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?”


“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.


"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


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