The natives call it N’Yawk. One impossible syllable. Or two: N’Yawk N’Yawk. The city where my father wrote. With little success. I tried, too, for fifteen years, about a fourth of my life, on the same Remington manual typewriter, later an IBM Selectric, with even less success. At least Dad published two poems – one in The New York Times. I had to leave the city, get out of the country, to write anything worth publishing. Back to the old world.
These days, probably more struggling writers, and some successful ones, hole up in Brooklyn where I went to high school, riding 45 minutes every morning and afternoon on the GG subway from Queens, hunched in the rattling seat over Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Dead, The Insulted and the Injured…
In those days, it took a 15-year-old chick from Poughkeepsie to lure me across the river to the Village. What Dylan a year later would ironically pronounce “Green-wich Village” in “Talkin’ New York Blues.” I was sixteen and it was 1960, and we went into the Café Wha? which, lacking a liquor license, served ice cream sodas, so minors could come in and hear, that winter night, the black Beat poet Ted Joans slapping his palms on the table as if it were a bongo drum, and chanting a lyric that went something like:
Ice cream sexâ€¦
Ted Joans knew what we were thinking about. The chick from Poughkeepsie was groovin’, and I – a Catholic-high junior – thought the whole scene was weird and funny and bogus and cool. I wore my dark-rimmed Buddy-Holly style shades and a black beret and turtleneck and must have looked like a classic jerk to the incredible, long-haired, long-limbed, beatnik waitresses, their black leotards outlining ecstasy for me.
Back then, it was Manhattan that called to young writers from around the country and across the rivers, when it was still possible to find a cheap garret and hunker down to write through freezing winters and steaming summers.
Today, in the new millennium, it is a hot town, summer in the city, and the New York August heat enough to drive a man mad. Woman, too. Air-conditioners churn full force, dripping on your head as you pass beneath them, but they have yet to concoct an air-conditioner that can cool the streets. Out here, you work up a constant thirst with plenty of cool places to quench it, and I am back to wade the naked, steaming streets in shorts, armless teeshirt plastered to my sweaty back, seeking out places where writers have lived or drunk, as good a structure as any to a one-day visit here, though an impossibly ambitious one. It would no doubt be easier to draft a list of the writers, artists and musicians who didn’t live here at some time or another than those who did.
How many readers, for example, know that Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-44) wrote The Little Prince here, on the 23rd floor of 240 Central Park South at Columbus Circle, where he lived during the German occupation of France in World War II? He died on a military reconnaisance flight over France in July 1944. It exasperates me that I only have just learned that he lived there, just across from where I worked for several years in the 1960s, on the 12th floor of the now-demolished Coliseum Office Building at 10 Columbus Circle, at the time I first read The Little Prince. And what, you may ask, would it have mattered if I had known? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a good deal. Is it of value to cultivate our awareness of great things that have been accomplished just across the street from where we toil in drudgery? I think it does. I want to know these things. I want to know the geography of it, the housing.
In order to make my search for such knowledge nominally superable, I focus mostly on the Village, but even that is too much. Plot the poetic production of Allen Ginsberg against his residences, for example, and you will find that in the East Village alone he lived in half a dozen apartments between 1952 and 1997. For fellow-obsessives who might want the list, here it is:
206 East 7th Street (1952-53)
170 East 2nd Street (1958-61)
704 East 5th Street (1964-65)
408 East 10th Street (1965-75)
437 East 12th Street (1975-96)
404 East 14th Street (1996-97).
Ginsberg, too, unbeknownst to me, lived around the corner from where I lived in 1966, at 184 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A and B.
Now I wade through 95 degree heat and humidity to revisit my old digs and to acquaint myself with his. On the way, I pass the Hell’s Angels NYC headquarters, which has been considerably spruced up since they were my neighbors 3½ decades ago. Their building displays a flag-bearing patriotic poster: Support the troopsâ€¦Love It or Leave It – which, in 2007, suggests the mind-set of our current leaders’ policies and of the authors of the Act entitled “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” known by its acronym, “The USA Patriot Act.” Who would dare vote against an Act called Patriot in the bruised and bleeding month of October 2001? Practically nobody did. To bristle against the forced bridling with the word “Patriot” in 2001 and 2002 was akin to expressing skepticism about the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In those days, the major fears were of commies and sexual “preversions” and the danger of getting caught in a sex-trap, blackmailed into becoming a traitor to your country. As an 18-year-old soldier in 1962 recruited to work in the White House, I submitted to a top-secret security clearance process that included a polygraph interview in which a middle-aged officer asked me, in dead earnest, whether I’d ever had normal sexual relations with a woman, abnormal sexual relations with a woman, sexual relations with a man, sexual relations with an animal, or belonged to any one of the organizations on a lengthy list that started with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, all tainted red. You had to hand it to those commies, naming their organizations after Abraham Lincoln!
