People like to talk about how much they miss "old New York," but being a native New Yorker, I call bullshit on that. You know why? It’s not the drugs, or the crime, or the rampant police brutality (which is making a fun, retro comeback). No, it’s none of those things.
Now, there are plenty of things I do miss about old New York. The unregulated fireworks, for one. Unregulated fireworks are the best. Every Independence Day in the '70s and '80s, our next-door neighbors would put on a magnificently trashy fireworks display, up until Mayor Giuliani made them illegal. There’d be Roman candles and bottle rockets, little bundles of noisy firecrackers, tiny paper tanks propelled forward by the explosives inside, and all manner of miniature munitions producing pretty colors for several hours each Fourth of July night. All the neighbors would gather on the sidewalk, in beach chairs along the edge of our dead-end street. We would all sit, in rapt attention, as some lucky teenage boys and a few adventurous adults blew up everything they could get their hands on. Even now as an adult, I still prefer those homespun fireworks displays to the grand event Macy’s puts on each year.
Then again, I did see another little girl reduce several of her fingers to bloody stumps after holding on to some firecrackers for a little too long. So, even this cherished memory has been tempered by the realities of old NYC.
But of all the ills to plague New York, the most startling would have to be the packs of wild dogs.
In the summer of 1989, I sat in the living room of our Brooklyn home, when suddenly someone began frantically banging on the front door and hitting the doorbell. I was six, so I wasn’t allowed to open the door. (We had a bullet-proof window in our kitchen because of stray bullets from the apartment house behind us. That's what Brooklyn used to be like. That's what the "nice" parts of Brooklyn used to be like.) I had to wait for my mother to come downstairs to answer it.
Long moments later, my mother came down the stairs and cautiously drew the shade to see who was outside. As soon as she did, she ripped open the door, and my 11-year-old brother fell into the doorway, kicking a dog in the face as it tore into his leg. My mother, of course, started to kick it too, and it eventually retreated.
At this point, my brother was hysterical, and my mother was touching him all over, checking him for damage. Then, it dawned on my mother that my father and brother were, in fact, returning home together.
“Where’s your father?” she screamed, and my brother pointed out into the street. She scrambled past him, onto the porch, while trying to shove us both into the house, and then we saw him in the yellow light of the streetlamp -- my dad, in the fetal position, in the middle of the street, with four or five dogs going at him.
Now, a pack of wild dogs is not inherently a bad thing. We had many encounters with feral dogs during those years that were nothing but pleasant. Our family pet, Beauregard, the most loyal dog in the world, was, in fact, a stray that wandered onto our porch one day and decided to stay. But these dogs were nothing like Beauregard. These dogs were a group of monsters who lived by the train tracks. Their den was at the end of our dead-end street, past the dilapidated chain-link fence and down the slope, under an overpass that covered the LIRR tracks that ran adjacent to our home. I imagine these dogs were particularly vicious, owing to their living under an overpass, along a dangerous stretch of train tracks; they would have to be tough to call a place like that home.
This is where my recollection of things gets a little fuzzy. I called my parents to ask them about this incident, and my father didn’t remember it at all. He said he probably blocked it out because of the trauma, but my mother remembered it very well.
She said that we started to scream, because that's what you do when a pack of dogs is attacking your loved one, and our screams attracted our neighbors’ attention, who then began running from their houses wielding bats, and brooms, and any other makeshift weapons they had at hand. The dogs were fought off, paramedics were called, and somebody patched up the chain-link fence.
“I don’t understand why people are so nostalgic,” my mother said at the end of her recollection.
And I replied, as I have before, “Brooklyn used to be a Mad-Maxian style hellscape, overrun by feral dogs, and I do not miss that shit at all.”