Tuesday, November 4, 2008
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.
"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
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
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?”
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?”
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.
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.
"Venus De Milo" mp3
by Television, 1974.
from Double Exposure
Photograph: Delancey and Clinton, Looking West, 1985. © Ted Barron
(click on image to enlarge)