No doubt my experience with that clearance process inspired me in the mid-1960s to gravitate toward the liberation I saw in Village publications entitled Screw and Horseshit and The East Village Other.
Understandably, my own ex-digs at 184 East 3rd Street between Avenues A and B retain no mark of my stay there in 1966-67, during which I wasted my time inhaling, although one night, I commissioned a psychedelic grafitti artist to adorn the walls of my first floor studio with magic marker murals. The apartment became a curiosity amongst the neighbors; strangers would knock on my door to come in and view the array of naked dayglo popes, uncomplimentary effigies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jedgar Hoover and other caricatures, cartoons and obscenties. My departure in February, 1967 – fleeing west in a buddy’s Ford – was at midnight with forfeiture of my $105 deposit.
Now I chat with the superintendent who is out sweeping the walk, a triple XL God Bless Our Land T-shirt over his breadbasket. With Russian accent, he tells me the rent on the apartment I had is now a thousand a month, ten times the `60s rate. Of course, my salary then, assisting an East Broadway offset printer, was $90 a week without overtime. I walked to work everyday, past the Men’s Welfare Shelter and its reek of human degradation. I was twenty-two and had a passionate crush on my supervisor, a 45-year-old red-haired Italian named Claire who threw a party in the office to celebrate her divorce where, a bit tipsy, she told me I reminded her of a priest and asked if I would give her absolution for her sins. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead, even as I contemplated graphically the sins I longed to share with her
The redneck bar across the street, with its nasty little yapping dog named Susie, is gone – as is, south across Avenue B, the once great Slug’s at 242 East 3rd Street (between Avenues B and C), just around the corner from where Charlie Parker lived from 1950 to 1954 at 151 Avenue B. Slug’s hosted new jazz (Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Saden, Albert Ayler, The Sun Ra Arkestra) from 1965 to 1972 when it was closed after trumpetist Lee Morgan was shot to death there.
I said my own goodbye to the area in 1971 after my girlfriend’s neighbor fired a rifle through her apartment door because her dripping faucet was driving him nuts. He had warned her the day before he would kill her if she didn’t fix it. Although she was standing behind the door, she was not hit, but the sight of the bulletholes caused me to lose interest in the area. She and I fled to Queens the next day.
When I had moved to the East Village, it seemed a place where classes and races mingled in peace – Salt `n Pepper City, one of my friends called it – but in 1967, a hippie named Groovy and his coffee-heiress girlfriend had their skulls smashed with cinder blocks by two black dudes in connection with an amphetamine transaction; the headline in the East Village Other said it all: Groovy is Dead. And the so-called “Summer of Love” was more than over. I recall ominous incidents in Thompkins Square Park -inter alia, a very strange guy who used to shuffle around mouthing a mantric chant of Ever see a naked white woman? Hangin’ by her hair? All covered with blud?
Murder statistics for the city as a whole climbed steadily from 1963 to a peak in 1990 of 2,245. The figure for 2002, at 587, was the lowest since ’63 (though 2001 must have spiked, with the Twin Towers). A recent article in The New York Times reported, as if consolingly, “â€¦on average fewer than two people are murdered in New York City each day.” Nice, for almost everyone.
Since 1972, East 3rd between B and C has been the home of the Nuyorican Poets Café at 236, founded to give voice to Puerto Rican poetry but also having hosted poets like Amiri Baraka, Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and others. Their current program can be accessed at www.nuyorican.org. As I come by, the café’s façade is being redecorated by two guys whose English is no better than my Spanish, precluding chit-chat.
