The shorthand on the top of every Ed Koch movie review was a plus or minus sign. This master of the soundbite always got right to the point. His life, all of 88 years of it, gets a plus sign now, even from one of his most relentless critics. We know he had 12 years at Gracie without a dull moment, and a grand post-mayoral shtick of more than 22 years. His post-death life, judging by the media clamor today, may last nearly as long. He died the day Neil Barsky's documentary classic, "Koch," is premiering across the country, once again proving he has the timing of a box office king.
His own account of how he became a movie critic is pure Koch. Called by Tom Allon, the editor of a Manhattan weekly who is running for mayor himself this year, and offered $50 per review, Koch replied: "I wouldn't cross the street for $50." How much do you want, asked Allon. "Two hundred and fifty," Koch insisted. We're a small paper, said Allon, saying he couldn't afford that. "Call me back when you get bigger," said Koch, and Allon called back a day later, feeling big enough to pay the tab.
He was born to banter. A World War II vet, he loved every form of cojones combat. When it is said, and no one said it more often than he did, that he was New York, what we all meant was that he was its street-smart voice, a daily shot of caffeine that stirred our subway and sidewalk blood. I dubbed him Mayor Mouth decades ago, and he relished the title. He could've charged for his shirt sleeve press conferences and still packed the house, always making sure that he called on his nemesis reporters first, including me. There or anywhere else, whatever popped into his head emerged instantly from his mouth.
When he had his 1991 heart attack, he was conscious during a difficult pacemaker operation and had a silent conversation with God. "I was doing all the talking," he recalled, a premonition about what's happening somewhere today. He was thrilled then that two years out of office, the news that he collapsed "traveled faster" than the ambulance, just as he'd publicly marveled when he had his 1988 stroke and a doctor declared he had the brain of a 28-year-old.
To read the rest of Nation Institute Fellow Wayne Barrett's obituary for former New York City mayor Ed Koch, please visit the City Limits website. To learn more about Barrett's book on Koch and his tenure as mayor, click here.