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Sleaze-Out on East 14th Street

From the Annals of Pre-Gentrification

All the popcorn pimps, penny-ante pross, nickel-and­-dime pill-pushers, methadone junkies, and doorway-living winos felt the hawk wind as it blew down East 14th Street. It’s late October, the time of the year when one night, all of a sudden, you know you better break out the warmer coat. Except that on East 14th Street, who has a warmer coat? One creep — a downer-selling vermin — knows the raw of it all. He stands in front of the pizza joint on 14th and Third Avenue, begging for eye contact. “Robitussin, man, Robitussin.” Robitussin? Two dollar Placidyl is low enough — that shit’ll make your breath smell like metal. But Robitussin? “Robitussin, man. You have got to be kidding.” 

The creep’s voice squeaks up a couple of octaves, his scarred-up head sags. He says, “Just trying to get over. This gonna be a rough winter.”

Shitsure it’s gonna be a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. It’s always a rough winter at 14th Street and Third Avenue. Rough for the blond junkie and his girlfriend. They told the people at the methadone center on Second Avenue and 12th Street that they were going out of town. Back to Ohio to visit the chick’s parents. The methadone people gave them a week’s supply of bottles. Good plan: the blond guy and his girlfriend weren’t going nowhere except to 14th Street to sell the extra shit. But they got into a pushing match with some of the Spanish guys drinking Night Train Express on the subway stairs. The methadone bottles fell down the stairs. The shit got out. What a bitch.

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Rough winter, too, for the big black cross working the entrance of the Contempora Apartments on Third Avenue. Checking her, you’d figure she could open a 14th Street branch of the Fresh Air Fund. Tits for days. But, then again, if you’re looking for scrubbed Tahitian babes in redwood tubs, 14th Street is not the place. The other day, though, it got embarrassing for the big black pross. A Chevy filled with beer-drinkers rolled slow by her doorway. She said, “Wanna go out?” It was sincere bargaining in good faith — “Wanna go out?” But the Chevy was deadbeat. The driver yelled out the window, “Yeah, how much you want to pay me, pig?” Some joke. Whip a pross, stick her with sewing-machine needles, step on her face, but don’t call her a pig. The pross took out the after the Chevy, breasts lurching north and south, ass bumping east and west. The Chevy was stopped at the light. The big black pross slammed her pocketbook against the windshield. Mascara pads and fake eyelashes flew. “Motherfucker,” screamed the big black pross, “why you come down here and try to make fun of me?” The Chevy rolled up the windows and sped away, laughing.

Rough winter, dead rough winter. So rough some have already taken off. Nobody in the Durkin, the creep joint with the tilted bar, has seen Joey the Eye for a while. Joey the Eye was messed up — too fucked up to cop pills, never had a girl out on the street. But he could — and would — take his bloodshot eyeball out of his head and hold it in the palm of his hand. The Hung Man is also missing. He spent some of the summer leaning on a parking meter, stark naked. Valium pushers came over, slapped five, and said. “Man, you hung.”

Beat Shit Green is gone, too. But no one in the pill­-pusher ginmills on 2nd Avenue figures Beat Shit is soaking up rays in Miami Beach. Beat Shit is one of the worst scumbags ever to stand at 14th Street and Third Avenue hustling “Ts and Vs” (Tuinals and Valium). He used to claim that he was the one who sold the white boy that fatal bunch of beat shit in Washington Square Park last year. The white boy didn’t dig getting burned and came back with friends and baseball bats. People got bruised. One died. Back on 14th Street Beat Shit bragged. He is the kind of pill-pusher who doesn’t give a shit if you take one of his tuies that isn’t even a tuie and go into convulsion right at his feet. Damn, he made his $2.50. Beat Shit has been known to sell methadone that was really Kool-Aid and aspirin. He’d suck the juice out of a Placidyl and sell the shell. But, they say, that kind of beat shit comes back on you. They say Beat Shit’s not going to make the winter because he got thrown off a roof on East 13th Street.

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Rough. Cold. In one of the bars next to the cuchifrito stand, Willie (“call me Big W”) is wondering if he’ll see April. For a downer salesman, Willie is a pretty sweet dude. Sometimes if one of the barmaids in the Durkin is smooching it up with an off-duty cop, Willie will take a bar stool next to the chick and wait. Soon she’ll curl her hand around her back and make a little cup. Willie will slip her a couple of Valiums. The barmaid will put her other hand in the cop’s crotch and pull her face away — pretending to cough or something. While the cop is dealing with the barmaid’s squeeze, she’ll swallow the pills and go back to tonguing before the guy knows anything. Willie digs that kind of move. He says, “She’s slick, huh?”

Recently, though, things haven’t been going too good for Big W. He makes a little bread selling his shit to kids from Jersey on 14th Street — enough to keep a room in an SRO hotel uptown. But, like they say, Willie is his own best customer. Talking to him gets you seasick; he’s always listing from side to side. Tonight Big W is wearing his skullcap funny. It’s not pulled down over his head; he’s got it done up in a little crown. Willie says he don’t want it skintight, it puts too much pressure on his stitches. Seems as Willie was in the Durkin a couple of weeks ago and got into an argument with a pimp. Willie thought the guy was just bullshitting until the iron rod came out. Willie forgets what happened next. Except that he woke up in Bellevue with a head that looks like a roadmap.

Stitches get Willie mad. Mad enough to “get violent.” The other night, Wille kept looking at those stitches in the mirror so long he decided he was “just gonna go mug myself somebody.” He went around to the stage door of the Palladium and picked out a kid who was completely destroyed on Tuinals. The kid was waiting for an autograph. Willie figured anyone jive enough a wait for a fucking autograph has to be an asshole. It got better when the rock star came out the door, “got into his fucking limo, and didn’t even give the sucker an autograph.” So Willie made his move. The Jersey kid beat Willie into the sidewalk and “stole my Placidyls.” At this rate, Willie figures he’ll be lucky to live till spring.

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You wouldn’t predict better for Leroy and Sally. They’re sweethearts. Leroy, a good-looking mother with a brown hat, used to push pills but he got behind them. Half a dozen Placidyls a day. Bad news. So he hooked up with Sally. Now she’s on the street and he’s home with the housekeep­ing. It’s worked out good, too. They got a place without roaches on 13th Street in a building with a locked door. Sally had some chairs and a blue light bulb. Leroy slipped the super some to tell the landlord the dead Polish lady hadn’t moved yet, so the rent is dirt cheap.

But then Sally started taking busts. Every Friday night the cops’ pussy posse would pull her in. She changed corners, went over to 12th Street. Nothing worked. Sally always got the toughest judge. The fines mounted up. Leroy and Sally started arguing. Sally got uptight and started crying. Sometimes she cried for no reason. Leroy told her to shut it up. He said she was an ugly bitch with a fucking pinhead bobbing on the top of goddamned two-foot­ long neck. Sally cried some more.

A couple of weeks ago she was crying in the laundromat the Chinese guys run on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. Leroy whacked Sally with a clenched fist. He never hit her with a clenched fist before. When the Chinese guy who folds the towels said something, Leroy screamed, “Shut up, motherfucker.” Then he went over the dryer and pulled out all his underwear. He told Sally it was over and was gone.

He was lying. A few days later Leroy and Sally were back together. They were in a bodega on 3rd Avenue, screaming at the Spanish guy behind the counter. The guy was claiming Sally stole a bag of Planter’s peanuts. Sally said, ”You cocksucker, spic. Fucking cocksucker, spic. We don’t need your fucking peanuts, spic. I got a fucking hundred dollars in my fucking pocket, spic. So take you fucking peanuts and shove them up your ass.”

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The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York

I have always wanted to write a story called “The 10 Sleaziest Street Corners in New York.” Once, while I was working for New York Magazine, I suggested this idea to my then boss, Clay Felker. The story would be an enormous asset, I said. Diplo­matically I pointed out that the magazine seemed to spend inordinate time and space deciphering and celebrating the city’s high life. Why not devote equal time to the city’s low life? Certainly, New York is as much about its sleazoids as its swells. Here, I bargained, was a fabulous opportunity to do some truly meaningful city reporting. More than reporting. This would be a major breakthrough for the publication; it would be city anthropology — no, city sleazology, I called it, coining a perfect cover line. I mean, why did certain street corners — excluding obvious “ghetto” area ones — become hangouts for pill-pushers, prostitutes, winos, bums, creeps, cripples, mental pa­tients, mumblers, flimflam men, plastic flower sellers, peepshow orators, head­-cases, panhandlers, and other socially unacceptable netherworld types? How did these corners get this way? How long had they been this way? What was their future? Which ones have McDonalds? Which ones have Burger King? Did this matter?

I submitted a fairly comprehensive list off the top of my head: 96th Street and Broadway — the first subway stop down from Harlem; 72nd Street and Broadway — good old needle park; 53rd and Third — the Ramones sang about ‘hawking there; 28th and Park Avenue South — the Bellmore brings the pross; 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s — the dregs of the burned-out hippies; Bowery and Houston — the creme of the classic bum corner; 6th Avenue and 8th Street — the aggressively plastic up-and-­comer; 90th Street and Roosevelt in Queens — home of the low-level Colombian coke dealer; 14th and Third; and, of course, the granddaddy: The 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue-42nd Street and Eighth Avenue complex.

To me, it was a brilliant idea. Even the title was perfect for New York. I was prepared, however — if pressured — to add the word “hot” to the headline. Felker listened to this rap with ever-widening and horrified eyes. Then he looked at me like I was a bug and told me to get cracking on Barry Manilow.

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Still, the sleaze story festered in my brain. But ambition wanes. It soon became apparent that it was crazy to “do” all the corners of crud in New York. How many burgers can one be called on to eat for the sake of journalism? It would be better to hone in on one singular slice of sleaze.

Fourteenth Street and 3rd Avenue was the natural choice. I live around there; it’s my neighborhood sleazy street corner. The pross have seen me enough to know I don’t wanna go out. But, also, 14th Street and Third Avenue is a classic, time-honored choice. 14th Street — the longest crosstown Street in Manhattan — has been on the skids, for the past 120 years.

Once, long ago, blue blood ran through this stem. An 1853 edition of the New York Herald said of East 14th Street, “Here, there are no stores — nothing but dwelling houses, which are substantial, highly finished, and first class.” When stores did come, they were Tiffany’s and FAO Schwarz. When the Academy of Music was built, in 1854, it was hailed as the city’s center of classical music and opera. Europeans sang there. The Metropolitan Opera House was built uptown by smarmy nouveaux riches, like the Vanderbilts, who couldn’t get boxes at the Academy.

It didn’t last long. East 14th Street did one of the quickest and earliest “there goes the neighborhoods” in New York history. By 1865, the New York Times was reporting that “all of the once-splendid row houses of the 14th Street-Union Square sector are now boarding houses.” Even more august sources scorned the street: In 1868, Charles Dickens saw 14th Street as a precursor of Levittown. He said: “There are 300 boarding houses exactly alike, with 300 young men exactly alike, sleeping in 300 hall bedrooms exactly alike, with 300 dress suits exactly alike ….”

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Never trust a Brit snob’s sum-up of Amer­ica. 14th Street got seamier, but it was cooking. Prostitution was firmly rooted on East 14th Street by the turn of the century (a Gentleman’s Companion of the time lists 15 whorehouses in the area), and it aided some unlikely causes. Emma Goldman writes of doing a little flat-backing on 14th Street to pick up revolutionary pocket money. Those days, there were plenty of Reds around. Socialists and worse stood on soapboxes in Union Square Park. Once, during the Sacco-Vanzetti trials, the cops mounted machine guns on top of the Guardian Life building. John Reed and Trotsky discussed eventualities in the 14th Street cafeteria, which had a sign on the wall: A TRAYFUL FOR A TRIFLE.

Capitalists did not lie down in the face of such impressive lefties. D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio, where Lilly and Dolly Gish graced one-reelers, was on East 14th Street. Buster Keaton made shorts here. Old-rag salesmen and handlers made shop on 14th Street. Many of the schlockmeisters who made it big — and some who didn’t make it so big — started on 14th Street. Macy’s, Hearn’s. Ohrbach’s, and Klein’s were here.

Today the only vestige of leftist activity on 14th Street is the sign from the ’60s underground newspaper Rat, which had its offices next to the Metropolitan porno theater. It reads, “HOT RATS WHILE YOU WAIT.” The capitalists didn’t fade, they moved out. Only Klein’s, with nowhere to go, held on. The trade from Stuyvesant Town in the east couldn’t sustain it. There was no future in selling to Puerto Ricans. Three years ago it closed. Now the massive “Klein’s on The Square” is an empty 300,000-foot hulk. The square-rule logo makes the place look like a decrepit Masonic Temple; except there’s no “all-seeing eye.”

The East Village Other, in one of its last issues, published a secret report predicting a deadly and monumental earthquake about to flatten half the city. The scientists, (all Hitlerians, said EVO) were keeping the news from the public. The report said all the major fault lines ran right underneath 14th Street. It was a totally believable story. 

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East 14th Street should have settled into a typical cycle of urban decline and upshift. Sure, the area has its share of pross and winos in Union Square Park and on the line to go to the bathroom at the Variety Photoplays. But that wouldn’t have both­ered the loft people or the apartment renovators. It didn’t happen, though. The sleazos came instead. And East 14th Street continued to go down … down … down. In fact, after a 120-year skid, it hasn’t bottomed out yet.

14th Street at Third Avenue is more than a sleazy street corner, it’s the epicenter of a mini­-sleazopolis. In the blocks around the hub, several different creep scenes operate side by side, and almost independently. Occasionally a pimp hanging out in the Rio Piedras bodega, on Third Avenue near 11th Street, will go up to 14th Street to sell some pills, but not often. The girls stay fucked up most of the time but don’t sell. Pill-pushers don’t even go to the same bars as the pross. It’s a real division of labor. The thing that holds it all together is that it’s all so low. Low! Ask the Robitussin man, or the big black cross, or the methadone tripper, or Willie — they’ll tell you: After 14th Street, there ain’t no more down.

The pimps ain’t happening. They sit on the steps of the barber college at Third and 12th, talking big and pretending to be Mexican hacienda patroons. Fake, all fake. These pimps aren’t taking no territory from King George, no way. These pimps never even get to lean against an El D, much less have a fur hat. They’re lucky to have one girl working. And the pross ain’t making bread. They’re turning $200 a week when it’s good. No chance of them taking their act Lexington or even Eighth Avenue. They’re on 14th Street because the big pimps think the place is so funky they don’t even care to organize it. Creeps say 14th is one step from the glue factory. Shit, a few months ago the cops picked up a 53-year-old pross by the Contempora Apartments.

