Monday, February 13, 2012

He's Not Here




There was a park behind the homeless shelter. You could go there to get high. It was cool but it was sad because this was the shelter for families and you would see kids playing on the scabbed concrete and young mothers breastfeeding their squalling babes among reprobates like us. Sometimes the line extended that far and there was no other place to spend the night. We could see the park from where we stood. And they could hear us. All of us with our pleading eyes.

Do they usually just let the fires burn around here?
It's just a car.
But there's a firehouse around the block.
It's more of a police matter. It is picturesque, though.
This block is locked, dude.
The police won't come?
No way.

I looked at Blue Blazer and he nodded. The other voices were my escort and the fellow ahead of us in the cop line. He had a trench coat with a belt. That's all I remember. It was dark and a streetlight blinked on and off. When I coughed, Trench Coat said, It's the inhalation that causes most car fire deaths. I looked at Blue Blazer and he looked at me. We laughed.

What? Trench Coat complained.

What could we say? He was an asshole. I was the naif and Blue Blazer played it straight.

It was cool though to watch the metal hood expand, the paint peel off and the windshield crack with the gentle poof sound it made. We had time, the needle guys had to go somewhere to get off. We stepped in a doorway, stuck a rolled matchbook in half a bag and tasted cottony heaven. Turning back with a cigarette lit like that's what we were doing. As if that were enough for the cops, for disapproving citizens passing by, for our mothers or God.

Cigarettes are better with heroin.
A missed ad campaign there, eh? Nothing is as pure as a real junkie testimonial.

So our conversation was not so much. My escort got the signal and crossed the street. We chattered anyway. It kept off the bugs. What was really beautiful were the clouds in the predawn sky, like great city buildings. We don't stop to look at the clouds enough. Especially in New York. After all, we are no longer children.

I like to think maybe this is what Candace Allyne Gansevoort saw when she looked back and the fire on the street fore lit her face and I saw her for the first time in that moment's pause between the fire escape and the rooftop. There was a gap between the ladder and the roof before she scrambled up over and disappeared. The quality of her skin was such that with the fire, one believed that it was possible to see all the way to the twining fire of her soul.

We were waiting for my man. Like it was some common courtesy that black guys did for white boys who did not know how to cop, who showed us this spot forever unto death to be called the Lighthouse and a package stamped Heaven and Hell. All the dopes had brands but this was the only one unwittingly Blakean. What we all wanted was the dope that would almost kill us, that for a moment would make us feel like this was going to be our very last night on the face of the earth, and for this there was a price I had to be willing to pay.

These were the phrases that my man used. Would you believe me if I told you it was he and I that discussed Pound and picture theory? Every word must add to the image, he said.

There is something in a junkie that needs to pretend it is something higher that calls him. Like a lamb to slaughter. I'm the one with the fifteen dollar bicycle. Under the scaffolding we waited for a wink and wave from a very big man in a full length leather jacket. Who opened the door to the building, just a five story walkup like a hundred others on the LES and then another guy opened the first door and another, the second door, all of them like my black maitre d', brothers working for dope, until I was allowed to proceed to the stairwell where another guy, this one PR came down a few steps asked me, What you want?

Half a bundle.
Five?
Cinquo, I said and held up that many fingers.

I walked back past the other two guys, past the doorman, another PR, thus delineating the power structure. This was a PR dealership and a Puerto Rican neighborhood, the blacks were like day workers.

Excuse me, that was the next time and the next after that when I eschewed the salesman and his surcharge. So kill me if I'm a little blurry. This is crucial because it was the point when Blue Blazer reentered the picture and said, You know how to cop here? You got a cigarette? Blue Blazer nodded, sighed and handed me one. I had just sniffed the other half of said bag and my knees went weak.

I needed a stimulant. I pointed him to my man. I did not know his name and never would. None of us would ever see each other again. We would all be gone in a minute. If anyone asks, he’s not here. It wasn't much of a credo to live by but it was all we had.

Download:

"For Real (demo)" mp3
by Sly Stone, 1966.
available on Listen To The Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70

top photo:
Coney Island, Brooklyn, 1988.
© Ted Barron

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Fools Parade



I met Downtown first.  Me and Billy the Kid.  Billy the Kid was from the East Village, Allen Street from what I understand.  There are one of maybe two addresses that could have been him, depending on his father's name or something like that.  His father was a veteran of the Civil War and his mother a washerwoman or girl.  She was just a kid too, which does not mean you are not responsible for your actions is what she found out.   The difference between a squat and an abandoned building is night and day.  I heard Blue Blazer say this before I met him.  It was his voice that I remembered and the honor stabbing.  With that slight British accent but a decidedly, well at least half American way of speaking. Then someone yelled "five-oh" which was slang for the cops were coming, which was weird because this place was paid off and sealed, though I did not know that until later. But at that moment was also the first time I saw Candy.  She stuck her head out the window and it was amazing that it all happened at once though it will have to be unraveled, the two of them, the three of us together, became the story of my life. And formed who I am.

It was at the art squat that I saw her again and learned from his stepfather the true of Blue Blazer's situation, as well his name and the notorious family that he came from and always tried to keep from the street, for his own reason that will come out later.  Anyway he hollered and pointed up and she pointed at the cops.  She walked out onto the ledge from the fire escape she was climbing toward the roof when she looked back and I swore I saw her face.  She had the face of Helen, wasn't she the one who could launch a thousand ships?  Oh yes just such a face.  Except her name was not Helen, it was Candace and we called her Candy as Will told me they always had in her family, except when she was bad.

There is no past tense.  She survived.  She ended up in a place none of us would have forecasted for her in those days.  So without a lot of introduction here is the story of that, how we all survived.  And how the ones who did not that we loved were always better than that.  And how I was the naif who followed after, with wide eyes.  They were always too good for it.  I had no idea that what I was looking for was what I was and what I had come from, the streets what my own parents moved to the suburbs to avoid.  She must have been the kind of girl as she was as a young adult that knew when she was bad and chose it, not compulsively like me or intelligently like Will, but as an act of transgression against the God that had abandoned her.
The lights flashed over the building, someone grabbed her and we all ran for cover till the coast was clear.  It was inevitable that we were going to come back because it was like a lighthouse, they had the best dope. Did I mention there was a car burning on the street?  In front of the Used Books dope-spot?  Forgive me. We can pick up there next time.

Download:

"Charlie Cake Park" mp3
by The Mekons, 1987.
available on  Honky Tonkin'

"Me and Billy the Kid" mp3
by Joe Ely, 1990.
avilable on Lord of the Highway

top photograph:  Car Fire, Lower East Side, 2002.
© Ted Barron, 2011.



Friday, May 15, 2009

Next Stop Times Square



Born of condensation and wind on top of the world, the snowflake is one of the most spectacular objects of the earth and beyond. Beautiful, intricate, and complex: for a while it lives: floating down from heaven to corruption on earth lasting only as long as the conditions that made possible its existence.

My last morning was like any other. I awakened with my mouth open, in the snow, with no shelter to speak of. Some of us called the empty lots behind the old matzo shop, at the corner of Norfolk and Rivington, the toxic waste dump. One never knew what or who might end up there, shiny needles, wine and other more intimate fluids were exchanged freely, we kept each other warm with song, spit and stories, of better, longer days and places where the sun filtered soft and lovely through fluttering leaves and left Indian paint patterns on our innocent faces.

Maybe there were fifty or so of us in the lot that night, none of our mothers when they walked us to kindergarten that first day and left us in the parking lot imagined their lovely child would ever end up in a place like this, even for one night. Everyone knows vacant lots are haunted by the men who once came home here where the walk was and hugged their pealing children tightly to their chests. It was almost an entire block, big enough for a baseball field. Some of us had fashioned temporary bivouac structures out of discards: cardboard boxes, found pieces of wood and orphaned plastic tarp.

The snow had begun sometime in the night as you remember waking up, pissing steam against the brick building side and watching the flakes outlined against the moon’s face like falling keepsakes fashioned by the delicate hands of virgin weavers somewhere who all looked like young Judy Garland and sang as they worked in voices that were plaintive but not yet broken up.

My mother had given me the money for rent.

“I can see you’re trying, son.”

“I promise, ma.”

We wished together over spaghetti and meatball at the last Italian diner on Delancey Street, a counter where the old street disappears into Kenmare at Cleveland Place, two blocks across Bowery for some reason I could not picture my mother in the far east.

“Do you hear from your wife?”

“I see her on Sundays in church, ma.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

“Sometimes we talk to the minister together afterward.”

“Really?”

“Sure we do.”

She watched my plate. “It’s good to see you eating, son. You’ve gotten so skinny.”

