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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. 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Untold Story of the Tompkins Square Murder

Blood Simple

Daniel Rakowitz moved in with Sylvia and Shawn on July 7, bringing his scrawny brown rooster and three cats with him. “The rooster’s name was Rooster,” remembers Sylvia, a pale 27-year-­old nursing assistant with long brown hair and a striking red-and-­blue tattoo on her right arm. “All night it would cackle and crow. I told Daniel one night, ‘Daniel, I can’t listen to this rooster anymore.’ So he took a sock, and he put it over the roost­er’s bead. And the rooster would lie on its back with its legs up. And after 10 hours I said, ‘Daniel, the rooster — it looks like he’s dead.’ And he says, ‘No, he’s in a trance.’ He’d take the sock off — the rooster was fine. But you put the sock on, and the rooster just lay on its back with its legs up in the air.”

Sylvia and her boyfriend Shawn, both from Morris Plains, New Jersey, had been living together in a cramped two­-bedroom apartment at 700 East 9th Street for a couple months. “When I first met Daniel a year and half ago, he sold me pot in Washington Square Park,” says Sylvia. ”I didn’t really get to know him until be moved into the apartment.” Rakowitz, a 28-year-old part-time cook and marijuana dealer who was sleeping in Tompkins Square Park at the time, agreed to cover half of the apartment’s $500-a-month rent. “I saw a change in Daniel: he felt like he was a normal per­son,” explains Sylvia. “He had a home, he could take a shower, he had a big TV.” In fact, Rakowitz developed a fixation for television. He’d watch until dawn, saying “C’mon Sylvia, watch TV — just one more show, there’s something good coming on!”

Despite a gaping hole in the wall oppo­site the stove, the kitchen was another plus: Rakowitz would often wake up in the morning and head for Key Food on Fourth and B. Hanging out by the front door, he asked people for donations. Strangers shopping at the store would buy him just what he asked for: chicken, potatoes, butter, bread, vegetables. He would return to the apartment with 30 or 40 pounds of food, cook it all up, bring it to Tompkins Square, and feed the home­less there. “He prepared a lot of chicken mainly,” says Jerry the Peddler, a local squatter and community leader. “He’d feed people a couple or three times a week.”

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Sometimes he showed up with break­fast. “He’d make stacks of pancakes for everyone,” says Shawn, a dark, muscular, 25-year-old electrician. “And he even used to get the syrup from the people in the street — he never paid for any of this. We cooked up everything. It was fun. And it was good. He had consideration for other people. He knew what it was like because he had been homeless.”

But life with Rakowitz was not a con­stant picnic: his incessant babbling would have driven almost any roommate mad. “When he used to go off on his trips,” recalls Sylvia, “I’d say ‘Daniel, you have your beliefs, and I have mine. I don’t impose them on you, so please don’t im­pose yours on me.’ And he’d respect that. And he’d stop saying, ‘I am the Lord of the Lords,’ and ‘By 1996, I’m gonna be president,’ and ‘By 1992, my followers are gonna take over,’ and ‘If they think Hit­ler was something, they haven’t seen any­thing yet.’ ”

“He was a classic nut,” says the Ped­dler. “He had all the symptoms: he had sudden fits of rage, he had delusions of grandeur, he didn’t like touching people, he had fantasy followers. Once, we were walking down Avenue B and we found a couple of pages of pornography on the street. He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket, and he lays it across the paper and then picks it up by the edges. And he looks at the women’s pictures for a min­ute and he finally folds it up very neat­ly — never touches it — and puts it in his back pocket.” The Peddler also saw Rakowitz try to pick up the real thing: “He was constantly going up to women — ­constantly. He’d stop right in the middle of a conversation and run over to talk to a single woman alone in the street or in the park. I saw him do that all the time. He never seemed to pick up that many.”

Soon after Rakowitz moved in, Sylvia and Shawn experienced problems in their three-year relationship; around July 20, they broke up and Shawn moved out. Sylvia, fed up with the city, decided to move shortly afterwards, leaving the apartment to Rakowitz. But he couldn’t support the place himself; when the lease changed hands, the rent would rise to $605. And Rakowitz — a skinny, bearded, long-haired drifter — was not exactly what the average landlord considers an ideal tenant. So the search began for a new roommate. “Daniel needed someone to share the rent,” says Shawn, “but he also felt threatened that we were going to kick him out — that I was going to kick him out — so he wanted the lease put in his new friend’s name. Daniel, I guess, didn’t want his name on anything.”

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About two weeks later, according to the police, Rakowitz met Monika Beerle, a 26-year-old modern dancer, in Tompkins Square Park. Beerle, a slender, dirty blond-haired girl from St. Gallen, Swit­zerland, had earned a teaching and chore­ography certificate from the Sigurd Leeder School and had recently studied at the Martha Graham School. Though she had a reputation for dating adventur­ously, one friend says, “She was a pretty smart girl. She seemed pretty profession­al, had a good head on her shoulders. The girl wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t crazy.”

In late April, Monika had moved from 93 Orchard Street to 171 Avenue B but was already looking for another place to live when she met Rakowitz. He took her home and made his pitch. When she ac­cepted, the two of them toasted their future with a couple of joints from Rakowitz’s stash.

Sylvia first met Monika before the lease had changed hands. That night, Rakowitz had been slow to answer her knock, and when the door swung open, he was zipping up his fly. “He never had women up there,” says Sylvia. “I’d never even seen him with a woman. So I’m saying to myself, ‘All right, Daniel, I know that you’re just trying to goof on me and make me think that you just went with this woman. So I went in there and he introduced me to her, and he says, ‘Yeah, she’s gonna move in and she’s gonna take over the lease.’ ”

Monika and her belongings arrived in the first week of August. “Daniel had cleaned up this place so immaculate be­fore she moved in, just for her,” Sylvia says. “I asked her the next day-because I thought Daniel was playing a joke-I said, ‘Daniel told me that he went with you.’ And she goes, ‘He did,’ point-blank in answer to me.”

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Something about the arrangement bothered Sylvia. “I told Daniel ‘This girl wants just the apartment.'” she recalls. “He kept saying, ‘No, but she cares about me, and she wants to live with me, and she wants to be my roommate.’ And I said, ‘Daniel, she wants the apartment. And she’s gonna take the apartment right from underneath you. She’s gonna have the lease in her name, and once it’s in her name she’s gonna throw you out. And I ain’t gonna be here anymore, and there’s nothing I can say when the lease is changed over. So if she throws you out, you’re out — and you’re homeless again.'”

But Rakowitz wouldn’t listen. “He’d say ‘I love her, I love her.’ I’d never seen him go out with a girl, much less say that,” Sylvia recalls. “But it was ‘Oh Monika, do you want this?’ Or ‘Monika, you want me to make you something to eat.’ I mean, he was just ‘Monika’ everything.”

“She treated him like shit,” adds Shawn.

Lynn, a vivacious 18-year-old girl who often sold Rakowitz sheets of blotter acid, tells an entirely different story: “I remember when the girl first moved into his apartment. It was early one morning, and Daniel was saying, ‘Oh yeah, there’s this girl.’ He said she’d moved in, and she was really stupid, and she had paid off his back rent so he wouldn’t get thrown out of his apartment. He was just using her; that was the whole thing.”

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Monika broke off the romance almost immediately, and she began bringing oth­er men to the apartment. One evening, she invited a Rastafarian to stay the night and Rakowitz inadvertently sur­prised them. Later, he confided in Sylvia: “He said to me, ‘Sylvia, she has a black man in there.’ And he looked hurt, and he looked mad, because that’s one of the people he hated — gays and blacks — to him, that was the worst insult you could give him. I said, ‘Daniel, what do you want me to do about it?'”

Monika’s friends, alarmed by Rakowitz’s ravings, urged her to throw him out. In mid-August, about a week after moving in, she took their advice, telling Rakowitz that she wanted him out in two weeks. Rakowitz pleaded, “Please, Sylvia, don’t let her throw me out. I have nowhere to go.”

“I said, ‘Daniel, I told you this was gonna happen, ‘ ” remembers Sylvia. “And it kinda freaked him out, you know? He was pleading every way he could to make some type of arrangement.” But Moni­ka’s mind was made up.

“She was stupid to fuck with him,” says Lynn. “He told her he was gonna kill her. She said that he had told her that.”

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“Daniel would go through this all day long,” remembers Sylvia. “He’d say ‘I’m gonna kill her.’ And five minutes later, he’d say, ‘No, I love her, I’m not gonna kill her.” This continued for three days. Neither Shawn nor Sylvia took him seri­ously — partly because of all the wild things he’d said in the past, partly be­cause neither of them had ever seen Dan­iel become violent. He talked a crazy streak, but he behaved himself. “Around August 12, I told Monika that ‘Daniel said he’s gonna kill you,’ ” says Sylvia. “And she just, kind of, laughed. And she went up to Daniel in front of me and said to Daniel, ‘I’ll kill you first.'”

On the evening of Thursday, August 17, Rakowitz walked Sylvia to the PATH train. As they shared a joint, he told Sylvia that he couldn’t take Monika any­more, he’d had enough. He said be planned to kill her the next day, and he asked Sylvia to come back and help him get rid of the body. “I said ‘Daniel, what are you, crazy? I ain’t gonna help you with anything.’ ” recalls Sylvia. “And he was really nervous. He was terrified. He was so terrified of being homeless.”

“I didn’t go there Friday,” she contin­ues. “I didn’t think about: ‘It’s Friday — is Daniel killing Monika?’ On Saturday night, I could see from the street that the apartment was dark, and I knew some­thing was wrong. But I went up there anyway. I was coming up the stairs and I heard Daniel’s TV, and it was really loud. And I opened the door, and his TV was in the kitchen, and it was very dim. I went back to my room to make sure my stuff was okay, ’cause I told him I was leaving it there for awhile till I got it all out. And Monika’s door was closed, and I went and knocked on Monika’s door, and nobody answered. So I went to the kitchen. And on the stove there was a pot. And in the pot was Monika’s head. She was all burnt-up, and her eyes were closed.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

“I was born on Christmas Eve 12/24/60, which equals 96,” Daniel Rakowitz said to me in an interview this June. “And I have 18 letters to my name. I was born in the 21st Hour, which is 9:02 p.m., which they say signifies the coming of the Lord Jesus, according to what the Bible says.”

Rakowitz’s father, Tony, was a deputy in the small South Texas town of Rock­port. Tony’s boss, Sheriff Robert Hewes, told Newsday that Rakowitz’s father “was a straight-laced fellow, a real disci­plinarian.” According to Fred, who knew Rakowitz in New York for about two years, Rakowitz’s mother “died of a heart attack right in front of him. It happened when he was a kid, and when that hap­pens, people feel very very helpless.”