Pill-pushers are no better. Most of them started turning up on 14th Street back in the late ’60s after two doctors, Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswarder — the father and mother of methadone maintenance — shook up the dope-fiend world by setting up a clinic at the Morris J. Bernstein Institute of Beth Israel Hospital. Methadone was touted as a wonder drug. Everyone said it would be the end of the heroin problem in the city. Junkies from all over the city were sent over to Bernstein (on Second Avenue and 17th Street) and other nearby “model” clinics to drink little clear bottles and kick.

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Some kicked. But most just got a short course in how to manipulate the Medicaid programs politicians loved to pour money into. Drugs led to drugs. It was easy to take your little methadone card and Medicaid slip over to a “scrip” doctor who would be willing to write you an Rx for a 100 Valiums if you told him you were “anxious.” Otherwise, you could write your own scrip. The forms were usually lying around the program offices. Anyone who could write more than “X” could get a pharmacist to fill the scrips. What you didn’t use to get fucked up on, you could sell. Same thing with extra methadone.

14th Street and Third became the flea market. It was an Eco-101 example of supply and demand. The drug of choice among the dumbo suburban kids these days is downers. And that’s what the 14th Street pillboys sell. Throughout Long Island and Jersey blond-haired types driving their papas’ Le Sabres know 14th Street is the place to go. Any night a useless boogie band is playing the Palladium (what they call the Academy of Music now), you can see the most mediocre minds of the next generation go into the toilet.

Everyone knows it. Go over to the emergency room at one of the hospitals in the area, tell them you’re dying from a headache and want some Percodan. The intern there will be surprised and ask you, “Sure you don’t want Valium?” Insist on Percodan and the intern will tell you, “Take the Valium. If you don’t use them, sell them on 14th Street.” There’s no night (except for Sunday, when the Street is eerie and dead) when you can’t walk from Fourth Avenue to Second Avenue on 14th Street without at least half a dozen ball-cap-wearing spades and pinpoint-eyed junkies asking you if you want downers. Placidyls for $2.50; Valium, 75 cents; Tuinal, $3; Elavil, $2 on 14th Street (prices somewhat higher on weekends when the Paladium is working). You’d figure that would add up. Especially since Medicaid pays. No overhead. But these guys ain’t got no money. They’re too spaced out. That’s why they’re on 14th to begin with. They couldn’t get over selling smack on 123rd Street. They couldn’t even get over selling smack on Avenue B and 6th Street. They don’t got the concentration. No big “pusher wars” here. These guys couldn’t tell friend from enemy. They are in trouble if you ask them for more than three Valiums. They pour the pills out into their hands and start counting. And keep counting.

If you want to draw a map of the 14th-and-Third sleazopolis, give the pill-­pushers 14th Street between Second and Fourth. But they’re never, for some reason, on the north side of the street. Scoring spots include the doorway of the Larry Richardson Dance Company and the corner of Fourth Avenue. Most of the guys up there are in business for them­selves but there are also “steerers,” creeps who will tell Jersey kids to come around the corner to 13th Street. This is usually for “quantity” and sometimes for rip-off.

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The rest of the scene, working from the west and down, goes like this: Union Square Park is bonkers these days, the sight of curving benches packed with sali­va-streaked and leathery faces is truly impressive. The park isn’t a major retail center for the pill-pusher, but many will come over for a little rural R and R. After a tough day of Placidyl pushing, you can lose it back playing craps or three-card monte. There are also several “loose joints” guys who got off the wrong subway stop on the way down to Washington Square. Some smack here, too.

The pross take Third Avenue. Their spiritual home is near 14th Street, where there are two miserable excuses for peep­show joints as well as three porno theatres (that includes the Variety when it’s not showing devil movies). But the ‘toots will graze down to 5th Street. They are careful, however, not to mess with the turf of the pross operating out of the Delancy-Bowery area. The Regina Hotel on Third and 13th (a featured backdrop in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) is no longer a big pross hole. The cops broke the manager’s balls so now he plays it cool. Most of the hotel tricking goes on at the Sahara, a little oasis on 14th. The Sahara has a sign saying LOW WEEKLY RATES even though most guests spend less than a half hour at the Sahara. Seven dollars is the room tariff. But this isn’t a hotel scene. It’s all $20 blow-jobs and wack-offs in the hallway down where the super keeps the trash cans. Or in the cars in one of the parking lots along Third Avenue. The West Indian guy who used to work there charged $2 for use of the cars. Hope they didn’t use yours.

The “he-shes” (also called “shims” or “he-haws”) hang near Second Avenue and 12th Street, and also congregate at Little Peters, a swish bar by St. Marks Place. This is one of the biggest t.v. scenes in the city. Of the 1400 pross arrests the cops made in the area during the past year or so, nearly half were men dressed up as women. Ask why he-shes are usually Puerto Rican and a “he-haw” says, “our people are so mean to us … besides, haven’t you ever heard that Latins were made to love?” The he-shes are much classier looking than the straight pross. Johns claim you can’t even tell until you get real close. And, even then … you can’t. But, then again, most of the johns who cruise 14th Street just don’t care.

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With this kind of scene in the streets it makes sense that many of the “legitimate” businesses that have stayed on East 14th Street during the downtimes fall into the seedy category in most Upper East Siders’ book. Up the stairs at the Gramercy Gym, where Cus D’amato trained Patterson and Jose Torres, the fighters don’t think too much about the sleazos below. Fighters figure they’re on the fringe of the law themselves. They don’t point fingers. They know Placidyls make it tough to run six miles in the morning, so they don’t play that shit and let it be.

At Jullian’s Billiards, one of the great film-noir light-over-the-faded-green-cloth­-Luther-Lassiter-played-here pool halls in New York, hardly anyone makes mention of the scene either. The old men who sit on the wood benches, watching the nine-ball games, don’t have time to think about creeps; this is a game of hard planning; ­you’ve got to know what’s coming five shots ahead. So just shoot pool. Who cares who pisses in the hallway?

Paula Klaw has her private thoughts. She’s been on East 14th Street for better than 30 years. She remembers when the cuchifrito stand was a Rikers. And when there were two Hungarian restaurants on this block. She is not, however, complain­ing. “Who am I to complain?” says Paula Klaw. Paula Klaw runs Movie Star News, a film-still and “nostalgia” store stuffed into the second floor of the building next to the Jefferson Theatre. It’s the best place to get photos of Clive Brook. But from the street its hard to tell if Paula Klaw is open. The window, which says, IRVING KLAW, THE PINUP KING is covered with soot. The window is left over from the days when Paula’s brother Irving ran the place. Those days the Klaws were more famous for bondage pictures than portraits of Gary Cooper. Paula and Irving Klaw were the bondage kings of New York. Together they took more than 4000 different pictures of ladies in satin bras and panties in the apartment above Movie Star News. Paula was in charge of posing the pictures. She tied ladies to chairs, hung them from clotheslines, gagged them on beds, and manacled them with leather. The pictures had titles like “Betty Comes to New York and Gets in a Bind.”

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“It was wonderful those days,” Paula says now, “we had politicians, judges, prime ministers coming here to buy our photos. They would park their limos right outside on 14th Street.” After a while, however, Irving got busted for sending the stuff through the mails. Lengthy court cases ensued. Fighting back a tear Paula says, “it was all that that killed Irving, I think. They said we sold porno. We did not sell porno.” Today Paula sells a book called The Irving Klaw Years 1948-1963 containing “more than 200 out-of-print bondage photos.” Paula calls it a “fitting remembrance to my brother.” Paula has white hair, blue makeup, and wears Capri pants, doesn’t have to come to 14th Street every day. She lives in Sheepshead Bay and “has plenty of money.” But she “just likes it … you know, this used to be quite a glamorous street.” She says she hasn’t washed the IRVING KLAW, PINUP KING window in 20 years. She does not intend to.

If Paula, Jullian’s, and the fighters add aged seed to the surroundings it’s the cynical “businessmen” who give 14th Street and Third Avenue its shiny veneer of plastic sleaze. Who could have been sur­prised when Burger King opened in the old Automat where the man who’s buried next to Lenin once ate club rolls? America’s Burger King knows its customers when it sees them. The burger boys probably have whole demographic departments to psyche out every sleaze scene in the galaxy. No doubt they felt they had to keep pace after McDonald’s sewed up 96th and Broadway. Then there are the donuts. There are at least five donut joints in the immediate area of 14th Street and Third Avenue. One even replaced Sam’s Pizza, a lowlife landmark for years. Donuts are definitely the carbo-junkie wave of the future. In fact, if some doctor would publish a weight-losing diet of Placidyls and donuts, airline stewardesses would make 14th Street another Club Med.

But, of course, the real merchants of 14th Street and Third Avenue are the sleazos. They control the economy. And why not? No one else wanted to sell stuff on East 14th Street. You have to figure that more Placidyls and pussy gets sold at 14th and Third than the pizza joint sells pizza or the cuchifrito place sells pork rinds. Or the boarded-up Jefferson Theatre sells tickets. No wonder the sleazos were pissed the other day. The Third Avenue Merchants Association was having a fair. They closed off the avenue. Ladies in print dresses sold pottery. Bug-eyed kids stood by tables of brownies. A nice day in the sun for the well adjusted. But the fair halted abruptly at 14th Street, even though Third Avenue continues downtown for several streets before it turns into the Bowery. The implication was clear, and the sleazos weren’t missing it. A whole slew of the local losers stood on “their” side of 14th Street, gaping at the fat-armed zeppoli men pulling dough and the little kids whizzing around in go-karts. One Valium pusher looked up at the sign hung across the avenue and read it aloud. “T … A … M … A … ,” he said. “What the fuck is a T.A.M.A.?”

The Third Avenue Merchants Association, he was informed. “Shit,” he said, looking very put out.

“Motherfucker, I’m a goddamned Third Avenue merchant.”

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“The Livingest Street”

So what if 14th Street is low? The soul of the city boy looks into his heart of hearts and says, 14th Street is okay by me. Does every block have to look like SoHo or one of those tree-lined numbers in Queens that Catholics say they’re ready to die for? This is New York, isn’t it? Chalk it up to local color. The other night I was helping my friend move. He had been living on 15th Street and Third Avenue in a high-rise, but the money got tight. So he took a place on 12th between Second and Third. As we were carrying an enormous filing cabinet into the lobby of his new building, he said, “Well, this place is dumpy, but at least I won’t have to pass the prostitutes every day on the way to work.” A couple of seconds later we heard a noise on the staircase. A ‘toot was slapping a solid on a guy who we swore had a turned-around collar. We almost dropped the cabinet, laughing. Funny. After all, where else but on East 14th Street can you hear a blasted Spanish downer freak abusing a little Polish guy, saying, “Que pasa? Que pasa? Que pasa?” To which the Polish guy says, questioning, “Kielbasa? Kielbasa?”

And it’s not as if the street is like the South Bronx, with parch marks around broken windows and savage skulls in the street. Considering the amount of petty law-breaking that goes on in this area, the incidence of violent crime is small. The drug pushers got some mouth on them but are pretty docile at five feet. They won’t steal your television set. Medicaid pays for their drugs . The pross, too, are a model of whore decorum. Reports of mug-teams and wallet lifting are minimal.

Of course, there are those who do not ascribe to this type of thinking. Like Carvel Moore. Explaining why sleaze is essential to the big-city experience to her is like explaining it to Clay Felker. Except that Carvel Moore takes it more personally. She is the “project coordinator” of Sweet 14, an organization dedicated to making 14th Street “The Livingest Street in Town.”

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They are a cleanup group. Ever since I saw the moral “uplifters” take the young couple’s baby in Intolerance and Mayor LaGuardia swing an axe into a pinball machine, I’ve been suspicious of “clean-up groups.” This group was no different. The list of names who attended their kickoff meeting at Luchow’s (the only good thing about Luchow’s is that the Nebraskans who eat there have to wade through degen­erates to sop up that Restaurant Associates’ teutonic swill) read like a who’s who among New York powermongers. Charlie (Black-out) Luce, David Yunich, Mayor Beame, Percy Sutton, representatives of Citibank, the phone company, and Helms­ley-Spear. They issued a joint statement saying 14th Street wasn’t dead, it could ”be turned around” and it was up to the businessmen and government to do it. Luce, the chairman of the group, offered $50,000 of Con Edison money each year for three years to this end. 

Suspicion smelled a set-up. The high-­rollers must be running scared. Con Ed and the phone company have their main offices on East 14th Street. Helmsley-Spear has major holdings in the area. Something had to be done about the sleazo effect on property values. Or maybe Luce just doesn’t like seeing creeps when he pulls up in his limo. Things got fishier when it was noticed that the Sweet 14 offices were on the eighth floor of the Con Ed building, right alongside the other “customer-service” rooms. 

Carvel Moore, a prim lady who once headed a local planning board, said it was “dead wrong” to assume that Sweet 14 was a front group for Charles Luce, the phone company, or anyone else. Sweet 14 was an independent organization looking out for “everyone’s interests on East 14th Street.” She said that Luce’s $50,000 was “just a small portion of the money” the group had to work with. Then she brought out a bunch of art-student line drawings showing me how “incredibly inefficient” the 14th Street-Union Square subway station is. It is one of Sweet 14’s major tasks to “help remodel the station,” said Ms. Moore, pointing out how the station’s “awkwardness” made it difficult for employees to get to work. The project will cost $800,000.

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She also was very high on “Sweet Sounds in Union Square Park,” a concert series sponsored by Sweet 14. Ms. Moore detailed how these musical events brought “working people on their lunch hour back into the park … and made the drunks and junkies feel uncomfortable.” Drunks and junkies always feel uncomfortable when “normal” people are around, Ms. Moore said.

The most important task of Sweet 14, however, continued Ms. Moore, was “to break up the vicious drug trade and prostitution on 14h Street near Third Avenue.” What kind of business, Ms. Moore wanted to know, would want to move to this area with things the way they are now? Sweet 14, said Ms. Moore, was now working closely with the cops to take “special action” on 14th Street. One of the main problems with local law enforcement, Ms. Moore said, is that the yellow line down 14th Street separates the jurisdictions of the Ninth and 13th Precincts. According to Ms. Moore some of the more nimble-footed degenerates in the area know this and escape cops who are loath to chase bad guys into another precinct. Sweet 14, however, has been “instrumental” in getting Captain Precioso of the Ninth Precinct to set up a “14th Street Task Force” to deal with this situation. The organization has also “been active” in monitoring the OTB office at the corner of Second Avenue and 14th Street. According to Ms. Moore, many people loiter in this office, making it a hangout for sleazos.

