NYC is a wretchedly wondrous place that can abrade the human spirit leaving nothing more than rue, misery, and existential scar tissue. You find yourself surrounded by tons of people but somehow an inveterate member of the lonely crowd.
My neighborhood changes yet retains its soiled, somewhat cosmopolitan essence. Back in the 70’s when I first entered this then-tattered urban wonderland of seemingly infinite and accessible possibility, my block and the nearby area was pretty much all mom and pop stores with the exception of a few places like Barney’s. The towers of the World Trade Center were also in pristine evidence. You could find an occasional vendor who sold hot dogs, falafel, or rice and beans. There was a pizza parlor on 8th Ave, owned and operated by a Puerto Rican family. At one point in the nineties, the laundromat below me had an actual variety show on Wednesday nights. You could see a comedian or catch a local band. There was also an occasional puppeteer or juggler. This diversity of people, activity, and optics is an example of the sort of thing that compels me to live in Manhattan despite attendant forms of adversity.
Nowadays it’s all Rite Aid, Subway, Walgreens, and Duane Reade. Back in the late 70’s an elderly gentleman dressed in cowboy drag sat on the corner of 7th Ave and 23rd Street while playing Western swing on his pedal stool guitar. Somebody told me he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, that redoubtable stronghold of bohemianism and artistic exploration.
Over the years, I’ve surveyed numerous other sights as I made my way through the neighborhood.
I saw Herbert Huncke, another Chelsea Hotel resident, on a corner near my residence. He was engaged in a heated conversation with a young woman. Despite his dissolute lifestyle he was an aging pretty boy with a wrinkled baby face.
I saw Art Pepper walking along 7th Ave. He was playing at the Vanguard that week. I noticed his paunch. I knew it was a hernia simply because I had recently read his book, Straight Life, a tragic, somewhat lurid tale about a musical career and life thwarted by the ravages of drug addiction.
Then there was Dr. John. I merely watched as he strolled by on a pleasant warm weather day with a child who was most likely his daughter. I read somewhere that he actually lived nearby. NYC makes you jaded about that sort of thing.
What about Nico sitting in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel? Like Pepper and the good Doctor she was a member of the Thomas DeQuincy fan club, a lotus eater who had difficulty foregoing her treacherous appetites.
No, I’m not judgmental; just commenting on what I see and know about what I know and see in this crepuscular nightmare we blithely refer to as life – an out-of-control chimera that initiates and then destroys hope and dreams in a painfully capricious, inexplicable manner.
Sonny was a painter who lived a few blocks down from me. He started painting after a serious motorcycle accident. Sonny was a somber yet affable working-class artist who smoked True cigarettes. I sat for Sonny in order to supplement my meager income derived from playing and teaching music. He talked incessantly while painting. Once he told me he would never allow his children to wear jeans. That sort of thing just didn’t make sense to him.
He talked about the time he visited Mexico. I did play in San Diego on a couple of occasions. On my second trip the other band members went to Tijuana while I spent the day in bed. Touring can take a lot out of you.
Joe, my next door neighbor, lost his right leg due to diabetes exacerbated by the copious, unrelenting consumption of Heaven Hill whiskey. Sometimes he would put on his artificial leg and try to walk down to the O&B on 23rd Street in order to place a bet or two. Judging from what he told me he once had a fling with one of the ladies who worked there.
There was a guy named Dennis. He was courtly, quite pleasant with everyone; when I first met him he was a handsome young man with a neatly trimmed moustache. He always said hello. I would reply in kind. Where did he live? As far as I could tell he was homeless. Often I would see him bob in and out of the liquor store on the corner.
Sleery was a tall, slender, black guy who lived across the hall from me. His girlfriend Linda was white, southern, and danced in little more than a wig and a Band-Aid in a bar on 8th Ave. Once or twice he stopped me on the street in order to converse. He knew I was a musician. He went on and on about his fondness for jazz. Once he even broke into Dizzy Gilespie’s vehicle and stole some of his wardrobe – the hallmark of a true fan.
I found myself stumbling over his unconscious body as I made my way to my room after a gig that had gone on for too long for far too little pay. Who knows? Perhaps he was his own best customer. From time to time he volunteered to provide me with samples of various substances to which he seemingly had easy access. I always declined in the most gracious manner possible.
One Sunday while I sat in my room going through my practice routine the building shook. There was a loud noise. I ran downstairs and discovered a car that had jumped the curb and gone through the front window of the hardware store beneath my apartment.
Years ago the 10th precinct station on 20th Street made a cameo appearance in a film called “Naked City.” How fitting that such an accident took place on a nearby corner.