Rakowitz became aware of his divinity in 1966, when he was five years old. “Three Lords looking like Jesus floated out of the wall one at a time, one wearing a purple, one wearing a yellow, and one wearing a blue robe.” Rakowitz told Syl­via and Shawn that his parents had re­peatedly put him in psychiatric wards (when phoned, Tony Rakowitz refused to answer any questions about his son). “From the age of nine to 11 they forced me to take Ritalin [a drug prescribed for hyperactive children],” Rakowitz said in his June interview. “The other students decided to hit on me and spit on me. And if I defended myself, I got paddled. And I was the slowest runner in the school, too.”

“He told me they gave him shock treat­ments when he was 14,” says Sylvia. “I think he was the way he was from what had happened to him in the past — what people had done, the drugs they had giv­en him, his family committing him to psychiatric hospitals. He was committed. And he was very bitter about that.”

The tension between Rakowitz and his father peaked when the deputy found marijuana in his teenage son’s room. Rakowitz’s father took him to the Rock­port station and booked him for possession.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

At 19, Rakowitz enlisted in the army. He became an expert rifleman and spent 14 weeks in army law-enforcement school. After his discharge, he applied for a job as deputy alongside his father. He was turned down. (Rakowitz later spoke of taking over Texas: “I want to do every­thing as a Texas sheriff and I’m going to have many counties where a lot of people that smoke marijuana can come.”)

“On April 3, 1983, I made a prayer that I would have a dream to learn future events,” Rakowitz said. “Six days later, I did indeed have the dream and it told me I would come into total possession of a 14-year-old girl who two weeks later be­came my wife. And before we got mar­ried, I said, ‘According to the dream, you’re gonna leave me and I will go to New York and find a blond-haired woman and get married. Some day I come back and, according to the dream, you come back to me but you have another man’s child.'”

Police confirm that Rakowitz was mar­ried in Texas. “He told me his wife was Mexican,” says Martha, who befriended Rakowitz in New York. “She was really young. He was very upset when they split up and, I think he hoped at first — when I met him in 1985 — that they would get back together.”

No one is sure when Rakowitz first came to New York but police say he had not been back to his home state since 1981. “He was living at the Palace Hotel on the Bowery when I met him,” remem­bers Martha, who sold him quarter-­pounds of pot for resale. “He was always paranoid about visitors. And the police had questioned him before, you know. He told me how he had to sit down and tell them about his constituents, you know, how he had a constituency, how he had, you know, followers in his church, and how he had land in Colorado. He told me he had land in Colorado where he was gonna build his church and grow marijua­na there. I can’t remember the name of the man that he bought his land from but he would make payments on his land. I kept telling him, ‘Danny, it’s a sham, the man just took your money.’ ”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727312″ /]

Almost everyone on the Lower East Side knew Rakowitz:

“He’s a whacko,” says Clayton Patterson, a hat-store owner and the famed videotaper of last year’s riot in Tompkin’s Square. “All he ever talked about was killing; it amazed me that he talked about killing as much as he did. Daniel wasn’t a great marijuana salesman. Daniel was, you know, a slow learner. He was kind of a jovial-looking guy, but he was isolated, lonely; Danny-boy was always standing around by himself.”

“The man had charisma,” claims Jerry the Peddler. “It took people a couple of minutes to realize he was a kook, but he always managed to get them to stop and listen to him. Most people didn’t think of the guy as really being a nut. I used to talk to people about him. And they’d go, ‘Oh, no, he’s harmless.’ I used to tell them ‘Someday he’d gonna kill somebody.’ I swear I did.”

Jerry had reason to make his prediction: “Daniel liked to kill animals,” he remembers. “He killed his pets constant­ly. I saw him go through a lot of cats — a lot of cats. He had, like, three dogs that he’s killed. Everybody knew the white English terrier he had. He didn’t kill it, although he did kind of starve it quite a bit. He finally sold it.”

Dana Beal, Yipster-in-residence at 9 Bleecker Street, disagrees with the Ped­dler on at least one count: “He would have had a cult, and would have had a cult following, if he’d had charisma. You have to realize, it wasn’t that this guy didn’t go out and proselytize every day to win converts. It was that nobody would convert. It was a cult of one, you under­stand what I’m saying?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”723357″ /]

“I was gonna squat with him once,” says Lynn. “We opened a building on Suffolk Street one night, a whole group of us. He had some really cool ideas for what he wanted to do with the building: he wanted to make the first two floors housing for handicapped people. And it just didn’t go off. We thought he was pretty crazy for wanting to do that. He used to say that he wanted to, like, mur­der the cops and give their money to the poor. And he was gonna start this cult and have five children with each of 25 women, so that he could create his ‘mas­ter race.’

“Daniel used to burn incredible amounts of pot,” she continues. “That’s why I hung out with Daniel. That’s why everyone hung out with Daniel. And when you get stoned, and you listen to him ranting and raving, and it gets really hysterical. I mean, he was just amazing to listen to when you were stoned. So there was one day, and he had the grass on a table, and his rooster jumped up and scattered the pot. So he starts, like, beat­ing the shit out of this rooster. Someone jumps on Daniel and pulls him off, and everyone’s grabbing the rooster. Every­body was always, like, ‘Liberate the rooster!’ ‘Liberate the rooster!’ because Daniel used to carry it around in this bag, and it never saw the light of day.

“Some people said he had some kind of charisma,” Lynn concludes. “I never thought so, but a lot of girls thought he had some kind of weird charisma. I never thought there was anything interesting about him at all.”

Fred has a different perspective: “He hated women. He used to speak about how he was going to control women.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726204″ /]

On November 9, 1988, WCBS-TV re­porter Mike Taibbi went looking for the Devil on the Lower East Side, found his man, and failed to recognize him. “I think we spent, probably, a total of four hours with Daniel,” says Taibbi, who was intent on proving that the noise band Missing Foundation had inspired the Tompkins Square Park riot. “We inter­viewed him for probably 30 minutes. Well, if you’ve heard his rap, you probably know all about this. We shot the whole thing, when he was going through his rap. We reviewed the logs, and one of the things he said was that — I don’t have the logs in front of me — but he did say that he was going to dismember his girl­friends. If they got pregnant and had an abortion, he was going to dismember them.”

“He asked Daniel all kinds of ques­tions,” says the Peddler, who sat next to Rakowitz on a Tompkins Square Park bench during the interview. “Basically, Taibbi just kept playing on Daniel’s weird rap about 966. He was mainly interested in making the Missing Foundation link; Missing Foundation was the whole point of the interview.” Amazingly, Rakowitz bought Taibbi’s premise that Missing Foundation was a Satanic cult rather than a band with a devoted following of anarchists. For some time afterwards, Rakowitz paced the park, telling people, “You think Missing Foundation are big Satanists? I’m going to be the biggest Satanist of all, wait and see.”

“We used just a bit of it,” says Taibbi, “as it related to a story we were doing.” Asked if he is now upset at having thrown away the rest of the footage, Taibbi answers sharply: “Not necessarily.”

While interviewing Rakowitz, Taibbi questioned him about the Temple of the True Inner Light, a storefront on East Ninth Street that houses five young men and women who worship psychedelics. At that point, Rakowitz was barely aware of the place. Within weeks, however, he was knocking at tbe temple’s door.

“I believe we were the only people that briefly — and I’m talking about real brief — got Dan in touch with his conscience,” says temple member Mary, a woman with spectacular red hair. “Dan was not hopeless. He had a lot of prob­lems — a lot of spiritual, mental prob­lems — and anyone that talked to Dan for five minutes could see this. Dan had started telling me that he felt guilty about all the animals he’d killed. He started telling me, ‘Oh, I had this many chickens, this many dogs, this many cats, this many rabbits,’ — he named a whole bunch of animals.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721955″ /]

The temple members were so spooked by Rakowitz, they actually took him out­side to search him for weapons — the first such incident in over five years. “He was telling us he couldn’t leave this bag that he had,” says Mary. “And I started thinking that he had weapons in it, but then be pulled out Hitler’s book. He definitely had severe, severe problems.”

Rakowitz’s obsession with Adolf Hitler alienated everyone, especially those who hung around the Square, not a place where right-wing, fascist ideology is fash­ionable: “About a year ago,” says Aron Kay, the infamous pieman of the late ’70s and a fixture on the Lower East Side. “I found out that Daniel was into admiring Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And I asked him why doesn’t he give it up or burn it, but he kept defending it. He said that he loved and literally worshipped the book. My parents are Holocaust survivors. I couldn’t take it anymore. That pushed my buttons. I literally floored him on Avenue A.”

Rakowitz was infatuated with his German edition of Mein Kampf because he believed the book to contain “evidence of the supernatural,” facing page 696. The evidence had nothing to do with the text itself; rather, it was in a simple diagram rendered by a blue felt-tip pen on a small piece of paper slipped between the book’s pages: a blotch of ink in the center, a ‘9’ to the left of it, a ‘6’ to the right. Rakowitz believed this diagram signified that he was the Second Coming of Christ.

As Daniel explained in June, when he looked at the diagram he saw a cow’s head with two horns rising toward him through the ink. Rotating the diagram 90 degrees, “it turns into my entire image­ — my face, my hair, my beard, my shirt, my coat, my pants.” The Daniel in the pic­ture has dog’s paws instead of feet. (He later told Sylvia he could evade arrest for Monika’s murder because he was able to turn into a dog at will.) Off to one side, he saw “a blond-haired woman looking at me coming toward her.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

Shawn reaches out to hold Sylvia’s hand as she continues recounting her nightmarish walk through the darkened apartment. After the shock of seeing Monika’s blackened head in a pot on the stove, Sylvia walked toward the bath­ room. “I walked to the very tip of the bathroom — I didn’t go in. And I saw in the bathtub what was, like, a ribcage, with everything off — just the bones, just the ribs. And it was full of blood. And there was, like, guts. So I left, and I couldn’t even lock the door I was shaking so bad. But I locked the door ’cause I thought, ‘Jesus, if anybody sees this … ‘

“I went to a phone booth on Avenue A and I called up Daniel’s beeper number. And I said, ‘Daniel, you did it?’ And he said, ‘You saw it, Sylvia?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘I’m sorry you had to see it, but I had to do it.’ And he said, ‘Come up to the apartment and smoke a joint with me.’ And I said, ‘Daniel, meet me in Tompkins Square. I’m not going to the apartment.’ So he met me in the park. And he was apologizing. ‘Sylvia, I’m sorry, I had to do it, I had to do it.’ And he started telling me what happened.”

Rakowitz told her he was not alone when it happened — he said he was with a friend from a Satanic church in Brook­lyn. That evening, according to Rakowitz, Monika told him, “You have to leave by tomorrow, and if you don’t get out, my friend with a pit bull is gonna come and get you out.” Then she went into her bedroom. His friend said, “What, you haven’t killed her yet?” Monika came out and started yelling at his friend. His friend said, “Why are you yelling at me? You don’t know me.” “But I know Dan­iel,” she replied, “and you’re his friend.”

“So I guess maybe that had set Daniel off, I don’t know,” says Sylvia. “But he told me that he had an extension cord and he went up, she was walking away, heading toward the two bedrooms, and he put the extension cord around her neck. She said, ‘What are you doing, Daniel?’ And then he strangled her with his hands,” Sylvia says. “He told me, ‘When I strangled her, she scratched me.’ And he pulled his sleeve up, and he had long scratch marks down his arm.

