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?”


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.


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

"Fear Is A Man's Best Friend"
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

The Missing Foundation Tag

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

"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)