Ed Koch, 88: Remembering a Friend

Ed Koch died last Friday. It was totally unexpected. He was 88. I think it fair to say that Koch, who was the mayor of New York for three terms, should have warned us that this was going to happen. He didn’t. He just went into the hospital and did it, dying, as he did, of natural causes.

“Did you hear that Mayor Koch died last night?” My barber was asking me this. I was in the chair.

“No.”

This was at nine o’clock in the morning.

“Yup.”

My barber, who is ordinarily filled with chatter, had nothing further to say. And neither did I.

Ed Koch was New York’s mayor from 1978 to 1989. He brought this city through a very dark time. It had been on the edge of bankruptcy. Crime was rampant. Dangerous people walked the streets in gangs, even in good neighborhoods. There were fires and riots. Whole sections of the South Bronx, Harlem and central Brooklyn were battle zones, the scene of frequent drug-related gunfights. Much of those boroughs was abandoned or destroyed. Garbage was everywhere. And the buildings, highways and subway trains of the city were sprayed with graffiti. By the numbers, the most crime-ridden city in the country was New York.

Into all of this came a perpetually cheerful new mayor named Ed Koch. He tackled all the problems and did what he could. He’d famously say, usually in an interview while looking directly at the camera to the viewers—“How’m I doing?”

Truth was, though he did a lot, particularly with making our parks safe again and in housing, the mountain of troubles for the most part were not budging. But that he was trying with everything he had could not be denied. He was everywhere, doing everything, and he was totally accessible to the general public. And the people loved him, they loved his can-do attitude, and even after he left office, they continued to love him.

And this is why everybody is so shocked at his departure. He became, during his term in office and forever more, an icon of New York City. We had the Empire State Building, the New York Yankees, the Rockettes and Ed Koch. None were going anywhere.

Elsewhere, in other media, you can read about the many other good things that Ed did for this city, but few doubt that his very greatest accomplishment was writing all the movie reviews he did for Dan’s Papers for the 10 years after he left office.

(Ed would not agree with this of course, but he would have been delighted I just wrote that.)

Ed, throughout his life, said exactly what he thought. It was too bad if you didn’t agree with it. You were entitled to your opinion. So he’d go to a movie and write what he thought about it. We published it. Or maybe we didn’t.

Here is how it came about. And why sometimes we didn’t.

I was in a fancy restaurant in Manhattan one day when I noticed that Ed Koch was with friends at a nearby table.

For about a month before this, I had been thinking of asking Ed Koch, who I did not know, to write movie reviews. A friend, New York City publisher Tom Allon, had told me he was writing them for his weekly papers. Why not put them in the Hamptons? The Hamptons is New York City’s fifth borough, is it not? So seeing him there reminded me I should contact him. There was some law firm he worked at. Shouldn’t be too hard to find. (Interestingly, Tom Allon, today, is running for Mayor of New York.)

And then, during the meal, I saw that on two occasions, total strangers came over to the table to introduce themselves to hizzoner. Koch was happy to talk to them. Maybe I should do this. He certainly didn’t seem to mind.

I waited until they were having coffee, and then excused myself from my table and walked over.

“Hi, Mr. Koch,” I said. “I’m Dan Rattiner of Dan’s Papers. I just wanted to meet you and say hello. We all love you.”

“I know Dan’s Papers,” he said.

“How about writing movie reviews for us?”

“You’d have to pay me. A lot.”

“We don’t have any budget to pay for them. I know you write them for other papers. Why not send what you write to me too?”

“Fifty dollars,” he said.

“Twenty five,” I said.

“Done,” he said.

And then he told me the name of the law firm where he worked, introduced me to everybody around the table and I walked away.

How things worked at the paper at this time, and this was in the 1990s, was that I wrote or assigned and edited all the articles that ran in the news section of the newspaper, but had a managing editor assign and edit the entertainment and arts section in the back. I didn’t pay much attention to what went back there so long as it was current and seemingly well written and nobody complained. But then I noticed one week that the movie review was not by Ed Koch, but by someone else. I asked where Ed’s movie review was. Oh, I was told, I thought we’d give it to someone else to do for a while. Lots of people want to do the
movie reviews.

He’s the former Mayor of New York, I said. Ed Koch went back in. But then, two years later, with another managing editor, it happened again. So I went through the routine again.

A year after that when it happened a third time; I got a call from Ed Koch.

“How come my movie review isn’t in?” he asked. Before I could answer, he said, “You know, you’re paying me every week. I write it. Then you don’t run it.”

I had no answer to that. So again I kicked the interloper out. And Ed continued on for a few more years.

These two encounters, one in a restaurant and one on the phone, were the entire sum total of my meeting with Ed Koch. But when he died last week, without telling me first, I felt I had lost a good friend. Everyone I know feels that way about it too.

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