I wanted to tell Ms. Moore that I often make bets at the 14th Street OTB and then hang out there (admittedly not inhaling deeply), waiting to see how my nag ran. But I held it in. Instead, I wanted to know what, after Sweet 14 succeeded in making East 14th Street safe for businessmen, she suggested doing with the several thousand nether-creatures now populating the street? She indicated that was a “social problem” and not part of her job. All in all it was a somewhat depressing conversation. And I walked out feeling I would rather buy electricity from Beat Shit Green than a cleanup from Charles Luce.

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More troubling was a talk I had with George and Susan Leelike. They are the co-heads of “East 13th Street Concerned Citizens Committee.” The very name of the group brings up images of whistle-blowing at the sight of a black person and badgering tenants to get up money to plant a tree. But George and Susan Leelike are a little tough to high-hat. After all, they are from the block. They’ve lived on East 13th Street for 15 years. Raised a son there. And they came for cool reasons: Back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the East Village was hip. Charlie Mingus and Slugs made it hip. The Leelikes related to that.

So, when these people tell you they don’t think a pross and a priest in a hallway is funny, you’ve got to take them seriously. They do have a compelling case. George explains it all: He says the Lower East Side gets reamed because the neighborhood’s major industry is “service.” Any time a neighborhood is poor, “service” becomes a major industry. The Lower East Side is both poor and liberal. So, says George Leelike, it has a higher percentage of social work agencies than any other neighborhood in the city. He questions the validity of some of these projects, pointing out that one place, Project Contact, started in the ’60s as a teenage runaway home, then went to alcohol treatment, then to drug rehab, and now is back to runaways. This is “grant-chasing,” says Leelike. For the social workers to keep their jobs, the projects have to stay open. To stay open, they have to get grants. To get grants, they have to show they understand the “current” problems of the community and attract “clients.” George Leelike says there are more “clients” on the Lower East Side than any other place in the world.

“Clients,” the Leelikes say, are not the most stable neighbors. The worst are the methadone junkies. Beth Israel, says Leelike, has made “millions” from its methadone-maintenance programs that bring thousands of “clients” to the Lower East Side. So have the individual private doctors who run their own methadone clinics in the neighborhood. The Leelikes were a major force in a community drive that shut down one Dr. Triebel’s clinic on Second Avenue and 13th Street. Triebel pulled in more than $700,000 in one year, much of it in Medicaid payments.

This kind of activity brought still more sleazos to the neighborhood, the Leelikes said. They pulled out Xeroxed arrest reports from the Ninth and 13th precincts, showing that the majority of the pillpushers pinched on 14th Street said they were on some kind of methadone program. They said it was a vicious cycle, that many of the people on methadone had no desire or intention of kicking. Most of the local meth freaks were here on “force” programs. The city told them, sign up with a methadone clinic or no welfare.

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These were frightening charges, not just because they were indisputably well-thought-out and apparently true. But because they went to the very core of the two most important issues in the city — race and class. Talking to George Leelike, you had to admire his rational approach to subjects that usually inspire mad, inflammatory outbursts. You also got a closer look at why Ed Koch will be the next mayor of New York City. After all, didn’t he run an indisputably well-thought-out, apparently true, eminently rational campaign that appealed to the get-the-creeps-out-of-my-neighborhood constituency? Didn’t he win by taking the side of the harried, postliberal middle class against the nether class?

It was chilling and inescapable. Tolerance levels have gone down. The Leelikes said the thing they hated most about the sleazos was that they’re so snotty. In the old days, when Susan Leelike went to Cooper Union, junkies hung out in the Sagamore Cafeteria, near Astor Place. Dope fiends those days knew they were outcasts and acted accordingly. The Leelikes remembered these Burroughsian types with a touch of romanticism. Now, they said, methadone makes being a junkie legal. And the creeps have come out into the daylight, where it quickly becomes apparent that junkies aren’t the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

This hit home. A few weeks ago I was walking by Cooper Square. A guy in his mid-twenties was stretched out on the ground, twitching. He didn’t look like a lowlife; he had French jeans on. A small crowd gathered around him. A cabbie stopped and put on his emergency blinker. The guy seemed to be having a seizure. Maybe he’s an epileptic, said the cabby, pull his tongue out of his mouth. Two people went for the cops, another to call an ambulance. Finally an older man rolled up the guy’s sleeve. The dude’s arm looked like a Penn Central yard. The older guy threw the arm back on the sidewalk in disgust. “He’s just a fucking junkie,” the cabby said. “A fucking junkie.” Half the people in crowd said, “Shit … ” And everyone just split. Me, too. I split. When the guy’s an epileptic he’s human; when he’s a junkie, fuck him. I remembered how, 10 years ago, we used to guide Hell’s Angels through bad trips even though we knew they would probably run us over if they were straight. Somehow figured it was our duty. This guy wasn’t any of my business.

So I knew the Leelikes had the trend on their side. Also, it was clear — they are determined. They are willing to run the risk of being called redneck — Susan Leelike says, “I hate it when they call me the white lady” — to get rid of sleazos. And they don’t flinch when you ask them where they propose the sleazos go. “It’s just not our problem,” they say.

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The Arrest of Ernest James

Patrolmen Bob Woerner and Dennis Harrington are in an empty office above Glancy’s Bar on East 14th Street and Irving Place, hiding. Harrington and Woerner have been partners for six years. They used to work the smack detail on Avenues A, B, C, and D (called avenues X, Y, and Z in cop parlance). But pressure from Sweet 14 and local politicians on the department to “do something” about 14th Street brought them here 11 months ago. Since then Woerner and Harrington, tough and smart cops, have been the most effective (in terms of arrests) of the twenty men on the Ninth Precinct’s “14th Street Task Force.”

Sometimes Woerner and Harrington walk down 14th Street and ask buzz-brained cats, “Hey, man. What you doing?” It’s a torture technique; they know that the toughest question in the world for a sleazo is “What are you doing?” Creeps’ knees buckle under the weight of that one; they say, “I dunno, what am I doing?” But what Woerner and Harrington really like to do is make busts. Which is why they are hiding in the empty room above Glancy’s Bar with their binoculars trained on the action beneath the Palladium marquee.

Making busts on 14th Street isn’t tough. Sometimes guys will be so loaded they come right up and say, “Placidyl … Placidyl … oh, shee-it” before they realize they’re talking to the Man. It is tricky, however. First of all, the captain doesn’t like cops to make too many arrests. He says busts take police off the street and put them in court. But cops say the department doesn’t give enough of a shit about what’s in the street to pay overtime. Primarily though, when you’re making “observation” busts on 14th Street, you’ve got to see them good. Most of the sellers get their stuff from scrip doctors, which means their own name is on the bottle. It is not a crime to carry “controlled substances” — if the (not-forged) scrip is made out to you. Selling the stuff, however, is illegal. So, instead of just grabbing a single party, like a smack bust, cops have to get both the buyer and the seller as well as recover the shit cold. They also have to see the deal go down perfectly — that is, if they’re not into fudging evidence in court. Woerner and Harrington say, why fudge, on 14th Street if you miss one sale, they’ll soon be another. But still, it hurts when you’ve been freezing behind the Con Edison fence at 14th and Third, waiting for just the right view. And then, right at the big moment, a bus goes by.

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Tonight, however, it ain’t gonna be no prob-lem. Foghat, some mindless boogie band, is playing the Palladium and a dozen suburban kids are milling around in front of the theater, looking to get stupid. Woerner and Harrington are licking their lips. All they need is a seller. And from down the street, trudging slowly up from Third Avenue by the poolroom, here he comes. In unison the cops shout, ALL RIGHT, ERNEST JAMES … COME ON, ERNEST JAMES. Ernest James, a gangly guy with a face and beard like Sonny Rollins, came on. He walked into a crowd of leather-jacketed white kids. Got into a conversation with one. Took him off to the doorway of the fight gym. Then it couldn’t have been clearer if Otto Preminger were directing. Out came the bottle. There went the pill. Across came the three dollars. And down the stairs went Woerner and Harrington.

Like nothing, Harrington was reading Ernest James his rights. Woerner had the buyer, a blonde boy from Pelham Bay, up against the wall. Ernest James, the perfect degenerate, pulled out a slew of false I.D.s, a Kool cigarette, and looked impassively at the sky. Against the wall another kid was screaming to the buyer, “Jeff, Jeff … give me your ticket for the show.”

Ernest James was in big trouble. He had a goddamned drugstore on him. Ten bottles of pills in all: 26 big white tabs thought to be Quaaludes, 21 Tuinals, 15 Seconals, 40 unknown peach-colored pills, 34 unknown white pills, 23 ampicillins, 29 unknown yellow pills, and several dozen Placidyls. Most of the bottles were made out to Ernest James. Some to Ernest Jones. Some to A. Ramos. One was just to “Ernest,” which prompted Woerner to wonder if Ernest James was on a first-name basis with his pharmacist. Also found were two Garcia y Vega humidors full of 5- and 10-mg. Valium. Neither one of those was made out to anyone. Almost all the scrips were supposedly written by one Doctor Jacob Handler of West 103rd Street. Doctor Handler is a 14th-Street favorite. Harrington keeps a little scorecard of doctors’ names that appear on bottles. Doctor Handler is way up near the top of the list. But the cops say nothing will happen to him because “it’s tough to bust a doctor.”

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In Dr. Handler’s defense, it was thought that Ernest James forged some of the scripts. After all, Ernest has half-a-dozen different medical identification cards. Some are made to the name William Summersall, others to A. Ramos and Ernest Jones. He also had a little notebook in which he has apparently been practicing different signatures. Most are Ernest Jones. But there is also a page on which “Texas Slim” is written a dozen times.

Under the 15-watt glare in the Ninth’s arrest room, Harrington books Ernest James. This is nothing new — Harrington has arrested Ernest James before. In fact, Ernest has six busts for pills this year already. Too bad, figures Dennis Harrington: Ernest James is not a bad guy. In fact, Dennis thinks, most of the guys he busts aren’t real bad. Just a bunch of losers. Ernest James had $84 on him, but that had to be his life savings. Most guys have about $30. “Sometimes it is that ‘there but for fortune thing,” says Dennis, who is haunted by the memory of his brother, who was “into junk.” He also thinks about that same picture they always show of Karen Quinlan. Dennis wonders if she got her downs on 14th Street.

Asked where he got all the pills, Ernest James is cool. “I’m qualified to have as many pills as I want,” he says. Asked about all the different IDs, Ernest says, “I’m qualified to have as many names as I want.”

While the cops count up the rest of Ernest’s stash, I ask him if he thinks the businessmen and cops can clean up 14th Street. He says, “I dunno ’bout no cleanup. All I know is I wanna get to St. Louis. I can do security over there. I can’t sell these pills no more. But if I don’t, I got bread and water. My philosophy is that if the city put the clean in the street, they put the dirt in the street, too. Goes both ways. There is one thing that’s sure. Ain’t no way to clean up this. Cops come fuck up with 14th Street, people just gonna go somewheres else. If they want to get rid of the dirt, they gonna have to shoot those motherfuckers. Line up those motherfuckers and kill them. All of them. Dead.”

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‘Junkies Out of the Park’

Woe is Ernest James. He got caught in the cleanup. Usually Ernest winds up with one of those mumbo-jumbo raps like Time-Served or Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal. In other words, he gets off. Not bad, considering pill-pushing is a class-D felony worth up to seven years. This time, however, Ernest James is taking the fall. The D.A is making an example of him. A special grand jury on soft drugs is indicting him. Instead of the usual weekend at Rikers, they’re offering Ernest a year. And that’s if he pleads.

Tough shit, Ernest James. Add insult to injury: When Ernest got picked up on September 30, he claimed it was his birthday. No one believed him. But it was true. Happy birthday, Ernest James.

Another thing Ernest James was right about: If you move a sleazo, he’ll just go somewhere else. You got to kill the motherfuckers … dead. Down in Chinatown, they say that’s what Mao did with the opium addicts. Hopheads can’t drive tractors, so Mao’s guys just put them up against the wall and blew their brains out. Bet there ain’t no sleazy corners in Shanghai.

For a society stuck with half a million sleazoids (conservative metropolitan-area estimate) this could be an eminently modest proposal. Discussing this alternative with liberal city councilman Henry Stern, he says, “Of course, I’m not in favor of killing these people.” But Stern admits that he can’t figure out what to do with them. “It’s a dilemma,” he says, “maybe it’s one of the biggest dilemmas in the city today.” Miriam Friedlander, another liberal councilperson who has been working closely with Sweet 14, also does not favor wholesale annihilation. She takes a more conventional tack, saying. “It’s my primary function to break up that situation and get them out of the neighborhood.”

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In place of execution, the pols offer “redevelopment.” “Redevelopment” is a coming concept in the city-planning business. A modification of the pave-it-all-over-and-start-from-scratch school of urban studies, “redevelopment” essentially means taking over “depressed” areas and transforming them into middle­-class shopping and residential areas. The best-known example of “redevelopment” is on 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. A civic group came into possession of several “tax-arrears” buildings and redid them into boutiques. Henry Stern, Miriam Friedlander, Koch, and the rest feel that “redevelopment” is at least worth trying on 14th Street and Third Avenue. And with economic biggies like Charlie Luce, Helmsley-Spear, Citibank, and Restaurant Associates around, you know the job will get done right. Oh, boy, will it.

Of course, “redevelopment” stops short of final solutions. So Ernest James’s philosophy holds up. Due to the hard-nose police work by the “14th Street Task Force,” the sleazos have begun a minor migration. Routed from parts of 14th Street, they camped in Stuyvesant Park on Second Avenue and 15th Street. According to the locals, who say they pay extra rent to live near the park, the situation is becoming disgusting. Methadone addicts are leaving their bottles all over the place. Pill-pushers are dealing. The other day two of the he-shes got into a little mutual around ­the world.

The neighborhood forces rallied, led by one Jeanne Pryor, a right-minded lady who loves a firm grip on the bullhorn (who last week opened a cleanup storefront at 14th and Third). They decided that the 13th Precinct was not providing adequate protection from the sleazos. They demanded police guards in the park.

One night last month a protest march was organized. About 150 people showed up to carry signs saying things like OUR CHILDREN ONCE PLAYED FRISBEE IN THIS PARK. Others carried shopping bags full of empty scrip bottles they said were collected in the park. These were a present for Capt. Joseph Neylan of the 13th, who, Ms. Pryor kept shouting, “has been out to lunch for the past six months.”

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The march, accompanied by a man in a kilt playing a bagpipe, began at 15th Street and headed up Third Avenue toward the precinct house on 21st Street. Ms. Pryor had planted stories in the Daily News, so the local television stations sent out crews to cover. Arc lights flooded the streets as Ms. Pryor led the chant of “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.”