“He had choked her to death. And when she was dead, he said he stomped on her head 10 times and stabbed her over 30. He told me that he used her chest as a carving board.”

“He cut off her head,” Shawn inter­jects. “He took her arms and legs off her, and he used her chest to cut the bones, and everything, off. And he cut all this up and did this all in the bathtub.”

“He told me he had eaten the brains and that his friend had eaten a part of her too,” says Sylvia. “I told all this to the detectives and the D.A., too.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

Rakowitz said he had spent over $80 in a hardware store on tools with which to kill Monika, cut her up, and clean the apartment. “Less than two weeks before he killed this girl he was in a store and he was trying on these work gloves,” remem­bers Lynn, “and I asked him why he had the work gloves. He was like, ‘I’m gonna make some fertilizer and I need these.‘ He really freaked me out, I was really scared of him at that point.”

“He had a 13-inch carving knife,” reports Shawn. “And he used a metal pole — a solid-steel pole — to break her bones.” Sylvia continues: “And be boiled her. And he was still cutting her up — he hadn’t finished yet. He was cutting her up into little pieces, he told me — over a thousand — and he flushed it down the toilet. And he was afraid. But he looked to me like, in a way, that he was free, and that this was gone, this fear.

“And I told him to stop, because I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t want to hear it. It just totally blew me away. I didn’t believe it till he got locked up, until I saw him on the news. Then it hit me.”

A few days later, Sylvia saw Rakowitz in Tompkins Square Park, and Daniel said to her, “Sylvia, it’s starting to smell up there.” She said “Daniel, they’re gonna find out, and they’re gonna lock you up, and they’re gonna put you in a psychiatric hospital, and I don’t want to see that happen to you. I think you’ve had enough.”

“Oh, I’m gonna clean it,” he replied. “I’m gonna clean it all up so that you can come up there.” Sylvia said, “Well, when it’s clean … let me know.”

A day or two later, Rakowitz told her it was okay to drop by. Monika’s skull was still in the apartment. “He boiled it and peeled the skin off it,” says Shawn.

“He bad it to where it was all just bones and a skull,” continues Sylvia. “And he’d get angry at Monika, he told me. And he’d say, ‘I spit on Monika’s skull.’ He told her, ‘Well, hey, bitch, at least you’ll always have a home.’ And he told me that ‘she looks more beautiful now than she ever did.’ ”

“This was her skull,” notes Shawn.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722241″ /]

Rakowitz had thoroughly cleaned the apartment and had taken a bucket con­taining the skull and bones to a storage facility at 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, later moving the bucket to the baggage check facility at Port Authority.

“I still understood Daniel,” insists Syl­via. “And I really wasn’t … I was a little frightened of him, but I wasn’t that frightened. I was more concerned of what was gonna happen to him. I told Daniel that I would never tell on him, and I never went forward and said anything, and a lot of people are gonna think that’s a very shitty thing for me to do. Maybe if they understand anything that I have said — and really take it to heart — and maybe if they realize what kind of person Daniel was and what he wasn’t, because of what was done to him, they might understand why I didn’t want to say any­thing. Because I didn’t want him hurt anymore.

“People say, well, he could go out and do it again, but I stayed up there a few times. I slept in that apartment with Daniel. He was in the other room. After he’d killed her. And the detectives know this. Everything I’m telling you is what they know, and I told them exactly what I’m telling you. And the reason why is that Daniel has been in a prison most of his life — in his own mind. And you’re not trying to help him by locking, him behind bars. If you want to help this man, you get him some real psychiatric and psy­chological help.”

On Tuesday, August 22, Shawn stopped by the apartment to buy some reefer from Rakowitz. He told Shawn that he and Monika had fought Friday night and that he had broken her nose. During his visit Shawn saw meat in the frying pan and in the freezer. “He ate this woman,” Shawn believes. “He didn’t eat the whole thing, but he ate human meat.”

“He told me be had,” remembers Syl­via. “I believe it.”

“He also said that he was gonna feed Monika to the homeless people in the park,” says Shawn.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721440″ /]

Shawn returned to the apartment on Saturday, August 26 — after Sylvia had finally told him of Monika’s murder. “Daniel had cleaned up everything al­ready,” says Shawn, “but there was a smell in the apartment. I told him that I could smell death, and he’s going, ‘Real­ly? Can you smell it? Can you tell?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ I wasn’t lying.”

Meanwhile, Rakowitz was bragging about the murder to anyone who would listen. “Daniel told everyone before he did it; he told everyone when he did it; he told everyone after he did it,” says Lynn. “He told all my friends. Everyone who he saw, he told them. He chopped her up in little pieces, and then he asked my fiance if he would help him get rid of the arms. He felt bad about killing her, apparently. He was scared, and he didn’t know what to do. He wanted to turn himself in, but he was scared — that’s what he told my fiancé.”

The rumors around Tompkins Square grew increasingly bizarre. “It’s the kind of joke that people would make: ‘Oh yeah, he fed her to the homeless,’ ” says Hank, who lives on East 5th Street. “A few days after it happened, before it hit the pa­pers, while the rumors started spreading around the Village, the homeless in the park were going, ‘Yeah, Dan did give us soup yesterday.’ They were goofing on it but they were pretty much grossed out. They were goofing in a way that acknowl­edged they had definitely gotten soup from this guy in the period directly after the incident happened.”

Rakowitz lived in the apartment alone for a week or two following the murder. But Sylvia urged him to move, warning him that sooner or later the cops would be coming by. Daniel finally took her advice. “He left the apartment to move in with another girl, uptown,” says Shawn. “And after I heard that, I thought that he killed her for nothing — that Monika just died for no reason at all. I mean, she died for a reason in the beginning — and there’s no right reason for anyone to die. But then he moved out, and everything was gone out of the apartment, and all we saw was Monika’s stuff laying all over.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”593404″ /]

So Shawn spilled the story to the build­ing superintendant who told the detec­tives. They came up to the apartment to question Shawn and to search for evi­dence. On the door of the apartment, they saw grafitti written in black magic marker: “IS IT SOUP YET?” and “WELCOME TO CHARLIE GEIN’S SPAUN RANCH EAST.” (Charlie Gein is a conflation of Charles Manson and Ed Gein, the serial killer on whom Psycho‘s Norman Bates was based; the Spahn Ranch — misspelled on the door — was the home of the Manson family.) On a steam pipe in the bathroom was scribbled “Broken [hearted] about you.” (The “hearted” was actually a heart with a jagged line running through it). Yet they found no evidence of a murder.

Initially, neither the super nor the de­tectives believed a word of Shawn’s story. But they paged Rakowitz on his beeper and he came to the 9th Precinct to an­swer their questions. He didn’t admit that he had killed Monika Beerle, but be didn’t deny it either. In fact, he said something along the lines of, “If I’d have killed her, I would have cut her up into lots of pieces and flushed her down the toilet.”

“After he made that statement,” Sylvia says, “that Sunday [September 17] they ripped the toilet apart. But they didn’t find anything. They told me the only good thing I had in the apartment was the plumbing.” Shawn told the police that Rakowitz kept a storage bin near the Port Authority bus station.

On Monday, the detectives came back to the apartment and found Sylvia there. They told her they had written state­ments implicating Rakowitz from both Shawn and Laurie Arnold, a woman who lived across the hall. But this was untrue. “I was tricked into it,” says Sylvia sadly. “I was told that they were gonna lock him up anyway and that they already knew what had happened. And I believed it. So I told them. And five hours later, they picked up Daniel. He confessed. He had no choice.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703” /]

“He asked for help when they arrested him. He said it to a detective, and the detective told me that he said, ‘I need some help.’ So it must have really dawned on Daniel that he did wrong, because when I talked to him after that, he was, like, he was free. His soul was free.” After his arrest, Rakowitz led the de­tectives to the Port Authority baggage storage room where he produced a claim check for an Army duffel bag. Inside the bag was a white plastic bucket, and inside the bucket were a skull and bones.

One expects the police to be extremely interested to find Daniel’s friend from the Satanic church in Brooklyn. While interrogating Shawn and Sylvia, the cops mentioned several Satanic churches by name, but none of them were familiar to the couple. As far as Shawn and Sylvia know, they never met any of Daniel’s Satanic friends, but they believe the church exists: “This is a for-real church,” says Shawn, and Sylvia agrees.

Just as likely, the police believe, is that Daniel’s Satanic friend was imaginary, egging bim on from the inside. When told there was a report that another man was present at the murder, an officer familiar with the case replied, “I don’t believe that for a second.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”674582″ /]

Although the police say the skull in the bucket has been positively identified as belonging to Monika Beerle, Sylvia’s testimony will certainly be crucial to the prosecution’s case. She has been wres­tling with this for well over a month now. She’s pale and somewhat faded, well aware that her behavior during the course of these events seems bizarre by any­body’s standards. “People are gonna think I’m crazy,” she says softly. “You know what? To me it doesn’t matter, be­cause I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. But I’m a person who has a lot of feeling, and I feel for Daniel. I feel for Monika’s parents, but I feel for Daniel cause I knew him. And I knew what he was going through, and I feel very, very bad.

“See, people are gonna read this and they’re gonna say the same thing that you just said: ‘Wow.’ You know what I hope they’re saying ‘wow’ about? ‘Wow, this guy had a rough childhood and never really had a chance.’ Daniel did what Daniel did because of what society had done to Daniel. And that is my opinion, and people may think I’m crazy. But I lived with this person, and this person did not kill me. If he was the crazy luna­tic murderer of Tompkins Square, he would have killed me. Daniel moved into the apartment because he was homeless and he killed Monika because he felt threatened.

“If anything comes out of this story, I hope it opens people’s eyes, for one thing, to homelessness — for another thing, to realize and understand the kind of person he was and what really happened and the fear that people have of being homeless, especially when they do have some type of mental illness. I still don’t blame Dan­iel for that, and as far as I’m concerned Daniel will always be my friend.” ■

Some names in this story — although not those of the principal characters, Syluia and Shawn — have been changed. 

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

1989_Village Voice article on a bizarre murder near Tompkins Square involving cannibalism

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Where Have All the Hipsters Gone?

What’s going on around here? Where the hell is everybody? I’ve been living in the West and East Villages for the past 13 years and I’ve known a gang of people all over New York, but where are they now? I went to the recent peace congregation in Washington Square and with the exception of a pair of friends from a subterranean newspaper and the peripatetic Nat Hentoff, I saw not one face I recognized. Not one! including those on the speakers’ platform, and I’ve been pounding against the abomination of this war since 1964. Where is that whole happy tormented crowd I used to know? Driven from the Village to the Lower East Side too … where? Where are they? Or maybe the question should be: where am I?