Her marriage had broken up after we boys had bailed, like a ship caught in a storm and rent to pieces in the shoals in sight of the land’s break, each of us ended up hanging on to a separate piece of wood and swimming ashore. Everyone survived with only our hearts broken, scratching our heads and wondering how the hell it could happen. My father had tried to kill himself in the garage, my mother moved to Jersey to sleep in the bed where she had dreamed as a teenager of something much more pleasant.

She never liked the city but for once she did not ask me to come back home and live among our own people. She feared the chaos I would bring to grandmother’s house. I took the money, some $350. I went to the Laundromat, three shirts, two pants, two pairs of socks, underwear, all of it fit into a messenger bag. I left the apartment without a word to my roommates as they had already taken me aside.

“You can choose using or staying, man.”

What if I can’t?

I could have said but did not. The words did not come.

"Well, you paid for this month.” Neil’s declaration filled up the silence of the dusty hallway.

I turned the rest of the money my mother gave me into dope. My actual plan was to cross the Williamsburg Bridge by foot to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway travelling west and hitchhike south from there. I would stay with my brother until I got myself together. Maybe—that’s all it was. I walked over the frigid bridge. There’s no place as cold as high in the sky atop a bridge. As I crossed to Brooklyn and looked over the water, the snow had stopped and everything looked gray and frozen it was still light of day. The sun set like an abscess over the river.

I knew I would never get a ride, that it was a ridiculous plan but I kept walking. I had a lot of dope and I would do it all that night, ending up on a bench under the highway fashioned out of the very steel structure of the great bridge, a traveler in space and time, the snowflake either disappears or joins the greater whole.

I stayed on the bench watching the headlights careening into the darkness above me one of the coldest nights of the year until I finally shivered onto the subway, looking for the best place to melt away into nothing I remember riding out to Coney Island and walking on the beach to the edge of the shore, I must have got back on the D train because I was awakened by a cop below Times Square, who gently suggested I move on and just thus ended the chronicle of my first life in the East Village.

Download:

"Dream Weaver" mp3
by Charles Lloyd Quartet, 1966.
available on Dream Weaver

"Better Git It In Your Soul"
mp3
by Charles Mingus, 1959.
available on Mingus Ah Um

"Angel Eyes"
mp3
by Art Blakey, 1968.
available on Live! At Slug's N.Y.C.

photo: © Ted Barron
Snow on Grand Street, 1996.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stranger




There’s something peaceful about the slaughterhouse. In the killing season when the wind stops and everything is still, you can really see the colors, the browns of the oaks, the red maples, the evergreens. Even the dirt is pretty and they're sheep after all, so they line up meekly. You kill them quickly, gut their sacks and put the canvas down on the floor of the barn.

“This was in Canada?”

“Newfoundland.”

“Wow, that’s interesting.”

We stood there not knowing what to say for a few minutes. What was left on the canvas was dark and spooky. I didn’t know if I could agree that it was art, but I thought it was a hell of a thing to do. My third roommate on Ridge Street had brought me over to his studio to see his work. He was the only one who was not a doper trying to stay clean. I don’t know where they found him: the bulletin board at the Laundromat I think.

He had dirty blond hair, not much of a build the kind of face you would never remember and might not if you ever saw him again, you could ride next to him on the subway fifteen years later and not even know. Who knows who we see everyday?

He had about fifteen different canvases with the sheep guts on them. He had done them all up in Canada and transported them down. He showed me no other work, so I don’t know what he did with his time in the studio.

I was passing through. That day I spent maybe fifteen minutes with him and it was the only time we talked. I never collected much for my room either, just a few books that I found on the street or took home from the used bookshop slash cokespot on 4th Street. It was on 4th Street just down the block from one of the NA meetings, which was convenient but disastrous, just my style. I had a copy of Sheltering Sky and a few others. When you're boosting the books come and go, depending on what I had been able to get any money for. I remember discovering James Ellroy that winter and going on a binge, also Heretic had turned me onto Blood Meridian, which I would find again whenever I sold one, to pick up where I left off. I told that to Cormac when I met him later; he looked at me funny then laughed.

The last guy had left a mattress and I used the blanket Neal had given me. That was it, a couple change of clothes. When I smoked, I tapped my ashes out the window. The church money took care of the first month, after that it was only a matter of time. The one key thing you have to do to stay clean is to not pick up, so no matter what else I did I was out of control on the first turn.

The meeting on 4th Street was on Wednesday in a spare room at Our Lady of Mercy, a giant church that took up the whole block with an open-air courtyard that belonged in the Italian countryside, but maybe the east village was that one time to someone, when the church was first built a hundred years ago and none of us knew what was going to happen to anything in our exquisite corner of the universe. NA, Narcotics Anonymous was the Battle of the Bold in those days with cop-spots steps away from every meeting place. There was one in an old synagogue on Mondays on Houston Street, across from Ludlow Street. Tuesdays and Thursdays we met at the Cardinal Spellman community center on 2nd Street. This was the best scene of them all, at least a hundred folding chairs spilling over with freaks on the floor and sitting on the counter in the corner of the cellar. I wished I was a part of it and tried to keep track of how much time I was supposed to have. They had asked me to speak that night I got out of jail, so I tried to keep up appearances. I wasn’t the only one chipping away at a habit. We were all making it up as we were going along. Until 1979 it had been illegal for even two addicts to be seen together in New York City. Addicts carried ID and were arrested if the cops rolled up on them in the street. The meetings in NYC were begun by the old dopefiends who were left over from the hippies but were mostly just street toughs, the new breed were rockers, refugees from the Mudd Club, CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Everyone wore leather and carried guitars, too cool for school wearing the leathers and animal stripes of whoever had gone back to using the week before and sold their finest threads on the sidewalk for a hit.

I was always a stranger in that scene, never dressed the part or learned the chords. I was on my way out from the beginning. Not to say people were not nice to me. There were ten or fifteen of us who went out for dinner nearly every night. I stayed clean for days at a time, never more than three, so it wasn’t like I was high when I went to the meetings.

I stood by the fire and felt its warmth, but I never copped to where I was really at. I didn’t get that was what you were supposed to do. One Sunday night a nice pretty girl named Layla took me to a meeting called Artists in Sanity. I had scored beforehand and I did some blow in the bathroom.

“There are meetings here every day of the week,” she told me. “All day and night.”

I tried to kiss her on the sidewalk outside but she shied away. She had brown eyes and curly hair. She ended up marrying one of the other guys who was around then, they had a kid too, but it didn’t last. I remember how it felt when I saw them holding hands a week or two later when they were just hooking up. I remember thinking that it could have been me.

“This is a good place to come if you’re having trouble getting over the hump,” she told me outside the Artists meeting. I thought it was cool that she brought me there, that she thought it was the kind of place I belonged.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “That’s good to know.”

She knew more about what I was going through than I did.

When it got bad later in the month, I would just buy blow, no H. We had all been taught that coke was the party drug, that it was not addictive. Also the old schools told me that it was out of your system in three days, which was useful when you had to go see your probation officer. Of course it wasn’t true, they were liars and schemers from the get. No one can hold a lie better than a doper.

I started skipping the meetings because I was high earlier and earlier in the day. I went to my messenger job but spent most of the day riding around boosting and selling books. I came home after work, out of money and coke and lie on the bare mattress in the dark, pretending I was not there.

The hours passed. Neal and Martin would come home from the meetings and eat or not. When they went into their room, I would skulk out of mine and wander the streets looking for someone to bum a cigarette from, unable to sleep. I would look up at the lights of the Williamsburg Bridge and slit my eyes until they were like stars.

As it is in New York City when winter sets in there seemed always to be snow swirling in the air and when the snow stopped there was bone-chilling cold when you could see everything with diamond clarity. As one of the conditions of my release from jail the city sentenced me to four weekends of community service. I woke with a start after finally fainting dead asleep for an hour or two as the night waned into morning for the dawn call to Union Square to poke pieces of paper from the ground into plastic bags. It snowed one weekend toward, great big flakes that fell lazily in the wind and hit you like a big wet kiss right in the face. We started a snowball fight that eventually took in the entire square.

Mayhem, brother. It was one of those beautiful spontaneous New York City things that takes on the proportions of an epic. It is the thing about the city that all of us first fell in love with, the sheer possibility for campaigns of enormous size to begin for no one reason and turn into beautiful chance displays of beauty. A tall guy with no teeth who bragged of old exploits on Harlem basketball courts aimed for my back but hit some kids. They got into it and within moments everyone within a five block range was in the fray. It lasted for hours. The snow was too bad for us to work anyway and the truck never showed up. Everyone had a good time together, laughing and acting like seven year olds.