As the march reached 17th Street, it started to get interesting. A messed-up black guy bounded in front of the marchers and held up his hands like he was stopping a runaway team of horses. “Stop!” he said, the TV lights glaring in his buzzed eyes. Stunned, Ms. Pryor halted in her tracks. The whole march bumped to a stop. There was a silence. Then the guy started chanting, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK. JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” The marchers stepped back. The guy kept screaming, “JUNKIES OUT OF THE PARK.” Then he stopped and looked the bagpipe player right in the eye and said, “I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … I’m a fucking junkie … Get me out of the park … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … GET ME OUT OF THE PARK … “

The mock has turned to a plea.

It was then that Jeanne Pryor should have acted. She should have taken out a 12-gauge shotgun and blown the creep’s head off. 

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Tears of a Clown: Charlie Barnett Cracks Up

ON THE THIRD STAIR of the sidewalk entrance to the Palace Hotel on the Bowery I catch an unmistakable whiff of aging vomit; halfway up the steep concrete stairs I step on a purple jumbo vial and shatter it, then tiptoe through a small, multicolored minefield of empty vi­als up to the front door, which is decorated with a wreath of plas­tic holly and black magic marker graffiti reading, “Don’t Smoke Cwack.” The tiny lobby looks like a cage: straight ahead is a fenced-in reception desk papered with admonitions for transients and “ticket men,” nonpaying émigrés from the men’s shelter next door. A steel-gate door to the left leads to a long narrow hallway of rooms, a steel-gate door to the right opens onto the “dayroom,” a huge holding pen of a rec room, smelling of Lysol and hissing with the static of a TV tuned to an empty station. Five or six desperate-looking men are sleeping as far away from the TV as possible. I ask the stubby-bearded desk clerk if he’s seen Charlie Barnett. “Never heard of him,” he says, suspicious. Turning to go, I ask how much the rooms are. “Six dollars, 50 cents tax,” he answers. “But you don’t want to stay here.”

It’s been a long morning already, mak­ing the rounds of comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv for news of Charlie, hearing one How the Mighty Have Fallen comment after another. “You know about his films, all those TV shows?” Sylvia, the day manager at the Comedy Cellar, asked. “God, Charlie had it made.” There was a time Charlie en­joyed carte blanche in these places, drop­ping in at midnight after a day of street shows, stealing the prime spots from the scheduled acts; moving on to another club for more. Nobody was surprised when he Made It, a little over four years ago, and abandoned the clubs for the West Coast and stardom, and there’s a polite but noticeable relish of his hubris and low profile since coming back. “Two years ago,” said Sylvia, “he was in Holly­wood. La dolce vita. Now he’s back out on the street — 3rd and Avenue A, maybe the Palace Hotel. Poor Charlie.”

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Out on the street is where Charlie al­ways was, performing on Bleecker and Thompson, behind the newspaper kiosk on Sixth Avenue and 3rd, Washington Square Park, any semi-enclosed spot where he could set up shop, start yelling, and get a crowd. His half-hour shows, wired with the racial and sexual humor of early Richard Pryor, were revved up by pyrotechnical, viciously funny exchanges with his audience: winos, druggies, tour­ists, local professionals, professional loi­terers. Greg Mullins, a William Morris agent who lives in the Village, “discov­ered” Charlie one afternoon in 1980, per­forming for about 300 hysterical people in Washington Square Park and signed him up for bookings in “some of the better clubs across the country.”

He also got Charlie an audition for Saturday Night Live during the crossover from the original cast to the next genera­tion, which Charlie made good on, being called back a number of times for further tests. Jean Doumanian, the show’s pro­ducer at the time, remembers Charlie and his talent affectionately, but not the de­tails, and nobody at the current SNL goes back far enough to comment. The “inside story,” sworn to by someone close to the show, is that he lasted through final auditions on the strength of his own material, only to lose the spot to Eddie Murphy when it was learned Charlie wasn’t literate enough to read cue cards.

Charlie’s “break” came in 1984, when the casting agent of D.C. Cab saw him passing the hat in Washington Square Park, then filmed a performance in the Comedy Cellar and sent director Joel Schumacher a tape. Schumacher, looking for performers with a “raw, spontaneous edge,” says he “fell in love with Charlie at first sight,” and cast him opposite Gary Busey, Mr. T, and Adam Baldwin. Within weeks after the shoot, Charlie went bi­coastal, shuttling between New York and a new condo on Sunset Boulevard, with week- and nightlong stopovers at clubs in Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas.

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He aced his next shot at the Big Time, a spot on an early episode of Miami Vice, playing a police snitch called the Noogie, a character that proved popular enough for 10 more episodes over the next three years and which served as a springboard for three low-budget films, more than 10 HBO comedy specials, and an episode of T.J. Hooker. Every two or three months, he’d be back in Washington Square Park, talking about how different blacks are who’ve made it big (“Out in L.A. they got big-lipped, blue-black Alabama porch­monkey Negroes lying in the sun trying to tan their asses white”), how Abe Lin­coln nodded out on his monument while waiting for Mr. T to deliver his one line of the evening without fucking it up, and how rewarding it is to work your ass off and finally get what you always wanted: Enough Cocaine To Last the Night.

Though he was funnier than ever, over the next few years it became increasingly apparant something wasn’t right with Charlie: longer and longer pauses began to crop up in his formerly seamless shows, Charlie staring at his audiences like they were made of ether, coming down to the park looking like he’d just fallen out of bed, performing for 15 min­utes, then taking off. Mullins remembers this period with fond exasperation. “You’d get to the office and your first problem was a Charlie Barnett problem: Charlie’s cancelled a date, Charlie’s missed the plane, Charlie’s in the office for a check that’s not due for another few weeks. On Miami Vice they loved his character, his performances. But Charlie could bring confusion to any set he walked onto. And then there were the drugs. Finally, a year and a half ago, I had to cut it off with Charlie. He just got to be too much to deal with.”

A little over a year ago Charlie dropped out of sight: no more movies, TV, or street shows. A few months back a friend saw him performing in Washington Square Park, badly, and said Charlie looked completely cracked out.

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A BLACK ECONOLINE VAN with Jersey plates is backing up to the curb in front of the Palace. Four mid-thirties leather boys step out, rough and ready, wearing mascara, eyeliner. I watch them unload a stack of well-traveled Marshalls into CBGB next door, grateful for their hard­core, harmless presence, only gradually becoming aware of a finger poking gently into my arm from above. A heavily beard­ed man in a beat-up, pea green corduroy jacket is standing on the first step of the Palace stairs, smiling warmly as he tells me in a rapid-fire Negril patois not to worry, he’s got what I want, we’ll go for a walk, just call him Bigger, everyone does. Does he know Charlie? Of course he knows Charlie, Charlie’s a funny man, personal friend. As we turn onto 3rd Street, stopping at the men’s shelter so Bigger can talk shop with three guys named Stretch, Frenchie, and One-Eyed Shorty (everyone here seems to go by monikers), I understand he’s trying to sell me something, but I can’t figure out what it is. Bigger sounds more like an advance man for the Palace than any card-carrying crack dealer.

“Some very respectables come here,” he says as we complete our first lap around the block, never losing his sales­man’s smile. “The suit, the tie, the stock­broker, the chemical engineer, people, like yourself. Journalists. But they cannot compete with the people who live here. In the dayroom, when we past the drug, having lunch, watching TV, you see our quality of people — singers, entertainers, civil engineers, people like yourself. Jour­nalists. Those people who come to the Palace in their limousines, go to the Prince Town University, they cannot compete with men like I, who spend 75, 80 per cent of his life on the street. You learn too much on the street. Is the big­gest college there is.”

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As we turn onto Second Avenue again I lean against the fence penning in a va­cant lot to catch my breath, while Bigger says hello to a few of his colleagues speeding around the block. All are selling crack, Bigger tells me, except for a short, sweet-looking old-timer named Hook, selling $75 “Perry Ellis” shirts for $3 apiece, and a good-looking kid in stonewashed jacket and jeans, 16, 17 years old, who looks like he’s just begun the training program. “Now I feel secure for the first time today,” the kid says, appraising a new K57 switchblade he holds opened in his hands.

As he watches the knife go by, Bigger’s face is absent its smile for the first time. “Everything good and bad must come to an end,” he says, turning professorial. “Thirty, 40 per cent of them get out from under the crack, the rehab program. The John Belushi, the entertainer, Charlie, 90 per cent need something to hype them onto the stage, keep them going after the stage is finished. They come to see me, they know it is an event, something’s going to happen.”

Bigger watches two huge gray rats scavenge by the fence; he smiles, musing, “Charlie once must have had a lot of money. On a personal note though,” he says, turning around, “I have been com­pletely honest with you. How come you no give me two, three dollar?” I give him some money, asking where I might find Charlie. “You just miss him by an hour,” he says. I ask Bigger why he thinks some­one like Charlie would throw it all away. “The same reason as we all,” Bigger says. “Because he is addicted.”

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A TWILIGHT CONGREGATION of 50 or so stands under an elm tree near the arch in Washington Square Park, blowing into hands for warmth, laughing and scream­ing. In the center of their circle sits Char­lie, his little butt crammed into the top of a wire wastebasket, talking about how hard it is trying to fuck a prostitute in your room at the Palace Hotel when you’re cracked out of your mind. He’s picked up a few decibels since I last saw him, and has added some of the staccato cadence and gestures of a Southern Bap­tist preacher: he sounds like a man testi­fying, but proud, unrepentant, with an “I alone have survived to tell the tale” deliv­ery. After an afternoon’s rafting through the stream of hyperkinetic zombies on 3rd Street, I recognize the sentiment.

“I had me a fine room there,” he’s yelling. “Finest room $6.50 can buy. And a stack o’ rubbers” — he raises the imagi­nary stack in his left palm, Exhibit A. “I was prepared … to meet the virus. And I had me a stem,” he lifts his right hand, ” — and $50 of what goes in it. And I had me a beautiful black woman. And she was willing, brothers and sisters. She was fuckin’ desperate.”

Charlie lowers his right fist and inhales for a long time, closing his eyes. He looks like he’s seeing something horrible when he opens them again. “When you smok­ing crack,” he says with a lowering voice, “you get paranoid. Like a motherfucker . I’d be checking out the woman, the rub­bers, then back at the bitch. And she be saying, ‘C’mon Charlie, I wanna get down.’ And I get mad. Furious. ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales, glowering, his eyes growing wide until he looks furious, dan­gerous. ” ‘Soon’s I finish,’ ” he inhales again, “‘I am gonna fuck the shit out of your black ass. Just as soon as I finish.’ ” He inhales once more, then looks at his left hand. “I’m so paranoid now I put on all the rubbers. Sixteen of ’em.”

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Everyone starts howling as Charlie mimes it, each one more difficult to force on. “Even my rubbers was paranoid!” he screams. “By the time the last one’s on, they’re yelling, ‘No Charlie! Please! Don’t make us go in there! Let’s go in that bathroom and massss-tuhbate.’ ”

Two elegant kids with matching dou­ble-breasted suits, gold wire-rims, and Grace Jones coifs fall to their knees on this last joke, pleading, “Oh shit, oh shit.” Charlie checks them out, rising from his garbage can. “Jesus!” he screams. “There’s two of you mother­fuckers. The rhinestone asshole twins. But I like my man’s hair,” he points to one, strutting the width of his circle like a five-foot-four Jake LaMotta, making eye contact with anyone who’ll dare. “Looks like a fuckin’ shoebrush.”

As he settles back into the garbage can to do his imitation of a crackhead vet pirouetting paranoically down the Bow­ery in his wheelchair, a six-foot-six, 250- pound wino spills out of the crowd to join the fun, coughing up ugly fluids, roaring like a hippo. He gets an ovation from the crowd — seemingly the only response he’s had in months — and decides to stay. Charlie, who’s been dealing with occupa­tional hazards like this on a daily basis for over a decade, borrows a dollar from someone, then, like a matador, holds it up to the man, saying, “Here, Papa,” till the man sees the bill and goes for it, repeatedly, as Charlie leads him safely out of the circle.

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“How many you people like my show?” he asks, returning the dollar; he gets a huge round. “Good. Because now I collect for real. I want you to pay me! I don’t drink, I don’t steal, and I haven’t had any drugs in … excuse me, what time is it?”

The last time I saw Charlie, I realize as he passes by with his monogrammed leather baseball cap in his hand, was in this spot, but that was over a year ago. I’ve forgotten how small and fragile he is, how childlike his features are, how lean and adolescent his body looks. All his clothes seem outsized, like he’s still a few months shy of growing into them: his cap (worn backward), plain blue T-shirt, un­laced Avias, cuffed Levis, always clean and ironed. He looks more like a well­scrubbed Little Leaguer heading for a full day at the playground than a 34-year-old man who’s spent the night in an SRO.

“SURE, I’ll TALK TO YOU,” Charlie says while he’s signing autographs, con­firming an amorous Columbia Grammar student’s suspicions that it was him she saw on all those episodes of Miami Vice. Once the fans are gone, he counts the coins and bills in his hat. He isn’t pleased. “I had me a lot of money once,” he commiserates with himself. “So you want to talk about drugs, right?”

Struck a little dumb by his directness, I ask after his resume, and Charlie reels off a list of performances: his movies, a ton of cable specials, a film he wrote and starred in called Terms of Enrollment: Charlie Barnett’s Guide to Higher Educa­tion, a role in Nobody’s Fool, the list goes on. I ask if he made a lot of money for his biggest movie, D.C. Cab. “Yep, and a $1.2 million contract for three movies. Plus points and all that bullshit. Fucked that up good. Plus 10 Miami Vice episodes — ”

“What was it like working with … ?”

“Don’t like him. Don Johnson? Don’t like me either. Had a fistfight with him, right on the set, first few days. ‘Cause I stole the episode. It was called ‘Cool Run­nin’.’ I stole it. They were talking about how this black guy’s great, and the man just started fuckin’ with me, saying ‘You been on this show for a week and you think it’s yours.’ And so I said, ‘Fuck you,’ and we got into it.”

“Did you get in any good shots?”

“Nah, it turned into a wrassle. The teamsters grabbed us and dragged us off. He called me and apologized. I just did another Vice, a year ago.”

I tell him I can’t connect all that with doing street shows for chump change. He shakes his head, telling me that isn’t the problem. “I made $200 one show last Saturday and I woke up on a bench in Tompkins Square Park next morning. I did even better that night, and I was standing in the food line Monday morn­ing. I’m trying to handle these drugs.”

A woman who looks faintly familiar to Charlie comes up to talk. A friend of a friend, she tells him about the rough time she’s had since coming to New York, and Charlie reaches into his hat for a $5 bill, a substantial fraction of what’s in there. “Listen,” he tells me, “I gotta walk. Let’s do this tomorrow or something.” “Fine,” I say, then watch him walk her to the corner and say goodbye, patting her shoulder warmly, making a couple of jokes before he turns round and heads east, toward the Bowery, walking faster and faster till he’s out of sight.

