The Toughest Part of Writing Cold City

Cold City by F. Paul Wilson

Written by F. Paul Wilson

That would be researching Manhattan in 1990.

Why 1990? Because that’s the year a twenty-one-year old who will go on to become an urban mercenary known as Repairman Jack arrives in New York. Cold City is the first of a trilogy that will chronicle his early years there.

We’re talking less than a quarter century ago, so you wouldn’t think it would require much research. Especially for a guy who’s in and out of Manhattan all the time. My agent is there, my publisher is there, plus I go to conventions, writer gatherings, even an occasional play (no musicals, thank you). I was in Manhattan many, many times during 1990, so what’s the big deal?

Because over the years, all the images stored in your memory bank tend to bleed into each other. I knew 1990 preceded the Disneyfication of Times Square, but what exactly was it like? I Googled, I Binged, I tried all sorts of search strings, but kept coming up with bupkis. Old New York is easy. If I want to know how deep the mud ran in Five Points after a heavy rain in 1850, no problemo.

Top songs of 1990 – easy. Top films – simps. Top TV shows – cake. Technology… that took extra effort. The Internet? Not much going on there. The World Wide Web was still years away, and online activities were limited to bulletin boards and proprietary services like Genie and Prodigy via 14.4 kbs modems through a phone line. As for home entertainment, this was pre-DVD and Netflix, so all movies were on tape, and mom-and-pop videostores were everywhere.

Cellular phones (called car phones or mobile phones back then) existed for the most part in bags or briefcases. The state-of-the-art self-contained models were the size of a brick with a big antenna. (A nifty online article, “The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983-2009,” answered a lot of questions.) All those bricks did was make calls (no email, no GPS, no Yelp, no Angry Birds) and hardly anyone had them. So if you wanted to make a call, you had to dig out some change and find a phone kiosk. We’re talking less than a quarter century ago but, compared to today, communication was like smoke signals.

All that data was pretty easy to gather, but figuring out what stores lined Times Square in 1990? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Finally one of my search strings got a YouTube hit. YouTube? What the hell, I clicked it and found that someone had posted a home movie of a car or bus ride through Times Square in 1991. Not 1990, but damn close enough. So I started searching for other videos and found one professionally shot right in Times Square in 1990. Happy dance time.

Memories of pre-Disney, pre-Giuliani midtown flooded back. I remembered the now-extinct grindhouse theaters that lined the Deuce (42nd Street) between Eighth Avenue and Broadway, all the XXX peep shows in Times Square and on Eighth Avenue, and the prostitutes on Ninth behind the Port Authority who’d lift their tops as you drove past to show they were really female.

(Altogether now: “Those were the days, my friend, we’d thought they’d never end…”)

So here’s the moral to this tale: Don’t neglect videos in your research. They’re gold mines. They allowed me revisit the grit of 1990 Manhattan and translate it to the page. Just for you.

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