Welcome to New York City

by

11/20/2022

Neighborhood: Ridgewood


The atmosphere seemed different coming home. You could feel it stepping off the train. A March chill penetrated our light jackets, and we caught ourselves shivering. Off to the west, fog obscured Manhattan’s glow. The empty subway cars clattered away, headed for the end of the line; oddly, we’d been the only riders in ours since the Williamsburg Bridge. When the last one had curved away into the night, dim redness shone between the tracks, the lights of a 24-hour chicken joint on the corner illuminating the massive stanchions beneath. Otherwise, there was only the dark featureless stretch of Seneca Avenue, the rest of its businesses shuttered for the night.

Descending the station’s slick steel steps, Carolyn and I clung together, arms linked. Down below, we glanced up at the looming trestle, the brisk air reeked of cooking oil and garbage. Arm-in-arm, we started up the block, but out of nowhere, police barricades halted us in our tracks at Palmetto Street. Beyond them stood tall plywood barriers, Music emanated from a run-down building across the street; above its half-open door an amber sign blinked on and off: BAR . . . BAR . . . BAR. On the other side of the roadblock, lights flickered high on the bricks of sandwiched three-deckers, their cornices a stern row of disapproving eyebrows.

A sudden rumbling came from beyond the barrier, perhaps a block down, sending us scurrying behind some stacks of rotting boards. A slit between them at first revealed only the twin row of houses brooding over the el. Into the dim light came an old blue automobile: dented hood with its exhaust smoke churning beneath. Halfway up the block, it screeched to a halt. Someone – a man in a loose, hooded jacket – emerged from the shadows and gestured toward the curb, a dull object glinting in his hand. The car angled in by a nearby fire hydrant.

Alarmed – almost panicked at this midnight drama New York was serving up to us – we ducked around the corner and up Seneca’s cracked sidewalk, half-running, our goal a forlorn yellow streetlight. From there, we would be home free. Around the next corner, however, safe passage turned out to be a discouraging barricade of darkened, empty police cruisers. Our only escape seemed the opposite way. We scuttled down Gates, hands tightly entwined, desperate not to run. Ahead, from above the darkened buildings where Ridgewood turns into Bushwick, there was a column of smoke. We slowed to a nervous walk. Was it a fire? There were no sirens, no rush of laddered trucks.

Cypress Street brought us up short. We had fully expected a phalanx of crouching cops; instead, a block packed with large white vans greeted us – lining both curbs back down toward Palmetto. People – the first we’d seen – appearing relaxed in the shadows, gathered around what appeared to be tables filled with snacks. The brooding train trestle loomed, but a splay of colored lights now lent it a cartoonish aspect. Underneath it, near the end of the block, swirling grey plumes belched from a huge barrel: our suspected fire, as well as the apparent source of all the scary fogs and mists. It was a nighttime filming we’d happened upon, our safe and familiar subway stop its setting, the ominous decrepitude merely a veneer. Our otherwise-gentrifying neighborhood had been rendered distressed for the occasion.

It was 2014, and we’d been in New York less than a year, all of it in Ridgewood, living in the apartment above Carolyn’s daughter and family, who were also our landlords. The house was situated midway between the L and the M, fortuitously since subways had become our main method of transportation. The car we’d brought with us from the midwest now moved only in response to the demands of alternate side parking: one curb to the other. New York driving had proven stressful, nothing like the well-ordered avenues and abundant spaces of Kansas City, where we might, on a night like this, have pulled into a cozy well-lighted garage, doors automatically descending behind.

Xenophobia occasionally still inhabited our thoughts (the romance of subway travel notwithstanding), though we were hardly shut-ins. We ventured out daily and, for that matter, often came home late, disembarking in the wee hours at Seneca or Myrtle-Wykoff, headed home from films, dinners, plays, parties; it was, after all, New York City, and our time our own.

Here, at the “crime” scene, we’d somehow found ourselves in the middle of the filming, enveloped in a forbidden circle of privilege. We became aware of distant barriers – a block away at least – and behind them, crowds of Ridgewood citizens straining to witness the action. Our train, we realized, had been empty by design, the night’s last run, the demands of art superseding all else.

Passing through the barrel’s obscuring smoke, we spotted four of New York’s finest, off to the side guarding against unwanted presences, and behind them barricades and red lights spinning in the night. Realizing our good fortune at being inside the barriers, we grinned slyly at each other and set off strolling toward the action. We turned the corner, walking out of the superimposed haze, and suddenly before us was an entire block, alive with light and quivering with action, all under the massive trestle.

