Sunday, June 14, 2015

Times Square

Let me admit from the start that James Chance sat down at my table in the Student Union coffee shop, and asked me  
Is this seat taken?
Hey old buddy, I extended a hand.  What are you doing here? 
Good coffee with an old friend, Chance said casually.
Here in Chapel Hill?  
Chance tried out inscrutable, but it did not really work for him.
Chance, a good-looking man uncertain age West Indian cheekbones and facial features, light brown eyes seen next at the Survival Hut Annex Next Door: making people nervous.  
He was insane, and did not hide it, like some kind of asset in his work. He asked things like:  Was the argument between the black bloc and the Arab League before or after he brought up the bombs?  Were there plants?   
Then he and the Arab fellow were seen later talking to Professor Trenton who as a faculty member was not allowed into the meeting itself.  Some said the professor picked Malouf up and one of the black bandannas went away with them.  What was that all about?  Was it true?  

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Gun 3

I don't remember when I took out the gun.  I walked down the partner hall and if a door was open I did a cop thing like on television where I appeared in the doorway with the gun drawn.  All the doors were open because of some other janitorial duties being performed and I knew the offices were empty because there was a cart at the end of the hall and the sound of a vacuum could be heard from an empty office at that far end.  Did I mention how much satisfaction it afforded me to spring into each open doorway with the gun drawn?  Well, let me assure that it was really quite considerable in nature, in taste, even in texture.
The vacuum was so loud that it occurred to me that I might be able to in fact get off a shot without anyone noticing.  In the next office I turned into the open doorway, turned and took aim at a bookcase on the far wall.  It was not an easy thing to pull the trigger, but I managed it and the bookcase shook with the force of the shot as a hole appeared in the considerable spines of one of the volumes.  Might I tell you how much this increased the utter quality of pleasure involved in this action?
I pray that it would not be possible except to say that the tingling quality in all my limbs was not unlike the few moments after climax during sex.  In fact I went to the bathroom next and spent a few moments in one of the stalls.  When I pissed finally afterwards, I felt better than I had in a long time.
I also felt that I had become almost completely unhinged.  I felt like a boat that has left its ties on the dock, and without captain begins to drift toward the greater sea.  I went into one more office and would have gone on and went into more except for what happened there.
I jumped into the open doorway, aimed the pistol this time for the back of the leather swivel chair, which for some reason was in front of the desk rather than behind.  It was then that I noticed that the chair was trembling slightly.  The chair suddenly swiveled and in turning upset the utter quality of concentration which I had achieved.
A woman sighed exquisitely.   I saw a woman’s skirt and bare hips straddling that of a man’s before I realized who it was: the woman had beaten me out for partner.  The man was not a partner.  Neither of them should have been in this office.
We all stopped what we were doing for a moment.  They stopped fucking and I stopped breathing.  Oh they saw the gun.  A pistol pointed at you is not something that one misses.  No one said anything.  I slowly used my thumb to cock the hammer back.  The order of events is weird to think of now.  I remember speaking with the man.  I was angry.  I yelled at him.
What does your wife think of this?
Have you gone mad? he yelled.
She is going to have to reapply her lipstick, I said.
He cursed at me with a most ghastly string of epithets that I will not repeat here.
We went back and forth.
The woman got to her feet.  One of them was white and the other black and for some reason this seemed really significant to me.  It took that special swivel of the hips that is necessary to come off of someone like that.  She pulled down her skirt and then pulled up her hose.  I remember how they blotted slightly, the wetness of her sex, how I could almost taste that, and at that moment I thought he was right and I knew what it felt to not know who you were and what you might do next and that knowing who you were and where you fit in the world was an important facet of sanity and that this is something of what I had lost.
I raised the gun and shot out one of the full length windows.  They both ran out of the room and I watched them go.  What was truly weird is that they did not call the police right away or if they did, they did not arrive until I had time to stand out and lean over the broken window.  The bullet had done enough damage so that it would have been possible for me to step over say a six inch shard no more and step off into the abyss.  We were on the 61st floor of 9 West 57th, a building known for its distinctive hourglass design.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Gene Clark's 36th Psychic Break


he beginning of the LA Rock scene dates without a shadow of a doubt to the Byrds extended run of shows at Ciro's.  As a live act they never sounded better.  Ciro's was a legendary Supper Club on Sunset Strip right down the strip from The Whiskey a GoGo.  Once the hang of mobster Mickey Cohen and home of stars like Peggy Lee it had fallen on hard times and in early 1965 it had decided to try rock.  The Byrds had been signed by Columbia as a potential rival to the Beatles.  But after recording their first single with the session musicians later known as The Wrecking Crew in January the record co. Sat on it.  The poetic folk rock sound was so new Columbia evidently had no idea what to do with it.  

With the band cooling its heels their manager Jim Dickson whose idea it was to record the Dylan song over the vehement objections of one David Crosby, got the band the Ciro's booking.  It made LA music history and created the happening scene of the moment. Later Gene Clark was one of the first newly minted rock stars to live in Laurel Canyon in 1965 when he got a place off Lookout Mountain Road to go with his new Ferarri with the first of his songwriting royalties.

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–7, 1864, was the first battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign against Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Both armies suffered heavy casualties, a harbinger of a bloody war of attrition by Grant against Lee's army.

