers for whom those were fetishistic lures, the shirts provided endless opportunities to double entendre their way through multiple interactions with us.
I’m not saying this is why I was always delivering food over to Interview. I’m just saying that I did.
So, at 17-well-muscled years old with a lifelong interest in media, the prospect of going to an office that housed the great man’s magazine was only slightly more alluring than heading to any of the fashion houses up and down the avenues that used to call me to the set where half-naked models made me for what I was, and therefore had had no interest in me at all: they saw a bridge and tunnel kid with a penchant for push ups.
Yeah, Andy’s place was the spot, and on the rare occasion I had any dealings with him–handing his order to his assistant or putting it on his desk, some brief chatter and the inevitable lingering for a tip–I always left the encounter shocked at how wildly divergent his cultivated media image was from his actual one. At least as presented to me. Not wan and waif-like at all, Warhol was taller than me at the time and, even with my weightlifting, he was physically much more substantial and imposing. Manly is not a word often used to describe him, but it’s a word I would have used.
Parties, invites, promises and all manner of chemically-inclined sexiness way outside the pay grade of a delivery boy.
These visits left me inevitably and uncharacteristically quiet. None of this Sammy Glick smooth operator-shit that was on display in my first query letter to Esquire at the age of 8, or that marked my acceptance of a Gannett Times Mirror scholarship on my way to college. At Interview I took on a watchful intensity that was noticed by the staff who’d call over to Dennis’ and ask my manager Howard to “send the muscle-y one.” So noticed, yes, but not for any winks of journalistic promise.
Still, in the full blush of my squandered Basquiat moment–I had no hand-drawn postcards to hand to Warhol, no intimations of my genius then or to come to distinguish myself in his memory–there came the crazy requests. Not from me to the Interview staff, but from them to me. Crazier seeming now, but not from the vantage point of a city that at the time knew no boundaries. Parties, invites, promises and all manner of chemically-inclined sexiness way outside the pay grade of a delivery boy. Though perhaps not of a bodybuilding delivery boy in a French cut t-shirt. Sex in the city, indeed.
When Warhol died in 1987, a full seven years after I left New York City for California, I felt not a little sad. For the man, the city I remembered and, of course, for a high-octane youth that easily rivaled most experiences that came after. And I can recall with a crystal clarity the total import of the one conversation I had with Warhol, in which he advised me to, “Go to San Francisco, get your ears pierced, get tattoos and make art. Everybody who goes there does it.”
Which is, very precisely, exactly what I did.
This story is the first installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically- and electrically-lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.
Why you should care
Because your waiter/delivery boy/cab driver is probably paying much more attention to you than you are to them.