Farther down 3rd is the Kenhelbaba Sculpture Garden, which advertises an entrance on East 2nd, though I am unable to find it. What I do find on 2nd is Ginsberg’s pad in the Croton at 170 East 3rd between A and B, now marked by a plaque. Amusing to note that the lobby of this residence of the free-spirited Ginsberg, behind an iron-grilled glass door, is adorned with a notice sporting an enormous NO, forbidding ballplaying, carriages, peddling, sitting in front of the building, or trespassing.
I have plans for lunch with a Penguin-Putnam editor, so I take the crosstown journey beneath the anvil of the sun along the entire river-to-river span of Houston Street (out-of-towners are cautioned that the street’s first syllable is not pronounced like the city in Texas, but like the name of the poet A. E. Housman), a transverse of decrepit marvels too numerous to list, but well worth the walk – among other wonders I pass a bathtub graveyard behind a chainlink fence, an open-air Antique and Props Gallery at 76 East Houston, featuring old coke vendors, and a giant effigy of a rat standing inexplicably in the road. Farther on, I see what I can only describe as metal and concrete shelves of stacked up parked cars. How do they get them up there?
On my way to Hudson Street in the West Village, I learn that the name of Kennedy has joined that of McDonald’s in the world of junkfood chains, as I discover a Kennedy Chicken nuzzled wing-to-nugget with a MmmmmcDonald’s. Interesting accident that McDonald’s chose that arched “m” as its logo. The word for mother in many languages – English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hungarian, Portuguese, Russian, all the Scandinavian tongues, even Korean and Swahili and no doubt others – begins with an “m.” An infant makes the sound “mmmm” as his lips go for the red nipple; and we still make the sound to indicate something tastes good. Devilish clever logo, using motherhood to rot our guts.
At 375 Hudson, I meet Jeff Freiert at Penguin, and we lunch on organic hamburgers at Grange Hall – 50 Commerce Street, at Barrow. Alas, at this writing, Grange Hall is no longer whinnying with us, although it made its swan-song appearance in the last episode of Sex and the City as a Paris bistro. Because Jeff has to go back to work, he drinks iced tea; because I don’t, I enjoy a giant “prairie martini.” Afterward, we stroll to nearby St Luke’s Place – a short, leafy, shady row of townhouses that hooks between Hudson and Leroy Streets. Here, across from a playground and the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library, lived Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) at number 16 from 1922-23 while he was starting An American Tragedy, which he completed in a rented office at 201 Park Avenue. Since Penguin recently reissued Dreiser’s 1912 The Financier, I persuade Jeff to pose for a snapshot on the townhouse stoop displaying the volume.
Bill Morgan’s excellent Literary Landmarks of New York (New York: Universe, 2002) tells me that a meeting was held on the parlor floor of Dreiser’s house here in which F Scott FitzGerald, Horace Liveright, H. L. Mencken, and Carl Van Vechten discussed strategies for Dreiser’s work to evade the wrath of the censors who had been plaguing him ever since Sister Carrie (1900) for “too vividly describing the seamier sides of life,” though perhaps also because of his championing of economic democracy; he died a communist in 1945.
Number 14 St Luke’s Place was the home of Marianne Moore (1887-1972); in the early 1920s, her mother shared the basement here with Moore who worked across the street in the library. In 1929 she moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but returned later to the Village, when she lived at 35 W. 9th Street. In 1951 Moore’s Collected Poems won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and Bollinger Prize. A little sign on the door lintel of no. 14 proclaims “Peace and Love” in letters of modest size. It always has seemed to me that reading a single poem thoroughly is a job of work, and I recall as a student having been assigned far more poems to read than I had time, strength, or inclination for, finding succor in the first line of Moore’s “On Poetry”:
“I, too, despise itâ€¦”
Number 12 St. Luke’s was the home of Sherwood Anderson. Morgan tells of Anderson’s having to work up the nerve to knock on Dresier’s door to introduce himself, only to have it shut in his face after a curt greeting; Dreiser, it seems, was also shy before Anderson, but the two later became friends and Anderson also attended the anti-censor strategy planning session described above. No plaque commemorates Anderson’s residency here. Indeed, the only sign evident advertises the house for sale – information from Jaime Farmer and James Roubul at 212-588-9490. Cell phone in fist, I consider calling to ask the price, but decide against depressing myself.
