Friday, January 30, 2009
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.