How did he know we’d be watching from the future? The streets were trash-strewn and desperate: he shows us the sheer grime of it all, the anger and cynicism of ordinary citizens, ready to cheer a man with the audacity to rob a bank.
The desperation was entirely real. What else were we doing in an aged movie palace, if not hiding from the streets? We had a kind of sanctuary. We had at least the illusion of safety — under our pleasure dome and in the cool recesses of the alcoves, the defunct green-tiled water fountain in the lobby, the pink and white-tiled candy stand with its sweet and grassy (popcorn) smells.
Outside, people were getting mugged, sometimes right under the marquee. A fist-fight blew up there one afternoon, resulting in one guy knocked out of his Birkenstocks — they remained pointed downhill on the pavement while he flew sideways into the street. He got up, using his teeshirt to staunch the blood, and moved on. Nobody called the cops.
Many people, white as well as Black, didn’t trust cops. The need to keep things to yourself was primal, which is why we had grown men from the neighborhood working off the books on weekends — to keep some of the tougher local kids from walking on the backs of the theater’s seats or assaulting each other with broken bottles in our lobby.
The shops up and down Hyatt Street — the luncheonette, the barbershop next to the theater — were part of another era. I never saw a soul go into the barbershop; it was as if the ninety-year-old barber lived there, periodically flicking dust off his red naugahyde chairs with a frayed whisk broom.
Night was another thing altogether: the street deserted, sounds of glass shattering. The bank’s night drop was only two storefronts away from the theater. Some nights I just didn’t go, but hid the cash in a locked cabinet under the flashlight batteries.
Dog Day was one of many movies I watched in snatches. Seeing it recently, I remembered parts of it, and other parts seemed new, which may mean I had never seen them at all. Back then I’d get some popcorn, go in and sit down for a half hour or so, then remember that I needed to figure out how to make payroll and still buy cleaning supplies — or pay the carting company, who, it was rumored, would break somebody’s kneecaps if not compensated in a timely fashion. That detail from my actual theater-management life fits the tenor of Dog Day nicely — that and another movie we showed, Taxi Driver — about a Vietnam Vet with violent streaks who drives a night taxi and tries to save a young girl turned sex worker.
Desperation was part of the Zeitgeist.
Which is why I savor my memories of the theater’s cool lobby and sheltering dome. Like a medieval cathedral, it held us: you could walk in there and drop out of time.
1. One night in the early seventies, we’d invited a couple to dinner. She was on time, but alone, explaining that her husband, who worked at AP, was on assignment covering a hostage situation. He did arrive eventually, two hours late, grateful for the steak we'd warmed for him. Turned out, he’d just covered the John Wojtowicz robbery, whose story later became Dog Day.
2. It’s easy sometimes to think the times we’re passing through are the worst ever. The other day I said to a friend, “I almost think this is a harder decade than even the Depression.” She said her father, if he were alive, would argue with that, and I’m glad she called me out. The Depression and seventies New York, in its own way, were brutal and frightening. Covid times are too. There is, I think, no “worst ever.”
3. An early version of this post elicited the following comment, from my friend, Beth: “It's sometimes hard to believe that much of the Upper West Side was as gritty as some of those films. Think of The Panic In Needle Park, for example; that 'hood is now fairly posh. Interesting to watch those films "from the future", as you wryly put it. Like catching glimpses of Paris in years past in some new wave films."