NYC 1995

"And of course what does a financially strapped 24 year old do? He takes his frequent flyer miles and heads to New York City."

July 1995 I was a young aspiring photographer. And of course what does a financially strapped 24 year old do? He takes his frequent flyer miles and heads to New York City. Probably not the smartest move, but an adventure all the same. In my travels I had been to a few big cities; Mexico City, Saul Paulo-Brazil, Singapore but not the Big Apple. Fortunately my friends who took to New York out of college were open for a visit.

Back in 1994 people actually wrote letters and corresponded through the mail. Striving to be the next big thing, I contacted Brian at Cargo Records, looking for any of his bands in New York that might need some photos. FYI, It’s always cool to say you’re in New York to shoot a band, even if you’re not getting paid. Brian did not disappoint, he put me in touch with a band’s manager.

First impressions are always lasting. I remember heading from the airport over the Brooklyn Bridge, sun setting and city lights starting to come up. The cab stunk like misery. A ripe combination of cigarettes, BO and stale coffee with no AC. I rolled the window down, a beautiful, hot, sticky July day in New York City. The driver found Jen’s brownstone. The ride cost me $20.00 more than he told me at the airport, my New York christening. Jen was happy to see me, we stayed up and talked about whatever. The street looked different in the morning light. A bit dirtier in a homey way. The street lights take the edge off at night.

My ambition for the morning, grab coffee and check out Manhattan. Rode a train to the Bowery. Found Jens work. It isn’t hard to miss, Jay Maisel’s old bank building, it kind of sticks out. I poke my head in and ask Jen where the closest coffee shop is. Basically there is a Starbucks a few blocks away. I post up, already sweating my ass off. I write in my journal a bit, plan my day. Starting with the Empire State Building. I take a few trains, walk a few more blocks and there it is. Classic NY Architecture. I head up to the observation deck. I was surprised how windy it was up there. Still the hustle and bustle was electric. I hung out for an hour watching people peer out onto Manhattan. The city looked small, viewing uptown I could make out the twin towers. Looming large over the financial district. My thoughts were to go see the World Trade Center the next day. Unfortunately that never happened.

Next morning, coffee, trains, walking. No cabs, no money for cabs. My cab budget was blown from the airport ride. Central Park became my choice destination. It is a glorious city park. I walked, shot and watched New Yorkers jogging and spending time in this nirvana. There is a beauty of Central Park that is unexplainable.

Previously I made arrangements to meet up with friends from college. I headed into Manhattan meeting Dan at his commercial photo studio. We hung out for a bit, caught up. I told him about my sightseeing visit to the Empire State Building. Dan smiles a wicked grin. We took a walk, entered some building from a side entrance where on the roof we found this great old tennis court surrounded by an old rusted chain link fence with the perfect view of the Empire State Building. Shooting from that angle the architecture is a gift I still look at often today.

We had off to meet other friends in Bryant Park for a movie and Chinese food. My first time in New York, I really didn’t understand the idea of “flow”. Dan being a life long New Yorker, saw that I was hesitating while walking through h the bustling streets. So out of nowhere he grabbed my arm and we darted across the busy Avenue of the Americas. cabs honking, busses whizzing past. Stopping in the middle to wait for a few more cars to pass and honk at us. On the other side we jumped on a bus headed from Times Square. Several minutes later we jump off and we were across from Bryant Park. I don’t remember the movie but the food and company was great that evening.

That next morning I met with Jen at Jay’s Building. 190 Bowery, New York, NY 10012. I think it is office space now or something lame. On the corner of Spring Street & Bowery. It was an old bank, Jay and his family lived on the top 2 or 3 floors. The basement and first three floors were Jay’s offices and studio. Jen had a desk right in front of the bank vault door.  The vault is where Jay kept all his hero slides and negatives. 35mm slides mostly if I remember correctly. Millions of slides all perfectly organized. Of course he had a basketball court inside the front doors in the lobby. Then there was “The Cube” the infamous acrylic cube with millions of slides.This was the center piece of his lobby. The rumor is there are over a million edited slides in that cube. I have no idea, but it was fucking cool.

