The Once and Future Mayor Of New York

Is Ed Koch to New York what King Arthur was to the Round Table?

Posted Feb 18, 2013

I lived in Manhattan when Ed Koch was running it. I met the mayor perhaps a dozen times when I lived on Lafayette Street in the East Village. These were not official meetings, you understand: they did not take place at fundraisers, book parties, or political conventions. I was a graduate student living in a one-room basement apartment, putting myself through school and working two part-time jobs in 1980s; I was not a valuable constituent.

Yet I spoke to Mayor Koch as often as I did simply because I’d run into him, since  he’d often walk around the city’s neighborhoods. His own apartment was in Greenwich Village, not very many blocks from my dark underground digs, and it was not surprising to see him out for a stroll on Sixth Avenue (which no New Yorker would ever refer to as “Avenue of the Americas” even under the threat of bodily harm) during the weekend.

He not only asked "How'm I doin?"; he would also wait for the answer. The answer itself wouldn’t necessarily matter but he would stop and listen. Everybody, of course, is secretly the mayor of New York and therefore everybody had a lot of advice for Hizzhona.

I suspect that being a mayor is like being a film director, a novelist, or a meteorologist: there are a lot of amateurs who believe they could do a better job if only they had the time or the connections. But Koch would, more often than not, reply to the rants and questions of folks who stopped him on the street with a certain measure of thought. Consider just how rare it is for a politician to display such patience.

Then think about how far more rare it is for a politician to provide a response that isn’t canned.

Koch was known for his quick wit and his ability to think on his elegantly-clad feet; he was a member of The Friars’ Club, after all.

But Koch was also nobody’s fool and wouldn’t get into an argument on a street corner with a guy from Piscataway who wanted to know why the subways weren’t cleaner. (If you were in NYC in the ‘80s, you know that today’s subways look clean enough for neurosurgery compared to the way they looked then.)

What he’d do then—and I heard him do it on more than one occasion—was to change the subject and ask the person what he or she had last eaten. “Whadya have for breakfast this morning?” he ask, head tilted, with a look in his eyes indicating that this was the most important piece of information he’d ever requested.

Inevitably there was a story. “Pancakes any good? You should try potato latkes while you’re here” Koch would say, smiling and nodding, turning aside wrath with the mention of food. “It’s a whole other kind of pancake.” Then he’d shake hands, wave, and keep going.

Ed Koch made the longest trip in the world—from Bronx to Manhattan—and he’d seen enough along to way to form his own opinions. Sure, he sought out the viewpoints of others, whether informally on a walk through the Village or more officially at a caucus or committee, but I doubt if very many people made him change his quite formidable mind.

A former student at UConn, who is now an increasingly influential New York State politico, wrote this to me the morning Koch died: “In my work in NYS government I've gotten to witness firsthand the tour de force that was Mayor Koch, and I'm probably not the first to make this analogy, but he always struck me as the perfect totem for New York City: full of unrelenting passion and energy, larger than life, and yet ultimately imperfect and all too human.”

In fact, I kept hearing Koch stories all morning; every current or erstwhile New Yorker had one.

“During the aerobic warm-up near the Verazzano, Ed Koch squeezed my shoulder and wished me luck. He then fired the canon to  begin the 1984 NYC Marathon. My run was ordinary but memorable because of Koch’s reaching out. His run as mayor was outstanding” writes my friend Jan. Charlotte also remembers a Koch moment, this time from Connecticut: “Once, years ago, when the nuns at Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT used to hold an annual fair, the crowd suddenly broke into a chorus of  ‘The Sidewalks of New York.’ I turned around in time to see Ed Koch strolling by.”

Koch will be buried beneath the earth of his beloved Manhattan, with the sounds of traffic, yelling in various languages, and somebody, somewhere singing “The Sidewalks of New York” all around him. I hope he’s doing good.