Monday, May 21, 2012

The Real New York

Midtown Manhattan, Jan. 2011, taken by yours truly

Most of what I do for my day job is act as the editor in chief of a quarterly magazine. The non-profit I work for essentially lends financial assistance to people with very rare diseases. Basically, we pay for the medications, premiums, etc. of people who cannot afford to pay them. And when I say can’t afford, I’m talking medication that costs thousands of dollars. A month. If our patients don’t take the medication they need, then they don’t make it. Period.

In late January, I traveled to New York City to interview Dennis Stravropoulos, a 9/11 rescue worker who currently lives with pulmonary hypertension, one of the diseases the company I work for supports. PH is a disease that causes abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Every breath for Dennis is a challenge, and I thought his story, that of a veteran NYPD detective who contracted this often-fatal disease as result of cleaning up debris post-9/11, would make for a good cover story.

I had met Dennis twice before writing the article, so when I met up with him at Ground Zero in January, I was there as a friend first, an editor second, and a movie lover always. What basically developed was one long, giant conversation about his life, his disease and That Day.

Dennis from the balcony of his Staten Island home. Downtown Manhattan
rests a few miles away in the background.
Dennis’ stories of 9/11 were harrowing. His ability to give me minute-by-minute details of that day with such frankness and candor was something I’ll never forget. But throughout our day together, I found myself bringing the conversation back to his childhood for a very specific reason.  As we spoke, he occasionally related his youth to various films, which, to me, was complete gold.

Below are a few of the movies we discussed during our time together. Dennis was born, raised, and continues to reside in New York City. These are the films that portray New York most accurately, straight from the source.

Taxi Driver
For those unaware, there are really two New Yorks: the post-Rudy Giuliani, which is essentially what New York is today, and the pre-Rudy Giuliani New York, which is Taxi Driver.

Dennis grew up in ‘70s New York, where open drugs, common violence, casual drug use, careless sex were everywhere.

Taxi Driver was the New York I grew up in,” Dennis told me. He said you’d walk down 42nd Street and see the porno theaters, the people shooting up in alleys, the scum, the filth – he said you would see exactly what Travis Bickle describes. For perspective: now there’s a Disney Store on 42nd Street. It’s details like that that absolutely fascinate me.

Taxi Driver is my favorite film of all time. I knew it was real, but I never knew it was this real. Dennis’ confirmation only made me love the film more.

The French Connection
The dirty subways, the seedy bars – like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, according to Dennis, nailed New York in all its gritty hopelessness. He said he had heard of cops like Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, hard-nosed bruisers with a badge who sought justice. To be honest, we stayed clear of crooked cop stuff and focused mostly on scenery, on how The French Connection made New York look as real and dirty as it really was.

Saturday Night Fever
View of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge taken in front of Dennis' home 
I’ve always wondered how accurate John Badham’s neighborhood flick was, and how much of it was trumped up for mainstream entertainment.

Saturday Night Fever was New York,” Dennis said. “That is exactly what it was like: cruisin’, misbehavin’, that movie really got it.”

I should’ve known Dennis loved this movie so much… he currently lives at the Staten Island base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which he never once called the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. To him, it’s the Saturday Night Fever Bridge.

Summer of Sam
Dennis lived through the period during the Son of Sam murders, in which a madman cruised around the five boroughs of New York killing couples making out in cars, and he said that Spike Lee’s drama perfectly encapsulated the fear that plagued the small neighborhoods of the city.

Again, we didn’t comment on the film’s glorified display of drugs and sex, we instead focused on the drama. Dennis grew up in Brooklyn and he said there were groups of guys all over town strutting their stuff like John Leguizamo and his Bronx crew do in the film. The community came together to fight a common battle. It was a comradery based around fear. I asked him specifically about a scene in which many of the guys in the film organize a small riot and take to the streets yelling for the Son of Sam to show himself.

“Did stuff like that actually happen?” I asked Dennis.
“Oh yeah, every night.”

By far the most surprising film we discussed was the 2009 documentary Cropsey, about two filmmakers who seek to unveil a Staten Island criminal most commonly known as Cropsey. I say surprising because this is a very little known film that Dennis tracked down on Netflix Instant, where it is no longer available.