Jen gave me the nickel tour. We checked out the basement first. Calling it a basement is not really proper. It was more like walking down into the catacombs of some old Catholic Church. There were filing cabinets stacked floor to ceiling everywhere. You walked past piles upon piles of tear sheets and magazines with published samples of Jay’s work. The musty smell of a masters work was incredible.  We moved on to the second floor. If I recall correctly this was Jay’s portfolio / gallery area. Big prints hanging everywhere. Along the windows on one side were various portfolios spread out onto of flat files. The flat files were under a wall of windows with a lot of natural light pouring in. A very beautiful space. Jay was clearly meaning to impress with this floor.

This is where I met Jay very briefly. Jen made the introduction, I explained my relationship with Dean Collins. Jay laughed and chuckled like only someone who knew Dean could. He was excited to show me his new color copier. We went up to the third floor that at first glance seemed in disarray. But this was where Jay went through images and played. Every artist needs a studio and since Jay shot on location all the time, this was his sandbox. Light tables and and flat files everywhere. Artists supplies, paper cutters as well. Jay was experimenting with color copies and multiple prints or something.

Jay left after a few minutes and went to have lunch with his family upstairs. I bounced down to the main floor to say goodbye to Jen. I headed on the train downtown to meet up with the band’s manager. His name was Steve.

"And of course we had to shoot the cliche photo of a band walking down railroad tracks. "

Steve managed a band called “Garden Variety”. They were a garage band out of New Jersey that played your typical indie rock. At least typical for the 90’s. Finding his apartment door was a challenge. When I found the building, I rang up to his apartment and over the intercom I hear “Hello!” in a thick New York accent. “It’s Jeff the photographer from Cargo records” I explained into a dirty speaker box.

The loud buzz and clank of the door lock startled me, I opened the door, as I did the speaker box buzzed, “417” came out. Finding his door I knocked, no sooner than my knuckles hit the door it swung open. And a short guy with his pants unbuckled, zipper down was standing there. “Come in” he barked, he spun around a ducked into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. “Thank God” I thought to myself, I thought I was walking into something. As I entered Steve’s studio apartment, I found I was walking into one of the most amazing abysses. From floor to ceiling Steve had industrial shelving at least 7’ high. filled with tens of thousands of music CDs. All different styles, groups, individuals. finding the path through the kitchenette to the corner window where he had a futon mattress on the floor. Everything was in perfect order. Even the 20 pairs of Air Jordans’ lined up in Steve’s closet. Everything in its perfect place.

I felt like I was in some weird dimensionally or somewhere else having an out of body experience. Steve finished up in the toilet, we headed out to Grand Central Station. The hustle and bustle was starting to pick up steam, it was about 4:15 pm I believe. Steve walked and talked like the New Yorker he was. Voice at lest 20db above anyone else. Like he was yelling all the time. At the station we passed a pizza joint on the way to the platform. “ Hey, you ever have a slice in NY?” “Not yet” I answered. Steve immediately spun around looking me right in mu eyes intensely. “ You mean you haven’t had a slice yet!?” I didn’t have time respond, Steve walked me back to that Pizza Joint we just passed 30 seconds ago. Everything happens fast in New York, no discussion about the matter.

Steve barked at someone behind the counter with his back turned to us. “Two slices with pepperoni!” Steve didn’t even ask if I wanted pepperoni. Two paper plates hit the counter within seconds. The counter guy who was folding boxes doesn’t even talk. to Steve. Cash register rings and Steve slaps some money on the counter.  No need to wait for change of course, who has time to get change at 4:30 pm at Grand Central 

Station. “Here take this” I am handed a paper plate with a large slice, dripping all over me. Steve walks over to the trashcan, grabs a hand full of napkins, “This is how you eat a slice in NY.” Steve blotted off the grease with the napkins, folded the slice in half, tossed the paper plate and napkins in the trash and took a bite off the pointy end. Mouth full, “There, go for it.” Walks away leaving me standing by the trashcan. So I repeated and followed him out.

