Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

May 2013

How'm I Doing?: Koch: The Documentary for Boston

One day about 5 p.m. in 1988, white cane In hand, I was rushing to catch a train in Penn Station in New York City.  Suddenly a man grabbed my arm several times as he repeatedly asked me, "how'm I doing?"

Hurrying to make my Amtrak connection, I moved quickly away from this inquisitive and persistent stranger.  He's probably a troubled (maybe mentally ill) man trying to be friendly, I thought: maybe he needs help.  But being visually impaired, vulnerable, and not knowing how I could offer assistance, I walked down the stairs as quickly as I could.  A few steps later, it hit me: duh...I'd been rude, and not just to anyone.  I'd dissed Ed Koch, then mayor of New York (a city I loved and where, at that time, I worked).  Like many of us with NYC connections, though I was mad at him at least once a day, I couldn't help but love the guy.

I knew Koch was the consummate pol-always trolling for votes.  Still hizzoner had asked me, a legally blind, lesbian writer and poet (in political terms–a nebbish) how I was doing.  Lots of robots have called me over the years, begging me to get out and vote.  Campaign workers have thrust petitions in my face for me to sign.  Yet no politician (either running for or in office) has ever taken, like Koch did, more than a few nano-seconds (up close and personally) to wonder what I thought about his job performance.  Faking or not, the Koch seemed to genuinely care.

Directed by Neil Barsky, the documentary isn't a hatchet job or hagiography of Koch who served three terms as mayor from 1978 to 1989.  The film doesn't gloss over Koch's achievements, ebullience, grit and charm or sweep the sadness, secretiveness and flaws in his life and career under the rug.  If the doc's subject were any other mayor, I'd bet that its audience would be limited. But because Koch is the most famous New York mayor (with the possible exception of LaGuardia), the doc will interest anyone with a love of New York, politics, drama, flamboyance or (I'll risk going over the top) life.

Above all, "Koch," as "The Washington Post" critic Michael O'Sullivan has noted, is a (unsentimental) love-letter to NYC.  It's a vibrant testimony to the vitality, grittiness and uniqueness of New York City.  Just as Joyce loved "dear, dirty Dublin," all of us who have ever lived in NYC (in real or reel life) have never outgrown our infatuation with the Big Apple.  When Koch says on seeing his city from an airplane, "There was...New York, laid out before me...I thought to myself 'this belongs to me,'" we know in our solar plexus what he means.

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad," Oscar Wilde said, "People are either charming or tedious."

This is true of all of us, but especially for Koch.  Say what you will about him: he was never tedious. Sometimes, we applauded something he'd done – such as when, as mayor, Koch established an affordable housing program or when as a young Congressman in 1962, seven years before the Stonewall Rebellion, he spoke out against sodomy laws.  I wished I'd been there to give Koch a high five when I learned from the documentary that one of the first things he did as mayor was to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination against gay NYC employees.

At other, painful times, everyone from straight white progressives to people in the black and LGBT communities deplored Koch's actions related to race and AIDS.  Watching as "Koch" showed footage of angry protests against Koch's closing of a beloved Harlem hospital and excruciatingly slow response to AIDS brought back memories of police brutally beating and shooting people of color and of my friends with HIV dying agonizing deaths.

"Koch" brought forth other flashbacks: pictures of the mayor, trying to stifle persistent rumors that he was gay, pretending to have a romantic relationship with former Miss America Bess Myserson.  Even at the time, these images made one queasy.  Even then, you wondered: who's going to believe that Ed is canoodling with Bess?  Decades later, these photos seem unbearably sad, but also campy. 

Yet, watching "Koch," just as was the case when seeing the mayor at work like a dervish when he was in office, you don't write him off as a bad guy.  You enjoy him – you wish you could have had coffee, beer or matzo ball soup with him.  Like Don Draper on "Mad Men," you can't help but not only respect him but be charmed by him.

A friend told me that Koch when he was a Congressman helped out her NYC neighborhood when no one in the city would do anything to solve the problem.  Near where she lived, there was an abandoned parking lot filled with garbage, broken glass and debris.  Kids played in this dangerous place.  When Koch was contacted, my pal said, he got the area cleaned up immediately.

"Koch," as any good work of art does, makes you constantly shift your perceptions about its subject.  One moment, you're furious at Koch for not revealing his sexual orientation -not even when he was interviewed by Barsky for the documentary in 2010 in NYC when many support same-sex marriage.   (It's generally thought that he was quite likely to have been gay.)  But then, you see a scene where footage is shown from Koch's first mayoral campaign.  He's running against Mario Cuomo.  "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo" signs appear all over the Big Apple – in the subways, bus stops–seemingly everywhere you look.  When Koch calls about these posters, Cuomo says he wasn't aware of the signs–that they have no place in any campaign.  Maybe Cuomo was being sincere: but still, you wonder, how could he not have known?

"David Dinkins was like a grandfather.  You never felt Rudy Giuliani cared," the renown NYC African-American minister, Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, says in "Koch," "but Ed Koch was New York."

Koch was not only New York: he was all of us – by turns good, horrible, caring, unfeeling, charming and boorish.  Check out "Koch." It's a great portrait of a mayor and of humanity.  As artists, who could ask for more?

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©2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications. Her most recent Book of Poems, The Green Light, has just been published by Finishing Line Press.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media


May 2013

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