The police presence at my local subway stop was impossible to ignore this morning. The folding table that the NYPD occasionally sets up to search through backpacks was placed just to the right of the turnstiles, so that even if you and your bag weren’t singled out, the cops could eyeball you as you swiped your Metrocard. There was also a muted quality to the city today, as if the strivers and overachievers had turned down the volume on their ambition out of respect for the 2,751 who died in the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
But there’s no question that most New Yorkers have pushed past the fear and the tension that came with taking the subway or an elevator to the high floor of a skyscraper. Our delusions of invincibility, which evaporated in the heat and the horror of seven years ago, have returned (just in time, it seems, to get us through a scary financial downturn.) The other day my wife arrived home from work to tell me that shortly after she walked into the car of a downtown express train on the A,C,E line at 34th Street, the conductor announced via loudspeaker that the train was being held in the station due to an “unattended’ bag.” Eerily, after hearing this, my wife noticed that a rather large and full-looking black messenger bag lay unattended on the floor at the other end of her car. She exited the train and watched as a number of people did the same, only to move to an adjacent car, presumably deciding that they would rather risk death than take the local.
In the early days of Manhattan Cable—now Time Warner—a man who called himself Ugly George could be found on the system’s Channel J, which was a public-access channel devoted to sexual content: porno film loops, escort service ads and The Robin Byrd show. George, whose given surname is Urban, was a chunky, homely guy who roamed the city dressed in a silver Lost in Space-style jumpsuit and shouldering a portable video-recorder backpack to which a handheld camera was connected. Upon encountering a busty and/or attractive woman, George would attempt to coax her out of her clothes and videotape her for broadcast on his Channel J show. Despite having a face for radio, as they used to say in the pre-Sirius days, and a body that wouldn’t be out of place on The Biggest Loser, Ugly George had a pretty impressive rate of success with getting women out of their clothes. And though, personally speaking, five minutes of George’s work was enough viewing for a lifetime, I always admired his originality and his moxie. It’s one thing to roam around the city asking women to take off their shirts for your camera, to do it while wearing a silver space suit and backpack that looked like a jerry-rigged version of something that the Apollo astronauts wore when they walked the moon—well, that took real balls. And for me, George embodied the unreconstructed, in-your-face New York City spirit that drew me to this city in the first place.
My last conversation with Ugly George was in 1998, when I interviewed him for my Transom column in The New York Observer about a website, he was starting up. The fact that George was talking to me while pumping nickels into a pay phone didn’t exactly instill me with confidence that his venture would succeed, but I found it heartening that George was attempting to adapt to the times, even if the porn that was on the Internet even then made George’s stuff look like outtakes from The Benny Hill Show.
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