Sunday, March 8, 2009


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.


"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

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

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Last Phone Booth

The last phone booth in the East Village was on 2nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue around the corner from the site of the famous Meg McGurk’s suicide bar where in the last century at least five desperate women, prostitutes, came in, sat at the bar, ordered a drink and poisoned themselves.  Some say one or two of them were actually buried in this vacant lot just a hair breadth’s east of the Bowery.                                                                                                                                   Do their spirits still hover?  Are they like angels that give heart and hope to the lost place in all of who pass through. May the hope they must have felt as little children reside in us and keep their smiles alive, even if just for a moment.                                                                                                                             In our day the vacant lot was still there on the south side of the street.  The north side faced the rear of the notorious 3rd Street shelter, once the dumping ground for every single lost soul in New York City.  Standing inside the phone booth you could look up into the winking eye windows of the shelter, which for years was a big stinking mess, a dangerous festering sore of human and inhuman activity.                                                                     Zoo Bar was nearby, a slumming joint for drunks to this day, but in our times a much seedier and nasty place where questionable and at times lethal quantities of cocaine and dope could be bought at the bar or right outside.                                                                                                                        Across the street on the north side stood a skinny five floor walkup apartment building, the only tenement in all of the East Village to be condemned and leveled because it was uninhabitable, a lost cause.  Rainbow Willie ran the booth, on the night in question anyway.  As I learned from him in the course of the night, Rainbow Willie who had lived in Paris and toured as a pianist with a jazz band was a Vietnam vet whose face had been so badly burned in a combat experience that it was different colors, a bright red purple chin gave way to dull brown sort of shiny lips and yellowed jaundiced eyes.                                                                                           This was the story he told anyway.  It was completely possible that he made up the whole thing and he had actually been burned smoking the rock, or maybe a girlfriend had thrown acid or fried potato grease at him.  Things like that happened all the time in our world.  Still you tended to believe Rainbow Willie.  He had the face of a man who was telling the truth.      Lookout Joe, who Rainbow Willie introduced me to, was having trouble with his girlfriend that night.  He sold me some kicking dope which Rainbow recommended as it would keep me alive a lot longer than coke.  Lookout Joe’s lady was a certain hooker who worked out of a broken down van.  I would know him better later through the hippie.  For a while he sold books on the street like a lot of us literary types.  Lookout Joe liked to talk to the angels, mixing crack and angel dust, a recipe for random tripped-out violence that by the end of the night induced him to shake out a bottle of 151 proof rum over Lucy’s head and light her on fire.  Rainbow Willie tackled Lucy, wrapped her in his arms and rolled over and over with her in the south side vacant lot.  He got her to a puddle and none of us who were there for the witching hour, past three am, where last night starts to bridge into tomorrow, all witnesses, none of us will forget the terrible screaming sound she made that went hoarse, like she lost her voice, just as the water met her burning flesh and hissed.
Let me interrupt the image of sweet Lucy burning to begin to explain something about who we were then.  The men of Rainbow Willie’s generation had the draft to elude.  We had nothing.  Literally.  The truth of our existence was answered by the cosmos with a big yawn.  We on the planet of birthing age were even encouraged not to have children for the presumed good of everyone.  We were on a dead end street in a vacant lot.  We were speaking in tongues, on bare earth.                                              Something else that was weird and I remember from that night near 2nd St. was the music, from an apartment over our heads blasted side two of the first Pink Floyd album.  Maybe the brother went out to cop and got arrested. Maybe he fell asleep in the bathtub, maybe he died in there, but he had his turntable on repeat and the side kept playing over and over: The Scarecrow, The Gnome, Chapter 24 and Interstellar Overdrive.  It wafted down from an eighth floor window.  Ashes roses from a trash fire someone had set in the lot and the ashes rose into the night, as if drawn heavenward by the Pink Floyd.  Everything that happened down there, for the 150 or so of us who filled the lots and the street, it lent some meaning to our actions.  My brother told me in Iraq they always played music in their tank during a battle, the same sort of thing except the Floyd was like coming down from heaven. Maybe we were the last generation that came of age believing pop music mattered, that it really defined us somehow, that it was something like church must have been for people many years ago.  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 thought it made a nice soundtrack for the end times.                                          The south side lot took up the places of at least three buildings that had been torn down.  It was filled with garbage, at least one teeming dumpster, a couple couches, a door and many other possessions that had been cleaned out the month before.  There was a suckhole, rumor had it a banker had been lost down there, his tie was bound to a street sign, an oily viscous liquid showed on top of slowly draining water.