Jeff returns to work, and I am startled from my leafy, shady, post-martini reveries of famous poets and fictioneers by someone shouting out in the hot yellow sunlight on Hudson. A man is running, yelling, on the pavement across the street while a red-headed man with a camera run backward away from him, filming. Unlike the time I saw a newstand clerk with a hammer and cigar box chasing Dustin Hoffman on Fifth Avenue some 35 years ago (a scene from Ulu Grosbard’s 1971 film, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying those Horrible Things about Me?), I do realize this is a film in progress and successfully resist the impulse to intervene, other than to join the melee with my own camera. The running man is wearing a costume I can only describe as resembling a six-foot turd.
The camera crew takes five, and I sidle over to ask the costumed man if I might do a portrait. He appears pleased to comply.
I ask what the film is, and he tells me it is an ad for Dentyne. “You know? The gum? Cleans your teeth?” Ah! Not a turd but a personification of tooth decay, oral bacteria, gingivitis.
Where St. Luke’s meets Seventh Avenue is a short turn north from a cluster of small old-world-style streets crammed with literary history. “The narrowest house in New York,” at 75½ Bedford Street, between Commerce and Morton Streets, bears a plaque commemorating Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) who lived here in 1923-24, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. Among others who have lived in the house are John Barrymore, Margaret Mead, and Cary Grant. The plaque above the door quotes what are perhaps Millay’s most famous lines, testimony to her relatively short life:
My candle burns at both ends.
It will not last the night.
But oh my foes and oh my friends,
It gives a lovely light.
Beneath the plaque an elegant lamp illuminates the door lintel.
Farther along Bedford Street, at number 86, between Grove and Barrow, is a most remarkable place behind an unmarked door one would be likely to pass without notice unless forewarned – the restaurant, bar, former speakeasy which since 1928 has been frequented by more writers than perhaps any other single bar, or three, in New York, or anywhere: Chumley’s.
Established by Leland Stanford Chumley, an organizer of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a former laborer, soldier of fortune, stagecoach driver, wagon tramp, waiter, artist, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer, and taken over on his death by his widow, Henriette, from 1935 until her death in 1960. Since then, it has continued under a number of owners and managers without changing character.
What is now the main entrance at 86 Bedford was formerly an escape route during prohibition raids up to 1933 when the Volstead Act was repealed. In those days, the entry was through an archway at 58 Barrow Street, through the Pamela Court backyard to a very speakeasy-looking door within. When the cops came to raid, Chumley would detain them at the door while customers were advised to “86 it” – to take the 86 Bedford Street exit.
Chumley’s has been host to James Agee, Djuna Barnes, Brendan Behan, John Berryman, Humphrey Bogart, Vance Bourjaily, William Burroughs, Willa Cather, John Cheever, Gregory Corso, Malcolm Cowley, e e cummings, Simone de Beauvoir, Floyd Dell, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, William Faulkner, Edna Ferber, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, F. Scott FitzGerald, Alan Ginsberg, David Ignatow, Erica Jong, Buster Keaton, John F. Kennedy, Jack Kerouac, Ed Koch, Ring Lardner, Jr., Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, W. Somerset Maughm, Mary McCarthy, Margaret Mead, Edna St Vincent Millay, Arthur Miller, Marianne Moore, Anais Nin, Eugene O’Neil, Henry Roth, J D Salinger, Delmore Schwartz, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, William Styron, Dylan Thomas, Lowell Thomas, James Thurber, Edmund Wilson, and that is only a few of them. According to a rumor, furthered by David Yeodon and Roy Lewis, even James Joyce is said to have written a couple of chapters of Ulysses at a corner table here, though of course this is nonsense: Ulysses was completed before Chumley’s ever was Chumley’s, and Joyce was never even made New York City.
In her 1948 book, America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
In Bedford Street is the only place in New York where you can read and work through the day, and talk through the night, without arousing curiosity or criticism: Chumley’s. There is no music so that conversation is possible. The room is square, absolutely simple, with little tables set against the walls which are decorated with old book jackets. It has that thing rare in America: An atmosphere!