Recently I decided to break out of and away from certain stultifying and treacherous patterns to which I had anchorweighted myself; things as simple as always taking the same out when going from one place to another. When I lived on Charles Street in the Village (’59 to ’63) I pretty much stayed in that community. Since ’63 I have lived on the Lower East Side (nine bleeping years! a quarter of my life!). Since I’ve been here I haven’t gone back to the Village much so I decided that for old times’ sake I’d right-angle it down MacDougal and east across Bleecker one Wednesday morning a week or so before the peace thing. It was a bad idea. It has become Desolation Row.

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In the early ’60s residents of the Village complained that creeping moneylust was going to turn Bleecker and MacDougal into another Coney Island. On that recent Wednesday morning ramble I couldn’t help thinking it should only look as nice as Coney Island. The old familiar places the crucially vital organs — gone: the Remo the Figaro the Kettle of Fish the Cafe Bizarre … now vacant stores and even the occupied ones have dusty windows the hue and texture of pavement. No one — but no one on the street. Wine bottles lumping in clusters of paper bags in the doorways — and somehow I couldn’t believe they were left by the cheerfully wrecked poets and painters of beat-time — but rather by those professional mourners from a few blocks further east where Third Avenue bends into Bosch.

Where are they? Where have all the hipsters gone? The people whose speech was musically suffused with slang five years before people in Boston and Chicago even knew what the words meant. People who did all the new dope before others knew it existed. I remember a black actor-friend in 1960 telling me (as we went out to haul beer back to the endless party) of “this really insane dope I took. I don’t even know what it’s called — but it’s just a little brown [word missing] cube of sugar and I stayed high all day Man …” People who dressed like Bonnie and Clyde in 1963 — before it became fashionable — when it was hip. You had to have some kind of together head to carry that.

Someone recently asked me, “What’s happening on the Lower East Side?”

I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t lived there for three or four years.”

“But I thought …”

“Oh my apartment is still there. And I sleep there almost every night. I just don’t live there.”

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It’s been too scary. In ’63 I could sleep comfortably stoned in Tompkins Square Park on a bench by myself and be awakened around dawn by pure sweet saxophone music. Lately I get nervous there on Sunday afternoons with four friends. The last time I walked the length of Avenue B was two and a half years ago when I moved into the place in which I now life. I had to go to the lumber yard on 13th for bookcase material. The lumber yard and most of 13th Street between B and C is now gone — as though the hand of Wotan descended from empyrean precincts and removed it as some kind of arcane warning to us witless mortals.

And the joints. Those warm giddy bars and stupormarkets which used to pump such fine bright highs into the neo-bohemian nights. Stanley’s, at 12th Street and Avenue B, once the best hip bar in the city, seems to have reverted to the Polish-Ukrainian neighborhood tavern it was before the onslaught of chinhair and tits at the beginning of the last decade.

The Otherplace looks foreboding, and we all know what happened to Linda and Groovy downstairs from the Annex which was putatively responsible for its closing. In order to travel the streets of the Lower East Side at night on foot you have to be with a paranoid of friends, totally ripped on booze, or so stoned on something else that your interest is psychopathically focused on things not concerned with survival.

The jollies I got in the Village I once could get on the Lower East Side. I even got an 11-pound novel out of it. I don’t get those jollies now in either place — but there is an area in town where I do still get that fine jumping rush, an area where the women seem more together in their heads than elsewhere, where men regard one another with apparent friendly warmth (which is not to say that there is a lack of healthy cynicism), where blacks and whites still seem able to inter-act without visible hostility, an area where you can say “Bird” or “Brautigan” or “gesso” and people will know what you’re talking about. SoHo.

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I’ve been roaming SoHo lately and though the fear-vectors are somewhat present for me (they’re everywhere now I guess) there is that precious old rush that jab-and-tingle of intense energy-levels loose on any given seemingly-deserted block. You can actually feel it zapping out of the buildings and it shakes your nervous system by its very vitals. It is as though you become enveloped in a dense paisley fog of productivity. That dance.

Frug on down to SoHo any Saturday afternoon on West Broadway on Prince on Spring … and you’ll see a lot of people who look like the people who used to come to the Village on Sunday to pin the beatniks. Very like them. They stream into and pour out of the galleries and honky-tonks. Remember how it used to be on 10th Street between Third and Fourth? Same number. A couple of months ago a painter-friend said (as we ate a midweek lunch of beer in a rather charming little bar/restaurant he had introduced me to that very day), “You should make it down here on a Saturday afternoon when the painters take this place over.” At the time the clientele was composed of about one-third painters, one-third truckdrivers, and one-third indistinguishable others.

The following Saturday I did go back. When I pushed through door were perhaps eight people in the front half of the smallish establishment. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I got a beer, sat down at an empty table, and began rather offhandedly jotting down first-draft notes for a recipe I’m thinking of writing. Twenty minutes later I looked up from the scribbling and there were 400 people in the place and 20 times more hair than there was on the stage at the last Miss America contest. It was Stanley’s and it was 1963 again. You couldn’t get to the men’s room. The waitress had to quit waitressing because she couldn’t get herself, let alone a tray of lush, through that luscious throbbing jam. Theoretically one could probably have gotten laid (or maybe “stood” would be a more accurate word) without anyone but you and and your sexual conspirator knowing it. It was not a little exhilarating. Everybody seemed to know everyone else and it was like the kitchen at home on Christmas Eve. Like a warm hip square-dance in the wilderness with everyone simultaneously doing the calling to his own private do-see-do allemande left. Even I knew a lot of people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. Since the Lower East Side was alive and not fraught with incendiary creeps and ghouls. I saw people from Stanley’s. And people I had been avoiding calling for months and the relationships were pretty much all cool and straightened by the time I left. I miss that kind of place.

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But some people who live down there have told me that they give the scene maybe two years in its present state — and that made me sad. Maybe they’re wrong though. There are no quaint shops and art movie houses and charming brownstones down there such as those which attract accountants and their wives to the Village. No Nathan’s. No Blimpies. Just a lot of shabby gray loft buildings. And a few galleries. And a few choice bars. And a couple of sweet little eatfood places. And probably more intensely concentrated creativity than you’ll find anywhere in America. Maybe even the world. But you can’t see that from a tourist bus.

Talent in New York does have an abstruse way of coming together like that. In ’63-’64 at Stanley’s (before anybody knew who most of them were) you might have walked in on any given afternoon or evening and encountered writers such as Ishmael Reed, Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Ron Sukenick, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, and Lennox Raphael; actors like Moses Gunn, Mitch Ryan, Lou Gossett, and Cicely Tyson; musicians such as Odetta, Marion Brown, and Richard Andrews; Khadeja the fashion designer who was Afro before people knew what that meant; Tom Dent, one of the founders of the Free Southern Theatre; Walter Bowart, who tended bar there and later was the original publisher of EVO — and Clark Squire, one of the Panther 21.

Perhaps a variation of the old Circle Theory is in play after all. When the coin-schleppers drove less fortunate artists and writers from the Village more than a decade ago they repaired to the Lower East Side — a veritable slum — but rents were more agreeable — some even fair. There are now buildings down here — renovated to be sure — which command $380 a month for three rooms. In a slum. Dig that. It is not inconceivable that the time is coming when wretched poor people won’t be able to live in this slum — when artists who Have Not Made It won’t be able to live here either. Then the apartments will go to the quasi-hip brokers and lawyers who want to vamp Where It’s Hapnin Baby (or was). These situations in New York City have been historically cyclical. Greenwich Village, for instance, was a black ghetto for some time after the Civil War — before Harlem. And Harlem. My mother lived in Harlem for a few years in the ’20s while she waited tables midtown. Today she wouldn’t go there in an armored car with the Mayor riding shotgun.

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Ten years ago speculation had it that when the Lower East Side would inevitably turn into the East Village (as we knew it would have to) all of us lesser lights would probably then make it to the Lower East Side (where some had even then already moved) to Stanton Street and Essex and Delancey. But the hot action moved to SoHo — where the painters and sculptors and craftsmen (and craftswomen) (and craftsgays) (have I got everyone?) can’t be all that poor judging by the rents. Lately I hear more and more of the successful of their number are buying the buildings they live in — and the moderately successful banding together as corporations to buy their individual lofts in buildings as a whole. It is hard to tell where the as-yet-unsuccessful strugglers are living — but they’re partying in SoHo. The vibes are apparently of the right intensity and consistency. Or else all the artsy-smartsy dudes know the right gangster landlords.

There are priorities and necessities which must be present (on all sides) in the emerging of any “artists’ colony” — and economics is certainly one of them. In the summer of 1963 I lived on the Lower East Side for more than three months on something less than $150 cash. Today it would take a grand. Minimum. From the speculators’ point-of-view it seems that the very presence of artists in abundance is sufficient: they follow close on their heels judiciously snapping up properties, naming them with hysterical designations such as the Hip Bagel and the Hippydrome and the Rock and Roller Skating Rink, and when they own everything they’ve killed their golden goose and then must begin following the next exodus to the new land of paint and money. The people who already own businesses in the area before it “happens” (once they get over their abject disgust at bohemians and begin catering to what money they have and that which their presence attracts) flourish while they are there (like Bleecker and MacDougal — like Avenue B and Saint Marx) and languish when they have been driven elsewhere. You don’t have to wait in line in the cold at midnight to get into Stanley’s on a Thursday anymore.

Yet maybe my informants are right after all. I went to the aforementioned bar in SoHo after the peace mingle (I won’t give the joint’s name because then you’ll steal it from me) and walked into it shortly after 3. The bar and tables were almost completely filled with about 40 people in their 30s and 40s all of whom looked like they had alighted from a bus from Queens or Staten Island. They left together shortly after I arrived and I asked the bartender who they were. They were from Virginia. Yes Virginia, there is a SoHo. SoHo knows there is a Virginia. And that it is coming to get them.

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But it can’t happen to SoHo! (A discotheque in a cleaned-up loft called the Paint Rag?) What about all the rats down there? Big as small babies. What about the panhandling winos and the apprentice corpses in the doorways? They carry pistols and machetes. What about the huggermuggers lurking in every shadow just waiting for purses and watches maybe desperate enough to kill? They are men (and women) without consciences. What about the narrow repugnant streets? They’re all right if you don’t mind puke-covered shit. And there’s nothing down there at night … it’s deader than Wall Street for chrissake! What about …

Perhaps in the virtues of voyeurism lie its own rewards.

Note: After having written this, last Sunday, jiving along down Second Avenue at 14th Street I heard my name called out from the window of a bus. A black radical whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time because he had fled The Man to a commune in New England:

“Bill!”

“Hey Baby!” (Lock palms and thumbs — no more popping.) “Whas hapnin?”

(Bus begins to pull away.) “I’m staying down on Spring Street in SoHo under the name of *** *****! CALL ME!”

I guess maybe it takes one to know one. ♦

 

 

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Gem Spa closes: Bye Bye, Miss American Egg Cream

“Gem Spa closes: Bye Bye, Miss American Egg Cream”
March 2, 1972

Gem Spa is closed. The candy store which became a clearing house for the hip-yip-street freak festival in the East Village is now padlocked, its windows covered with newsprint and cardboard. The end came quickly and unexpectedly last week when a flying squad of financial undertakers were spotted hauling away the soda machine, cash register, and other transplantable parts of the corpse.