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THE NEXT DAY COMES but Charlie doesn’t, nor the next or the day after. Saturday, a gorgeous day, brings a mob to the park, and an almost medieval array of performers sets up shop in the center of the fountain: Joey Joey, a unicyclist/ sword-swallower; mimes; a martial arts juggler; a six-five transsexual in green body paint imitating the Statue of Liber­ty; the Calypso Tumblers, flipping and flying over each other and making a ton of money. Everyone but the prince of fools.

By Wednesday it’s cold and rainy. The main attraction in the park is a squad of bearded men in yellow T-shirts talking in relay about the Power of Darkness With­in You, arguing with a homeless Hispanic woman who refutes all of their points with the simple reductio, “I’d marry a pit bull before any of you godless excuses for men.”

Late in the afternoon, I witness some­thing nasty: a black man in his thirties, leaning awkwardly over a chess table in the corner of the park, an intense, vacant look on his face as a patrolman with a size-18 neck frisks his torso, arms, and legs from behind. Finding nothing, the cop snarls some unacknowledged words to the wise and takes off, and the man sits down at the empty table to gather his wits. I recognize him suddenly: Alex, a weak but iron-willed chess player who used to be here constantly, falling into lost positions all over the board, then finding one saving move after another till his opponent finally dropped. It’s been some time since I’ve see Alex, and the change is frightening. Six months ago he was a gentle, solvent professional who didn’t seem a day over 25.

A few tables over, a friend of mine named Eddie has stopped his chess clock to watch the proceedings. “Damn,” he says, starting his clock as Alex takes off across the park at breakneck speed, “Alex is gone.” I ask where he’s gone to and Eddie, flashing his opponent a how-stu­pid-can-this-white-man-be grin, says, “East. See? The man’s gone east on im­portant business. What I hear,” he con­cludes, sacrificing a rook with an angry flourish, “business is booming.”

AT TWILIGHT I FIND CHARLIE sitting by the fountain, wrapped up in a polyester-­filled ski coat, watching a comic named Albert try to perform while a THC-­crazed kid standing nearby aims karate kicks at his head. Charlie greets me warmly, putting his arm around my shoulder, and together we watch Albert’s show disintegrate. “It’s getting cold,” he says. “People gotta go to work tomorrow. I hate to do this, but — ”

Charlie walks 20 yards away, drops his coat on the ground, and starts screaming, “Showtime. Showtime, motherfuckers.” Minutes later, he has every cogent person in the park in his corner and the show begins, Charlie down on his knees, pounding the bricks, screaming, “I hate that bitch. I hate that bitch. Robin, Bitch, Ass, Fuckin’ Givens wants $20 mil­lion for eight months of marriage and I know for a fact the Champ didn’t get to fuck her ass but four times. That’s $5 million a fuck. I know a woman on 3rd Street for $20. Yo, Mike,” he whispers, “spend the extra buck on the rubber — it’s worth it. And I knew,” he raises a fist in solidarity, “I knew she married my man for his money. Think about it. Would a bitch that fine fuck a gorilla for free?”

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And on he goes, one racist, sexist, ho­mophobic joke after another, each laced with some rage or foolery so extreme he can get away with all of them. Charlie is always acting something out, something childish and familiar; whether he’s mak­ing fools of the audience or of himself, he’s making you an accomplice, his witness; if the joke doesn’t get you, the anger or panic on his face will, getting Japanese tourists to laugh about their big cameras and tiny dicks, black men to laugh about how they’ve never seen a subway token in their lives, Puerto Ricans to laugh about how they’re born with knives in their hands and live 4000 to a room, women about how they sound like a small rodeo when they’re coming, jokes about every­one and everything.

Thirty minutes later, Charlie’s feeling good, with a hat full of money and a gaggle of admirers around him, easing the bridge from showtime to reality. His girl­friend, Marcie, a 27-year-old cellist with two masters degrees, has returned from visiting relatives in Germany, and he’s living happily, and — this week, at least — ­drug-free out in some obscure part of Jersey with her again. He’s been offered a movie about sea monsters that will film in Florida over the winter, and is booking himself into the New York clubs for the month ahead, the weather dropping too rapidly for him to be able to count on street shows for a living anymore.

I go over to watch Marcie sing soprano with Zeus, Chicken George, and Jodi in an a cappella quartet called The Village All Stars. It’ been a while since I’ve heard good four-part harmony, and I’ve forgotten how beautiful it can be, how much meaning it’ll lend even the most insidious tripe:

In the words of a broken heart,
It’s just Emotion,
Breaking me over … 

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A few feet away, Charlie is settling accounts with some neighborhood credi­tors — the shish kebab man, the hot dog man, a guy who lent him $5 last week­ — everyone who asks, seemingly, but for one grinning, desperate-looking charac­ter, who seems completely unfazed by Charlie yelling at him to go fuck himself, to go fuck his mama. “You just remember that next time you come to me,” the man says with a smile.

“I hate those motherfuckers,” Charlie tells me, leading us to a bench nearby. Realizing this is my formal interview, I get the tape running and ask my first question: What motherfuckers?

“Motherfucking drug dealers. They want me to kill myself,” Charlie answers. “They always smiling, saying, ‘Hey, Charlie, how many? You got my money?’ Nah, I can’t do it. It’s a fuckin’ nightmare. Heroin, you get to nod out of reali­ty. Cocaine, you hear the least little sound. Lots of guys you see are doing speedball, they say it’ll slow you down, you won’t go back and buy coke right away. And I say, ‘Wait a minute, me and you both go running back to the drug spot, you buy the speedball, all I’m buying’s cocaine, how much is it slowing you down?’ It’s just, I’m the one making the money, and they figuring, they get me into heroin, I buy 10 bags a day.”

So on a day you’re smoking crack, a typical day …

“In the life of Charlie as Crackhead. Let’s see, I do a show. I walk that way [points east]. Toward 3rd Street. When I disappear, just like that, then I’m going to get high. Over by the Palace, the men’s shelter. Tons of fuckin’ crack. Five-dollar vials. Get a stem, light it up, suck it in, blow it out. ‘Come on. Poh’lice. ‘Sgetouttahere. Try to keep the stem on.’ ”

So how much will you do at a time?

“The whole thing.”

Which whole thing?

“Whichever whole thing there is.”

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Somebody I don’t get a good look at passes by, telling Charlie he shot his girl; from the look on Charlie’s face, I get the feeling the guy isn’t joking. When Marcie comes over in between songs and nestles into Charlie’s shoulder, I ask if he’s funny at home. No way, she says, the lazy fuck just sleeps all day, then she slaps his face and goes back to her quartet. On cue, a six-foot, 85-pound Morticia Addams look-alike drifts over to say she loved Charlie’s show, smiling at him like he’s the Charlie Manson she’s been waiting for. Charlie says he’s being interviewed, explaining, “That’s an old-fashioned junkie,” as she wanders off. Then he identifies what some of our neighbors are on; half are drugs I’ve never heard of. I ask what the crack high’s like.

“Paranoia,” he says. “I was high now, I couldn’t sit here, I’d be looking around, thinking everyone’s trying to get in my pocket.”

When ‘s the last time you smoked?

“Seven days ago. I still haven’t recov­ered. It got to a point, recently, where I couldn’t even — not that I wasn’t funny, but I’d only do $10 shows. Soon as I could get $10 in the hat I’d end it.”

So why do you do it?

“I don’t know. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a high I cannot stand. Drugs make me work my ass off. I got good at being funny ’cause I needed the money to get high.”

Do you think you ‘re punishing yourself for something?

“Probably. ‘You got a low self-esteem/if you like to beam/and it ain’t what it seem/’cause you’re chasing a dream/down 3rd Street, the Devil’s beat.’ ”

Sounds like a rap song.

“Me and Marcie wrote it together. It’s called ‘Third Street.'” He takes out a dog-eared, typewritten copy of the lyrics and starts reading:

… This drug is a drug
that will kill your ambition
but ya jus’ won’t listen
coz ya can’t stop dissin’
and you’re always in position
for goin’ on a mission
it’s an everyday tradition
on Third Street.

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I get the feeling Charlie’s self-conscious about reading, and I look down, nodding to his faltering beat, surprised at how lame his rapping is, how little snap is in his bravado. Charlie’s a consummate clown, capable of becoming anyone in­stantly, and this would seem a simple enough persona. By the last page his voice is almost inaudible, incredibly plaintive, and I look up. His eyes are closed and I realize he’s no longer recit­ing, that he never really was:

I jus’ gotta get high and I don’t know why
I wanna take away the pain but then it’s back again
I’m just sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ sick and tired a bein’ sick and tired
a bein’ greedy and needy and seedy.
I’m finished with the filth and the crime
crack crack crackin’ it up all the time
crawling through the gutter and slowly dyin’
cryin’
sighin’
Jus’ can’t stop buyin’
on Third Street, the Devil’s beat. * 

I wait out a long moment before re­sponding: Sounds pretty dreadful.

“It is. Right from the start. I want to stop. I’ve been running good and bad with it, going to NA [Narcotics Anony­mous] meetings. One day I’ll smoke, then I’ll stop for a week, then I’ll do it for a month. Pure paranoia. If your hand was here, I’d watch my bag. I don’t trust nobody.”

I look at his hands, which are enor­mous: huge, spatulate fingers, each fin­gernail as wide as two of mine. “I’ve got these E.T. fingers,” he shrugs. “I was born with an enlarged heart, then I got rheumatic fever when I was a year old.”

Where were you living then?

“Well, I was born in Boston; when I got that they said I was in North Carolina.”

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Charlie talks a little of his past, sketch­ily, and with a tenderness that belies the content of what he’s saying. His mother, he says, “was fucked up, stepdaddies and shit.” His one memory of his real father takes the form of a joke: “My dad cracked up in the Korean War; by the time I was a year old he’d told enough neighbors he was Jesus they put him in the nuthouse for five years. When he came out, he didn’t say he was Jesus anymore. He said he was God — which was fine, ’cause that made me Jesus.”

Charlie doesn’t have any jokes to tell about his childhood in North Carolina, just some bitter, impressionistic memo­ries of being largely uncared for by rela­tives, of the stigma of his semiorphanage and complete poverty, of being beaten by teachers in class and by the kids after school. “They used to never promote me in school. I used to always get whuppings. The kids used to beat up on us afterward, and it was an embarrassment to play with the Barnett boys. My older brother and me, the black sheeps on the street. My mother dumped us off down there, and I didn’t see her for 11 years.”

When he finally returned to his moth­er, at the age of 12, she was “still fucked up” and he was practically illiterate, which in the Boston of the early ’60s meant an effective end to his education. (After the Saturday Night Live auditions he taught himself to read.) He remembers adolescence as a series of racist reform schools in Massachusetts, which taught him only “how to fight, to stay alive, and what drugs did what for your head.”

“Comedy,” he says, “came much later, as a kind of gift I never knew I had. I learned I could make people laugh, that I loved to do that, and that after a while I could make a living at it. I never thought of making it, I never thought of audition­ing for anything. Everything I ever got came from someone seeing me on the street and wanting me.”

Joel Schumacher, his director on D.C. Cab, remembers an “incredible need to succeed in Charlie, and a shyness and innocence that I formed an immediate attachment to. He was like a kid who’d fallen asleep dreaming up one of his street shows and then woken up on a Hollywood set. A lot of people got very interested in Charlie very quickly,” he recalls, “making him all kinds of offers. It confused him, brought on all sorts of con­flicts and doubt. I felt a little culpable, and wondered if I wouldn’t have done better to have left him in the park, where at least he knew the turf. He’s such a complicated, fragile person, a true origi­nal. Over the years he’s really paid the price for being so. Even when everything was going so well, there was a kind of Judy Garland-John Belushi side to Char­lie, very angry, self-destructive, very much the same anguish, finally the same response. In our Marie Antoinette era, we say, ‘Just Say No to Drugs.’ But what does that mean to someone like Charlie? Just say no to a lifetime of anger?”

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Greg Mullins says that Charlie’s is “the saddest case I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in the business 14 years. I remember one night, during one of Charlie’s drug-free periods, I took a colleague to a show of Charlie’s that just wasn’t working. He was clearly uncomfortable onstage, un­funny, not like himself at all. My friend said, ‘Greg, how do we get him back on drugs?’ It’s a cruel story, but it illustrates the point: Charlie’s humor comes from his life, and his life’s been a cruel one.”

“I’ve had a fucked-up life,” Charlie nods. “My life is fucked up. I’m an angry man, and I’m an angry comic. I’m funni­est when I’m mad. But you have to be on, and you’ve got to be quick. My brand of humor, you can’t be, shit, what’s that word? The audience will take over, you have to be so bold they’ll just accept you, so they say, fuck it, we have to, ’cause he’s too crazy for us to reason with him. I say all that vulgarity — sex, all that shit, people will — I get hecklers. They don’t like what I say and speak on it. So I dog ’em. You can’t be laid back worth a fuck. Some women get angry during the shows, ’cause that’s where a lot of my anger comes from and that’s where it goes. I used to have a hell of a temper, used to always beat up on women.

“It’s funny though, my father died this summer, and I went to see my mother, first time in years. When I was a year old, she was in trouble and sent me away for 11 years. When I came home, she was in trouble, and when I saw her this summer she was still in trouble. Only now I was a junkie, and I had to forgive her a lot of shit. We both just started crying.”

“Charlie,” Marcie told me later, “has lots of sides to him: his image side, which is really up for grabs, day-to-day. He’s got a very ‘personal’ side — the ‘Fuck it, I might as well just be honest’ side. He’s got what he calls his nigger side, which is very proud, and pretty cutting. And there’s the real Charlie, that only people like One-Eyed Shorty know, bums and addicts. More important, it’s how Charlie knows himself. King of the Park. Lots of times we wouldn’t have enough money to eat, and Charlie’d give them half of it, ’cause they had nothing. It comes from knowing what it’s like. Sometimes he’d be walking through the park at 7 a.m. after a night of partying, without a dime and hungry. He’d yell, ‘OK, I’m collecting for yesterday’s show,’ and they’d pay up-a quarter, 50 cents. Doesn’t sound like much, but at times like that it can be a lot of money.”

The Village All Stars are retiring for the night. There’s no one left in the park to sing for but the Rastas selling drugs by the chess tables, and they’re here for the night. Charlie really wants to go, rushing Marcie, saying a quick goodbye to me. Last week this time, Charlie was east­bound once the show was over, and it’s clear he’s still programmed that way, strongly, only what he wants now is to go home while he still can. When the five of them head up Fifth Avenue, Charlie’s a few steps ahead of the others and looking back over his shoulder, impatient at their dawdling and singing, which he keeps telling them is “completely homeless.”