Without giving too much away, because believe me, Cropsey is a very real film that focuses on very real, horrific events, Dennis repeatedly commented how palpable the fear of Cropsey was for him and his friends growing up.

As more and more children began to disappear, people began to blame this anonymous neighborhood Boogeyman, with little hope as to when the child abductions would cease. In short, Dennis said Cropsey nailed the fear of the city very similar to Summer of Sam.

A Few Others
From Sleepers
There’s an obvious question here that I should’ve gotten out of the way earlier: I didn’t mention 9/11 related films to Dennis, simply because it didn’t feel appropriate. In all honesty, I have no doubt that he would’ve talked my ear off about them - about the ones that got it right and the ones that got it so very wrong. But, again, I didn’t ask.

Sleepers was another movie we discussed briefly. He said the first half of Barry Levinson’s criminally underrated drama perfectly summarized the “stickball and stoop” generations of Dennis’ youth.

He didn’t have much to say about Scorsese’s Mean Streets, mostly because he never really made it to Little Italy. (He did say that from what little he had seen and heard, Little Italy was exactly as mean as Scorsese displayed.)

I asked him if he had seen 25th Hour. He hadn’t, but he said it sounded interesting. I suggested a few more titles that I thought displayed the real New York, and he gave me a few titles that do display the real New York. I should get around to watching all of those.

For those interested, you can read my original article on Dennis by clicking here. Click the magazine spread to expand it to full size. 


  1. That is a great piece. I've only been to NYC once in the summer of 1995 w/ my parents and sisters to visit my mom's favorite cousin when she was married to some asshole German (they divorced and she's been re-married to a much nicer guy w/ 2 wonderful kids) in Staten Island.

    It was exciting to be there. I got to see CBGB's and walked around Central Park where I saw a memorial for Jerry Garcia at Strawberry Fields. I bought my first NIN import there, where I would start my NIN collection. That was fun.

    1. Thanks man, I love your commentary about your cousin's former husband, shit made me laugh out loud.

      Sounds like you got to go to some cool places. NYC is just an incredible place. I had never been to Staten Island before this trip. I liked it a lot, very family oriented.

  2. Cool profile, I'm heading to NYC this summer. Can't wait

    1. Thanks man! Let me know if you need suggestions on where to go. I know that city very well... completely love it there.

  3. Wonderful piece - what an amazing person. Sounds like your work does some amazing things for people too!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Dennis is such a great guy, so humble and honest.

  4. Ah, New York City. My home (not too far) away from home. Lot of fun stuff I did down there, all pertaining to the performing arts. For example:

    ~seeing Shame its opening weekend (it's still incredibly awkward remembering that I watched it with my mother sitting right next to me)

    ~watching Alan Rickman being superior and snide in Seminar (I developed a new appreciation for him after that)

    ~watching powerhouse performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman (I will be very offended if they don't win those Tonys because they so deserve them)

    If it wasn't so damn expensive, I'd live there. Oh well. A three hour train ride ain't bad either.

    1. Sounds like you've had some great times there. I remember tweeting with you about all of those experiences. Man, I wish I could've caught that Death of a Salesman show.

  5. I feel a little out of place, being one of the only people whose never been anywhere near America, let alone NYC. Looks like a hell of a place (both in a good way and a bad way) from what I've seen in the movies. I'm sure it is a great city.

    Fantastic article, Alex.

    1. Thanks man. NYC really is fantastic, if you know what you want to get into. It has something for everyone, but it is very very large, so IF you ever do make it there, try to go with someone who knows the city really well. You'll have a blast.

  6. When do you ever sleep? On top of your day job, you're also making a film and consistently doling out high quality blog posts. You're like a machine.

    Needless to say: bravo, dude. I read your entire CVC issue and it's nicely done, very polished and professional. This particular piece hits closer to home for a variety of reasons, and I love how you managed to lighten the heavy subject matter with everyone's favorite topic - Movies. :-)

    I've lived in New Jersey all of my life, and I've been working in Manhattan for over ten years now. So, even though I don't sleep here every night, I still feel like I'm part of the city. I love this place, too. It's just incredibly diverse, filled with amazing people going through an enormous array of struggles.

    Thanks for sharing this, man.