It’s too late in the day for the passing of Gem Spa to earn a place as a prophetic omen of the East Village-Lower East Side decline. Too many old scenes, like the Fillmore and the Electric Circus, have already folded. But the end of Gem Spa still rates a mention as a negative milestone of lower Manhattan life because the corner it had occupied for the last 70 years or so was not only the fulcrum for the hip thing but also for the whole neighborhood.

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Gem Spa was a landmark reborn. It was halfway between the Fillmore and the Electric Circus, always open and ready to whip up a reasonable egg cream, sell cigarettes, or provide any magazine or underground paper you had in mind. Outside on the corner other things were constantly changing hands and if you were doing the East Village sooner or later you ended up at Gem Spa.

That one of the busiest corners in New York could no longer support a candy store is a grim symptom that something is very wrong someplace. Street corners are crucial to the urban ecology and a dead corner can sour a whole neighborhood.

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There are still people on Second Avenue who can remember buying candy and soda at Gem Spa before World War I. “You always came here to the corner,” says one man, “because other people always came here to the corner and that was how you found out what was going on.”

This was the same function Gem Spa performed in its spectacular last years and people still come to the corner out of habit, although most of the egg cream and magazine trade has moved a few doors down the avenue to the Optimo Cigar Store where Micky Fischman and All Akermann have stepped into the breach.

“Why did Gem Spa close?” says Fischman. “Because it’s too hard to make a buck these days. I hear their expenses were $300 a day.”

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Another explanation blames the high price of tobacco and the flourishing trade in bootleg cigarettes, although it’s not clear just who is doing the buying and who’s doing the selling. But while no one knows for sure about the store’s future, everyone agrees that Gem Spa owes a lot of people a lot of money, and dollars are sure harder to come by than they were a couple of years ago when a panhandler could plant himself in front of the Spa and average 30 bucks a night.

But that’s all part of the past, of another life. To the people who rattle the doorknob and peek through the papered windows at the stillness inside, there’s only one thing you can say. Gem Spa is closed.

(Editor’s Note: reports of Gem Spa’s demise may have been 40+ years premature.)

Categories
CULTURAL COMMERCE ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

John Lurie: Growing Up in Public

John Lurie, known to his friends as “a pain in the ass” and “a very sweet per­son,” arrives at the bar about 15 minutes late. A lanky six-foot-three-inches with his hair brushed up high, he flops down at the table and holds up his wrist. “My manager just bought me a watch,” he declares, as if to account for his delay. “There’s just so much shit goin’ on. I woke up at three o’clock today.” His phone, he says, hasn’t stopped ringing. The William Morris Agency wants the actor/musician for a client and has al­ready arranged an audition for a part on the television show Miami Vice. He’s re­hearsing the Lounge Lizards, his quasi-­jazz band, for three or four gigs in New York and a European tour next month. Wim Wenders has asked him to play a crook in an upcoming film. There are lots of parties. And, oh yes, he is the subject of a Village Voice profile, which brings its own set of obligations. “I did my homework on you,” he gloats.

Many movie critics caught their first daunting glimpses of John Lurie at this year’s New York Film Festival. For sever­al seconds they saw him looming over Nastassja Kinski as the manager of a classy whorehouse in Wenders’s Paris, Texas. “Vincent Canby made it sound as if I was doing Wenders a favor being in his movie,” Lurie laughs. But the real reason Lurie’s phone keeps ringing is his starring role in the surprise hit of the festival, Stranger than Paradise, the ac­claimed “oddball odyssey” about two guys and a Hungarian émigré. Directed by Jim Jarmusch — whom Lurie got to know seven years ago smoking hash on an East Village stoop at four in the morning, talking about director Nicholas Ray — the movie is currently breaking records at the small Cinema Studio.

Lurie, who also composed the Bartok-­like score, is no stranger to the New York art, music, and low-low-budget movie scenes; he’s been a “cult figure” since he moved to the Lower East Side in 1977, when his friends remember him as look­ing like a lunatic and walking into walls. Within two years he’d caught on with the crowd, and was officially dubbed an ar­biter of taste, a “hip” guy. “I’ve been declared hip for so long that it makes my skin crawl,” he says. “When somebody says, ‘John Lurie is hip,’ it’s like sticking worms on my back.”

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“Hip” is not the first word that comes to mind. Hulking, with long, loose limbs, an almost reptilian face, and dark eyes, “surreal” seems more appropriate. But Lurie has an attractive aura of melan­choly; his fastidious gestures and dress make him oddly winning — they say, “Ap­preciate me.”

“You know those old suits? I used to buy them when they were $7. It now costs $300 to buy an old suit. I know for sure people copied me; I mean, nobody copied the band because they couldn’t.” Lurie’s hipness is half put-on, half serious; some­times he achieves it by sheer, brooding power, sometimes by suggesting the clumsy, insecure fellow beneath the surface.

He says the hoopla over Strangers has caught him off-guard; at press confer­ences and interviews, he has sometimes seemed resentful of the attention lavished on his friend Jarmusch. One would think he’d be excited about having a hit movie — even someone else’s. “No. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t mean to dissociate myself from the movie, I’m just not having that much fun basking in the lime­light of it. I wanna be goin’ forward instead of up the stairs down the stairs, everyday. So I’m a movie star now, so big deal.”

“He loves being famous,” says his friend John Ende. “He thrives on publici­ty, and it also makes him nuts. That’s a nice tension in him, that’s why we can be friends.”

Indeed, Lurie brims with tensions. He is fiercely ambitious but uncompromis­ing — success must be on his terms, and one of them is the right to self-destruct. He is notoriously loose-lipped, but he maintains a guarded, wary air. He boasts of his achievements yet painfully solicits praise. He’s a put-on artist who disarms people by continually switching masks, yet all his roles are fundamentally him. His friends protect his reputation, but they also suggest that he wants his dirty laundry aired. “When he first came to New York, he looked like a psychopath,” says Arto Lindsay, the first guitarist of the Lounge Lizards. “Now he’s more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a French gang­ster.” You have to know John Lurie to know that’s meant in tribute.

John Lurie was born in Minneapolis in 1952, his brother Evan (the keyboardist for the Lounge Lizards) two years later. His parents had met during the war. His mother was Welsh and an artist; she’d taught painting at the Liverpool school where John Lennon would be introduced to Paul McCartney. His father was half Jewish, half Sicilian, and had an idea in the early days of television for a show in which an amiable host would sit at a desk and do nothing but chat for an hour with celebrity guests; TV executives, at the time, thought it was the silliest idea they’d ever heard, and he was forced to make a living selling Israeli bonds. His parents’ match, thinks Ende, accounts for John’s combination of moodiness, mysticism, and smarts. The family lived in Minneapolis, then New Orleans, then — because John’s father didn’t want his children educated in the South — Worces­ter, Massachusetts. Lurie says he’d cross town to hang out with black basketball players; later, he would choose a profes­sion that, as a white person, would also leave him feeling like an outsider.

But he was always that, a bit. When his father died in 1969, John had several “weird mystical experiences” and spent five years trying to recapture them. “I thought, this is a very transient thing, this life on earth, and it didn’t make sense to try and have a career. I wanted to be in the world but not of it.” For a year he lived in Boston, where people thought him insane; moved briefly to New York; and then went off to the mid­dle of nowhere, North Wales, where he starved himself and played his saxophone for as long as 12 hours a day. Then he lived in London with a girlfriend (there has usually been a girlfriend) and re­turned to the Lower East Side in 1977, still a walking billboard for Bellevue. Friends would see him playing his sax for hours in the subway station at 14th Street and First Avenue.

For the first time, however, he met people as nutty as he was, and he began to nurture theatrical ambitions. “I knew people who lived on Second Avenue right over a smoke shop. I wanted to do this performance thing there, so I spent a summer knocking down all the walls. They all moved out — I didn’t drive them out — and I had this gigantic place to my­self. I finally put a crack through the whole building; I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.” He pauses. “It’s very illegal, I guess, to be changing the structure of a building. I finally gave up on this.”

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His next project was a one-shot, and people still talk about it. “I did this solo performance thing called Leukemia at Squat Theater in 1978, which is probably the best thing I ever did. It started out with me playing a soprano saxophone solo and then went into an homage to Jimmy Piersall. He was the baseball player who went crazy — ya know the movie Fear Strikes Out? I just swing this bat back and forth to a tape I made out of static. It swings faster and faster and faster and the audience doesn’t know whether they’re gonna get hit with a bat or not, basically. Then I shaved my head completely. I had smashed these giant sheets of glass and recorded it, and for the last section I played the saxophone with that, with bright lights flashing back and forth between me and the audience. I worked on it for six months to make the timing, like, impeccable. People just bugged out; the whole audience was screaming at the end of this thing. It was pretty good. It was like they were trapped in the theater.”

The image of a self-destructing Piersall spooked the jittery 25-year-old, but in Leukemia he was working out something even more important. “John’s father died of leukemia,” says Ende, “and the show was about that. It was the best thing he’s ever done. It made something extraordi­narily beautiful out of painful and jagged things.” It also marked a big step in his career: John Lurie had decided to make a frontal assault on the art world.

In the late ’70s, the Lower East Side offered its own brand of new wave: the No Wave, in which the predominant im­pulse — that anyone can paint, anyone can form a rock band, anyone can make a movie — came from punk. One’s craft was learned in public, or at least before a large crowd of heckling friends. “The end result,” says Lurie, “is to have something that isn’t polished, that cuts through the polish, that finds the bumps on the sur­face. Those bumps are what it’s all about.” In places like the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and the Squat Theater, noise bands predominated and hanging out was elevated to an art. Musicians took up movie cameras, movie directors and painters took up guitars; the Super-8 film scene boasted such personalities as James Chance, Eric Mitchell, Beth and Scott B, James Nares, and Vivienne Dick. The movies were shown, for the most part, at the New Cinema on Saint Marks Place (now the site of a health food store), where sync-sound Super-8 was transferred to videotape and projected onto a four-by-five-foot screen.

In these rough-hewn films, wrote J. Hoberman in 1979, the filmmakers could “enact libidinal fantasies, parody mass cultural forms, glorify a marginal life­style, and exhibit varying degrees of so­cial content.” John acted in such classics as Red Italy by Eric Mitchell and Sleep­less Nights by Becky Johnson; to prove to his upstairs neighbor, Mitchell, that anyone can do it, Lurie made Hell Is You in 1977 in which he played Tom Snyder to James Chance’s Patti Smith.

