Mayor Koch was mayor of New York City for my entire conscious childhood. He was such a part of my young New York life that I thought his first name WAS Mayor. I can’t tell you who was mayor before him, and Dinkins is just a dull blur too. Mayor Koch embodied my New York of the 1970’s and 80’s. Loud, heavily accented, aggressive, funny and a showman – he just completely made sense for the chaotic, kind of broken, dirty, noisy and brash New York City of the time. He also became a pivotal character in one of my family’s legendary stories – the kind you tell over and over again because it just so totally and completely captures everything going on in a family at a point in time.
In the early 80’s there was a drought in NYC, and the mayor launched a campaign to convince New Yorkers to save water. One part of his campaign was a TV PSA that aired during after school and Saturday cartoons. This is the “kids” part of the PSA that I found on YouTube, but it’s missing the beginning where Mayor Koch said something like this, “Hey New York Kids, This is Mayor Ed Koch and I am making you my Deputy Mayor in charge of helping New York save water.”
My sister was around 5 at the time, and she watched A LOT of TV. I was 9 years old at the time and spent most of my after school time in ballet class. I also decided that I really didn’t feel like taking showers very often. You can imagine what a great combination dancing every day and not showering was. This not showering stance basically drove my dad insane and became a huge source of fighting in our home. And then, because I was 9 – almost 10 – and a total smart ass, I took it one step too far. I decided I would out smart my dad. So, one night, I stuck my head under the sink faucet and wet my hair thinking that it would look like I had taken a shower. Did I mention that my hair looked like I had melted a stick of butter in it prior this stunt? Yeah, that’s a key point.
So, I trotted downstairs in my pajamas with my hair wrapped in a towel, thinking for sure that I had pulled one over on my dad. Of course he took the towel off my head and lo and behold there was my hair – wet on top, dry underneath – an obvious attempt to bluff my way through a shower. So upstairs he marched me. He turned on the shower and started yelling at me to get in. I of course held my ground and kept insisting that I had showered. And we continued this insanity for a good 5 minutes until we realized that my sister was standing there hysterical crying.
A little 5-year-old, with chubby cheeks and big tear filled brown eyes, bawling at the top of her lungs and wailing, “I am Deputy Mayor and you are wasting water!!! I have to tell and you are going to go to jail!!” We just stared at her, not quite sure what she was saying. “Mayor Koch said I am Deputy Mayor and sisters have to take short showers and we have to save water.” She was inconsolable. And needless to say, her crying, and the ridiculous things she was saying with such pure and heartfelt belief brought the full ludicrous nature of this battle to full relief.
I can’t even remember if ultimately I showered that night, though I think I did. But I will never, ever forget my little sister with tears flowing and snot running out her nose, taking the words of Mayor Koch so seriously that she was convinced she was a Deputy Mayor with a real job to do to help save our city. I don’t think Mayor Koch intended kids to listen to him so wholeheartedly, but he was our mayor – the only one we knew – and he governed the only city we knew – NYC. For young New Yorkers who became defined as Generation X New Yorkers, he was the leader that dominated our evening news, newspaper front pages and even our cartoon time. With his passing it seems official that that NYC is gone – for better or worse. There is a tiny of bit of true New Yorker bravado, chutzpah, moxie, that something that puts the snap in street hot dogs and bite in New York bagels (it’s the water right?), that will die out with Mayor Koch and his generation of New Yorkers that my generation will miss, and my children’s generation will miss out on. For Mayor Koch I hope there’s really good Chinese and a really cheap movie theater in that NYC in the sky.