Across the street, we saw a relatively new van being backed out and replaced by an old junker. The entire block now consisted of parked 1970s-era automobiles, like we’d walked into a scene from thirty or forty years ago. A group of people suddenly came filing out of a well-lighted door in one of the buildings; we had no idea what they were doing. It turned out they were its tenants, allowed to watch the shooting from the immediate sidelines They joined a larger crowd – apparently the residents of adjacent apartments – and we got another inkling how we’d earned our own front-row seats. In the middle of Palmetto, waiting for the last of the cars to be replaced, were the production crew and, evidently, the actors.

We edged closer through the haze, evidently somehow regarded as VIPs, and suddenly found ourselves behind the monitors. Four or five people leaned in staring at the images. On the closest screen was a long-haired man in closeup, wearing a grey hoodie; he appeared to be quite sizeable, chatting with someone off-camera. Just then, kliegs clanked on across the street, terrifyingly bright, illuminating that very man, standing hands in pockets, while equipment got rolled into position. A huge crane swung down from above, loaded with video equipment.

Without warning, the action started; we watched the monitors as cameras focused on the doorway of one of Ridgewood’s ancient apartment buildings. Short, sharp noises came amplified from across the street. We caught sight of a woman in heels, a nimbus of eerie white light surrounding her, clicking down the sidewalk away from the faux-bar on the corner. I glanced at the monitor and could see her being followed by the camera atop the crane. Mists clung to her legs, swirling with each step, courtesy of the smoke generator. She tapped up the steps of the very row house recently emptied out, and disappeared inside. Its darkened entrance now looked ominous.

Just then, a hulking man traced the steps of the woman up the street. We realized it was the person in the grey hoodie. A film-crew woman told us we were in the frame, to move back a bit, so we did. Another man – wearing glasses and a suit and standing across the street under one of the stanchions – suddenly yelled out: “Stop following my girlfriend, you sonofabitch!”

Hoodie turned and shouted something back and then walked over in a threatening way, and with no hesitation punched out Glasses, knocking him down. Hoodie bent over and grabbed his collar as if to pull him up, when suddenly Glasses had a knife in his hand and stuck it into the big guy’s gut. He curled over himself with a loud grunt and went to his knees. Glasses stood up and stabbed him again and again and again, maybe forty times. Sparks began flying off the tops of the stanchions, just like an old-time subway train was going over – pyrotechnics for mood. Along with the crowd from the apartments, we stood transfixed, witnessing this “murder” taking place.

Then, someone came running from behind us with a container in his hand, crying out, “Wait, stop it there, we need the blood.” Everybody stood down, and the blood-man quickly swabbed down Glasses and scampered out of the scene. The lights came on again, and now his hands and arms glowed shiny red. He stepped back and stared at the bloody knife for a long while, about thirty seconds, muttering something we couldn’t hear.

Another person yelled, “Let’s get the close-ups now,” so everyone stood down while Glasses went over to the front of a ground-operated camera. The crew moved it all around so as to catch the gore from every possible angle. Everyone up and down the street relaxed. Across the way, Hoodie languidly got to his feet, and stretched his shoulders. The scene was over for him.

After a few minutes, they called a wrap to loud cheers from actors, crew, and audience alike. The fog lifted; the mysterious woman re-emerged; libations appeared in the hands of cast and crew, and we understood what the trucks were for besides equipment. The big floods flickered out, and suddenly we were standing beneath the M platform in Queens. We walked to the intersection and hesitated, not knowing which way to exit the maze. A guy lugging some wiring told us, “Go up this side; no problem.” We followed him up the sidewalk, past empty light stands and abandoned chairs. The last thing we saw was the wide smokestack, about five feet high and appearing to come out of the street itself. It stood silent now, its job done.

I glanced at my phone; it was straight-up midnight. We never did find out what movie it was.

***

Jeff Loeb is a writer who has lived in New York continuously since 2013 (and sporadically before that, dating to 1972).

In prior lives, he enjoyed long careers as, in roughly this order, US Marine, bartender, construction worker, waiter, truck driver, furniture mover, college teacher, radio reporter (WBAI – D.C. Bureau), assistant city manager, cable television company manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, academic writer, and high-school teacher

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§ One Response to “Welcome to New York City”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    A really lovely evocation of the classic NYC film site. Beautiful imagery and we, the readers, are right there alongside you. brought back a lot of memories for me, my early days in NYC when they were shooting one or another of the Godfather films in my neighborhood. Thank you!

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