His next film, the 30-minute Men in Orbit, was inspired by the crude, blurry TV footage of Apollo astronauts “hanging out” in their space capsules. Hey, Lurie thought, I can make a movie that looks like that. It was originally meant to star Lurie and painter and musician Steve Kramer, but Kramer had an acci­dent before the shooting: “He used to have a party trick of walking on the ledges of roofs when he was drunk, and he fell off.” (Kramer now lives in Minne­apolis, his face reconstructed.) Eric Mitchell substituted. The movie features found footage of a rocket taking off, in­terstellar blips and whines, and slightly slurred speeds; it turns an East Side dive into a fairly convincing space capsule — ­albeit one where the astronauts chew gum, play guitar, eat McDonald’s ham­burgers, and laugh a lot. They giggle helplessly when they lather up and shave; Lurie’s still giggling when blood splashes lavishly over his hand; and Mitchell laughs uproariously when Lurie says, “I don’t think it’s funny. I really sliced my nose.” There is then a rather obvious piece of editing. “I just walked off the set after that,” explains Lurie, today. “I’d done a lot of acid, and I didn’t feel I could trust anyone. I stayed away for three hours while everyone waited for me to come back. They had to give me a handful of Valiums to complete the picture.”

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Lurie was finally launched into social orbit, too, “I dunno why, maybe because I had beautiful girlfriends. I had this girlfriend, Lisa Stroud, who I stole away from David Byrne and Brian Eno, and she was the one who took me all around. Sort of like Anita Pallenberg.” He started to take himself more seriously, say his friends, and to think about forming a band. With Arto Lindsay and Danny Ro­sen (who plays Eszter Balint’s Cleveland boyfriend in Stranger than Paradise), among others, Lurie concocted a “a jazz band with a guitar sound.” They called it “fake jazz.”

“A raging cacophony,” says Lindsay. “Fractured be-bop, and very witty,” says sometime-critic Roger Trilling. “It was about attitude and style,” says club-­booker Jim Fouratt, who gave them their first gig when they wanted to call them­selves Rotating Power Tools, “done with reverence rather than disdain.” (The name Lounge Lizards was suggested by John Ende, “because they were green and had forked tongues.”) They were a play­ful jazz band with one punk touch: Lind­say, who slashed away at their straight time with his discordant chords. “We did one gig and the next week we were in six newspapers,” says Lurie. “People lined up around the block — you couldn’t get in to see us. Everyone thought I was gonna be rich and famous.”

But the Lounge Lizards didn’t have staying power. “Calling it fake jazz was maybe a mistake. It just meant we weren’t playing like Charlie Parker. I was serious about jazz, but there was a time when it sort of fell apart, and it just didn’t seem like a viable thing anymore; it seemed like a dinosaur. I said jazz was dead and I alienated myself from the jazz world right away. The people who were seriously interested in the development of jazz assumed we were hype and never came to see us.”

The first album, made in 1980, was a disappointment that made Lurie no mon­ey and left him mad as hell. He lost inter­est in the old Lounge Lizards and strug­gled to find a new sound. “He really wanted it to be John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards,” says Arto. “He wanted more serious jazz and that kind of recog­nition. On the album I felt that I was undermixed, and we were doing too many of his own songs. He was not a good tune­smith back then — I’ve heard he’s gotten better as a player and composer. What we had was special — a new type of jazz-rock fusion. But we were naive. We didn’t know how to take it to the next level.”

When Arto left, so did the American critics (the Lounge Lizards have re­mained popular in Europe). The band was “straighter” now, and these guys weren’t good enough to play it straight — ­gone was the danger, the irony, the rea­son for being. “That line drove me crazy,” says Lurie. “Here I was in the process of making the music better and here were these people saying if was worse.” Even he admits, however, that “we were really sounding like a bad avant-garde jazz band for a while.”

By this time, the whole Lower East Side scene was breaking up. “It was sad for a while — everybody was trying to make it, and make it bigger than the next person. The scene imploded and then it exploded and all the particles went off in different directions.” Lurie had his share of physical as well as emotional ailments. Caught in the Mudd Club ladies room with two girls (it’s a long story) by five bouncers, all “five-foot-10, 210-pound guys with brown hair and mustaches,” Lurie made the mistake of laughing and remarking to the girls that “they all look alike.” It was six months, and seven dif­ferent false front teeth, before he could play the saxophone again. A lawsuit is pending.

He also contracted hepatitis. The guy who used to boast he’d never live beyond 30 found that drugs didn’t kill him, they just made him ill, ate up his money, and magnified his boredom. “For a year and a half I was just depressed and sick,” he says. “It was such a vulgar point.” He survived because his rent was low, be­cause his friends helped him out, and because he resolved never to sell his saxophone. When he finally stopped, he found he “felt incredible without them and I didn’t lose any of the magic.”

With the exception of John and his brother, the Lounge Lizards have turned over completely in the last two years, and Lurie thinks he’s on the verge of the sound he’s always wanted. “I wanted facility from the players and to still have that ferocity in the sound.” At 8 BC in early October, they are certainly fero­cious. The crowd is large and attentive, and the music is pitched very high, each player emoting like crazy. During the peaks, Lurie seems to rear back and in­ject himself into his horn; his solos are nervy, gurgling, introspective. “John’s not a versatile sax player,” says the band’s drummer, Doug Bowne, “but he has a classic tone and a great vibrato. Conceptually, he’s very aware of what he wants to put forth — he’s using his sax as an art project instead of, ‘Here I am, I’m a great sax player.’ ”

At the Bottom Line several days later, the crowd is sparser and more staid (although it includes Wim Wenders and Tom Waits). “Live music doesn’t make sense anymore,” says Lurie. “I can’t play at any club in New York where the sound’s good and it’s fun to be at. There’s a lotta great musicians in this town, but there’s no scene for them anymore.” The band performs several Lurie composi­tions from his soundtracks; one seductive melody, from Bette Gordon’s Variety, he’d planned to call “The Blow Job.” “It’s supposed to be a sentimental title but girls seem to hate it, so I might change it to, ‘It Could Be Very, Very Beautiful.’ ” Two Lounge Lizard records are currently in production; one untitled, one called Mutiny on the Bowery. Just released is Fusion, by veteran jazz pro­ducer Teo Macero, with the London Phil­harmonic.

Lurie loves to banter at the mike and play the suave master of ceremonies. One reason he’s worried about Stranger than Paradise is that the character he plays doesn’t have the right attitude. “If you saw Miles Davis or John Coltrane in a movie and you saw them playing a dopey guy, you might tend to lose respect. Mu­sic is one of those nebulous things where it’s coming from the heart of the person who makes it and it’s important where that person’s heart is at. And I was a bit afraid of being associated with that char­acter personally: ‘Oh, he’s not really an actor, he’s just playing himself.’ But the guy isn’t me. One of my friends said, ‘It’s kinda like you but you cut yourself off at the knees.’ ”

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Which is still plenty tall, and a lot of the real John bleeds through. Some friends say it’s “John being John.” Some say he looks the way he did when he first arrived in New York. They say the char­acter’s like John when he razzes a bum on the street — the same John who, when they go to restaurants with him, usually amuses the company by complaining about the food and sending it back. It’s also the John who, as in the movie, smashes things when he’s upset, stalks out, and then returns, moments later, sheepish and full of apologies. “I’m actu­ally not so low key as in the movie,” says Lurie. “I’m much more hyper.”

Folks on the Stranger set agree. Lurie had been cast as Saint James in the aborted Martin Scorsese project The Last Temptation of Christ, and Harvey Keitel, who would have played Judas, ad­vised him to grow his own beard for the role. With the starting date for the Scor­sese film approaching, Jarmusch had to fight with Lurie to get him to shave. He moped about his career, about his health, and — apparently with good cause — the wretched accommodations and lack of privacy. He thought Stranger would be too boring. He had problems with the ending. Jarmusch says the process was healthy; so does Lurie, who thinks Jar­musch made a lot of the right decisions. “But I was given so much free rein that to be told no about something kinda pissed me off. Because he was using all my ideas, and then I feel like I got a good idea and he doesn’t wanna use it. I was kinda pissed off about the movie for a while.”

Not surprisingly, the acclaim for both his performance and his score has soft­ened his criticism. During a panel discus­sion at the Telluride Film Festival in Los Angeles, the director Werner Herzog stood up in the audience and said, “I think John Lurie should win an Academy Award for Stranger than Paradise.” “My mother’s favorite movie was Kaspar Hauser,” says Lurie. “I wanted to call her up and tell her that. It would be great, but, ya know… oh well.” She died earli­er this year.

Like the lapsed Hungarian émigré he plays in Stranger than Paradise, Lurie also tried to get as far away from his roots as possible. “When my mother died this year I realized how much a member of my family I really am. She wasn’t some silly old woman, she was kinda brilliant in her way. She just drank herself to death from total unhappiness, back in North Wales, taking care of her mother. They say it’s genetic: my grandfather was a morphine addict, my mother was an alcoholic.” And his role models? “I guess my role models ate themselves up, too; at one point it was Rimbaud, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday. They all died pretty quick. I like a lotta people still alive, too. And I have some kinda ridiculous drive that keeps me from fucking up entirely.”

Another movie you could see that week in 1984

“It used to be that going above 14th Street was tough, because they’d see that you didn’t belong there because you looked too dirty or something.” These days John Lurie heads uptown to audi­tion for Miami Vice. “I had to get up at 10 o’clock in the morning or something. There were all these actors in the office waiting, reciting lines — there’s nothing worse than being in a room full of actors who want work. They gave me this thing, it must have been the wrong side. It was for this musclebound Havana pimp with gold chains. I read the dialogue, I said, ‘I can’t,’ and I left. Fuck that shit. I don’t wanna deal with that. I know who I am.” Would he ever do television? “Three’s Company,” he says. “I could blow that show away.”

Lurie says he might work on Jar­musch’s next project, although the direc­tor is so punch-drunk from interviews that, when asked what it will be, he mumbles something about more oddballs on another oddball odyssey. Lurie might feel more generous towards Jarmusch in the next year: the actor has three per­centage points of Stranger and he owns the publishing rights on the music. “Ev­erybody assumes I’m rich now. But I haven’t had any hot water in weeks. I have to shower in other people’s places. My refrigerator doesn’t work.”

Lurie’s apartment, in the East Village across from a men’s shelter, is a mess. There is an ancient projector, an old pi­ano, some weights, a basketball. In a cor­ner are a few of his paintings, vaguely Cubist — although he says he wouldn’t know one school from another. He wants to direct movies once he finishes the lat­est stretch with the Lounge Lizards — ­movies, he says, give directors more con­trol than live music. He reminds me to mention that he once played solo at Carnegie Hall.

He passes a scrapbook that shows, among other things, John and his father on a beach, John bald for Leukemia, John with various girlfriends, including his current one, Liz Ganz, who’s an ac­tress and a dancer. He leans out the win­dow and calls up to another apartment and in a minute his last girlfriend, Rebec­ca Wright, joins us. John says she’ll be a big star; he’s feeling generous. The two girlfriends are going to dance to one of his Variety tunes, “The Million Dollar Walk,” at a solo gig next week at Folk City. “There’s gonna be a lot of people there,” he says.