Some nights I hopped the train or even walked all the way up to Times Square. I walked around taking notes, trying to sketch with words the buildings, the way the windows looked that reflected the all night signs, the steam from the manholes, the walk of the stoney-eyed hipsters and painted ladies on the clicking heels. I was among them, but I was invisible. Like it was my destiny, like I could be gone in a moment and no one would ever know I was there.

A few times I forgot my key to the apartment. I went around back and climbed the fence around the public school. There were gates on our windows but I was able to pull it far enough away from the window to squeeze through. I remember wondering what someone would say if they saw me, if they would believe that I lived there. If they did they would have had one up on me.

Download:

"Messin' With The Kid" mp3
by The Saints, 1977.
available on (I'm) Stranded

"Some Candy Talking" mp3
by The Jesus and Mary Chain, 1985.
available on Psychocandy

"Here" mp3
by Pavement, 1992.
available on Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe

photograph: © Ted Barron
Wild Dog, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1990
.
( click image to enlarge )

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Tombs



Everyone’s heard of the tombs. These are the cells underneath the criminal courts on Centre Street downtown. When you are just visiting or facing a date, you go in front, when you are brought against your will by the Blues you go in the back. There’s a little street by the park where the Chinese do their slow motion dance. The cells are underground, clammy and infested, not just with bugs and slime but with the busted dreams and bad life karma of all those that have come before.

They have always been there, dating back to the beginnings of New Amsterdam and evoke dungeons, torture and other things that really suck to be a part of. And of course they are called that because you can get lost down there, forever. They are also a transporter terminal to Rikers and upstate where the North American police state stores its disappeared.

For us none of it was that serious. It gave us a chance to talk and act tough, to feel a part of the life the dealer immigrants lived everyday. For us the Tombs were like an annex to our neighborhood. It took about twenty minutes to walk home when you were released and it was even quicker to get there, handcuffed in a police car or with some other poor souls in a paddywagon.

All of us on the street were picked up in sweeps eventually, usually to be sprung in a matter of hours, over the weekend was a bummer. Or a skid bid like mine, at most 30 days. Anything more and you were sent to the island or upstate. But that didn’t happen to many of us, unless we went hardcore or hurt somebody. Upstate was for the dealers, for the blacks and Latinos, we were mostly white kids out in the life on a pass. It could turn serious on a dime, though and the thing about jail is that when you’re locked in there, life goes on outside.

You talked to the men in your pod of cells, never having a clear idea how many of them there were. You made a buddy or two, mine was called Tyrone. One night he asked me what I was doing and I don’t know why I told him:

“I’m looking for my grandfather.”

“Oh yeah, is he still around?”

“He was last seen on the Bowery or in Times Square.”

“You saw him?”

“I checked with the Veterans Administration.”

“He was an army man?”

“That’s right.”

Tyrone had kids he was thrown out on by three different women and a father of his own that he had only seen once getting into a taxi.

"That’s your father,” his mama said. Tyrone looked good and hard. He expected more, maybe an introduction but his mama just stared.

“Longer and harder than me,” he said. “Biting her lip.”

“The fact is my grandfather’s probably dead.”

“You never know, man.”

“He’s my great great grandfather.”

“So you’re looking for a ghost?”

“Yep.”

“That makes it harder.”

Bless his heart he said it as casually as you would put on your shoes to go outside. Jail was good for that. People had nothing better to do than listen, nowhere to go and nothing to burn but time.

“But why you looking for him?”

“He was the last man in my family to go down as far as me.”

“I only wish I could say that,” Tyrone said and he laughed. We all laughed as much as we could in there, it was a veritable laugh fest.

When I caught my breath, I told Tyrone something else. “I used to look at so & so and think he’s worse than me. All of them. Dozens I can think of.”

“And none of 'em done what you have.”

“How did you know?”

“That’s what we call looking in the mirror."

We laughed and all the others joined in because you know laughter’s infectious and the sound of us echoed in the cells long after we were gone to some place else to live, play, love, suffer and die.

Our cells were six feet wide and eight feet long. There were bars just like in the old west that clanged shut. The painted cement walls sweated whether the heat was on or not. Usually it wasn’t. You could see your breath when you talked or breathed and the cold was something you had to get used to. Blankets were something you might find crumpled in the corner and stained that you reached for desperately in the dark.

Tyrone was looking for his family too, as we all were, whether we admitted it or not, the idea that life was going on very well without us is like the weather in jail. We didn’t have windows but the voices of our brothers, children and wives found a way into our cells and sat down beside us, lived in our heads, took forms of life we never knew existed, something like daydreams that have sensory weight like a smell or a fear or something gaseous that you can taste in your saliva when you breathe, that pressures the eardrums and prickles the skin.

Most of all we lived with the knowledge that there was absolutely nothing we could do to effect whatever was going on out there. We could not stop our wives from taking solace in some other dude’s arms, our kids from throwing that rock through the window or soften our father’s shame or mother’s lament. All that was real, it was happening just beyond our grasp but we could not touch it. And that makes a man really angry, whether he gets with it or not.

So you exercise, pushups and sit-ups, running in place, miles from nowhere and you pound things or lash out and find yourself twisted into positions you never knew were possible. Because all of us we only know a tiny fraction of what is possible to withstand.

Just ask Donny J. or any of the others who told their stories.

Donny broadcasted in a laughing voice that fooled no one that night, his voice at once as sharp as a knife and fleeting as the dream just before you awake. He was a low level coke dealer, paranoid enough to bury his stash in the backyard plot behind his tenement building on Pitt Street facing the projects. His wife was eight months pregnant. On his birthday he dug up the coke and his wife cooked his favorite, spaghetti with red clam sauce.


He heard the banging on the door as he was snorting his second line. He did the third and stood up as the door bust open. A cop put a gun to his wife’s head.

“Where the fuck is it?” he demanded.

His wife went into labor. He saw the ambulance coming down the street as the squad car took him away. From the first phone call he learned of the complications, from the second of a collapsed lung, from the third that the motherfucking doctor put the hose in the wrong way, collapsed the other lung and the baby died. Donny didn’t even know the sex, whether in its short life it was Donny Jr. or Elizabeth after his wife’s grandmother.

Shackled, wearing an orange suit, the muscles in his face constricted by shame, he tried to convey how he felt to his wife. It was the last time he had seen her. The last time he would if she knew better. We did, now, anyway.

We knew that everything that happened was our fault. This is what jail taught you, if you were paying attention, or even if you weren’t. Even someone like me who thought it was all happening to make a great book one day, I realized that my sweet young pretty wife had lost her husband, that the stress that caused the outbreak of her epilepsy was no accident. I was the driving wheel. And I had a life too I was missing.

One thing that was true was that I did not get high in there. Others did, but I had no money and nothing to trade. You could bum cigarettes, for awhile, but nothing more. When I got out I was clean. I walked through the brightly colored Chinatown night on a Saturday straight to the Narcotics Anonymous meeting on 2nd Avenue at 2nd St. For the first time it meant something to me. For a little while anyway.

An oldtimer shared about how hard it was for junkies in the old days. How they had to carry identification so if the cops rolled up on them in the street and found two or more together they were arrested.

“This is a meeting of addicts who have found a better way,” he said. That they were really clean was something I could never believe before.

I raised my hand and told them what had happened to me. I got phone numbers, a meal and even the offer of a place to live. I wish I could say that I never used drugs again after that. Well, to be honest, that’s a lie, because I still wanted to get high. And I would because I was too scared to try anything else plus it was still sweet and compelling to me. Like a bad girlfriend.

Download:

"Jail House Blues" mp3
by Lightnin' Hopkins, 1950.
available on Classic Sides: 1946-1951

"Fish In The Jailhouse" mp3
by Tom Waits, 2006.
available on Orphans, Brawlers & Bastards

"30 Days In The Hole" mp3
by Humble Pie, 1972.
available on Smokin'


top photograph: © Ted Barron
Southside Doorway, Brooklyn, New York, 1996.
(click on image to enlarge)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bent



The thing was that through everything that happened I kept writing and it was the first time in my life that I relinquished everything else. For good or ill I come from the school that believes that writing is neither a choice nor a career, but a solemn and ridiculous vocation. Whenever someone has given me something to read I have always done it as soon as possible and given my honest appraisal. This got me into some trouble in Hollywood but that’s a story for another day.

I was riding east on Houston when for whatever reason I swerved slightly to the left. The oncoming car, a Chrysler Caravan with a low scoop in front, did not see me. The car struck my rear wheel and shot me into the air above the intersection. I might have reached a height of fifteen feet and a distance of twice that before I came down sprawling and scrambling out of the way of the honking oncoming traffic into the gutter, where I belonged.