    1. Thanks for all the kind words about the magazine, Dave, that was really nice of you to say.

      Your sleep comment made me laugh out loud. I dunno, I've always had an abnormally high level of energy, and I always like to be doing...something, you know? I purposefully get very little sleep (about 5.5-6 hours a night), because I'd rather be movie making, movie writing or movie watching. I've always found sleep to be so unproductive. "A machine..." I like that.

      That's so cool that you work in Manhattan and are a part of that city. I love it there - always have, always will. It's funny, I have been to that city dozens of times and know it very very well. That was until I walked around with Dennis, who has lived there his whole life. That man showed me such cool, unique places... it really was a blast.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  7. This is a great post Alex! Thanks for all the movie references and the clarification on how those movies portray the real New York. Your article on Dennis is amazing...I just re-read it. I did not know your time spent together was so much about movies...very cool. My favorite reference, of course, is to the Saturday Night Fever bridge. I alos remeber being a kid and being in the former Times Square. Oh boy.

    Thanks for putting out continued quality writing.

    1. Thanks! Driving over that Saturday Night Fever bridge was a trip. Dennis started driving all slow and said: "That's where the kid in the movie jumped off, right there."

      Funny guy.

  8. This is a really cool post, man. I have always wondered what movies really capture the essence of NYC, and it's crazy to hear just how much Taxi Driver nailed it. Now I'm curious about Cropsey... never heard of that at all, but sounds very intriguing.

    1. Thanks man! Cropsey is a pretty decent documentary, but what makes it worth it are two news clips featuring a very young Geraldo Rivera, in which he enters an asylum for mentally disabled kids without permission. The footage is fucking horrifying. Like... wow.

  9. Interesting post, on a very interesting, devoted person.

    I haven't been to NYC in quite a while, but when I was there, it was more like Mean Streets than Disney, though thank God Giuliani and Bloomberg have cleaned it up.

    I was dating my wife in the mid-seventies when she lived on E 195th St. in the Bronx. Right around the corner on Webster Ave. was a little Italian restaurant that made the best, garlicky linguine with white clam sauce I've ever had. There were still many Jewish families on the Grand Concourse at the time, but her neighborhood was a little tougher. Every apartment building had it's own "police squad", a rotating quota of apartment dwellers who'd sit on the stoop and keep an eye on whoever came in and out of the building. They got to know me, and my '66 Buick was even safe parked on the street. I'd come down on weekends from Mass. On one of my first trips, we were sitting with one of her girlfriends enjoying the linguine takeout, when this huge shadow passes in front of the window, CRASH, BANG! on the street below. "What the hell was that!?!", I said. Without blinking an eye, she says, "I think it was a couch.", as if it were a perfectly typical event. We eventually got married. I lost her 10 years ago in a car accident. I always think of her when I look at my boys.

    So that's just one guy's experience of NYC in the 70's.

    1. First off, thanks so much for sharing your story here, it was really touching and honest. I'm very sorry for what you've gone through in the past decade, I cannot even imagine.

      Secondly, I love New York stories like that... part of me wishes I could've experienced that city at those times, and part of me wishes not. Again thank you so much for sharing that story here. Feel free to share tales like that on this site anytime!

      PS, would it be possible to know your first name? NorthernRail seems a little too impersonal, if you know what I mean. I'm Alex by the way, very pleased to meet you.

    2. I'm Paul.

      OH! forgot to mention that on our first date (New Year's Eve, '75-'76) we took in a late movie downtown (literally, took the A Train): Barry Lyndon. That's a beauty for your Best Color list, candles everywhere. Don't remember shit about the plot, I was probably preoccupied with what I hoped would happen when we got back to her place. (It did.) Crowd went wild in the movie house at midnite, countdown and all.

      Second date: Singin' in the Rain at a revival house! and it was raining, and I had an umbrella! No shit.

    3. Paul, those are such classic stories. Barry Lyndon was number 12 on my color list, I really wanted to include it, but it just didn't make the cut. Love that the theater started counting down. That should be a scene in a movie right there.

  10. Thanks for this. I got to New York City a few times back in the late 80s and early 90s for business trips. I did manage to get a little bit of sightseeing in, but not a whole lot.

    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting. It's such a lovely city, the best in the world. So much to do for any kind of person. I know that city so well, but hitting the streets with Dennis, I realized I knew nothing.