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THE COMIC STRIP on 82nd & Second is a welcome anachronism among the nou­veau quiche cafés and boutiques of the Upper East Side, a place you’d sooner expect to pop up in some Jack Webb vehicle of the ’50s. Inside is the warm comfort of old wood, old beer, and old jokes; the clientele at the dimly lit bar (ex-comics, mostly, and comics waiting to go on) arguing about George Bush seem like they might as well be talking about Duke Snider or Abe Beame. I find Char­lie, glum and angry, sitting with Marcie in a graffiti-scarred oak booth opposite the bar. He’s been given the best spot, at 1 a.m., but there are four comics on be­fore him, and he says he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be anywhere.

It’s been a month or so since I first met Charlie. I’ve gotten a powerful second­hand taste of what running good and bad with a major league drug habit’s like, the good time spent largely recuperating, the bad in tremendous isolation, in a place where I certainly can’t follow him. Char­lie is remorselessly candid about his life (it’s the source of his comedy, and he doesn’t seem to know how to be any other way), but piecing it together from what he says is puzzle work. Events he describes in a deeply historical tone often turn out to have taken place two days before, and his mood swings are baffling and sudden: one afternoon, I’d find him performing in the fountain at the top of his form, wearing his sleeveless CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt, doing a perfect moonwalk as he explains he’s just trying to get the shit off his shoes, then I’d witness one of his $10 corner shows and quick getaways lat­er that week. The end of it all seems to be the mood I find him in now, depressed, hostile, confused, utterly disgusted.

Still, things are looking up. There’s a tentative two-week offer from a big club in Fort Lauderdale, coinciding nicely with the sea monsters he’ll be costarring with nearby. Charlie, a professional comedian above all else, knows how to take the good in the same stride as the worst of it. Though he’s feeling like shit, he’s all busi­ness tonight, hustling agents who’ve come to see him, talking shop with club-­owner Richard Tinken, a big man in the comedy field and someone in a position to do him some good. He settles back in the booth and tells me about life in L.A., how he got sick of the condo swimming pool after a month, then retired every afternoon to the sauna in his apartment, sweating the drugs out. After a cold shower he’d walk down Sunset Boulevard past the Chateau Marmont (the luxury hotel where John Belushi OD’ed) to the Comedy Store or over to Venice Beach to do a street show. I ask Charlie how the clubs in L.A. compare to New York. “Same shit,” he says, “nice places.”

The Comic Strip’s eight-by-10-foot stage is only a few inches above the audi­ence level, so well-lit it’s practically glow­ing in the dark, 200-seat room surround­ing it. It’s a full house tonight, 98 per cent white: aging jocks from the boroughs in threes and fours, awkward, half-drunk couples, flocks of tourists. A lot of the women look like they’ve been dragged here, and it is a fairly macho scene. The beginning of a 10-man, all-night bachelor party has a lock on the first-row tables; the groom, a kind of Spuds MacKenzie on two legs, has an audible head start in the booze department and pride of place under the microphone. He’s been heck­ling the shit out of the last two comics.

Limited to 15 minutes, Charlie hits the stage running, and by his second joke is walking up and down in front of the first-­row tables, asking the two black couples in back to smile so he can see them, giving high-fives to Bachelor #1, yelling “How the hell are you, fuckin’ A, how’s the wife, how’s my kids?” then stepping onto a second-row table to ask a stony­-faced middle-aged woman where she’s from. “From St. Louis,” she says. “Do the women there masturbate?” Charlie asks politely. Apparently they don’t, or would rather not say, and this enrages Charlie. “You lying bitch,” he yells, walk­ing to the stage and flopping on his back. “What the fuck is this?” He puts a finger to his groin and starts convulsing up and down the stage until the woman, who can’t believe what she’s looking at, snick­ers under her hand a little. Charlie keeps it up, his mouth open and gagging, his eyes going white, and finally the woman starts roaring, louder than the bachelors in front of her. When he finishes, Charlie leans back on an elbow. “Now you re­member?” he asks, nodding his head. “I thought you would.”

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AFTER HIS SET, I offer Charlie and Mar­cie a ride to Port Authority in the cab I’m taking downtown. Turning onto Times Square, wall-to-wall crowds at 3:00 a.m., I ask Charlie, who’s been pretty quiet the whole ride, if he’d ever perform in a place like this. “I do perform here, all the fuckin’ time,” he says. “That corner over there.”

I take a long look at the furtive little congregations forming and unforming at the “Meat Market,” the corner of 42nd and Eighth; it’s been said that over $1 million changes hands on this corner ev­ery day. To me, it’s like watching a bee­hive, only more alien, dozens and dozens of people moving back and forth, no one seeming to leave. To Charlie it’s just an­other crowd: “Huge audiences,” he says, looking out the window with me, “any time of the night. Hookers, winos, crack dealers, heroin addicts, drag queens, pimps. They pay real well. You’d be amazed at how well they pay here. Good place to work on your heckler lines, any new material. I learn how to time my routines here.”

I’ve never heard Charlie talk about ma­terial before, or timing or routines, any of the buzzwords of his work; it’s easy to lose sight of his craft. I ask if there are any other comedians he likes, and he says, “Richie,” really softly, with incredi­ble tenderness. “Lenny.”

At risk of patronizing Charlie, I ask him: “Why on earth would men like that destroy themselves with drugs?”

Charlie turns to Marcie and says he wants to go for a bite before getting on the bus back to Jersey. I wonder if he hasn’t heard me, or if he’s just impervi­ous to such questions. “Because he’s a drug addict,” he finally says, looking lost in thought as he steps out of the cab. “What more reason do you need?” ■

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A Report From the Bowery: The Boys in the Bottle

The stomach cramps hit at four in the morning, twisting Bubba out of his sleep. At age 27, Bubba needs a drink every two hours. It was his fourth Good Friday on the Bowery and as he lay in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel Bubba knew that he had slept too long. Unless he got a drink convulsions would soon follow the cramps. Bubba rolled onto the floor and groped for the quart of wine he had bought the night before. He took one taste and flung the bottle against the door. The bartender had sold him water.

Bubba stuffed a sock in his mouth to keep his tongue away from his chattering teeth and stumbled toward the lobby. Groans and cries from other cubicles echoed in the dark hallway. Bubba crossed the lobby to a six-foot window. He pulled the sock out of his mouth and wiped the soot off a few inches of the glass. Vinnie the bootlegger was across the street, in front of the Salvation Army mission. Every morning between 4 and 8, Vinnie stands on the Bowery and sells wine to men who need a drink to keep “well” until the bars open. Vinnie charges $1.25 a pint. Bubba only had 11 cents. He turned away from the window and walked toward the 11 men scattered among the rows of wooden seats that fill the lobby.

“I got 27 cents. Anybody want to go in for a pint'” Bubba asked. Nobody answered. The Social Security checks that support the old men had come eight days before. The catering businesses and temporary-labor companies that hire the younger men had been closed since the beginning of Passover. At 4 a.m., there are no cars or pedestrians on the street to panhandle.

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“This early on a holiday at this time of the month, you’re the richest man in the Prince,” an old bum at the back of the lobby said.

Rube walked into the room wearing a towel around his waist and carrying a paper bag. A pair of BVDs were tangled in the joint of his artificial leg.

“I told them this new leg was too compli­cated,” Rube said as he sat down. Bubba bent over and freed the underwear from the plastic limb.

“Here,” Rube said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels out of the paper bag. “I owe you from the hospital.” Bubba and Rube had been in the detoxification ward at Bern­stein Institute together. During their first night on the ward, Bubba had produced a smuggled bottle of vodka.

“The nurses never would have found out if you hadn’t fallen out of your wheelchair,” Bubba said as he took a pull from the bottle. Bubba’s cramps subsided a half-pint later.

He borrowed a pencil and drew the outline of an airplane on a week-old copy of the Daily News. Five years ago, Bubba welded patches of titanium on Strategic Air Command bombers for a contractor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Peri­odically, Air Force technicians checked the welds with an X-ray machine. In February of 1972, Bubba was summoned to his boss’s office. The first thing he noticed was a stack of X-ray film .

“I can take you missing three Mondays in a row,” Bubba remembers the boss saying. “But I can’t take the kind of work you’ve been doing. Look at these X-rays. If we’d let those welds go through, it’d be raining B-52s from here to California.” Bubba took a bus to New York the next day. He signed up for welfare and started drinking at uptown bars. He went for two weeks with­out a bath and was bounced by 23 separate uptown bartenders. It took the more tolerant Greenwich Village saloonkeepers six weeks to bar him. At the end of what he still calls “a record-breaking drunk,” Bubba was on the Bowery.

“It’s the lieutenant,” a man standing by the window shouted. Bubba and three other bums jumped from their seats and ran out to the street. A policeman was frisking Vinnie. The bums rummaged the pile of garbage in front of the mission and looted the bootlegger’s stash.

“Have a good Good Friday,” the policeman said over his shoulder as the bums crossed back to the Prince.

“We call that cop the lieutenant,” Bubba explained. “Whenever he busts a bootleg­ger, he gives the wine to the bums. He’s the only real Christian on the Bowery.” Over the next hour, Bubba killed two pints of wine. The Roadhouse bar opened at 8, and, when Bubba walked in at 8:05, Pete and Harold were already halfway through a quart of white port. Bubba shuffled through the quarter-inch of sawdust that covered the tile floor.

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“Have a drink on Medicaid,” Harold said, beckoning from the back of the saloon. Eight weeks ago, 24-year-old Harold had been a patient at an upstate mental hospital. As part of an economy drive the hospital classified him as “stable” and offered him $25 and a Medi­caid card if he would sign himself out. Since then, Harold and his 54-year-old partner, Pete, have been visiting hospitals and clinics throughout the city seeking prescriptions. On Thursday, the pair ob­tained scripts from St. Luke’s Hospital, Roosevelt Hospital, and Veterans Hospital for Elavil, Tuenol, and Valium. That night, they sold the pills on 14th Street for $200. Bubba elbowed his way past the 20 men standing at the bar and grabbed a glass.

Pete took a head of lettuce from under his overcoat and tossed it onto the table. A half hour later, Bubba reached out and squeezed the lettuce.

“It’s lettuce,” Pete said. “I told Harold that he was so smoked on pills that he couldn’t do anything. He told me that he could still buy a head of lettuce. Well, here it is.”

“Jesus,” Bubba said. “I’ve been sitting here all this time thinking that it was a hallucination.”

A fight erupted at the far corner of the bar.

“You’re too ugly to be in here,” Johnny, a former schoolteacher from White Plains, screamed at Liam. Liam’s face had been severely burned in a fire three years ago.

“And you can’t teach anybody anything,” Liam shouted, raising his fists. A one-eyed man named Arthur pushed the two men apart.

“That’s some crew,” Bubba said. “Johnny’s down here because he got caught playing with one of his students. Liam’s here because he got his face burned up and he thinks he’s too ugly to live with regular people. And Arthur, he lost his eye after it got infected by A-200.” A-200 is a delousing agent.

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Harold pulled three dollars out of his pocket and went to the bar for another quart. Red stumbled into the saloon, his bare feet bloodied by the glass that litters the Bowery sidewalks.

“She stoled my shoes,” Red mumbled as he collapsed into a chair. Red had met a 24-year-old woman from Puerto Rico the night before.

“I don’t have any place to stay,” the woman had said when the bar closed.

“I don’t either,” Red had answered.

“I don’t have any money,” the woman had said.

“Well, I sure don’t,” Red had said. “I’m just going over to the empty building and sleep under the stairwell.”

“Can I sleep with you?” the girl had asked. Red woke up without his shoes.

“I need something to calm my nerves,” Pete said. “I’m going to get some more pills.” He left the bar and walked three blocks to visit a doctor on Bleecker Street. The doctor’s “office” was equipped with a desk, a chair, a stack of Medicaid forms, and a prescription pad. He handed the doctor his Medicaid card. The doctor wrote down that he had just given Pete a complete physical, four X-rays, a blood test, a urine-sugar test, and a test for venereal disease.

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“I’ll take 300 Valium,” Pete said after signing the form. On the way back to the bar, Pete met Victor the Driver. Until last month, Victor visited the Bowery only once a week. Every Saturday, he parked his car in front of the Roadhouse and paid bums to fetch quarts of wine. Occasionally, he would invite Pete into the car to discuss women and skeet shooting. On the last Saturday in March, Victor climbed on top of his car and announced that he was holding an auction. A wino named Jumbo got the car for three bottles of port. Victor hasn’t left the Bow­ery since.

“You look tense,'” Pete said to Victor. “How about a few of these.” Pete poured 25 Valium into Victor’s cupped hands. He gobbled the pills and walked into the bar with blue chunks of Valium stuck to his beard and mustache.

“Am I good for credit?” Victor asked. The bartender pulled a thick blue ledger from under the bar and ran his finger down a long list of names. The men listed in the book have their Social Security and pension checks mailed to the saloon. On the first and third Wednesday of every month, the owner calls out the names on the checks. After the men endorse the checks, the owner deducts the bar bills and gives the men the remainder.

“Sorry, Victor,” the bartender said. “You already drank the next check.”

“I did not,” Victor said, pulling a crum­pled piece of paper out of his pocket. “I wrote down each wine and the schoolteacher over there added it up. I only drank $43. My check is for $87.”

“You got some kind of nerve, calling me a liar,” the bartender said, leaping the bar.

“You shouldn’t cheat people,” Victor said. The bartender pushed Victor to the floor and picked up a stool.

“Maybe this will settle the account,” he said, crashing one of the legs of the stool into Victor’s mouth. The bartender picked him up by the collar and shoved him out the door.

“You don’t see much of that,” Bubba said. “Everybody knows that these guys cheat. They always get an extra $40 or $50. But nobody says anything. Everybody down here’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket. The only honest person I know is Betty. She used to own a bar down here. She wouldn’t steal a dime. She went bankrupt.” Bubba slugged back half a glass of wine and pointed to a gray-haired man and a burly youth sitting at a nearby table.

“Those two are supposed to be best friends,” Bubba said. “The old guy’s buy­ing the drinks for the young guy because he’s a fag. Three-quarters of the guys down here are fags. You don’t see a lot of women in here. So the old guy’s trying to pick the kid up. The kid is just taking the drinks and seeing if he’s going to have a chance to rob him.” The older man handed the youth a five-dollar bill and staggered over to the toilet. The youth went to the bar and returned with a bottle of wine.

