I always wanted to have Chinese food with Mayor Koch.
Not the fancy, red carpeted, multi-starred uptown Moo-goo-gai-pen kind. The downtown, “friends in low places,” real thing—Chinatown.
Koch picks the spot, and we dim sum our way into a Chinese food lover’s nirvana. He’d order in Yiddish. The waiter would be confused. Yiddish mixed with Chinese. Think about it. The Mayor would keep a straight face, while I laughed, until I almost choke on a hot pepper. No wonton soup for me.
Instead, I was invited to a concert at Gracie Mansion. It was a formal, sit-down, elegant and intimate program, with an audience of New Yorkers who loved being in this historic, two-story home to New York
Mayors. The room was dimmed. The musicians warmed up. No lights were needed to outline the shore of the East River and Carl Schurz Park.
After the concert, he offered to show me around Gracie Mansion.
I told him that I was born at Doctor’s Hospital across the street. He liked that. He gave me the tour of Gracie Mansion, the ultimate host, who makes you instantly at ease in spite of the privilege of the settings and his title.
I fell in love.
This was no ordinary politician. This was Edward Irving Koch, the first Mayor to host Saturday Night Live, mingle with Muppets and walk through the New York streets with his hands up, asking “How am I doing?” Chutzpah personified.
New York is a pace. Koch pushed the New York pace, the do-whatever-you-have-to-do-to-get-it-done-and-then-some dance. He was a smorgasbord dripping in a melting pot of New Yorkisms: from his never-tamed New York accent to his taking the apple by the core. When a 1980s transit strike brought buses and subways to a standstill, Koch walked to the Brooklyn Bridge. Then he did something he was famous for: He yelled, and yelled so emphatically that he was heard across the boroughs and wire services.
“I began to yell, ‘Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!’ And people began to applaud,” he recalled many years later.
The city is more subdued now. No yelling power to get our groove going. The size of a soda would never pop up on Koch’s political menu. Size matters, or does it?
Today, New York accents are meticulously concealed. Our Mayor is a billionaire, not a mélange of whatever-it-takes-to-get-there New York success. Yellers need not apply.
Was he gay? “F*CK off. There have to be some private matters.” Issue settled.
“If you agree with me on nine of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree on 12 of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist,” he advised.
How was he doing? Well enough to serve three terms, rescue the city from a looming quicksand of financial muck and mire, and still be original and funny. New Yorkers love funny.
“I’m the sort of person who will never get an ulcer. Why? Because I say exactly what I think. I’m the sort of person who may give another person an ulcer.”
No ulcers, only memories.
Mayor Koch: the quintessential roll-up-your-shirtsleeves, speak-your-mind and then some New Yorker. “A liberal with sanity.”
Thumbs up, Mayor Koch. You did just fine.