The East River is half a mile away, the southern tip of Manhattan Island and the great sea beyond less than a mile. Avenue A has always been the border between the real and the unreal, the border between the cool and uncool, the authentic and the decidedly bogus, the exact meeting point of latitude and longitude for every aspiring and neglected weirdo reading a fanzine, Rolling Stone or the Village Voice in some far flung provincial backwater; at least for the generation of artists I have known and lived among.

Now this is crucial. When I lost control of the handlebars, I was struck in the side of the head by their whirling metal, sans grips, and this must have been when the adjustment of my sensory perceptions occurred, when I was in the air. This is what occasioned the release of my mind in the high above. Picture someone in a parachute who is knocked unconscious while in the air by a passing great bird or something falling from the outer atmosphere, except even the parachutist has the purchase of the chute. Except that according to my recollection I never went out of consciousness: it was like another eye opened up, or something.

I would submit as well that height must not matter. I had nothing. My mind was altered and I was up in the air and 0ut of control: this is what I had been looking for my whole career as a stoner. It did not disappoint.

I had been researching my story, going to Times Square to look around, taking notes one night while on acid with the hippie where we started watching the hookers and the lonely men on Thanksgiving. At Jimmy's Corner Bar on 43rd a former prizefighter with the knuckles to prove it had a spread of turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes to salve the wayward souls of the men who had come there from their families. I had gone to the VA at the other end of Houston and found out about my ancestor August, the last man to be arrested in my family, the last felon, the last abandonist before me. I had found his last known address was somewhere along the Bowery, another on Times Square.

I had descended further into the Alphabet City we once knew and loved, and my book went with me and to my mind, it must have improved it. In the sense that it must have improved Dostoyevsky’s future work for him to stand on the dirt in the middle of the Peter and Paul’s fortress facing a firing squad, as it must have improved Melville’s work to bob in shark-infested waters beside a mammoth bleeding whale, as it must have improved Orwell’s work to wash all those dishes and take out the cigarettes extinguished in congealed cake frosting as I had in my first job. Whether it might have improved Burroughs work to shoot his wife in the head while drunk and then chase and bugger little Arab boys is work for someone with a sensibility monitor more greatly acute than mine but I would hope you get the point.

Thanks to the impact of the blow from the speeding vehicle, I had taken flight, like a bird whose brain is the size of a pea, like a fly whose eyes are bigger than its brain who can see everything but discern nothing. I was like the scrap of paper caught up in the wind. I and all of my aspirations had come to nothing and were part of everything, like the word that the Indians had for America before our great great grandfathers killed them all and put up all the fences.

Imagine the sensibility of Crazy Horse when he finally came into the reservation to be chained to a post like an animal, spit at until so greatly provoked and unleashed he was killed like some rabid dog. What must he have been thinking? That this happened on the same scrap of land where his grandfathers walked, where they had massacred the yellow-haired colonel’s cavalry and left them sprawled and gory on the dirt hills above the Little Bighorn River in the hopes they would all go away and leave them alone, as it had been for thousands of years.

When I was a graduate student at Hunter College I had the occasion to visit the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, the Fifth Avenue branch with the famous lions out front. I signed in and was handed a box which I unwrapped and found within Kerouac’s nickel notebooks from traveling in Mexico. From reading this I learned that voice comes from landscape + subject matter. You tell the story and take notes of physical impressions.

Since then I have written in the same notebooks. You can still get them for less than a dollar. Even bodegas carry them. You can store them in any of your pockets with a pen and whip them out anywhere. What I learned was to start writing down the story and then find places that you can see and write down what they look like. The imagery of physical things will carry whatever sort of lies you can think up.

When I landed, I was attended chiefly by the driver of said van. He came to my aid, helping me across the intersection to where he had parked. He was a blond haired man, maybe 32, with a fudgy build, who looked destined to sell real estate or insurance, a future scoutmaster who had not yet discovered his calling.

In the back of the van I spied a copy of the Narcotics Anonymous basic text and was hit with an undeniable spate of dopefiend inspiration. I realized in the flash of an instant that if I played it right in moments this man would make it possible for me to get high that day.

“Is there anything I can do for you,” he asked. It was like I was pulling a string to his tongue.

“You’re trying to get clean too?” I parleyed, gesturing coolly at the blue-covered book on his back seat. A little abashed, he admitted he was having a hard time getting any time together.

“What’s your pleasure?” I asked, as knowing and world weary as possible.

“Pills,” he said.

“That’s a tough one.”

“Tell me about it,” he nodded and shrugged. It was really cold that day and we could see our breath in front of us as we stood there. He had pulled over upon impact backing into a parking spot a few feet from the front of Katz Deli and Ludlow Street. I was looking in that direction and thinking of what cop spots might be open early. One of my favorites was on Eldridge below Delancey, only moments away.

“There’s a lot of good meetings around here,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve been hitting them mostly in Jersey. This is a bad neighborhood for me. I envy anyone who can stay clean around here.”

“It ain’t easy,” I nodded.

I was walking a very fine line. The thing was to get the money from him without lying. And the other thing was that I had been going to meetings again.

I could never put more than two days together, but you could get food there, cookies and coffee with the occasional after-meeting dinner paid for by the crowd; and there were kind, pretty women who would listen to your tale of woe, look for your eyes as you looked away and make you feel like when and if you decided to come back and rejoin the human race there might be a welcome place to fall. Honestly, it was all that was keeping my body and soul together.

I looked at my bicycle, dragged out of the gutter with me, he had picked it up and laid it against his car. He looked at it with me, his neck pulled marionette-like by the string I held.

“The thing is the frame is bent and the front wheel too.”

“What’s it going to cost? I can pay for it.”

“Shit I hate to ask you, man.”

“It’s the right thing,” he said and I was nodding. He was already reaching for his wallet.

“Seventy-five, I guess. For the frame and the wheel.”

He counted out the money, three twenties, a ten and a five. At least five bags, a pack of cigarettes and money left over in my pocket. Any good junkie street person slash writer should be able to last a week on that. It might last me a few hours if I was lucky. It was transporting to stand there, to take his money, in all good conscience, dazed as I was, blood on my temple.

I shook his hand.

“Maybe we’ll see each other at a meeting some time.”

“Yeah man, easy does it.”

I watched him get in his car and drive away toward the Holland Tunnel, I thought about locking the mangled bike to a street sign, but I was never going to fix it, so I left it in the gutter and headed over to Delancey Street to see a man about some horse.

Download:

"Bike" mp3
by Pink Floyd, 1967,
available on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

"Trust" mp3
by The Pretty Things, 1968.
available on S.F. Sorrow

"Big Sky" mp3
by The Kinks, 1968.
available on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

"The Journey" mp3
by The Small Faces, 1968.
available on Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake

"Flying" mp3
by The Beatles, 1967.
available on Magical Mystery Tour

photograph:
Houston Steet, New York City 1985.
(click on image to enlarge)
© Ted Barron


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hurricane



The intersection of Avenue A and Houston Street is the meeting place of four very distinct and disparate worlds. To the southeast are the river side projects, the bridges and the sea beyond, to the southwest the old Lower East Side, that in the first great wave of American immigration held a population denser than Calcutta, to the northeast Alphabet City where we freaks ruled and no law but survival was respected; and to the northwest lay what we thought of as the rest of NYC and the world.

Once on my bicycle I was hit by a speeding car in the middle of the intersection and from the force of the blow, I was separated from the bicycle and took flight over the intersection.

In the resulting concussion, time split open and exploded like a pod burst open with seeds and the seeds were my memories and impressions, I saw my whole life and the lives of everyone that who had made me who I am in fine relief in front of my eyes, not as if I were going to die, but as if I were going to live. I saw the past, present and future in all their dimensions all at once.

I held the trapdoor single shot rifle with bayonet that my first American ancestor had used to gut three separate Indians on a single day in the frontier Montana territory that was not yet part of the United States, but that was always America, the name the Cheyenne Indian Chief American Horse had given to himself, his horse and the land. Were not they all one thing? Before the bastards came to take it away.

My great grandfather was not strictly a bastard in that sense. My great grandfather was named George like my dad and his dad before him. George the 1st wasn’t really an orphan, or a bastard. He was a fatherless child. He knew his father as a spectre, as a drunken voice, smelling of liquor and cursing. Having a hard time keeping a job. Quick to say things like:

"Why don’t you just go on to hell?"

He had seen things and done things out in the Indian country again, with the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne that when he came home and had three kids and a family he could not hold it all at once. His family was a rain storm that grew to a hurricane when he tried to love it.

The first George knew August, his father, better than the other kids because he was five or maybe six when August, his father left for good. I can imagine what my great grandfather knew of his father because I was about that age when George the 1st passed on, in 1968. George the 1st for fifty years served as caretaker for a historic mansion in New Jersey that at different times during the revolutionary years was held by English gentry, Scottish renegades and finally the nascent Jersey government. Maybe because he was fatherless my great grandfather kept a tight house.