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“The kid isn’t going to give him any change,” Bubba said as the old man returned to the table. “He knows that the fella’s forgotten about it. Now, notice that the old man’s missing one of his socks? That means that he took the rest of the money out of his shoe when he was in the toilet and was too drunk to put his sock back on. The kid’ll see that and know that it’s time for him to make his move. The kid saw the old fella take the five out of his left jacket pocket. You can bet that’s where the money from the shoe is now.” The old man leaned forward and vomited on the floor. The youth patted him on the back with his left hand. Then his right hand flashed into the old man’s jacket pocket.

“That,” Bubba said, “is how Social Security benefits get to young people on the Bowery. The young down here live off the old. If the kid hadn’t gotten the money that way, he would have waited till night and then hit the guy in the head. The old-timers are scared all the time. A lot of these young kids get twisted on pills and like to hurt people. We call them jackrollers.”

A tall man in his twenties threw open the door and walked the length of the bar, asking for change.

“Take a walk,” Pete said to the man. “We don’t want you here.” The man glared at Pete and left.

“The guy’s a jackroller,” Pete said. “Something’s got to be done about him.” Something was. The jackroller was beaten to death later that night.

Pete and Harold drained their glasses and left. Ten-Day Red came in with two quarts and sat next to Bubba. Ten-Day owns a dairy farm in upstate New York. Once a year, he comes down to the Bowery with $2000, At the end of 10 days, he gets deloused at the municipal shelter for men on East Third Street and goes back home.

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“It’s only been four days, and I’m down to 90 cents,” Ten-Day said to Bubba. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

“It can get expensive living on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “We’ll drink these, and then we’ll panhandle.” Twenty min­utes later, they were in the middle of the Bowery, hitting cars for change.

“Please, young sir,” Bubba said to a man in a Corvette with a Queens College sticker.

“A nickel, a dime, or a quarter to help us get an Easter jug.” The driver shook his head and rolled up his window.

“Most young guys and all hippies are terrible,” Bubba said to Ten-Day. “The only people worse are the Chinese and the pimps.”

“Please, young lady,” Bubba said to a middle-aged woman in a battered Ford. “I am here with a smile to ask you to help us get an Easter jug. Just a dime with a smile, or a quarter with a frown.” The woman smiled and gave him 50 cents. He moved on to a couple in a Cadillac. The Cadillac’s electric locks clicked down. The driver brandished a sawed-off baseball bat. Bubba approached a truck driver.

“Wish I could get out and join you for a drink,” the trucker laughed, tossing a quarter.

“Unless you get them at the beginning or the end of the day, working people are the best,” Bubba told Ten-Day. “In the morn­ings and evenings they hate you because they’re going to or coming from work. Any other time, they understand a guy on the skid.”

Ten-Day walked up to two men in a Pontiac. The car changed lanes and roared away.

“You got it all wrong,” Bubba said. “Never walk up to a car with your hands in your pockets. And always smile. Other­wise, people get afraid.”

Ten-Day took his hands out of his pockets, put on a smile, and sauntered over to a Cadillac. The driver handed Ten-Day a penny.

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“Your generosity overwhelms me,” Ten-­Day said. The driver produced a .32 calibre automatic.

“Maybe this will overwhelm you, too,” the driver growled. Ten-Day ran back into the bar. Bubba came in an hour later. Red was sitting at a back table with Jimmy.

“I would have stayed out longer,” Bubba said, pouring $7.43 onto the table, “but the rag men came out. I don’t like them. I used to do the rag, but then I learned that people are going to give you what they’re going to give you, whether you wipe the windows or not. You taught me that, right Jimmy?” Jimmy raised his glass and smiled. Jimmy had been Bubba’s “professor” when he first hit the Bowery. He taught Bubba how to panhandle, avoid jackrollers, and frus­trate pickpockets. Jimmy can’t remember who his “professor” was. Jimmy has been on the Bowery for 39 years. Six other men drew chairs up to the table and helped drink Bubba’s change.

“I can’t hold onto money,” Bubba said. “A guy needs a drink, I got to buy him a drink.” At 3 p.m., Bubba went back to the street to panhandle. As he left, two of the bums at the table grabbed for the half-inch of wine in Bubba’s glass. The larger of the two men smashed a bottle into the other bum’s face. The smaller man fell to the floor, screaming.

“It never used to be this way,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. “It just used to be regular bums. You had a bottle under your coat and you slept in hallways. Now you got the young guys and the pills. They go crazy, and they make everybody else crazy.”

Bubba made two dollars in half an hour. He quit when a policeman in a squad car handed him a dollar bill.

“The police are the most compassionate people on the Bowery,” Bubba said. “Now I got enough to pay in for the night.” On the way to the Prince Hotel, Bubba hit a woman pushing twin girls in a perambula­tor for a final 15 cents.

Bubba could hear the shouting from the entrance to the hotel. An elderly black man was standing at the chain-link door at the top of the stairs. A caseworker at the municipal shelter had told him that his “Muni Ticket” was good for any flophouse on the Bowery.

“Get lost, nigger,” the manager shouted at the black man, pointing to a cardboard placard taped to the wall. “The sign says ROOMS FULL.” Bubba walked up to the gate.

“Keep the nigger out,” the manager said as he buzzed Bubba in. Bubba slid $2.25 through the through the six-inch opening in the wall and brass bars surrounding the manager and grabbed his receipt.

“You must be new around here,” Bubba said as he walked past the black man. “Around here, ‘no rooms’ means no niggers and no spics.”

“You want some pink lady?” the black man said, offering a can of Sterno. “I only drank a little bit. Twenty cents.” Bubba he shook his head.

“You just get disgusted,” Bubba said to his friend, Robert, as he walked away from the hotel. “I’ve been to 20 detox centers. I keep trying to get out of here. But they dry you out and throw you back in. You’re like a dry sponge. You just soak up more wine.”

“Let’s go up to Al’s,” Robert said. “Willie’s across the street at the Providence. He’s got my coat and he’s sitting on $500.” Ten years ago, Willie had been an organist at Radio City Music Hall. He was fired when he started mixing Wagner, Beethoven, and white port. On his last day at the organ, he rolled up the rubber mat at the entrance to the theatre and carted it down to the Bowery. Willie’s favorite saloon still boasts the largest welcome mat of any gin mill in the city.

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Robert had gotten work through a temporary labor pool the previous Thursday hauling steel. As they passed Delancey Street, Robert ducked into a liquor store to cash a $20 labor paycheck.

“This is the only place you can cash the check,” Robert explained as he waited for the clerk. “You go to the labor pool and pay 10 per cent of what the job is. You want $20 a day, you give them two dollars. Then when you’re done, you got to come here. The labor-pool people own the liquor store. You got to buy something when you cash the check.” The man behind the counter took the check and handed Robert $14 and a four-ounce bottle of brandy.

“Tell Hanson that he’s behind a payment,” the clerk said. The clerk is also the local loan shark. Recently, a reporter a daily newspaper interviewed him for the workingman’s view of the Bowery.

“You wouldn’t believe all the rip-offs around here,” the clerk said.

“Tell Hanson that I’m going to twist his prick if he doesn’t cough,” he said as Robert pocketed the money.

Bubba was staggering by the time they reached Al’s. He didn’t touch the glass of wine an elderly homosexual poured for him. Bubba was sick. He did not need a drink. He needed food. Bubba had not eaten in four days. Brushing the silk lapels of his secondhand tuxedo, the homosexual prattled about silverware. Bubba fought to keep his head off the table and finally vomited thin stream of clear bile splashed onto floor.

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“You can’t do that in here,” Robert said, slamming his fist onto the table. “Go into the bathroom.”

Robert leaned back and explained his theory about the Bowery’s social strata. “Delancey Street is an invisible border. Bubba hangs out in the Roadhouse. You can do anything up there. You spit up on the floor here, you’re out. The Bowery’s divided into three social groups. You got the blacks up by Houston Street. Then you get the panhandlers and lunatics. Then, below Delancey, you got the minority of bums that work the labor companies and the caterers.”

“Out,” the bartender growled as Bubba returned from the bathroom. Bubba stumbled back up the Bowery. A block beyond Delancey, he ran into Rosemary. Last ­February, Rosemary had found him asleep in her hallway. Bubba had awakened with a pillow under his head. She gave him a glass of wine and told him that he could continue to sleep outside her door if he agreed to sweep the stairway. Then, in March, one of Bubba’s friends defecated in the hallway.

“It’s a holy day, and if you didn’t have such dirty friends, I would take you back,” Rosemary said. “You look bad, Bubba.”

“The Italians around here were always kind until the jackrollers and the wild ones started to come in,” Bubba said as he slid into a chair in the Roadhouse. The nausea passed, and, by nightfall, Bubba was drinking port again. By 8 o’clock, he was out panhandling.

“You don’t look like you belong on the Bowery,” a man in a station wagon said to Bubba.

“Why don’t you let us adopt you?” a woman sitting next to the man said.

“Not even for money,” Bubba said.

“At night, you get couples coming down,” he said as the car drove away. “You get gays. You get lonely women. They all want to pick up a young bum. They think they can just give him a shower and do whatever they want with him. One time a guy came back with brands on his ass.”

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By midnight, Bubba was in the Road­house with $11 in his pocket. Jimmy was standing on a chair with 16 hours of drinking behind him.

“I’m Mrs. Wallace’s boy, Jimmy,” he exulted. “And I’d rather drink wine here than be governor of Arkansas.”

“Shut up and sit down,” the bartender shouted.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played marbles in Brooklyn?” Jimmy asked. The saloon closed at 2. Jimmy went up to the dormitory above the bar to sleep. Bubba and Big Bill went on to the Follies Saloon.

Sitting at a side table, Bubba watched the bartender shortchange the men who or­dered bottles and pick the pockets of the men who fell asleep. Big Bill shot pool for an hour and a half. He failed to sink a single ball. By 4, Bubba was lying in a cubicle at the Prince Hotel with a quart of wine under his cot, hallucinating B-52s.

He was sick again at 6. It took the entire quart of port to quiet the muscle spasms that gripped his chest, stomach, and legs. At 8, he was across the street at the Roadhouse. Jimmy came down from the dormitory.

“I was real scared,” Jimmy said. “I was lying up there and I ached in my arms and my legs and my stomach. I got to stop drinking. Yesterday was Good Friday and I’m going to die by Easter.”

Robert took Jimmy into the bathroom for a shave. “I had to use six blades,” Robert an­nounced as he came out of the bathroom. “But look what I did for Jimmy.”

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“Robert doesn’t care about Jimmy,” Bubba said to a newcomer. “He’s just always got to be the big brother. He’s always breaking up fights and settling arguments between old men. He’s got to be where he’s the strongest. Outside, he’d just be another weakling. Everybody’s got a fantasy that they let loose down here. And it’s hard not to fall into it and never come out.”

“I’m sick,” Jimmy moaned. “That Fri­day wasn’t so good.”

“I’m sick, too,” Bubba said. “I’m going to the holy mountain. They’ll let me in now. It’s been a year.” “Holy Mountain” is the detoxification camp at Graymoor, run by the Franciscans in Garrison, New York. Bubba had enrolled in the 21-day program a year ago. On his way through town to the camp, he spotted three saloons and a liquor store. The following morning, he stole a set of monk’s robes and stood outside the church that adjoins the camp, asking the local citizens for “alms for alcoholics.” He had $65 in his cup when the camp officials spotted him. Bubba was back on the Bow­ery the next day.

Bubba gave Jimmy a hug and left.

At 3:50 Saturday afternoon, Bubba boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for Graymoor.

“The young and the old,” the bartender said back at the Roadhouse. “I’ve been down here 43 years. We always get a crop of new ones after a war. If there isn’t a war, what else is there for a lot of young fellas to do?” The bartender carried a case of eggs into the kitchen. On Easter morning, each bum at the Roadhouse receives a colored Easter egg and a glass of wine.

 

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Banksy’s Back in New York City

The last time he made work in New York City, Banksy, the famous street artist, had trouble finding locations. “Most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already,” the elusive British stencil maestro told the Voice in a rare interview in October 2013. That month, he put up one new piece per day, fomenting a scavenger-hunt energy as droves of fans quested around the city to spot and photograph the latest piece before the elements — or vandals — could damage it.

No scouting difficulty this time. Banksy’s first work in the city in five years is on the Bowery Wall, the seventy-foot surface at Houston Street and Bowery where Keith Haring once put a mural in the 1970s. Now a curated space, courtesy of the property owner, it has recently shown David Choe, Ron English, Brazil’s Os Gêmeos, Spain’s Pichi & Avo, and more.

Passersby take in Banksy’s piece at the Bowery Mural in Mahattan

On Thursday, a masked figure cloaked in white spacesuit-like overalls was observed standing on a lift, making black vertical tally marks in clusters of five on the white wall. A press release went out. The work is a collaboration between Banksy and the American street artist Borf, it explained. It is a tribute to the jailed Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.

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Doğan, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is one year into a nearly three-year sentence in Turkey. Her crime was to make a watercolor depicting a town in Turkish Kurdistan in ruins after combat between the army and Kurdish rebels. Perversely, the painting was based on a photograph the Turkish military itself had circulated. But its appropriation by Doğan, who is a progressive journalist as well as an artist, was not to the liking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime.

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“I really feel for her,” Banksy said in a brief statement to the New York Times. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”

By Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours into its display, the work was in conversation with the city — for better or worse. Clusters of pilgrims gathered on the sidewalk and in the median traffic island facing it to snap the best views. A group of students from St. John’s University listened to a guide extol the site’s importance in art history. On the second-highest of the work’s four long rows of tally marks, Doğan’s face looked out over the scene, in a clever and attractive design: the vertical marks now prison bars, and the last one tapered to represent a sharpened pencil. Down near the sidewalk, the inscription FREE ZEHRA DOGAN beckoned passersby to remember her name.

The vandals, too, had shown up. Between the third and fourth row, an interloper had scrawled his identity in red spray paint nine times over — damage that would require a fresh paint job to remedy, which would no doubt invite recidivism. Such is the city.

Detail from the mural of Dogan, who was jailed by Turkish authorities in March 2017 for painting the ruins of a Kurdish town destroyed at the hands of Turkey’s military.

The work remains elegant, if no longer pure. Its simple geometry contrasts with Banksy’s more common use of stencils — representing humans, dogs, rats, butterflies, flowers, fire hydrants, shopping carts — and the stark pathos of its appeal on behalf of a prisoner of conscience is a welcome moral improvement over the massive hoardings for fashion labels or alcohol brands that pollute whole walls in this part of the city.

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It will pass, of course — street art is transient by nature, and thus also, at least in some measure, by design. In her actual prison cell, Doğan can only make her own tally marks to count the days; her release comes in principle in December 2019. According to the press release, she has yet to learn of this venture. A campaign by PEN America invites the public to write U.S. authorities to urge them to demand her release.