Steve and I were off to Newark. We found our band waiting for us in there dirty old tour van. Steve called to them, “Hey!” a face appeared in the window and three guys climbed out. They were not much younger than I was. We all hopped into the van, it had that band-van funk stank. A mix of body odor, Body Spray, spoiled milk, weed and dirty feet. We make our way to a neighborhood, pull up to house. Another band member bounces out yelling something back at the closed screen door. And of course this band members girlfriend coming along as well. We are headed off the Abington YMCA. Tolls, tunnels, bridges and byways we make it to Philly. We arrived early and the band couldn’t load in so we took advantage of some down time and founded an area with railroad tracks. And of course we had to shoot the cliche photo of a band walking down railroad tracks. After an hour or so we head back to the YMCA. The band loads in. Basically they are setting up in the middle of a basketball court. The old gym was still being used for pick up game, when we get in they slowly stop. Three bands on the ticket, Steve finds out that they are on second.

As the sun sets all of us are hanging out by the back door of the gym. I look around and fuck we are right next to Abington Cemetery. The old graveyard was founded in 1728. Perfect! I grab the band and we shoot around a bit. It did feel a bit creepy and I could tell the band was not having it. They thought is was too goth. As the band starts up, I am really surprised by their energy. I shoot some stills then fall back with the Bolex letting the roll rip! After the last band played, we loaded up and headed back to New York. On the way I think we stopped somewhere to grab sliders, fry and shakes. It was rather late at this point, Steve and the band insist that they are taking me to Brooklyn. I don’t think I got back to Jen’s any earlier than 5 AM. I was really thankful they dropped me off. I crept up the stairs and crashed on the couch. Jen work up 30 minutes after I got in, she didn’t expect me back.

"All around the entire court!
If someone went out of bounds they just smashed into a mosh of people."

Little did I know this day, my last day in New York, will be the most interesting. Tim Mantoani invited me to hang out with him on a No Fear shoot. He didn’t give me much information except it was a 5 on 5 street basketball game. It sounded pretty interesting. I met up with Tim in Times Square at his hotel, we were rushed toward our location in a convoy of SUVs with blacked out tinted windows. Headed toward Central Park and onto Fredrick Douglas Blvd. Until we hit 155th Street. Walking up to the courts you can see the large buildings as the backdrop. The courts are really crowded, overfilling with spectators. Tim and I get out of the SUV, our escorts remind us that we can shoot what we want as long as its associated with the tournament. And not to wander away from the area. Fucking amazing!

The best, hard and fast basketball I have ever watched. Some of the players are ex NBA and it shows. The people were standing right up to the baseline of the court. All around the entire court! If someone went out of bounds they just smashed into a mosh of people.

There was a ref, I don’t know what rules they were going by, but he was there if nothing else to make sure the court clock worked. The hot sticky July evening was only accentuated by the thick sweet smell of weed being consumed. Big clouds of reefer smoke were floating through the court area. You could make out the different strains and textures. Breathing deeply was a treat that helped me enjoy the evening. Tim was as always a mad-man, right in they’re shooting and on the baseline. I preferred to hang back enjoying the entire scene. Once the game was over and the winners were crowned, Tim and I found ourselves, we gathered our gear, headed to the SUV. They gave us a ride back to Times Square, no motorcade this time.

Tim and I parted ways, I headed back to Brooklyn. Next morning I met with Jen early at The Bowery Building. My flight home was later in the evening, so I dumped my suitcase and stuff with her and took one last walk about the Bowery. This by far was the hottest day. Sweat was pouring down my back into my ass-crack. I wandered around in no distant direction or at least with no final destination. Turning down a street I could hear water gushing and kids playing. The kids had opened the fire hydrant and were playing in the street. Standing back for I bit I started to shoot. I only took about 5 or 6 frames of film. These kids were making do with what they had, enjoying themselves.

At that moment I remembered how broke I was, I didn’t even have money for a cab back to the airport. Right now writing this It is apparent some things never change.

Jeff Wiant / Polaroid © 1995 Tim Mantoani


Jeff Wiant