He required lunch at noon every day, with freshly baked bread and the classical music station on the radio. He raised prize chickens and he grew roses in the garden of the Buccleuch Mansion. The roses are still there many years later, though the mansion is mostly forgotten, open seasonally for a couple hours on Sundays.

It is still on the historic register and maintained by the city of New Brunswick, overlooking the mighty Raritan River, behind the grounds of the old part of Rutgers University campus, where my uncle was the first of us to go to college in my family. Uncle Dave put himself through Rutgers and joined the Navy afterward. He had his own father to escape.

Forgive me these digressions. The roses will last forever and go wild. What else remains is a sundial, maybe from the old Englishmen, or from some of the renegade Scottish Enniskillen Dragoons.

The funny thing is that August, when he was drunk and didn’t want to go home, when the great house was without a keeper, would join other vagabonds who slept on the grounds. He slept in the 200 year old rose garden, under the elm trees overlooking the riverside, in the dale by the creek, but never inside, as others did. His son was hired to keep drunks like his own father out.

“There’s a lesson you can learn about America in that," my grandmother told us, when we were kids. She wanted to help us to get along as men in the country where we lived, as George the 1st had when he showed us how to fold the American flag. He was patriotic in a way that I suspect his father, the war veteran, never was. He never left home in the way that his father could never stay.

August became an American citizen by enlisting in the army. My older brother Dave, carrying on the tradition, is an American Colonel, veteran of two desert wars. A commander in the town where Hussein was unearthed from his spider hole, he survived three different IED attacks. He doesn’t have to go back anymore because his back is wrecked, though you wouldn’t know it from seeing him walk. That’s how we are.

We are also incapable of controlling our feelings which is something of why I believe my great grandfather took counsel in things that required discipline. Like the chickens, like the Christian Scientist faith he adopted, and like the sundial he consulted faithfully. It was a steel slab of raw metal molded in the shape of the sun, facing north, and set on a stand that caught the light of the sun and cast a shadow that told the time perfectly every single day. It still does, it will as long as it stands.

My great grandfather showed this to me, my older brother and our younger brother Steve, who was barely three and will be forgiven for not remembering. My curse and my joy is to remember everything.

I describe the sundial because for me it somehow evokes what I saw of the world from above the intersection that day. There is a point everyday when the sun hits the dial just right and there is no shadow. Time becomes vertical, the past, present and future are cast up in the sky.

It was barely after dawn on a weekday. On a cold cold day. In a few moments I would come to my senses and dopefiend the driver of the car out of money. A matter of hours after that I would be arrested in the same firm where I had worked with distinction in the past. I was arrested for trespassing, for breaking and entering, though I had walked into an unlocked office as my great great grandfather had walked onto the grounds of the Buccleuch Mansion. His only crime was vagabondage. I would be dragged bodily from the building, still quite out of my head from the morning’s blow and held for a photograph, flash, as was my great grandfather on his wedding day. It is the only one that exists of him.

He had a glint in his gray eyes, our family hair line and forehead, a strong chin and a corduroy suit. I would spend the night in a holding cell like where drunks are thrown to sleep it off, taken downtown in a police cruiser where virtually twenty four hours later I passed through the same intersection where the wreck had occurred.

"You won’t believe this?” I said to the officer not driving. “But I’ve been here before.” He looked nicer than the other one.

“Sure you have.”

“No, yesterday. That’s what started all this.”

“What started all this, maybe you better check out, is that you’re a goddamn dopefiend.”

“Look, you can still see the mark on my forehead.”

I ended up in the tombs and got sentenced to thirty days, and when I finally got to my cell I thought of August and what it must have felt like to touch the tawny backs of his kids’ necks and think of dead Indians. Believe it or not, it’s the truth, and it's the vortex eye center of the story before you, friend.

Download:

"Expecting To Fly" mp3
by Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
available on Buffalo Springfield Again

"Broken Arrow" mp3
by Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
available on Buffalo Springfield Again

"Like A Hurricane" mp3
by Neil Young, 1977.
available on American Stars 'N Bars

photograph: © Ted Barron
White Bicycle, New York City, 1985.
click on image to enlarge

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sucking Icicles



Have you ever ridden the J train and looked out the window late on one of those cold winter nights when everything is shades of black and the stars are out with the whole city outlined by the faint reflection of your own face; everything is frozen, the river has stopped and you can see the lightest sheen of ice on its surface and above the dark water reflected in it the city sits like a great crystal palace? You can see the Brooklyn Bridge and the ice hangs off its cables like the ice that hung from old Walt Whitman’s beard when he crossed the river on the ferry for they say the old man of American letters always had a passion for crossing rivers even when ice floes floated by the barges and his words hung in the air before his face from their heat.

The spire of the Empire State building is an icicle, the Chrysler building a silver skater’s giant blade in the north sky and for just a moment you know that you were put on this earth just to see this and nothing more and it is enough. You don’t have to save the world and the wind howls your mother’s name and the story of the children, three of them that you will be the parent of one day and you will be able to sit on a porch with all of them on your lap and it will be summer and the breeze will cool your brow and the woman you love will come to you with water and wet your lips with her kiss.

The next morning I awoke in Williamsburg with my bicycle walking past a bodega with the door open and all the windows fogged the radio is playing the news and the announced temperature is officially ten degrees. No money for the train and without the heart to hoist the bicycle over the turnstile I decide to walk back over the bridge. The slush from the day before has frozen with everyone’s footsteps cratered in the ice, hard shoe prints, even one boot frozen lost in the slush you can hear the suction sound it made and the drunken laughing of the mad cold footed sojourner who gave up the shoe for lost and left it to freeze as you realize helplessly why would anyone do this.

It was impossible to ride the bicycle over this odd once in a lifetime terrain. The crossing took an hour. The wind is never harder than on a high suspension bridge over a North American sea bound river. My hair froze from sweating and tiny icicles grew in my nose, but the view down the gray river was superb all the way to Queens.

At nine a.m. in the bustling crowd of Delancey Street, I walked by a young Jewish man with beard, yarmulke, and ear curls holding a bank deposit bag. My eyes welded to the bag with heat that could melt metal. The man saw me looking at him and furtively he tugged it up under his shoulder. With all my life’s heart and ambition I wished to grab that bag from him and run through the crowd as he chased me among the multitudes knocking over a fruit cart in my imagination like my indigent immigrant Scottish grandfather Hamilton might have except he would never have done anything like that and that’s where something happened that I am trying to describe here.

“But you couldn’t, could you?”

“No.”

“That’s good, man.”

I was standing at the cop spot talking to some guy I used to see there. He never got more than a chippie. He never had enough money to get anything more. His name was Brackett and his ambition was to be an actor. He put on plays with the New Theatre that no one understood and said that was the point. He was good looking with long brown hair and a beautiful girlfriend, he could have had Hollywood but he would rather put on plays in parking lots under the bridges. He told me they were doing one later.

“When it gets dark.”

“Under the bridge?”

I told him about the frozen crossing and he laughed out loud. He had just done a bag as I was walking up and he had no money either. I told him about how I felt about the man and his money. I was suspended between right and wrong. I had left who I was and I didn’t know what I was going to become.

"I don't know when I might make it over there y'see." I was sweating and I was scared, pale, even for the cold. He could see that and wanted to help.

He lit a cigarette. His eyes were pinned and I wanted them. I wanted to take his eyes from his skull and put them in mine if with them I could see the frozen solid world that the dope had given him.

“Suspended is a good word.”

“But it's abstract, I still think you need a metaphor you need something physical you can see, touch and feel and maybe a really evocative image.”

That’s when I thought of the bridge and told him about the view from the window. But he had not been there.

“You couldn’t have opened it anyway.”

“You think?”

“I know. Those bags are impossible to open without a key, man. Try to come to the performance,” he said and he gave me a cigarette, walking off. He had seen the way I was looking at his eyes and I think that spooked him, but I could be wrong about that. I could be wrong about anything.

“At least you’re not a criminal,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

If he only knew what I wanted to do with his eyes, I thought and I leaned back against a brick wall. It was painted with a colorful mural, greens, blues, reds and yellows of springtime in Los Dominica and you could have seen me standing there if you walked by with the smoke from my cigarette frozen in time and space. It partly obscured my face in one frame of the photograph you didn’t take of me that day. If you had I would have it to show my children on the porch that golden day.

It’s that corner of Houston and Avenue B where they used to have works for sale.