I myself frequented the place in the late `60s and early `70s – when I could find it. Usually I went there with a few under my vest (as the Danes say) and rarely could find my way back again sober. I recall arguing with a girlfriend in the Bedford side alley, behind the door camoflauged as a tall narrow shelf of wooden book facsimiles, painted and carved with intricate verisimilitude. I don’t recall the argument, only that I sulked in the alley for a time singing, for some reason, “Wi-ild ho-orses! Woulden drag me a-wayâ€¦.” While she sulked in Pamela Court, and my friends Jay Horowitz and Barry Brent sat inside looking for Ferlinghetti’s “beautiful dame without mercy picking her nose in Chumley’s.”
Here, too, I ran into Gregory Corso on his 40th birthday when he tried to sell me what he purported to be the first postage stamp ever printed. When I told him it didn’t look like an 1848 British Guiana quarter-penny, he embraced me and whispered, “You’re a smart man.” Still more recently, I recall sitting here one April Sunday afternoon with Walter Cummins, Editor of The Literary Review, having been driven from The White Horse (where Dylan Thomas drank his fatal whiskies) by a visiting New Jersey band of kilted bagpipers in their cups.
Today, I’ve found it after only a single martini and let myself in the unmarked 86 door, excuse myself past a tall man with long grey hair and a beautiful woman with a tall exotic dog. Another man with a broom is sweeping around the bar, and I order a pint of Chumley’s own pilsner. The tall man tells me the place is closed, but because I have been looking reverently at the book jackets on the walls, my order is filled, and he shows me around. His name is James Dipaola, and he seems to be the curator. He shows me the centerpiece jacket, titled The Unknown Book by Unknown Writer; where the author’s photograph should be on the inside French flap is a small mirror – a tribute to all the patrons who have labored to produce books that never saw print. The beautiful woman with the dog – a sleek-coated half English pointer named Maverick — is Gina, a bartender studying at NYU. Jim Dipaola presents me with a pamphlet the size and shape of a bookjacket complete with French flaps, titled Chumley’s, A Historic Narrative by Leland Stanford Chumley.
Jim invites me to send him the jacket of my own most recent book along with a signed photograph of myself, preferably with a dog if I have one, so that he can add it to the collection on the walls. A few weeks later, I do so, and I hereby urge all reading this who visit Chumley’s to investigate whether the jacket of Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, A Love Story and/or Bluett’s Blue Hours by Thomas E. Kennedy have been added to those venerable walls.
Reluctantly, I leave Jim and Gina and Maverick and the comfort of Chumley’s, bound for Grove Court between Bedford and Hudson Streets where O. Henry’s daughter is said to have lived and which is said to have been the inspiration for the setting of O. Henry’s Last Leaf. It is easy to imagine this as the place where Johnsy lay withering and waning in her bed, watching the leaves of an ivy vine on the brick wall outside her window disappear by the day along with her strength and where the unsuccessful abstract artist, Behrman, refurbishes her will to live with a realistic painting of an ivy leaf on the wall – at the cost of his life; he falls from the ladder into the snow and, drunk, unable to rise again, freezes to death. As all of O Henry, melodramatic, sentimental, contrived, moving and unforgettable – it sticks like gum to a shoe. The gate to Grove Court is locked behind a sign that sternly identifies it as private – an elegant place that once was a home for the struggling poor.
O. Henry is of course all over the city, not least in the excellent Pete’s Tavern at 129 East 18th Street that I won’t have time to visit today, though often have in the past, sitting whenever it is vacant at the booth by the front doors where O Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi – another of his unforgettable concoctions. Pete’s Tavern has been in continuous operation since 1851, first as a “grocery and grog,” during prohibition disguised as a flower shop. The kitchen is Italian, the food excellent, the martinis near psychedelic.
I am now headed for Carpo’s. I cross Sheridan Square at West 4th and Christopher, where I stop to marvel at the irony of juxtaposing sculptures of General Sheridan in dark heavy bronze and two life-sized gay couples with white-painted finish by George Segal (1924-2000) commemorating the birth of the Gay Liberation Movement in 1969 when the police tried to bust the Stonewall Bar at 51-53 Christopher Street and found, to their surprise, a gay clientele not willing to lay down and whimper. It took some doing and many years before the city finally allowed this memorial to be christened in 1992.