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***

There is almost no one at the second Folk City show; the earlier one, Lurie says, did marginally better. The “warm­up” act is a bald guy on a horn and a pudgy guy who half-sings along; their best number is about buying Kennedy’s brain in a jar for $3.98. Lurie comes up from the dressing room, goes to the bath­room, then makes the rounds shaking hands. He’s distressed over the turnout, and over that glitter that stuck to his face from too much contact with Liz’s make­up. “I washed it twice!” he moans. “We’ll get some sandpaper,” says his manager, Frank Breuer. Lurie doesn’t play his sax tonight so much as haunt it. He hits some startlingly pure notes. He squawks, bleats, suggests an air-raid siren, a moose call, the Bomb. He bangs his instrument against the microphone; he screams. But he’s distracted. “You know those horrible people who give performances in their living rooms?” he says. “I didn’t mean to be one of those people but.…” He starts “The Million Dollar Walk,” with drum­mer Doug Bowne on snare; Rebecca sa­shays out, wound in a red scarf. that leaves one breast bare; Liz emerges in red panties and a sheer red undershirt, which she periodically lifts. The two undulate determinedly. The set lasts 15 minutes, and Lurie beats a hasty exit.

He emerges from the cellar 10 minutes later, pained. “Don’t mention this in your article,” he says.

I tell him it’s an interesting scene.

“I was very honest with you, at our last interview,” he says. “I like you, I hope that counts for something. I gave you good stuff, right?”

I tell him not to worry, but he does. “I’m being too honest with you,” he says, brooding. “I’m basically paranoid about people knowing what’s what. You become a public personality and your character can become a piece of plastic. You see it happen to people. They crack up. I al­ways feel bad every time I read an inter­view I’ve done.”

He reminds me that once after several beers, I’d asked if Eszter Balint had a boyfriend. “See, you said things, too, and they won’t be public.” His point is well taken. The interviewer — an active goad and participant — will usually slice him­self out of a piece, leaving behind a string of one-sided confessions. But John Lurie isn’t a victim of his tongue; it’s part of what makes him what he is — flamboyant­ly intimate. He acts out the things that tear him up; his personality, in a sense, is his performance art. In an age ruled by mass media and buzzing with celebrity interviews, talk shows, films about “hanging out,” John Lurie really is a star for the ’80s: his self-preoccupation in­volves you.

“People like John no matter how he fucks up,” says Jim Fouratt. “He has the potential for greatness, no matter what that means — even if it’s just his image.” Says John Ende: “He’s not afraid.”

How will he handle his first film suc­cess? “My band was the hottest thing in New York, everybody knew who I was. But paranoia set in: I mean, they were sayin’ I was a heroin addict way before I ever did heroin. This time I’m prepared for it. I’m kinda worried about Eszter in a way, she’s only 19.” He pauses, and thinks about what Eszter might be going through. “It’s weird to have a hit movie,” he says. “I can’t really figure out why, but yesterday I was really depressed.” ■

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Birth of SAMO

SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?
December 11, 1978

Big city graffiti peaked in the early ’70s, somewhere between the NYC Transit Au­thority’s decision to sic killer dogs on the vandals and visigoths, and the media hoopla that greeted the first graffiti artists show in SoHo.

We had pretty much stopped looking at the walls until this fall, when we noticed something new. The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and number. To be sure, the Communist Cadre had been stenciling slogans like YIPPIES JE­SUS FREAKS AND MOONIES ARE GOVERNMENT for years. But who was writing ONE WOMAN IS RAPED EVERY IO MINUTES — CASTRATE RA­PISTS? Or drawing chalk outlines of fallen bodies with bright red bloodstains? And who the hell was this guy Samo©?

For those of you who haven’t waded through lower Manhattan lately, Samo© is the logo of the most ambitious — and senten­tious — of the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs. Accompanied by the inevitable copyright and usually punctuated with an ex­hortation to THINK!, there are hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West. A random sampling will give you the idea:

SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STAR­-TREK, AND RED DYE NO. 2.
SAMO© AS AN END TO MINDWASH RELI­GION, NOWHERE POLITICS, AND BOGUS PHI­LOSOPHY
SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO JOE NORMAL BOOSH-WAH-ZEE FANTASIES
SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS
SAMO© CAN SAVE THE AVERAGE JOE
SAMO© AS A NEW WAVE NEO ARTFORM
SAMO© AS AN ESCAPE CLAUSE
SAMO©…JUST IN CASE

I met the perpetrators of SAMO© outside an East Village bar the other night and they agreed — provided no last names were used — ­to give me a tour of their handiwork and tell me something of its genesis.

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Aided and abetted by a tight circle of friends, the bulk of Samo©’s sayings are the work of two sharp, personable teenagers named Jean (17) and Al (19) who share re­markably similar handwriting and an un­spoken agreement about where SAMO© is coming from.

Growing up in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, respectively, both knocked about quite a bit. Jean dropped out — or was kicked out — of five or six schools. Al eventually found his way to Art and Design, where he was comfortable for a couple of years. Even­tually he dropped out too — it seems he spent most of his time decorating subway cars.

“Oh man, graffiti? Forget it. I was right in there with Snake 1, Phase Too, and all those cats. ’Cause that was my life at that point. Bomb 1, that was me. I must have gone through a hundred different markers before I was 16. Then after that I hung it up.

“But when SAMO© came along it was like whoa! a rush, you know? A reason to start writing again. The stuff you see on the sub­ways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO© was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”

SAMO© was hatched this spring in the alter­native high school in Brooklyn Heights where Jean and Al ended up. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” Jean recalls. “SAMO©, right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO©!’ It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”

Next, they drew a series of cartoons for their school paper showing people’s faces be­fore and after using SAMO©: “I used to be a lamo before I started SAMO©. Now I get some poontang everyday.”

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The etymology of SAMO© took a meta­physical leap in its next manifestation, a short story by Jean featuring a man searching for religion and a store called Religomat, where a salesman with a TV smile explains the pros and cons of the popular brands: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Then the salesman pulls out SAMO©, a guilt-free re­ligion. It works like this: You do whatever you want here on earth, then when confront­ed with your deeds at the Pearly Gates you simply tell God: “I didn’t know.”

This May, Jean and Al took SAMO© to the streets. The first, at the corner of Church and Franklin: SAMO© IS NOW! A little way up the block: SAMO© IS COMING! On a church on West Broadway: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD. And in the men’s room of their high school: SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO AL­TERNATIVE EDUCATION.

Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative? “No way,” Jean and Al agree. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out,” Jean continues. “A tool for mocking bogusness.”

“Right, exactly,” Al agrees. “It makes people think ‘hey, maybe there’s another way.’ But it’s not like we can defend it. We’re really in a vulnerable spot to even talk about it with people from media.”

Talking to people from media was the last thing on their minds this summer as they fu­riously scrawled their message to the city. Jean estimates that he executed some 30 SA­MO©s on a good day, concentrating at first on the subways. “The D train, man, I covered it, ads and everything. And in broad day­light. Half of it, you know, is the arrogance involved.”

“We slowed down a little in June and July,” recalls Al. “But once you run it for that long it starts just coming up.” They became more and more selective, picking their targets. SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GREEK CHEESBURGER EMPORIUMS on a Greek cheesburger emporium. SAMO© AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY outside the Trash and Vaudeville boutique. SAMO© AS AN ALTER­NATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONAT­ING ’60s PROTOTYPES on Stuyvesant High. Al grins: “Those guys hate us down there.”

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Soon, feedback started appearing on the walls. Some of it was friendly — SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU — and some of it less so: SAMO© AS SHEER TEDIUM on St. Marks Place; SAMO© IS CIA on the Washington Square arch; and, on the Grand Union at Bleecker and La Guardia, a major political graffiti — DEATH TO SOMOZA — edited to read DEATH TO SAMO©.

“They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do,” says Jean, his voice rising. “We tried to make it sound profound and they think it actually is! That’s like a heavy com­pliment, man.”

Al picks up the thread: “People are so bored that when something seems mysterious and it keeps coming up it’s like ‘Oh wow! What’s going on? We better know about this!’ So they conclude this thing that we’re CIA.… I can’t begin to explain where they got that.”

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Their epithet, BOOSH-WAH, seems to pro­voke the most hostile reactions. The word was Jean’s contribution: “This city is crawl­ing with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Sta­tus symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritu­ally, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”

Is no surface sacred? They do stay clear of most private property, but government prop­erty and corporations are fair game, especial­ly subways, elevators, and public toilets. What about the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent each year cleaning up? Jean has a ready reply: “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to how people are getting shafted in big ways.”

Jean is more troubled by his questions. Is it a cop-out to give SAMO©’s story to the pa­pers? Is it anti-cool to take credit for street art? And what of their ambition to some day work in art-related jobs, isn’t that BOOSH­-WAH?

And it should be reported that in the proc­ess of helping me with this story Jean and Al came under some rather pointed criticism from their friends, who worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads.

The strain of these last few weeks is reflect­ed, appropriately enough, in their art. One of their latest, and increasingly rare, creations reads: LIFE IS CONFUSING AT THIS POINT…SAMO©.

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Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Bali Kitchen Hits the Jackpot with Indonesian Treats in the East Village

The refrigerated case at Bali Kitchen in the East Village is the size of a casino slot machine and bears virtually as many exciting fruity combinations. Under fluorescent lights, usual-suspect American sodas sit alongside custom-bottled soft drinks flavored with pineapple and ginger, juice box cartons of jasmine or cinnamon-tinged Indonesian teas, and what look like more sodas but are actually cans of “milk peanut soup,” a sugary legume potage. Better still are the sealed plastic cups of house-made fruit drinks ($3-$7): floral lychee and magenta-hued rambutan iced teas crowded with pulpy flesh and whole fruit; creamy avocado stained with swirls of chocolate syrup; and a frothy durian juice, equal parts stinky and sweet.

Bali Kitchen

Cendol ($6) blurs the lines between drink and dessert. If you like the gummi worm concoction known as dirt pudding, you’ll no doubt enjoy digging through this refreshing mess of coconut milk zapped with palm sugar and brimming with strands of rice-flour jelly tinted green from vanilla-like pandan leaf. Other chilled sweets ($4-$5) peek out from disposable ramekins, like multicolored, mildly tart jackfruit custards (vegan and non-) topped with cubes of coconut jelly. Klappertaart, a gooey, raisin-studded coconut cake that harks back to Indonesia’s Dutch colonial past, is a mainstay. And if you’re so inclined, it’s recently been joined by a similar cake that swaps out coconut for durian, the pungent fruit mellowing as it bakes. There are prepared tofu salads ($7.95) in the cold case, too, mosh pits of firm bean curd with diced long beans and shredded coconut or a swarm of pineapple, hard-boiled eggs, and crunchy, slightly bitter emping — deep-fried chips made from the seeds of the melinjo plant — waiting to be tossed with jalapeño and peanut dressings.

Hungrier folk will want to seek out the sprawling picture menu that stretches across half of the wall, or consult with the smaller chalkboard menu next to it that lists the full rundown plus a few seasonal specials, like sayur lodeh ($4.95), a heavenly coconut milk and root vegetable stew suffused with lemongrass, lime leaves, candlenuts, and the maritime funk of dried shrimp. It can be ordered with chunks of tempeh, though chopped sweet shrimp more soulfully speak to the soup’s already briny, citrusy punch.

