The Gritty King of New York

By | Jun 30, 2021 | No Comments

Abel Ferrara, the ghoulishly looking American film director, whose film The Bad Lieutenant has been a perennial favorite ever since I first saw it in the early 90s, especially for Harvey Keitel’s riveting tour de force performance, is one of the most eccentric and cryptic figures I’ve met. From his fertile mind, has poured a small galaxy of his own making comprised of assorted oddballs, kooks, and freaks scattered across a daringly unique cinematic landscape in pictures like King of New York, Ms. 45, Fear City, Dangerous Game, and The Addiction. But I’ve always considered The Bad Lieutenant his masterpiece and one to which I often return, as I do with other masterpieces like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and William Friedkin’s The French Connection and The Exorcist. Yet, it is Ferrara’s ability to capture the underbelly of his native New York, much like his near contemporary Scorsese, that truly resonates with me. However, Ferrara’s lens delves into the grittier and seedier aspects of this city, offering a truer reflection of its darker elements—populated by pimps, addicts, deviants, and outcasts—than Scorsese’s portrayal.

Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara

Since 1971, Ferrara has been turning out a picture yearly—with few exceptions. But unlike Scorsese, he’s had a harder time financing his films partly because of the taboo subjects his films treat and partly because of his decrepit-like lifestyle as a perverse drug addict—one akin to the very characters who grace his films. This has forced Ferrara to leave his beloved home city for Rome, Italy to continue his work. But before he left, I’d occasionally run into him as he was part of the seamy nightlife fabric that peppered New York before 9/11.

On one occasion, during my nightly city escapades, I encountered Abel at a place called The Gaslight in the Meatpacking district as it was approaching its 4 am closing time. He asked me if I knew of an after-hour joint, as he obviously wanted to keep his party going. I said I did. And off we went in his chauffer-driven limousine. A young blond bimbo who looked like she was only there because she wanted a part in one of his films accompanied him. My gang of misfits followed in their own cars as we headed to the Garment district to a nondescript location in the West 30s. I had only been there once or twice before, so I wasn’t sure if it was still operating. When we all filed into the old pre-war elevator to the third floor, one guy who had tagged along was packing. A couple of bouncers stopped him at the entrance to confiscate his knife and gun, as there was a standard search for these types of places. I later learned he was some low-level mobster who was a passing acquaintance of one of my friends. And so began our night of debauchery.

The place happened to be someone’s loft who had been using it to conduct business as a breeding ground for people like us who enjoyed the New York nightlife a little too much, but particularly for people like Abel. His appetite for excess knew no bounds. When we settled near the makeshift bar, Abel asked me if I knew anyone in the place who was holding. I told him I knew no one, nor was I going to ask anyone. For all I knew, the place may have been crawling with undercover cops, and I was content enough having my Bourbon. But like any finicky director, this wasn’t good enough for Abel. He started walking around, sizing up the motley crew of kooks dotting the place, hoping to find someone who looked like they had the candy store Abel was craving.

When Abel returned to the bar, he said, “I think I found a couple of guys who may have something.” So I said, “Great, ask them.” Surprised by my cavalier answer, he snapped back saying, “Hey Charlie, you don’t understand me, go to those guys near the pool table and ask them.” “For what?” I said. “Jesus fucking Christ, do I have to spell it out for you?” Abel replied vociferously. I said, “What do you mean, man?“ Noticing how addled and agitated he was becoming, I walked away, pretending to head in the direction he was pointing to, as if I was playing a part in his next film. This short bastard was compelling me around this place, as if I were a chess piece.

When I got to the area where these two guys were standing, I just milled around with my drink in hand. Flustered, Abel approached me from behind and tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Charlie, ask these fucking guys.” I told him, “Ask them yourself and leave me the fuck alone. I’m not your errand boy.” Suddenly, Abel blew a few gaskets, and let loose a tirade of epithets, calling me every name in the book. So I decided it was time for me to call it a night, and I went home.

A few months later, I ran into Abel again, but this time early in the morning having breakfast at Jean Georges’ Mercer Kitchen in Soho where I had been managing. I avoided making eye contact with him for fear he’d bleep the shit out of me again, but he spotted me and hailed me over. As I approached him apprehensively, I said nonchalantly, “Good morning Abel, what brings you here so early?“ As if nothing had happened, he replied, “I have a meeting with a producer.“ Oh, that’s good. Is this a new project? I said. “Yeah,” he replied. We continued chatting for a while longer until his breakfast companion arrived.

Another director, Stephen Soderberg, was reading his morning paper in the next room, and I asked him if he knew Abel Ferrara. He told me he loved his work but had never met him. I asked him if he would like to meet him, and he said he’d love to. At that point, I went over to Abel’s table and asked him if he wanted to meet Stephen Soderberg, and he said, “Yeah, man. Is he here?” “Yes,” I said. So with that, Abel got up, excused himself from his companion, and followed me into the next room where I introduced him to his fellow director. They praised each other’s work for 20 good minutes, leaving me on good terms and a clearer conscience with the gritty King of New York.


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