Across the street at the Village Cigar Shop, I purchase from a dour clerk a fresh, $8.00 Partagas, rolled of “100 percent tobacco” grown on Cuban seeds, which – while across the avenue yuppie types dine on expensive junk in the Gourmet Garage – I smoke at an outdoor table of the Riviera Café, nursing a bottle of Heinekin. I gaze across to the Segal sculpture, considering how at least some aspects of life have improved. On the outdoor table where I sit, a sign informs me that smoking is permitted, though the Surgeon General wishes to remind me it is a nuisance for others and a danger to myself. The Surgeon General makes no comment on the carbon monoxide fumes pumping from the pipes of scores of gasoline-burning automobiles that roll past just below my nose.
The only other customer is a young businessman at a nearby table. He sits over a juicy Riviera burger and speaks into a cell phone: “No no no, Chuck, no. You meet me here, you’ll meet a tonna fuckin’ people, ya know what I’m sayin’? Ya know what I mean? Don’t meet me here.”
From Sheridan Square is a short walk over 4th to 189 Bleecker at Macdougal Street to Carpo’s, formerly San Remo’s, where I order a $5 Heinekin from a sweet-faced waitress and sit at a table out on the narrow strip of Bleecker sidewalk. Here in the free and open air, an endless fleet of yellow cabs excrete carbon monxoide into my air. I deserve it, I think, lighting a Petit Sumatra. The formerly smiling waitress descends upon me with wrath: “You cannot smoke here, sir!”
“Actually,” I explain feebly, “I don’t inhale.”
“Well I do, sir!”
I stub out the lovely, barely-smoked Petit, apologizing. “Have a good monoxide.”
At a table behind me, two attractive women chortle, one blond and the other auburn-haired, the latter wearing high heels and a polka-dotted summer dress that strikes me as 1950s.
“Are you dreaming of San Remo?” I ask. The brightness of their quizzical smiles tells me they are either out-of-towners or hard-core members of the post-911 corps of pleasant New Yorkers. I recently heard someone bemoan the passing of the rude New Yorker: If only someone would growl at me, I’d feel like things were safe again! The first 30 years of my life were spent here, and I know the New York crust covers a blunt but friendly heart; I wonder what the new New York smile might cover.
I explain to the ladies that Carpo’s used to be the San Remo Bar, opened by Joe Santini in 1923, a Bohemian headquarters until well into the `50s where the regulars included people like James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Jackson Pollock, William Styron, Dyan Thomas, and Tennessee Williams. Jack Kerouac was a regular for years, and it served as a model for the café “Mask” in San Francisco in his 1958 novel, The Subterraneans. According to Bill Morgan, the idea for the Living Theater was also born here.
“Oh!” says the polka-dotted young lady, who introduces herself as Shari, “I’m studying acting myself. In San Francisco.” It turns out she is the daughter of the other young woman, from West Virginia, who confides to me she is 40. I had thought they were both around 27, but it seems too feeble a line to pitch. “Why don’t you go knock on the door of the Actors Studio while you’re here?”
“That’s exactly what I told her,” the mother says. “Tell her to do it.”
“Do it, Shari,” I say, though actually I walked past the Studio earlier in the day and the front doors were wide open, but with a chain across them on which hung a sign that read, This is not an entrance. Which I suppose could be interpreted in a number of ways. Considering how to tell about that inspires me to recommend a visit to the Actor’s Playhouse where these ladies might see Naked Boys Singing. “Talk about a show with balls!” as Time Out New York put it, but I am suddenly distracted by shouting on the other side of the street, and a cameraman runs past my table on the sidewalk. His red hair looks familiar. Then I notice a guy yelling and dressed up like tooth decay.
“You guys get around, don’t you?” I call to the cameraman, who flips me a smile, and the West Virginian mother asks if I will introduce her, as she is a photographer herself. “I’ve taken some good pictures,” she says, “some of Shari, too, even where her ankles don’t look so thick.”
But the cameraman and the sprinting decay already are gone, and I finish my beer, bow and take my leave, on to Patchin Place at West 10th between Sixth and Greenwich Avenues. Here, at 4 Patchin Place, lived Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962) from 1923 until his death. I recall cummings’ outstanding line, “there is some shit I will not eat,” and wonder if I can boast the same. Among cummings’ houseguests here were Eliot, Pound, Dos Passos and, Bill Morgan notes, “a very drunken Dylan Thomas.”
