I thought Ed Koch was going to die in 1990. I thought he would be like Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, or my old boss at GQ magazine, Art Cooper, both of whose identities were so caught up in what they did for a living that neither man lasted more than a few weeks beyond retirement. When David Dinkins was inaugurated on New Year’s Day in ’90, I assumed that Ed Koch, without the NYC mayoralty, would cease to be.
I was wrong, to Koch’s credit. Simply being a New Yorker, as opposed to the king of New York, was more than enough to sustain him. He was a neighbor and I saw a lot of him, both in person, eating the salty food he wasn’t supposed to eat (at Minetta Tavern, or in line at Balducci’s before it became Citarella) and in The Villager, the homely neighborhood weekly of Greenwich Village, where he reviewed movies. (He hated Avatar, which was “hyped beyond the point of forgiveness,” and remarked of Walk the Line, “I sing better in the shower than Joaquin Phoenix.”) And he was always popping up on NY1, the endearingly shabby, spiritually pre-Bloombergian local-news channel that comes with your cable box in the big city.
There was plenty not to love about Koch, such as his callousness towards his black constituents and his not-good-for-the-Jews stridency in purporting to represent what all Jews think about Israel, Jesse Jackson, and, well, everything. But I retained affection for the guy and am stricken by his passing. That it occured just a day short of the fifth anniversary of my father’s death is resonant, too. As charismatic old Jews go, my dad was an altogether warmer, gentler force than Koch, but he grew up in the same Ashkenazic milieu of bagels, salt-cured fish, Depression-era penury, unquestioned duty to country, astounding work ethic, and recreational kvetching. With Koch down, I feel like we’ve lost another of Dad’s cohort, and not just in the ethno-gastric sense. Like my father, Koch was a product of a time that celebrated the “common man,” when leading a middle-class life was a good thing, a desired path rather than a sad consolation prize for the un-entrepreneurial and unbeautiful. New York City used to be a place where you could be this nice sort of middle-class. But it isn’t anymore. Ed Koch, over these last 23 years, was a vestige of that place, as much so as Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop and Kossar’s Bialys.