For anyone who has ever moved to New York with the sort of romantic idea of struggle that seems to exist only in Susan Seidelman movies, yet was disappointed to find a lack of any grit in a post-Bloomberg era, Ron Kolm is the man to help you find your way back to that time you so desperately wanted to be a part of. His latest book, Duke & Jill, offers tales that now sound folkloric in nature–one would never be able to rent out their apartment and collect multiple deposits from different people without comeuppance in the New York of now.
The harebrained schemes that would make you enough money to get by while still enjoying yourself are all alive in Duke & Jill, as evidenced by the eponymous characters fleeing New York for awhile to lie low after snorting and flushing all the coke they were supposed to sell. To make ends meet, “Jill applied for an American Express card and got her boss to lie about her salary. She’d call around, using the phone at work, and find out which of her friends were about to go on a shopping spree–go to the store with them on her days off–and then get the cash later.”
While it was easier to be poor then, it didn’t mean the financial plight didn’t take its toll. Like most artists/junkies, “Duke was feeling pretty discouraged… He had no money, no job, and no prospects of getting either in the near future.” What makes this quandary worse is having no desire whatsoever to work. Duke and Jill represent the sort of Sid and Nancy archetype synonymous with not giving a fuck, with living simply for the debauched pleasures of it.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is feeling like you’re somehow the only one in New York without any money. As Duke notes to himself while walking through the East Village, “It seemed as if most of the people he passed on the street had more money than he did…”
Yet, somehow, Duke always finds another item to sell–whether managing to allure a passerby with a piece of graffitied metal by passing it off as some sort of “Keith Haring-esque” art or stealing someone else’s mint condition Playboys to pawn off himself. And with each new moneymaking plan comes a new obstacle (rain down-pouring–in typical NYC summer fashion–on the magazines he wants to sell, for instance).
As the narrative draws to a close, presumably sometime at the end of the 1980s, it becomes clear that a paradigm shift is in the air in New York City. Ed Koch wasn’t going to be mayor forever, after all. And now, sadly, “There wasn’t anyone who was going to give [Duke] free food and rent these days, ’cause times had changed.” Granted, the 1990s still had plenty of roguish allure, but it was merely a transition to the corporate-mindedness the city has now suited up in. The art, the drugs–none of it has any heart behind it now. Duke’s not even with Jill anymore. But maybe, one day, they’ll find each other again. Just like finding a glimmer of the old New York in unexpected places.