“Clean works,” the barker called, as if when his mother patted her belly with that special gleam in her eye on the el train from Brooklyn riding to her ball bearing factory job when they still had such things on the great isle of the Manhattoes tribe that sold it to the likes of Herman Melville’s father-in-law, Gansevoort’s the name, as if this is what the barker’s mother dreamed he was born to do.

I stood there smoking like a faint fire flashing on the two or three other times I had crossed on to the frozen bridge that divides right and wrong. I had found a bank statement in our mailbox once addressed to a man named John Jonah Hechtmann. When I opened it there was a balance of some hundred dollars. I went to the Citibank south of Bleecker past the great statue of LaGuardia intent on committing fraud.

Another time in the same mailbox I found a check for one of my colleagues in my mailbox. Often I went to the check cashing storefront around the block and the proprietor had stopped asking me for identification. I realized all I had to do was sign the check. I became a petty larcenist and passed bad checks in my ex-wife’s name.

I was unable to take the bank bag from the son of the shop owner. My sense of right and wrong was suspended somewhere above the river. The bridge was frozen over. It is possible to ride back and forth on the trains all night with one single token even without if you jump and never get anywhere. On the other side of the bridge awaited the vision of the sunny porch and the three children, it would be a long time before I got to the other side.

Brackett’s play that night was underneath the Manhattan Bridge on Catherine Street. It was freezing and you could hear the wind howling as it whipped off the East River and swooped down that narrow lane under the great steel and concrete columns. Someone had built a bonfire and you could see it reflected in Brackett’s eyes as he danced and chanted. People stood in the middle of the street, reciting lines of Shakespeare. A pretty woman in a corner sang an aria from La Boheme. Construction workers in yellow hardhats walked on and off the street stage carrying ladders and shaking their heads. The vulgar pigeons watched from a girder. For a moment it was almost possible for me to believe that it was my life and I was there.

Download:

"In A Misty Morning" mp3
by Gene Clark, 1972
available on Roadmaster

"Tried So Hard" mp3
by Gene Clark
available on Echoes

"Gene Clark" mp3
by The Teenage Fanclub, 1993.
available on Thirteen

photograph:
Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, New York, 1997.

© Ted Barron

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Dolls of Avenue B




We worshipped at the spangled feet of pagan idols. Like Frankie, a knockout who worked the bulletproof window at an after hours coke cop-spot on Avenue B. Frankie had a collection of New York Dolls she had made out of Barbie’s with red, black and blond wigs, glittered boots, splash-painted sequin Sgt. Pepper coats, scale size cardboard guitars, drumsticks and a microphone stand with bluebird feathers. She set them up every night on the counter behind the glass where we stuck in our grimy twenties hoping for an interested glance from Sweet Frankie.

Rumor had it she was a trust fund intrigue, a sophomore year runaway from Sarah Lawrence, or the direct descendant of Pocohontas and John Smith. She had eyelashes as light as hummingbird’s wings and a voice and attitude like Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe when she took Gary Cooper off the street and saved his life. We all wanted her to swoop in and save ours.

Until she began to disintegrate before our eyes. The first thing to go is always the light in the eyes, then the clothes are sold from the sidewalk on Friday night on Avenue A and it’s only a matter of time. No one could last in a gig like that anyway, under the thumb and sick depraved whim of some scary scar-faced Columbian ex-boxer turned dealer for her dope. She disappeared one night she just wasn’t there anymore. It was a game we all played to lose. I saw the dolls a few times after she was gone, then they disappeared too. You wonder what happened to them. You wonder, what happened to all the New York Dolls of Avenue B?

Another pagan idol was this fellow I used to see on my way to work at my first job at the City University of New York. I had an eight o’clock class and the campus is down on Chambers Street near City Hall. He looked awful. Often shouting drunk, he belligerently accosted passersby for money. A big guy with blond hair and google-eyed glasses, he spit as he spoke and one of his feet had been hacked off very badly halfway down the arch and it had not healed properly. God only knows how it happened. Maybe he had done it himself with an axe in a fit of self-loathing. He appeared to be very addled in a way that went very far beyond the drunkenness. He was a scary and weird idiot savant and many people walked out in the street to go around him as he sat there on West Broadway or propped up on the brick wall. Brother was in bad shape.

He wore a wooden cross on a leather thong around his neck. By afternoon he would pass out sleeping loudly, breathing through his nose. Then in the afternoon he lurched to his feet and took a second shift, haranguing the evening rush hour crowd. The city was filled with a lot more freaks in the old days, they had just cleaned out all the old asylums and only later did the police department make a policy of taking weirdoes off the streets. Who knows what happened to them all. I spoke to this man a few times but he never answered in anything but his guttural monster voice.

I used him as a character in a novel I was writing at the time, I called Barefoot in Hell. It told the story of an American Indian novelist who becomes the rage, loses his soul and ends up trying to kill his agent. The agent was based on Robert Wylie, who I never met but had read about. He was the one who got the million dollar advances for writers like Rushdie, Amis and others and in the process ruined their careers. Well, they made a lot of money but they were no longer the artists they had been.

Who after all can write a novel to fulfill a million dollar advance upon request? One does not follow the other. Take it from me. I never made a million but the money I did make eventually was always looking over my shoulder, and it forever changed what I was trying to do. It’s hard to write looking over your shoulder. It’s a big nut for little squirrels like us to carry.

Anyway the novelist in my book hires this homeless madman who I named Billy Sunday to scare his agent. Instead he axe murders him. Or something like that. It was more of an idea than a fully formed project and I soon lost the thread and began to write what became Times Square. Things had gotten pretty uh… wide open for me. I had told Julie about all the drugs but I could not stop yet.

I had stopped seeing the Idiot bartendress and just wandered the streets high and long, looking for what I had lost somewhere along the way. I would go home or not and Julie let me be with the tacit understanding that I was going away sooner or later. She did not give me any more money and I did not steal anymore from her. Whatever I got to support my habit I got from ripping off dealers and boosting books and selling them on the street. She wanted me to seek help, I could just as well have died, but she would be free soon and more importantly we were both too emotionally and physically exhausted to deal anymore with the reality of my drug addiction and madness.

The novelist in my book was based on the celebrated writer Jet Boy Jealous, the youngest of my generation to enjoy any real and lucrative success. I met him one night early in this period when I was still a worthy escort and Julie and I went to MK on Broadway where I read in William Norwich’s New York Post column that he was throwing a party for a first-time novelist.

This fellow’s name is lost to history but I do remember that he was living on a boat in Venice Beach. It was the kind of thing that made good jacket copy. Julie knew the bass player for a band that was playing downstairs so we got in for free. I sought out the party promoter in house and he invited us upstairs. First we had to wait for the principals to finish dinner. On the second floor we sat on the stairs like little kids at the adults’ party, watching. For a wannabe writer like me it was like looking at a holograph of the last supper with Jesus and the apostles in attendance. Jet Boy Jealous was there with his best friend and fellow novelist Frat Sibalant. On either side sat the brilliant nouveau editors Gary Fisketjohn and Morgan Entrekin. Donna Tartt sat nearby looking odd, brilliant and ignored by the men.

Later upstairs I was introduced to the editor who was looking at my book. He had sent me a kind note that entreated me to, Keep writing. It was the most encouragement I had ever known. Tonight he was drunk.

“You’re looking at my novel?”

“What’s your name?” he asked. “I must look at fifty things a day.”

I told him the title. He looked at me blearily. He didn’t remember.

“You said you liked it and to keep writing.”

“I did?”

“Yes, I am almost done with the second part.”

“That’s great,” he said. “I say that to everyone. I am glad it was encouraging.”

I walked away with the body weight and carriage of a deflated balloon. Jet Boy Jealous was a lot nicer.

“I will read your work,” he told me. “Just drop it by my house.”

He was the inspiration for the character in the book I had given him to read. Some might call that balls, but it was closer to a psychotic break. For the days before I escaped to Times Square to kick he was all I had to connect me with the real world. He met me at the Coffee Shop which at the time was new, very chic and an actual gathering place for models and cool men about town like Jet Boy. He bought me lunch and talked to me about my work.

At the time he was just going through the nightmare that became the enormous success of his second novel. The story of Wall Streeter who goes mad, tortures women on the side while at the same time making a lot of money for himself and his bosses. It was rejected and deemed unfit for his first publisher which interestingly enough became my first publisher three lives later. It was later published and made into a movie helping to singlehandedly initiate the period where fame and artistic achievement became indistinguishable and rendering the whole art thing a moot point.

Jet was as embarrassed about the whole situation as anyone else. He caught a lot of shit for what he wrote, but I would argue until this day that he was one of the last of us to attempt to write honestly about what the hell we were all doing to the world. He had a lot to vent about.

“It is a ghastly book, Jet.”

“I know.”