In the late 1950s, cummings was also once arrested for public urination on the Rue Git-le-Coeur in Paris, described on the French police blotter as “un Américan qui pisse.” Rue Git-le-Coeur 9 is where the so-called Beat Hotel used to be, where Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac and others used to stay. It is still a hotel, though not a Beat one and certainly not at Beat prices. So it goes with all places once Hip or Beat or Bohemian. Commerce moves in like a plague of affluent cockroaches and the native cockroaches move out, taking everyone authentic with them.
Across the narrow way, at 5 Patchin Place, Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) lived reclusively for the last 42 years of her life. Her best known novel, however, Nightwood (1936), was written in Paris where she lived until the war forced her home.
Other literary residents of Patchin Place at various times include John Reed (1887-1920), “terror of the industrialists”; John Masefield (1878-1967), in the years before his four decades as poet laureate of England; the Irish writer Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and Jane Bowles (1917-73).
As a youngster, I hated memorizing dates. In those days, more than ten years ago seemed lost in the ancient fog. Now the years enchant me, affording a glimpse of how short time really is – a century, a lifetime. At the moment, I am reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which begins in 1805 – nominally a distant time. But having lived more than half a century myself and half of it in the ancient kingdom of Denmark gives another perspective. 1805 is just two years earlier than the year that the Duke of Wellington shelled Copenhagen, killing thousands of civilians and blowing the roof off one of my favorite bars and jazz places – The White Lamb on Copenhagen’s Coal Square. I love to sit there over a pint, contemplating the fact that Søren Kierkegaard in the 1830s lived across the street and that the Duke of Wellington is now dust in his grave and the only duke who blows the roof off that bar now is Duke Ellington.
Looking backward, time is really not so long. When I started college in 1961, the four years to my BA seemed an insufferable length. Since then, I could have taken nearly a dozen BAs. In fact, I like to think – to hope at least – that every unit of four years that I live teaches me as much as four years of college would. Since in total my BA, MFA and PhD took me ten years, could I not now claim to have four PhDs and on my way to a fifth?
The New Colossus, which contains perhaps the most quoted lines of any American poem, inscribed in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These days when one enters the country, by flying ship, the poetry of welcome takes the form of questions printed on a green form about whether one suffers from contagious diseases or mental illness, whether one has ever been arrested for a serious crime, engaged in espionage, sabotage or moral turpitude: answer yes or no, please.
Or as Lou Reed puts it in Dirty Boulevard:
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor, I’ll piss on em
That’ what the statue of bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’ club em to death
And get it over with just dump em on the boulevard
At 23 East 10th on University Place, in the Albert Hotel’s room 2220, from 1923 to 1926, Thomas Wolfe (1900-38) stayed while he taught writing at NYU and worked on Look Homeward Angel – “â€¦a stone, a leaf an unfound doorâ€¦” In his Of Time and the River, The Albert appears as the Hotel Leopold.
Wolfe – and many other writers, artists and musicians – also stayed for a time at the Chelsea Hotel between 7th and 8th Avenues at 222 23rd Street. The Chelsea’s many celebrated guests included Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain, O Henry, Edgar Lee Masters, James T Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Brendan Behan, Arthur C. Clarke, Nelson Algren, Nabokov, Yevtushenko, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and the punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols who murdered his girlfriend in Room 100 here before ending his own life, although there have been later assertions that both were murdered by a third person. (Room 100, I am told by the management, no longer exists, having been dismantled and subsumed by two adjoining suites.) Bob Dylan, too, in his song “Sara” on the Desire album, reports having written “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in the Chelsea.
Intriguing to note that a few doors down from the Chelsea is, or was, an SM Restaurant in which one could order an appetizer of soup to be eaten from the floor like a dog and for dessert a paddling on the bum. What an appetite!
Among the fiction of Thomas Wolfe is the extraordinary story “Only the Dead Know Brookyln.” It seems to me only the dead could know the immensity of New York’s literary history. I give up, refrain from visiting Kerouac’s apartment at 454 W 20th between 9th and 10th, or Auden’s at 77 St Mark’s Place between 1st and 2nd or the statue of Washington Irving a Irving Place and 17th Street.
