Jokers and Uncut Gems: Street Characters

Who knew that I would get a double jolt of Vitamin G (for grit, grime, and gristle) this winter? S.A.D., cabin fever, the kozmic blues (I just finished the recent bio on Janis Joplin) —call it what you will—winter can do a number on you. Even, or especially, with global warming enveloping us all in a cocoon of dread.

Two recent films were the forces of nature that got me out of my doldrums and into that New York state of mind pre-hypergentrification, Disney-fication, and Bloomberg-ification, a trifecta that razed so much of what added a real feel to the city I had decided was home before I even arrived, in 1971.

JOKER. I was dragging my heels on this one. I hate cartoon and action-figure movies. Heath Ledger had already nailed it, so what was the point? Then I remembered—I had noticed “Leaf” Phoenix when he was a troubled kid in 1989’s Parenthood. I told myself then to watch and see who he became. He (now, of course, Joaquin) and director Todd Phillips transported, thrilled, and unnerved me, all the while opening me up to the ongoing hurt in the world. The stuff I had glanced over, mostly out of self-preservation during my early days in the city, was here in full-focus. Arthur Fleck is one of those struggling people whose mental fragility is stomped on just one time too many. Brilliant while disturbingly dark, JOKER is the only film I have ever watched three nights in a row, thanks to the Fandango app. I hid in the restroom between showings of 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, while the ushers emptied the theater, so I could see it twice for one admission. Now I can watch JOKER’s dance on the stairs enough to be considered fit for Arkham Asylum.

UNCUT GEMS. If you ever told me I’d want to see an Adam Sandler movie, well. . . I do like to be surprised. And that he did. His character, Howard Ratner, is so vivid and jittery and real—and charasmatic!— that I knew I brushed shoulders (and more) with this type all my years in New York. They still exist. That kind of pushing the envelope and betting against the odds requires a chutzpah that can only be created in a NYC petrie dish. Adam, you should have been nominated for Best Actor—but Joaquin, you deserved it.

So—I look at Manhattan and see the obvious “new.” I also see the ghosts of the past. If you scratch beneath the glossy chrome and glass surface, the underbelly is still there. And if you can peel your eyes from your iPhone, you might be surprised..

guy on phone

 

A roster of truly eccentric, seemingly homeless men who were also street artists never missed a performance, their sidewalk stages radiating for several blocks around Carnegie Hall either by plan or ironic happenstance. On 54rd and Sixth, a horned Viking helmet poked above the heads and shoulders of office workers milling by on lunch break.

     I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time, proclaimed Moondog, a blind poet and performer who sold his poems and writings on music philosophy to anyone with a dollar. Cloaked in a self-made cape, he emulated his notion of the Norse god Thor while playing a self-invented instrument he called an Oo. Moondog was in fact a respected and often-recorded composer, I learned years later, after his death in 1999.    

     I would pass him and continue uptown, coming upon an even stranger character who was hunched over a snare drum, beating it with a concentrated, compulsive fervor.

     “Gene Krupa!”

     “Buddy Rich!”

     He announced these iconic Big Band names to himself, or to the air, or to anyone who stopped, while continuing with his set. The drummer’s look upstaged his act. He had applied black shoe polish to his hair, then continued it onto his skin, drawing an almost cartoon-shape of a haircut down over his forehead and around his temples. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese would use him as a documentary touch in 1976’s Taxi Driver. Sweetly garish and only in New York.

     Hanging a left on 57th Street, I would next encounter the aria-singing tenor who was also in his own world, pouring his heart and soul out to some lost love: person, place, or dream. He too would be a fixture for many years on that patch of a sidewalk stage, surrounded by footsteps instead of footlights. I would first hear, then see him even decades later. He may still be planted there, pleading for his own personal Aida. —Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams

copyright Sharon Watts

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