When Lookout Joe set his girlfriend Lucy on fire, he also ignited the dumpster.  That auxiliary fire burned for at least an hour.  After everyone else took off, Rainbow Willie and I stood still. 
What was the phone booth to us that night?  It was something like a portal, a transporter terminal.  Depending on what personal deal you made with Rainbow, you could spend up to ten minutes there.  The telephone booth beamed us to a place where we didn't have to worry about who we were supposed to be in real life, a brother, a husband, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.
At one point, a middle aged man in a suit with gawky glasses approached the booth.  No one was inside, but Rainbow Willie barred his way.
Uh excuse me, buddy.
Dollar a minute.
The man ignored him and tried to push past.
I’d like to make a phone call.
Dollar a minute, five dollars on top of that for a phone call.
Five dollars for a phone call?
And you got to have your own change.  I got no change.  You have to be in charge of your own change.
You have to be kidding me.  You cannot charge for a phone booth.  This is America.  This is a free country.
Pshaw, you might not realize it but this is the last phone booth below 14th Street on the east side.  It works.  It’s full size.  You bring a lady here and you want to get a blow job, fine, pay me.  You got some dope and you want to reach for the stars, pay me.
What if I just want to make a phone call?!                                                             You heard the man, I said, finding my voice.  Gawky Glasses walked off shaking his head.                                                                                                     Many others of us were happy to pay Rainbow for the few seconds or moments time that we spent in the phone booth.  From there it was the giant empty lot, or get into trouble in the tall grass behind the shelter, maybe go back to the Zoo, if you still felt sober enough to deal with society.  You could use the phone booth to step out of the world, into some other place, where early Pink Floyd played all the time.
The building on 2nd Avenue, the one that was torn down, offered another alternative, any number of horribly nefarious and dangerous pursuits could be engaged in there.  You went in there you might not come out, and when you did you were forever changed.  You have heard of after hours joints, this was an entire after hours building.
Lookout Joe was a big menacing guy who a brain injury had rendered naturally dopey and more than a little scary, a white guy from Philadelphia.  The story went that one night he was on the platform after a long night of drinking.  He heard a train but looked in the wrong direction and was blindsided.  Lucy was his girl, a hot Puerto Rican-Italian, her father had run a bowling alley and bar on Avenue C when there were such things.  Her mother was known for her spicy fried bananas.  A straight A student until she fell for Joe started hitting the clubs with him and both ended up in the dope.  He turned her out.  What else can I say about poor Lucy?  Rainbow seemed to know her pretty well.  A lot of people out there that night seemed to.   I was told this sad story about her father.
He took her to a New York Giants football game.  Didn’t have tickets.  Just before they got to the turnstile he punched her hard in the arm, so when she was crying, he could use that to get them in. Worked like a charm.  Girl like that, with a dad like that would work real hard to make a man happy know what I mean.  I remember hearing her say:
Joe you got to give us some room.  You’re hurting business.
But Baby…
Don’t but baby me you wait outside the car and always asking me for money.
But baby I need…                                                                                                                                                                                            From there it escalated, these things happen in matters of love.
Next thing any of us knew she was on fire, running through the dark lot.
The next day we might end up back in our lives, or yours, or in the sinkhole with the banker, or in the lot with cottonmouth and red eyes, walking away, shaking all heaven knows what off our clothes.  Some of us would end up dead or in the shelter on 3rd Street, on a downward escalator that only stopped when you were shackled in a bus bound for an upstate prison.  But for the moment we were all suspended outside of that, and somewhere early Pink Floyd was playing.
That moment ended when Lucy caught on fire.
A few of us hung around until the cops came.  By then she had left with Bobby.  Some relationships went like that.  The cops asked a couple questions.  The fire in the dumpster eventually burned itself out.  The sinkhole made a couple of really weird burbling sounds.  I hung around with Rainbow Willie until after four and then crashed in the Freeman Alley Squat. Which was really an outdoors Tent City but without the tents.