Gene Clark's wilderness was of the metaphorical kind.  It was a battle he fought the rest of his life and lost.  It started the day he walked off the plane, when often unintentionally cruel bandmate Jim McGuinn told him, If you can't fly, you can't be a Byrd.  Ironically the Byrds were on their way to NYC from LA with the acetate of their brand new career highlight single Eight Miles High to appear on the Murray The K show.  

The pressures of the last year had certainly been intense, constant touring, interviews, publicity campaigns.  McGuinn cited a beautiful GoGo dancer from the Whiskey and a bad acid trip.  The other members of the band were jealous of his lucrative songwriting talents; insecure David Crosby constantly needled Clark, Hillman and Clarke. Gene Clark was eternally restless and his solo prospects looked promising.  His leaving the NCM had certainly worked out well.  If Brian Wilson could take a break from touring.  Others blamed Exhaustion & undiagnosed, misunderstood manic depression.  No one really wanted him to leave the singing group, though only Hillman and mgr Jim Dickson tried to talk him out of it. Instead Gene Clark escaped LA to go stay with his family in Bonner Springs, Kansas.  He had not been home since leaving to join the New Christy Minstrels.  He was barely 21. 

He had dropped acid with John Lennon, discussed songwriting over weed and speed with Brian Jones and dated Hollywood starlets. He was a Mid West Country boy where word was bond who found out that the star eat star ethos of Hollywood acted very differently.  The Byrd who would not fly angle that dogged him until his death made good fanzine copy but the context is misunderstood. He was white knuckle flyer who'd been forced to fly on a weekly sometimes daily basis for the past three years.  And it had all happened so fast: from August 15, 1963-Feb '66, from Missouri kid to #1 and back in the time and exactly at the age when others his age spent in their frosh & soph years in college.

Back in LA by March, he tore his telephone off the wall, and would not fly again for a year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Paramount


In my bare room over Times Square I sit with my back to the wall, hands on my knees looking out my dusty sun streaked picture window.  My bicycle leans against the wall.    

In my room I have a postcard with a picture of the President tacked up.  His coat is blue, his skin hot pink.  He holds his hands out before him like he's coming clean.  I wash out my clothes in the sink.  I listen to the news one neighbor keeps blaring.  He keeps the radio on when he's gone.  He’s got his radio plugged into a cord spliced into the sign below the window: girls Girls GIRLS.  We're all squatters here.                                              

Looking around the square you can the execution pattern, the war plan on Times Square, and count on your hands the number of buildings left.  They're selling out all of the old theatres and everything else is dead.  The crane and wrecking ball keep working.  Every night the fires are larger, the crowds more mad.  The banging of the scrap metal, the roar of the mobs, and the heat of the fires grow.

I arrived sick with visions, crawled out of the transit, two days on the sidewalk at 42nd Street, others huddled under an old movie facade with a great chunk taken out of it, a crane with a wrecking ball standing idle beside.  The crane went back to work next day.

Some old bum dragged me away.  After a week I was okay but he had gone.  I saw the ad for messengers in a week-old newspaper I picked up off some poor bundle of coats and bad dreams passed out against a news stand on Fifth Avenue.  I found my bike at the bottom of a canal in Hell's Kitchen.  I spent many days that only come back to me in flashing kaleidoscope glimpses when I cannot breathe.  You go out and walk the streets searching for air.

The Landlord comes by crashing the door with heavy knuckles.  The old man will be back in an hour or so with who knows maybe a half gallon of liquor.  He takes a percentage for the peepshows breaking down in totally unnecessary but strangely endearing crying jag confessions.  A bastard half-Cherokee with the deep set blue heartbreak eyes of a preacher, he goes to some greasy spoon diner on Tenth Avenue under the old West Side Highway and begs for what they're going to throw out, moldy rolls and hairy carrots.  Some days, bad days all he gets is potatoes.

There's a family living out of an broken down Country Squire Ford station wagon from Jefferson City, Missouri.  They will be here with a bunch of farm kids in feed bags for sweaters running in and out of the halls of the old hotel.

Tonight the Landlord's back early with a few quarts of Night Train Express and chickens in greasy aluminum foil baskets.  The two whores who live above me both dying of AIDS come in through the window.  I can hear them chattering though I don't take my eyes off two of the country kids, red haired, freckle faced.   They've got a knife out and hold their fingers splayed on the floor moving the knife through the spaces as fast as they can.  If you flinch when you bleed you lose.  I turn away when one plucks the blade through his knuckle.

Outside below us blocking traffic kids stand around a car set afire in the middle of the street.  Every night around this time there's fires:  movie facades, abandoned cars, tables, desks, and chairs end up in flames.  Earlier I watched a horrified hot dog man get his cart taken away.  They swooped in on him trudging home as sunset turned excruciatingly into dusk.  There’s an endless supply of gasoline.

I can stick my head out the window and see another fire on the corner.  Lola, the guy whore who comes on like a lady says she saw it start today.

"Wh-why'd they do it?"  Somebody, maybe the Landlord asks.
"Is he kidding?"  Lola says.
He scratches his breast, pulls a wad of stuffing from his shirt, lays it on the floor as he sips a slug of liquor passed to him and sucks off a place on his arm.
"It’s the OTB," adds Cola, the woman who comes on like a guy.
"There were some guys still trying to lay down bets even after the place was on fire,” Lola’s laugh is laced with an ugly rasp of a cough.
Lola and Cola are thin as smoke, like the next good wind could blow them away.  In here now it's stale and close.  Everybody's sweating.

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.

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)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ringo Heretic

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?”
“Tell me.”

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?”
He nodded.

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.

“That’s all?”
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)