Instead I head back to my hotel, still on foot, wading through the heat of the darkening afternoon up through Hell’s Kitchen and Eighth Avenue again past PeepWorld and the Playpen and a great big American flag beneath a sign that orders God to Bless America. Farther on to the theater district and a large likeness of a smoker hiding between buildings, sneaking a weed.
It is dark by the time I reach the Hotel Carter on 43rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, a family-owned hotel recommended to me by Mike Lee of the Cape Cod Voice.
Once known as The Dixie, the Carter was subject of an April 1986 Village Voice exposé by Laurie Stone entitled Heartbreak Hotels, about the more than 3,000 homeless families temporarily housed in run-down, overpriced hotels. Clearly, the Carter has seen better days as well as worse days, but on the Manhattan hotel market it can hardly be called overpriced today. My room on the 21st floor costs $89 a night (at the time of this writing raised to $99) and has a view, or a scrap of a view out the bathroom window, of the Hudson River. I am in room 2131, which is about 7 by 15 feet with a ten-foot ceiling, a walk-in closet which looks like a basement utility room, deckpainted green. There is a good bathroom, three windows, three good mirrors – one strategically positioned at the foot of the king-sized bed for those who like to watch themselves en embrace. Above the bed hangs a single, faded, framed print that seems to want to simulate Paris, and another view out the windows in the sleeping room down to the traffic on 43rd and Eighth.
At night when the tall narrow neon sign that climbs the outer wall blinks on, the name of the hotel changes to HOTE CAR E, the L, T and terminal R having burnt out a couple of years before. It occurs to me that if the E’s go, one at a time, in succession, the hotel will assume, by turns, the names HOT CAR E and HOT CAR, maybe at some point it will be just HOT.
Hot it is tonight as I greet the night manager, Abdul, seated at a desk and swivel chair in the middle of the broad dim lobby.
“Abdul,” I say. “Are you aware that Joe Buck, played by Jon Voigt, in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy stayed here just after he rode the Greyhound dog in from Texas. If you look quick in the film, you can see part of the long sign on the outside wall.”
“I know Joe Buck,” he says. “He was cowboy. With the cowboy hat and the buckskin fringies. But he smell bad,” Abdul adds, waving his fingers before his nose.
“See him lately?”
“I think he move south. Florida maybe.”
Why not? I think. How much of what we think we know is fictive hearsay? Does it matter? The only hard facts that count belong to bridge-builders or aeronautical engineers or surgeons. Reality otherwise is but a point of view, and if you combine angles, you get a hodge-podge of points of view, signifying little other than something to partially satisfy our ignorance of existence. You get a cubistic consciousness – like a fly’s eye view of the world. A fly can walk on the ceiling. But on cubistic feet you can hardly negotiate a floor.
“You know Joe, then, Abdul?”
“I know Joe a lit-tle,” he says with an amending tone. “Not that well.”
Abdul knows I am writing about New York and invites me to join him in the elevator to visit the ghost floor on 24, peopled now by old laundry wagons full of discarded cables and bedding, old mattresses and other rubble. A sign on the wall still advertises the defunct Circle Bar and Lounge and Terrace Restaurant (Dinner from $3.75, lunch from $1.25), but the stairway to the roof is impassable, blocked with chunks of plaster and refuse.
Just as well. I retire to my Bogart noir room with its battered mismatched furniture, a bed table with a drawer but no pull knob, a plastic chair. Thank god it has functioning A/C. I drink a tepid cocktail of Stolichnaya from a cellophane toothbrush glass and munch a turkey curry sandwich purchased from the 24-hour deli that adjoins the lobby, watching kids skateboard a few floors below on the roof of a building across 43rd.
It occurs to me that the New York of those kids is one I will never know. And perhaps they will know little of the New York I see, certainly of the New York I saw decades ago, in the last century, the last millennium.
William Sidney Porter (1862-1910), aka Oliver Henry, aka O. Henry, wrote his New York tales of The Four Million (1906), and each episode of the 1960s TV series about New York, The Naked City, concluded, with an oblique, updated reference to that: “There are eight-million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
It seems to me now, watching those roof-top skateboarders whom I will never know, that perhaps there are eight-million New Yorks and three-hundred-million Americas.
No one will ever know more than a tiny fraction of them.