|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.
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
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.