“You have to have known the reaction might be intense.”

“I really never did,” he said and took a deep breath. He told me what I needed to hear about my own work.

“It’s overwritten, man. You’re trying too hard to sound like a writer.”

“Anton didn’t like it either.”

“He’s an asshole. He’s angry because his own work sucks.”

“He writes?”

“A lot of editors do but it’s a bad practice; it just makes them angry.”

“What should I do?”

He shrugged his shoulders and gracefully ordered us a couple more beers. I would always just order mushroom soup and bread, ashamed to spend his money. He finished chewing. “Didn’t you say you were writing something new?” I nodded and pulled a few stained and ragged sheets of paper from my coat. It was cold as hell outside and snowing. I had not been home for a week. My fingers were chapped and left fresh blood-smears on the pages. Jet Boy harrumphed sympathetically as I unfolded it. Before I had finished reading the second page he interrupted.
“That’s what you should be writing!”

“You think so?”

“Definitely.” He nodded, drinking, burping lightly with the consummate grace and politeness with which he did everything.

“Should I go to Times Square?”

“Yes.”

My third idol called me out of the blue. “I’ve been arrested,” my cousin Joe told me. “I’m moving to LA.”

“Have you uh… thought this over.”

“I’ll be at Port Authority tonight at midnight.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

Joe went to LA, hit the streets upon arrival and he has to this day never recovered. He’s still getting high, even with his kids approaching high school age and it makes you sad. I didn’t see Jet Boy again for almost five years after I had gone to hell and back. He ended up helping me a lot with my work and I named him in the acknowledgements of my first book. Joe was like my twin brother. Our moms were identical twins and we were born within a year of each other. He was a natural and could hit a baseball, climb a tree or jump into a river without thinking about it. I was always the self-conscious one. That night we got drunk on Jack Daniels and I said farewell to him in the bus station as he walked off in his Yankees hat carrying only a plastic Playmate cooler with a foil-wrapped T-bone he had taken from his mother’s refrigerator.

Download:

"Cheree" mp3
by Suicide, 1978.
available on Suicide

"Fear Is A Man's Best Friend"
mp3
by John Cale, 1974.
available on Fear

"Jet Boy" mp3
by The New York Dolls, 1973.
available on New York Dolls

"Ten Dollar Bill" mp3
by Cop Shoot Cop, 1993.
Live - East of Bowery

Photograph: © Ted Barron
East Houston Street, New York City, 1987
(click image to enlarge)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

MIA





Ask 100 people what was the spark that caused the bloodshed between police and citizens in the Tompkins Square riots of 1988 and you will probably get 100 different answers. The park had become an open-air homeless shelter and squat. The Avenue A Merchants Association felt that this attracted the wrong element and demanded that the police set a curfew. The police came in on the 31st of July and again on August 6. My favorite comes from Mark Ashwill who was at the time drummer for the band Missing Foundation. This band was known for its haunting tag which depicted an upside-down champagne glass and was spray-painted all over the neighborhood. Mark’s band was playing when the police came to clear the park.


“I did not stop drumming until they pulled me off the stage,” he said. He fought against a policeman for his drums, a shoving match on stage until he and the rest of the band were overwhelmed.


“It was chaos after that,” he said. The bandshell has no opening in the back and Mark was trapped there at the very beginning of the riot that ensued. Hundreds of people were in the park and hundreds more police tried to evict them. A melee ensued. Melee (from the French mêlée: generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual.


“This was what we were about,” Mark said. “This was the best show we ever played.” I would meet Mark years later when he was clean. This was when he wasn’t.

In fact I was at the show but when things got ugly I split, going to the circle bar right outside the southeast exit of the park on 7th St. where we had an open shot and a beer triage for anyone who came in with blood on them. It was a great big weird party in there. The cop spots stayed open late and I went back and forth a couple times on runs for myself and others.



The clash did not end until the next morning at six a.m. Passersby were assaulted by both police and protestors and drawn in the chaotic fray. Rubbish and bottles were thrown from the rooftops of nearby buildings. According to Wikipedia 38 people, including reporters and police suffered injuries. Nine people were arrested on riot, assault and other charges, six complaints of police brutality were logged.

Mark later became the singer for a band called The Spitters. One of the first times I attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting after coming back to the city, he played me a tape of his band. Later I saw them play at CBGB’s, Continental Divide, Friday’s and other clubs. At CB’s I was living in Jersey, my first time staying clean for any time and I brought some friends from the meetings over there. Mark kicked over our table during the first song and we ran for shelter into the mosh pit further back. Their shows always dissolved into mayhem. A girl came on stage and broke a beer bottle over Mark’s head. He swung from the speaker cabinets and leaped onto the crowd. But that was later.


Maybe we were the last generation that came of age believing pop music mattered, that it defined us somehow, that it was something like church must have been for people many years ago. Every squat had a band and nearly every band had a squat. We didn’t really believe anymore that someone singing into a microphone could change the world, as maybe many of our older brothers and sisters had, but we did believe that if it couldn’t, then the singing helped. In those days, in our neighborhood, it still mattered. We liked to rock.


The first Tompkins Square riot took place in 1874 when thousands of unemployed New Yorkers protested and clashed with police. In 1991 when hundreds of us protested against the Persian Gulf War in Times Square, we were chased by police all the way downtown. I remember getting on a train to go home from the Delancey Street stop. Many of us who came to live or play in the East Village were attracted by the potential for chaos. We sought it out. We thrived on it. We were interested in the breaking down of American society. We broke down our consciousness with drugs and our physical well being with more. We let our art and our lives stand as metaphors for the breakdown we saw taking place in American society.


In the 1970’s and well into the 80’s and early 90’s hundreds of people lined up to buy heroin from storefront and corner dealers. The police kept their distance or some of them took a cut; many of them got caught up in the same shit that we did. There were dozens of squats in the neighborhood below 14th Street and East of Broadway with the highest concentration in Alphabet City.



It didn't start with us. An old junkie I met in Jersey told me he had lived on East 6th Street in the 60’s when dope was two dollars a bag.

There were all kinds of crash pads and places where kids went to get away from their parents, away from it all. A lot of us never went back. Abbie Hoffman lived in the East Village and in his apartment on St. Mark’s held the first meetings to plan protests during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. The Yippies had a meeting house on Bleecker Street just a few hundred feet from where CBGB’s opened a decade later.



The longest continuously meeting NA meeting is across the street and upstairs. Before 1979 addicts were not allowed legally to meet on the street. They carried ID cards with their pictures on them and if one or more were caught congregating they were carted off to jail.


When my first NA sponsor left the army during the Vietnam war and decided to go underground, he met a contact at the War Resistors League on Lafayette Street and was put up in a safe house on St. Marks a block down from the Electric Circus. A few months after the World Trade Towers fell he sat at a table in Café Orlin and reminisced with my wife and pointed up at where the building had stood right across the street.

“My mother made me quit the army,” he told us. A lot of the neighbor boys started coming home in boxes. Whenever the FBI came to the house to look for me, she would yell at them and chase them away."


When I was a little kid visiting my grandmother in New Jersey my cousins and I would take day trips into the city on the bus. Later when we came home we would compete in telling my grandmother all the crazy things we saw. We were saddened by the bag ladies and wowed by the tallest buildings but the stories that always won the day were of spontaneous moments of grace.

"You climb up on to the rooftop to get a little closer to the sky.”

Some people have this in their blood. Others are smart enough not to go up there or if they do they take the proper precautions. One of the first nights I went out with Ingalill I was still living with Mark Zero who had video tapes of the riots that he kept in his freezer. They were destroyed when the police condemned his building in 1995. They were not allowed to go back in. That night I tried to tell Ingalill what it was like to do heroin. She wanted to know because her brother had fallen into using out in LA. Later he joined the army, fought in Iraq eventually came home and had a family. I told her how wonderful it felt, using the rooftop analogy.

She wrinkled her nose. “But it can kill you,” she said.


From Zero I met the legendary East Village figure Rockets Redglare. Everyone knew Rockets and he remembered everyone. He had been a bouncer at CB’s, The Mudd Club and Max’s in their heyday.


"Anywhere you wanted, Rockets could get you in."


Later he achieved a near unbelieveable neighborhood trifecta: movie actor, Basquiat's bodyguard and Sid Vicious' dope connection.

When I knew him he had ballooned to over 300 pounds, he drank and was on methadone. the summer I worked the door at the Lakeside Lounge, he drank for free. His skin looked terrible and his jaw had that spasm thing that long-term Methadonians get. Still he always remembered my name though I only met him a few times. He talked like he cared about what happened to me. He was like that with each and every person that he met and there are not many people like that.


