[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]
As I recall, it happened during a quiet moment on the job on a sunny afternoon, in the front room of Schoolmaster Books. It might really have been in an upstairs room on a busy day during a thunderstorm, but that's not how I recall it, so I'm telling you, it was sunny, a quiet moment, and the front room. That's when, right there, in plain English, Terri asked me a simple question.
"Can we go to the city next week?"
She took a chance on me saying yes. My heart jumped, but I managed to say it.
Going to New York was a mysterious process. There were no bus stations, and the few stops in our area that were marked had no schedule information. You'd have to determine the name of the bus company, maybe by looking at the side of a bus if you happened to see one go by, and then make a phone call and be prepared to write down times.
And transportation planners wondered why bus usage was not greater.
Your best bet was to find someone who already took the bus and see what they knew. Maybe they'd even have picked up a printed schedule at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, and maybe they'd share it.
And of course, even better, maybe your friend with the inside knowledge would want to come with you.
"Uuuuuuuh, sure. What do you want to do?"
My reaction time to new things was always delayed. I probably sounded like I was suspicious. But really I was just lost at sea, having had a whole new idea suddenly thrown at me. I cannot explain my younger self any better than this.
"I want to see a movie that's only playing in the city." See? She was hedging too, not naming it right away. Maybe it was my tentative reaction. I was probably hard to figure out.
"Oh. What is it?" Today I would be saying with some enthusiasm "Great! What is it?" even if I had no idea what was coming. Who cares, you idiot? Trust her judgement. Go see a movie.
I gave her a conspiratorial look. I knew what it was, because we'd read the review in the Voice a few weeks earlier and told each other it sounded crazy. "You want to go see it?"
"Yeah..." Her voice trailed off. She grinned.
This was going to be a really rebellious act. I want to give younger self credit for going along with it. I was in some way scared of a movie like this.
The review made me think it would be like Mad magazine on film, mocking advertising mercilessly with improbable television commercials made by an agency whose board had accidentally elected their token black member to leadership. The commercials sounded promising, and a race relations satire would be pretty hip. But the movie would contain what we used to call "language". Not only that, but we'd be seeing some nipples. Holy crap! Not for the innocent!
The authorities might raid the place! Our morals would be corrupted! We'd have to spend a few extra weeks in Purgatory for this! This would go on our permanent records! Do you hear me? There would be unimaginable repercussions! I said unimaginable. Don't try to imagine them. Would they even let us buy tickets?
This turned out to be the coolest thing I did all summer.
The two of us were going to sneak down to the city and do something really bad together. Watch a movie.
I got the playing times from the Daily News. I wrote them down when no one was looking, and the address of the theater. I remember it was on the East Side, and the trusty New York Times online tells me, when I look it up now, that it was the Cinema II, still in business at Third and 60th.
I did not say anything special to my parents. I went to the city every week anyway. Terri must have told her parents she was going to New York with somebody, but beyond that it's a mystery to me what she said to them. Maybe she told me.
We met at the bus stop in the middle of town, where two bus routes were available to us, and we could take whichever showed up first.
In the immortal words of Tom in The Norman Conquests, Terri was "wearing a thing". Either a skirt or dress, I forget, but one of the two. It was the start of August after all. It was just that in the shop she wore clothes that could get dusty. This was nicer.
The A train down to 42nd and Eighth, and the E back up and across to 53rd and Third, and walk. That's probably what we did. There are pictures online of the types of railcars that were in use. The A had the "new" R 10 cars from 1948, and the E had its original cars from the 1930s. They had the plastic rattan seats and the big fans on the ceiling, and ran in the summer with windows down and the end doors open between cars to let in a rush of air. No air conditioning. You could smell the iron tang of steel dust in your hair afterwards. The motors made a satisfying rrrrr sound that stirs memories in veteran subway riders. To be heard over the roar coming in the open windows, you had to shout or talk right in someone's ear. We tried the latter. It was a more sensory experience than the trains they have now. (cough cough)
We arrived early for the first showing, around noon. We looked at some shop windows to kill time and then went in.
I have not seen Putney Swope since 1969. I remember that it was awkward in places but pretty funny in others. We enjoyed the whole experience, and I don't think our morals were too corrupted. They were corrupted just enough.
The review had named the filmmaker as if the reader would know his work, but I didn't. Looking it up now, I find that it was Robert Downey, not yet known as "Senior", since his now-famous son was still just a little kid. He made other low-budget independent films that I have never seen.
Most of Putney Swope is in black and white, but the commercials are in color. One hidden meaning is that color stock costs more.
Here's the opening sequence. This shows you how there's something a little off in the pacing or direction. Maybe everyone.. speaks.. too precisely.. one phrase.. at a time.. while the other actors wait their turn. Is that what's wrong? Or is it just slow? Anyway this is the setup for the rest of the film, so take a look.
Here are two commercials. NSFW!
Face Off was a pretty ordinary client, a pimple cream. The interracial couple would have been controversial in 1969, even if they did meet at the Yale-Howard game (was there ever a Yale-Howard game?). That wasn't enough for the Truth and Soul agency. (This clip starts with part of another commercial ; the Face Off pitch starts with the ducks swimming.)
Lucky Airlines promised that one passenger per flight would get lucky. Truth and Soul made sure you understood that. Watch till the end where a dashiki-clad agency man tells Swope that in his opinion these commercials are tasteless. That man was making the most subversive point of the film. In 1969 some starry-eyed revolutionaries thought that if the old white men were no longer in charge, things would be different. Downey said what Pete Townshend would say two years later: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
It might have been a little weird for us to see that together. But we didn't need to talk about the details afterwards.
We came out of the inky blackness of the cinema into bright daylight, more or less proud of ourselves. We'd done it.
It's a little vague to me now. We ate something somewhere cheap. Terri wanted to go to the Village and look at the record shops I knew, so we must have gone down on the Lex to Astor Place. My memory mixes up the rounds I did for more than a dozen years, but it would be something like this : the tiny import and genre shops in St Marks Place ; those two upper storefronts on West Eighth (was Revolver Records there yet?) ; that place on McDougal ; the two on Bleecker west of Sixth ; and the one in the basement in the little street off Bleecker. I think we each got something, but I wonder now what we got.
I picked up a Voice too, but Terri either didn't want to drop 15 cents for a second one or didn't want to bring it home. So I took one, and I let her look at it on the A train and the bus.
It was a wonderful day out. We were tired from the heat and the walking around. She leaned on me a little on the bus. Not a big deal, but it was a big deal.
She drove an old car, and she'd driven it to town rather than pick up the bus two miles up the road, just to meet me at the stop. She offered me a ride home, and I told her where to leave me at the end of my street. I don't know why I did that, but it seemed to make sense to her too. We thanked each other very much for a great time.
And that was it.
Next time: Days of Peace and Music