Banksy’s piece at the corner of 14th Street and 6th Avenue is a rat running while trapped inside a clock at a disused bank.

A second Banksy has popped up a mile or so away, this one more in keeping with his brand, furtive and sly. A large stenciled rat — one of his fetish animals, and sadly fitting for New York City — has appeared on the face of a stopped clock on a derelict former bank building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.

The hour hand of the clock is stalled above the rat’s rump, seeming to push it up the clock face in a futile circular motion. Here, too, street-art pilgrims and gawkers stand on the corner looking up and snapping pictures. Beneath the clock, homeless individuals sit with their belongings in the condemned doorway. All parties appear supremely oblivious to one another. Prisons, distress, exclusion, futility: The dots connect and the metaphors write themselves as shoppers stream past and an open-topped tourist bus chugs by.

A detail of Banksy’s rat at 14th Street and 6th Avenue

UPDATE 3/17/18 1:00 p.m.: No confirmation on his Instagram yet, but Banksy seems to have struck again, this time in Brooklyn.

A new Banksy tag near a long-closed gas station in Midwood, Brooklyn near the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue I.

UPDATE 3/18/18 2:00 p.m.: And we have confirmation.

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In a Former Nightclub Space, Vandal Celebrates Global Art and Street Fare

Bill Hader’s Stefon no longer works SNL‘s “Weekend Update” desk, but if the nightlife reporter were to visit Vandal (199 Bowery, 212-400-0199), he’d be sure to report back that “this place has everything!” A hidden entrance tucked away behind a flower shop. A breakdancing bunny rabbit. Positively eye-popping décor.

A private dining room at Vandal

Fictional correspondents aside, Vandal’s very real celebration of global street art would feel at home at any of New York’s modern art museums — it was devising the menu to match that was the hard part. The approach that chef-owner Chris Santos and executive chef Jonathan Kavourakis took was simple: First, spend nine weeks traveling the world in search of popular street fare. Second, take a large selection of those dishes (44, to be exact) and use the best ingredients possible to reimagine them. What does that mean? Well, for starters, that a New York street-style pretzel is reimagined with Kobe beef and smoked aioli, the familiar charcoal essence here elevated by the luxe fixings.

Peruvian-style ceviche

“To be able to cook this kind of food was a dream for me. It’s not really ‘street food’ — it’s inspired by street food,” Kavourakis explains. He and Santos were invested in sourcing the highest-quality ingredients in order to refine the casual culinary experiences they’d had on their travels. “Typically, when you eat street food, you’re not getting the highest quality of product. You’re getting chicken thighs, or if you order the meat, it’s the scrapped meat that’s been stewed,” Kavourakis says.

At Vandal, grilled Chilean sea bass nests neatly inside tortillas; shawarma isn’t served sliced off a spit, but placed atop a salad alongside falafel croutons. There’s also a selection of pizza and large plates, including a two-pound whole lobster prepared fra diavolo–style.

Red snapper tostadas

“That’s the challenge,” Kavourakis says. “How do I take a taco that they’re selling for sixty cents that is delicious in Mexico, and how do I make it for New York?” The menu options span the globe, from the Midwest — Juicy Lucy burgers topped with American cheese — to Rome (cacio e pepe arancini).

The space itself, erstwhile home to the Finale nightclub, is equally expansive: 11,900 square feet, to be precise, accommodating 487 seats. Before diving into the menu, guests feel the watchful eyes of Andre the Giant thanks to a Shepard Fairey mural on the wall of the “secret garden” room. The work of British street artist Hush is also a focal point, along with pieces by Will Barras, Tristan Eaton, and Vhils, all of which, Kavourakis says, contribute to “a sensitive experience.” Somewhere, one imagines, Stefon smiles at that one.

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Meet La Gamelle, the French Restaurant Mathieu Palombino Has Been Waiting to Open

Mathieu Palombino gained recognition for his mastery of seafood at BLT Fish before transitioning to firing Neapolitan pizzas at Motorino, where he gained a cult following. Now, though, he’s opened a restaurant that bares his soul. La Gamelle (241 Bowery, 212-388-0052), Palombino’s new French brasserie, is a labor of love that’s been fifteen years in the making.

“This is the restaurant I came to this country for,” says Palombino, a native of Belgium. “Fifteen years ago, when I left my bag and I said to myself one day I will open a restaurant, [La Gamelle] is the restaurant I had in mind.”

When Palombino arrived in New York, he found himself drawn to French restaurants — they were, after all, where he could find fellow expats speaking his native tongue. He was enamored of the décor and classic menus full of steak frites and escargot.

When he picked up the Bowery address, though, he decided to try his hand at American comfort food, and he opened Bowery Diner. “I got it into my head to open a diner,” he says. “The truth is, I did this because I am not a fan of doing what I should be doing. Nothing about it was me.”

He soon realized he would much rather spend his time providing the Parisian brasserie experience to the Bowery, and he and his partners closed Bowery Diner to open Chez Jef, a pop-up restaurant born of the chef’s annual trips to Paris, where he became reacquainted with the brasserie. “In one week, I’m going to turn this around,” he says of the transition. “It’s going to be a funny pop-up. It’s going to look very wacky. At this point, I didn’t have anything to lose. We did this pop-up, it was fun, we put the food on the plate, and right away we got a good response. People loved the food, people loved the wine…the food being served this way. Right away I loved it.”

Pâté en croûte
Pâté en croûte

The team decided to explore the concept’s potential, and eventually settled on opening La Gamelle (French for “canteen”) in the same space. The chef teamed with Alex Gherab — who has designed many of New York City’s bistros — for the design. The result: a custom-made 18-seat zinc bar (installed by Palombino himself) and a 110-seat dining room filled with antique chairs and wood-trimmed mirrors.

From the kitchen, comfort fare is king; steak frites is served with a side of béarnaise, and you can supplement your order with pâté en croûte and ratatouille. Desserts include crêpe suzette, meringue, and strawberries with almond cream and chantilly. Bar offerings focus on European beers and wines as well as sparkling wine and house cocktails.

“This is a French restaurant you will find in France,” says Palombino. “The food is not Americanized. I worked in a lot of French restaurants that you have to adapt to the New York palate. The soup needs to be thicker, you have to put less sauce, you have to do less fries. New Yorkers are well educated enough to be appreciating what the French cuisine is without having to adapt it for them….It’s a super-simple place where you go; it’s not super-refined, but the environment is somehow refined. The food is always generous, well priced; it’s a place nobody should fear. You find your favorites, you eat with your friends, and it’s not about analyzing this new green purée and talking about it for 45 minutes. It’s about eating two steak frites face to face with a friend you haven’t seen in a while and drinking a little bit too much wine.”

The zinc bar and main dining room
The zinc bar and main dining room
Tripel Karmelet
Tripel Karmelet
Strawberries, almond cream, chantilly
Strawberries, almond cream, chantilly
Floating Island: meringue, crème anglaise caramel
Floating Island: meringue, crème anglaise caramel
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Paulaner Brauhaus & Restaurant NYC Brings Deutschland to the Bowery

There is a new microbrewery opening at 265 Bowery, but don’t expect to find scrappy, Warby Parker-wearing brewmasters hanging by the tap. This brewery makes real German bier, and it comes by way of an international brand: Paulaner Brauhaus & Restaurant NYC may be the first Paulaner International brauhaus in the United States, but it joins a line-up of 25 locations around the world–including outposts in China, Spain, and Brazil. But don’t get your hand-crocheted undies in a bunch over the fact that this is a chain.

For Rudy Tauscher, the microbrewery’s owner, the business is more personal–this is a long-awaited dream project. He comes from a family of German beer-makers, and an old family photograph hangs on the restaurant wall. And he’s no novice when it comes to running a business, either: Tauscher served as general manager for both the Trump International and the Mandarin Oriental hotels.

Head brewmaster Andreas Heidenreich also hails from Germany, and he comes with a rich brewing background; for the last nine years, he opened Paulaner branches around Asia. He walked us through the staple Paulaner beers, which are always on tap: the Hefeweizen, a low-hop wheat beer; Munich Lager, which is malty and hoppy; and Munich Dark, an intense roasted barley brew. Depending on the time of year, the brauhaus may also have a seasonal brew on tap, including the double bock Salvator, springtime Maibock, or fall Oktoberfest. And every Paulaner beer adheres to the German bier purity law instated back in 1516: Known as Reinheitsgebot, the law restricts-beer makers to four ingredients–water, hops, barely and yeast. Anything else, and it’s no longer a German beer.

Every brew will be mashed, fermented, and stored in floor-to-ceiling copper and steel tanks, most of which are perched against the original red brick walls of the space. Smaller tanks lead directly to the bar taps, and you won’t find bottles here.

The brauhaus is meant to be a gathering spot for crowds, where friends can share a few drinks and talk about the day. If you’re hungry, a Bavarian-style menu will supplement the beers, and it will deal in appetizers, soups, salads, and entrees ($6-$28) along with a “From the Fire” section offering ten different grilled sausages ($9 each) plus six types of cabbage accompaniments ($6 each). So chain or no, between the lagers, spaetzle, bauerwurst, and Bavarian cream, you may think you’ve disappeared into Deutschland.

Look for a debut later this fall.

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If You Play Your Cards Right, You Can Have a Great Meal at Full House

Vegetarian Mock Duck – Made of tofu skin tightly rolled up with minced mushrooms inside, the recipe associated with Buddhist monks resembles sliced duck breast more than a little, right?

Full House is one of the new generation of Shanghai restaurants gradually materializing around town, places that not only do the standards of the cuisine, but also throw in some Hong Kong, Sichuan, Mandarin, Thai, and American cooking on top of that. The quality is high, especially on the iconic pork-crab soup dumplings. Here are six recommended dishes.

Read the entire Counter Culture review of Full House here.

 

Spicy Baby Chicken – This Sichuan specialty, tender bone-in pieces of pullet strewn with several kinds of dry and fresh chiles, has rarely been so well made as by the Shanghaianese chefs on duty at Full House. Yes, you will break a sweat, and gladly gulp down glasses of water and thimbles of hot tea in an attempt to dispel the burn. No luck.

Minced Pork and Crab Meat Ball in Special Sauce – More commonly known as lion heads, these meatballs are soft and Teutonic, and bathe in a yellowish fluid that keeps them moist and provides an agreeable topping for your rice. As a bonus, transparent mung bean fettuccine lurk on the bottom of the bowl.

Pan Fried Noodle Shanghai Style – Basically, a Hong Kong recipe adapted for Shanghai tastes, with lots of mushrooms, Napa cabbage (yes, that refers to Napa, California), diverse slivers of meat, in a mellow gravy over fried noodles that slowly get softer as the minutes tick by, making for a nice crunch-squish gradient.

Steamed Pork and Crab Meat Juicy Dumplings – This is the last lonely dumpling left from a steamer of six – the fabled soup dumplings of Shanghai.

Spare Ribs Wu Xi Style – Shorty pork ribs red-braised in the style of Wu Xi, a town northwest of Shanghai. The wonderfully gelatinous meat melts off the bone, and the baby bok choi make a nice contrast.

And what will you have for dessert?

French Fries – Yes, the same spice-and-starch-coated french fries found in chain restaurants in the United States are now part of Shanghai cuisine – and are we ever proud! Makes a great after-main-course savory dessert.

Full House
97 Bowery
212-925-8083

Enjoying the ma po tofu at Full House

 

 

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Yuji Haraguchi Launching Dip-Style and Ramen ‘Ravioli,’ Plus Plans for a New Williamsburg Restaurant

Since Smorgasburg partnered with Whole Foods, market vendors have been encouraged to use the chain’s Bowery space to transition from stalls to full-time restaurants, like the stellar meat-smoking crew of Mighty Quinn’s. Starting tomorrow, and going through Sunday, May 12, it’s Yuji Haraguchi’s turn in the kitchen.

Haraguchi will be serving a five-course ramen omakase by reservation in the evening and a quicker a la carte list during the day. Portions won’t be as big as at other restaurants, but neither will the prices — the bacon-and-eggs ramen is $9, as is every other bowl on the lunch menu. “Ramen is like a snack food,” Haraguchi says, “it should be cheap and delicious, and it shouldn’t make you feel gross.”

Though Haraguchi is best known for his mazemen, or brothless ramen, he’ll be making a broth each day with whichever bones are available from the store’s butcher counter for the shoyu ramen ($9) and for various dip styles at dinner. The pale noodles, “a little closer to udon,” says Haraguchi, will be shipped in from the city’s favorite ramenya supplier, New Jersey’s Sun Noodle. But for some of his more nontraditional dishes, like the ramen “ravioli,” Haraguchi will be rolling and cutting his own dough in house. As usual, his menu will lean toward seafood.

Haraguchi was born in Utsunomiya — north of Tokyo, in a landlocked prefecture — but came to the U.S. to work as a seafood salesman. Growing up in Japan, Haraguchi didn’t eat much ramen, but when he fell homesick in the U.S., he began cooking it for himself. Those early dishes made with local ingredients evolved into Yuji Ramen, first a pop-up in Kinfolk Studios in Williamsburg, and later a regular stall at Smorgasburg. (Haraguchi was looking to raise $3,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year to buy himself the immersion circulator, heavy-duty food processor, and other equipment required for his increasingly ambitious ramen experiments — he raised $12,000.)

Good news for fans of Haraguchi’s cooking: By June, the chef plans to transition to his own restaurant space in Williamsburg. He tells Fork it will be a “Japanese street-food joint” offering takeout and eat-in dishes, specializing in snacks like okonomiyaki, the wonderfully greasy Japanese pancakes, topped as generously as pizza. But much like with his ramen, we can expect a few twists — kale instead of cabbage, house-smoked bacon instead of pork belly, and, of course, a rotating selection of mazemen.

Yuji Ramen, in Whole Foods, 95 E Houston St., Second Floor, 212-420-1320

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Angry Birds: You’ve Played the Game, Now Eat the Cake

Three very Angry Birds. Can you name them?

The wildly popular video game Angry Birds–invented by Finns, and said to have undergone over one billion downloads across the world universe in all formats–has gone analog!

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Angry Birds are only a fraction of the elaborate cakes available at Chinatown’s Kamboat Bakery and Cafe.

Kamboat, a newish Hong-Kong-style bakery near the corner of Grand and Bowery, is selling Angry Bird cakes in three permutations. The fondant-heavy cakes are all in the round format, and it’s hard to tell which specific bird each represents. Is the red one on the right Deadpool, or is it the Flash?

In truth, all three cakes are mash-ups of several Angry Birds characters. Still, for the Angry Birds enthusiast, any of these would make a great birthday cake.

Kamboat Bakery & Cafe
111 Bowery
212-274-1822

Closing time, Saturday evening

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