One night I came out my bedroom at Zero’s apt on the corner of Clinton and Stanton, to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and there was Rockets, in all his pale white naked glory, stretched out on the floor reading The Alienist. The building is gone, but in the East Village that lives in each of us, Rockets and many others, brilliant shining freaks all, light the sky.

Download:

"Kick Out The Jams" mp3
by The MC5, 1968.
available on Kick Out the Jams

"Street Fighting Man" mp3
by The Rolling Stones, 1968.
available on Beggars Banquet

"Poet" mp3
by Sly and the Family Stone, 1971.
available on There's a Riot Goin' On

"This Is My Country" mp3
by The Impressions, 1968.
available on The Anthology 1961-1977

"Teen Age Riot" mp3
by Sonic Youth, 1988.
available on Daydream Nation

"White Riot"
(single version) mp3
by The Clash, 1977.
available on The Clash (U.S. Version)

Photograph: Bus Stop, Avenue A, New York City, 1988.
© Ted Barron (click on image to enlarge)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Backdoor Saint


Ringo Heretic was the most successful writer that I knew on a personal basis. He was working on a novel. He cut a very impressive figure. On ABC No Rio Sundays I remember he read from a section about a tragically hip, and…hot waitress. She was calling to him for help on the telephone. Eventually I would call on Heretic for help myself. His work was so self-consciously cool that it gave you chills. I was naïve enough to buy the whole pose hook, line and sinker. He had a motorcycle and long, stiletto sideburns, German pale blond hair and complexion, and something of the concentration camp commandant in his aspect. In his work and in his persona he gave off the aura of someone who had been through the whole East Village drug scene and come out the other side. He wore a golf cap with a Valium emblem.

15 years later I found a copy of his abandoned novel, water-stained and fouled by vermin carcasses and droppings under the sink of my own apartment. There was something crawling in the pages and I was so startled that I dropped it on the floor and stomped no less than three times, later shaking out an enormous hairy and multicolored centipede from the pages into my trash receptacle. Evidently he and my ex-roommate had been close friends. What a small world we inhabited. We thought it was so big.

Ringo Heretic organized readings at the St. Mark’s Church, a historic space with a dramatic and ancient graveyard on 2nd Avenue between 10th and 11th, and this was how many of us little mice were able to brush up against the big cat literary luminaries of the East Village. Corso, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Jim Carroll all came there to read. Anyone that was alive enough to prop against the lectern. Heretic had announced an event on the night of my initiation. It was really crowded out in front of the church and all the neighborhood freaks were out. I had copped a couple bags before walking uptown and did half of one across the street. Outside an older man with white hair sat on a blanket with a pile of paperback books. He caught my eye as I stood in the long line and motioned me over.

“Hey kid,” he asked. “How would you like to get in free?”
“Tell me.”

He explained that he was selling copies of his poetry collections and if I bought one he would be happy to get me in. I looked at the cover and saw the name Peter Orlovsky. This was Allen Ginsberg’s lover of thirty years selling books outside the event. Maybe I should not have, but I felt sorry for him. Anyway I had not yet begun to spend all the money I had on dope so I bargained him down to five bucks. He pointed behind him to a back door at the other end of the graveyard.

“Just walk in?”
He nodded.

Once inside I went upstairs. It was weird. Just as I went into the bathroom, a kid of not more than fourteen walked gingerly out of one of the stalls. He had a terribly glazed look, like someone had licked all the milk off of his fresh face. He was followed by one of the oldest, most wizened looking men I have ever seen. The good student that I was, I quickly realized that he was the one and only Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler who had used Ginsberg’s Columbia apartment as a stash drop for his larcenies back in the 40’s. Both had been arrested, I believe; Ginsberg landed back in the nuthouse and Huncke upstate in prison.

I just remember being freaked out that the kid was so young. I went into the stall they had vacated and sniffed the other half of the bag of dope. A few moments later, I stood in the back of the grand theater space as Gregory Corso read from his famous poem, Marriage. All of the faces in the great room glittered. Later Ginsberg sung and accompanied himself on some sort of primitive guitar- like instrument.

Weeks later I showed up unannounced at his office on Union Square. It was in the same building as Julie’s design agency job. On the downstairs directory his name was misspelled as Ginsburg and Assoc., like a Jewish law firm. I walked up the fourteen flights of stairs stopping along the way to do lines of blow off flat surfaces, windowsills, stairs and the metal tops to fire hose containers. By the time I reached his floor I was sweating, talking quite loud and very fast. When his door opened I directed some of my verbal fusillade in the great poet’s direction, pressing a flyer in his palm and inviting him to attend a reading I was giving from my novel at an art gallery in Soho. Ginsberg, as anyone who knew him would tell you, was a big sweetheart. He was also very famously fond of earnest young men like myself.

“It’s my sixtieth birthday,” he told me. He went on to explain that he was trying to concentrate a little more on his own writing.

“My God, that is exactly what you should do!” I shouted.

I went on to compare his work to Walt Whitman’s and raced on about any number of other quite irrelevant asides. He nodded graciously, scribbled his phone number on a page of my notebook and slowly closed the door. I probably never stopped talking. Somewhere I am quite sure that some version of me is still doing blow off some odd surface in that stairwell and talking out loud to the dust.

My mother did attend that reading. She recorded it for my grandmother who was my greatest booster as a writer and New Yorker but at that time too feeble to attend. The reading went great. Afterward my sweet innocent mother who graciously lent me twenty five dollars for the occasion accompanied me, Julie and some friends to Life Café. This was a boho joint with tattooed waitresses on the edge of Tompkins Square Park which in just a few weeks would explode in a police riot. I did not eat much, but I did slip out on the pretext of going to the bathroom and spend my mother’s money on coke and dope.

Later as she dozed on the couch at the other end of the apartment, a few feet from Julie in our bed, I sat at the kitchen table and snuffled drugs, too “excited” to sleep. There exists a photograph of mother and I at the Life Café. She is dressed in white and the light shines on her; I am dressed in shades of black, skeletal, my facial features twisted into a hideous smile. She looks like an angel, and I do not. In my mind it was a triumphant night, to read my work before the public on such an occasion. Only from her eyes (they look like two moist puddles of blue) does one sense how worried she was about her middle son and only in my own is suggested how hard I was working to hide the reality of the situation from my own heart. My grandmother listened to the audio tape made for her but my voice came out too garbled to be understood.

Within weeks I ran into Heretic on the subway. I made a date with him.
“I need to talk to you about, uh…drugs.”
He nodded and smiled with superciliousness, as if he had been waiting for me to bring this up.
“Meet me at the Washington Square Coffee Shop, tomorrow morning.”

That night after Julie went to sleep, I slipped out and spent the night handing out copies of a novel chapter on the dance floor of the Limelight, another historic church, turned into a nightclub. It had been published in a now defunct East side broadsheet. When I ran out of copies I went into the Ladies bathroom where I chatted up the attendant and told her my ambitions and the problems I was having with drugs and my wife. No one really looked askance at my presence there. Those were the days. When I wanted to get high, I went into a stall in the adjoining men’s room. The Ladies room attendant had blonde hair and beautifully full lips. Her lipstick sparkled and I stayed there until closing, talking fast and staring at her lips, at her skin and the opening of her dress. She wanted to be a writer too and I think she was impressed by my success. I had accomplished more than her, I guess. We grasp at anything, don’t we?

The next day I met Ringo Heretic and he told me that I needed to abstain from drugs completely and the way I would learn to do this was by talking to people in the basement of a local schoolhouse.

“That’s all?”
He nodded. It sounded utterly preposterous.

He gave me the address of the place. This was a Monday. The meetings took place on Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday for some reason I was on the west side, wandering around, doing blow as always. Around four I got on the crosstown L train to make the meeting between 1st and A. I rode back and forth, getting off at stations along the way to get up my nerve. It was not until Thursday that I made it there. Everyone there had the same troublesome aura of Heretic. Their eyes were bright and shiny and clean. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom imagining that no one else suspected what I was doing in the stall. Finally near the end of the hour and a half, I was called on to talk. The tears came all by themselves. When I was finished at least one third of the maybe seventy five people in the room came up to hug me and push pieces of paper with phone numbers into my hands. I went outside and stood on the corner, smoking until everyone was gone. It was the same East Village crowd that attended the punk rock shows and poetry readings. Everyone paired off and went to eat, talk, play music whatever. They all asked me, but I could not bear to come along. One other guy ended up out there with me. We went into the bar next door together, had a beer, and ended up talking. Eventually we went east to cop. We were doing the best we could.


Download:

"Venus De Milo" mp3
by Television, 1974.
from Double Exposure
bootleg

Photograph: Delancey and Clinton, Looking West, 1985. © Ted Barron
(click on image to enlarge)