Jazz P. Souisay, head chef and co-owner of Bali Kitchen

The eight-seat restaurant, which takes up a whitewashed sliver of a storefront on East Fourth Street, comes from spouses David Prettyman, an erstwhile aid worker who coordinates City Harvest’s Greenmarket food rescues, and Jazz P. Souisay, an artist and fashion designer from eastern Java who is also the head chef here. They opened Bali Kitchen just shy of a year ago with an eye toward takeout and delivery. Everything is served in compostable containers and with eco-friendly flatware. Vegetarian alternatives abound. It’s a boon not only to the neighborhood, but to a city that, despite its wide-ranging dining options, only has about a dozen or so restaurants devoted to Indonesian cuisine.

While Bali is where the couple met more than two decades ago, Souisay’s menu hopscotches around the Indonesian archipelago, paying tribute to the diverse cooking traditions spread throughout the country’s 13,000-plus islands. Soto ayam Ambengan ($11.95) hails from Surabaya, the city where he grew up. The turmeric-spiked chicken noodle soup is as comforting a bowl as you could hope for, full of rice cakes, fragrant fried garlic, half a boiled egg, and the plump, Dutch-influenced potato fritter called perkedel. A squeeze of lime bolsters the gently sour lemongrass broth.

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Two kinds of Indonesia’s staggering number of regional grilled sate skewers are offered. Both are excellent. Served as an entrée with chewy coconut rice cakes and spicy pickled mango, sate Makassar ($13.95), named for a city on the southern coast of Sulawesi, finds lightly charred chicken reveling in a glaze of peanut dressing and a tart sauce made with bilimbi, a cousin of the starfruit. Balinese sate lilit ($6.95), meanwhile, is a ginger-and-turmeric–packed appetizer of chicken, swai fish, or mushrooms ground with shredded coconut and formed around pronged sticks like oblong meatballs. Dip them into Bali’s sambal matah, a raw shallot-lemongrass relish that delivers a feisty kick.

Lawar Tahu Salad

Noodle and rice dishes make up the heartiest meals. Souisay’s beef rendang ($13.95) is worth the trip alone. The glorious flood of saucy brisket is cooked down for six to eight hours in coconut milk fortified with, among other things, galangal, star anise, and makrut lime, until the sauce thickens and the meat relaxes in a fork-tender heap. Ladled next to sautéed greens and a spoonful of sambal, it’s sensationally aromatic and filling. There are also fried egg and garlic cracker-topped stir fries of wheat or cellophane noodles ($10.95) and dabu dabu ($14.95), chicken or fish smothered in a vibrant mango-pineapple salsa that feels summer appropriate. Bali Kitchen’s nasi goreng ($10.95), a nationally beloved fried rice, is liberally laced with the Indonesian sweet soy sauce kecap manis, though the condiment fades into the background in nasi goreng kampung ($11.95), which adds shrimp paste, bitter beans, and an abundance of dried krill and baby anchovies to the equation for an eye-opening rush of concentrated fermented oceanic salinity. Sate lilit reappears in the nasi campur bali ($14.95), joining gingery simmered chicken breast, tempeh strips, diced long beans, and sambal-covered hard-boiled eggs, all placed around a mound of jasmine rice. For nasi kuning ($12.95), a vegetarian version, the rice is turmeric and stewed mushrooms are the star.

Lapis Legit Cake

One of the cooks, David Silva, is in charge of all of the desserts. His greatest achievement isn’t found in the refrigerated case, but instead hangs out by the register among the assorted fried snacks under glass domes. Called lapis legit ($4.50) or spekkoek in Dutch, the dense and buttery layer cake is another vestige of colonialism. With more than twenty layers, it takes hours to make. The end result is as precious as a piece of jewelry, redolent of pandan and cinnamon and doled out in diminutive striped slices. Like Bali Kitchen, it’s a brief taste of Indonesia that speaks volumes.

Bali Kitchen
128 East 4th Street
646-678-4784
balikitchennyc.com

Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The TRGT Fiasco Was No Mistake

When Target opened its Alphabet City location the week before last, it did more than just add another link in the chain of stores now spreading across New York. For its grand opening, Target created a one-day “brand activation,” a tableau vivant that simulated the life of the city street — the very life that is under threat from overdevelopment and corporatization.

I’d heard about the event on the morning of July 21 from the blogger E.V. Grieve, who tweeted that Target had constructed an “homage to CBGB.” When I arrived on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street that afternoon to check it out, I found a far more astonishing spectacle. Target hadn’t just built a faux-CBGB storefront, renamed “TRGT” to evoke the famed punk club; it had built an entire Potemkin East Village.

The Hollywood-set fantasy included a life-size backdrop of tenements photo-printed on vinyl sheets; a fake stoop on which a hip-hop dancer wore a Target bandanna tied around his thigh; red Target-branded buckets for imitating bucket-drumming sidewalk buskers; and a red newspaper kiosk that looked a lot like the ones that used to carry the Village Voice. Inside the store, painted on an East Village–themed mural above the cash registers, were the words “NYC Nuyoricans” and “Poets Café.”

As neighborhood appropriation goes, creating a crass and cynical simulation of the local New York streetscape is bad enough. But worse yet, it’s this very ecosystem that is being erased, block by block, by the presence of chain stores like Target — as well as by big developers like its landlord, Extell, which has named the new luxury building in which Target sits “EVGB,” a riff on CBGB that is supposed to stand for “East Village’s Greatest Building.”

Many people welcome these changes. The sidewalk that day was mobbed. Under the watch of three private security guards and an NYPD officer, people posed for selfies and lined up for free promotional trinkets like keychains and sunglasses. No one seemed troubled by the advertainment; instead, they were advertained. I spotted one person who seemed to be observing more than participating, and I asked what she thought. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, with a thrill in her voice. I felt out of place, alienated in my own neighborhood.

I reached out to Chris Stein of the band Blondie, who got their start at CBGB and helped make the club a household name. He said of Target’s marketing stunt, “It’s grotesque on the level that it’s an attraction that will seduce people. It’s a false god. And it’s the antithesis of what the club stood for — freedom and individuality. Target is just mass sheep appeal. It is massive conformity.”

Target’s opening celebration may have been tone-deaf — the company later issued a non-apology apology — but it was neither an anomaly nor a mistake. It is part of the larger process of hyper-gentrification, the state-sponsored class takeover of urban neighborhoods in our era of late-stage capitalism. Gentrification long ago stopped being the small-scale, sporadic process it was when first observed in the late 1960s and ’70s. By the 1980s, it had become official policy for making New York friendly to big business, tourism, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. That top-down process has since grown exponentially, glutting the city with luxury developments and chain stores that homogenize the streets and rob New York of its character and variety, as well as its affordability.

In this less open, more boring cityscape, the corporate chains often present themselves as friendly and fun. It is part of the Disneyfication of the city, the creation of what architect Michael Sorkin, in his book Variations on a Theme Park, called “a city of simulations.” This is “urban renewal with a sinister twist, an architecture of deception which, in its happy-face familiarity, constantly distances itself from the most fundamental realities.”

Globalized capital aims to distance us from reality, and from community, in order to destabilize us, and to lower our self-esteem. We consume more, studies have shown, when we feel insecure. In their work on terror management and mortality salience (the awareness that one will die), marketing researchers Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters noted that the terrorist attacks of 9-11, as well as natural disasters, increased death-related thoughts for many people, and one way of coping with those thoughts is through excessive consumerism. In their research, they found that individuals with low self-esteem, especially, engage in overconsumption in order to escape self-awareness. (And we know that advertising often lowers self-esteem. As Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, “modern advertising seeks to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt. It seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; to generate new anxieties instead of allaying old ones.”)

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Our urban neighborhoods, too, have destabilized. New York is always changing, of course, but for much of its history it also possessed a certain equilibrium. Today, in hyper-gentrified parts of town, your neighbors come and go, many not sticking around for more than a year. Businesses come and go rapidly, too, without long leases and affordable rents to give them stability. More and more, storefronts fill with pop-up shops, creating a “here today, gone tomorrow” city of whiplash changeability.

Almost all the actual elements of New York that were featured in Target’s pop-up village have vanished or are in danger of vanishing. Their Disney-style depiction traffics in a nostalgia that many New Yorkers feel for lost neighborhoods that once offered what Jane Jacobs famously called “the sidewalk ballet,” the lively variety of the local, human-sized city. What was most objectionable in Target’s imitation of life was that it capitalized on the very experience it is replacing.

Target is not alone. It is only the latest actor in the co-optation and commodification of the city’s obliterated history:

  • When G&M Realty, owned by developers Jerry and David Wolkoff, demolished the Long Island City graffiti mecca 5Pointz, it then used the name for the luxury towers that rose on the site, releasing renderings of interiors full of graffiti art.
  • When the Chetrit Group and Somerset Partners tried to rebrand a portion of the South Bronx as the Piano District — for “luxury waterfront living, world-class dining, fashion, art + architecture” — they threw a party that played on the theme of “the Bronx Is Burning,” featuring bullet-riddled cars and oil drum fires around which celebrities and fashion models posed like hobos.
  • When a bar called Summerhill opened in gentrifying Crown Heights, the owner sent out a press release advertising the space’s “bullet hole–ridden wall” and its Forty Ounce Rosé, joking to Gothamist that bottles would be served in paper bags.
  • In the Hudson Yards mega-development, built on a working-class neighborhood upzoned by the Bloomberg administration, a white-owned restaurant called Legacy Records has filled its walls with African-American imagery. In the New York Times, Pete Wells pointed out that Legacy “seems eager to suggest that it has local roots — so eager that it has essentially ginned up a history for itself that brings together sloppy research with a superficial tribute to black culture.”
  • CBGB, evicted and forced to close in 2006, is a repeat victim. In 2007, celebu-chef Daniel Boulud announced that his new Bowery restaurant would be called DBGB — short for Daniel Boulud Good Burger. Like Target, he used the CBGB typeface. (After he got a cease and desist letter, the typeface changed.) In 2008, luxury menswear designer John Varvatos moved into CBGB’s space, throwing a star-studded grand opening party with T-shirts that read, “Varvatos 315 Bowery…Birthplace of Punk.” He sealed CBGB’s walls behind Plexiglas and sold used rock T-shirts for $350. Finally (or not), in Newark International Airport, a facsimile of CBGB serves as a theme restaurant for tourists traveling in and out of the city. It features a cocktail called the Dirty Ashtray.

Often, these marketing stunts trigger a backlash. After the South Bronx real estate party, local social media exploded in outrage. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito demanded an apology and tweeted, “Lack of empathy & basic awareness are signs of an ailing society. Who thought ‘Bronx is Burning’ theme a good idea?” The outcry against Summerhill was also swift and fierce, with neighborhood residents gathering outside in protest of what they saw as a gentrifying white business owner profiting from the pain of the community and commodifying blackness, a trend that American University public affairs professor Derek S. Hyra, in his book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, calls “black branding.” At the opening of the John Varvatos boutique, anti-gentrification activists protested what they called the “co-opting of culture to sell overpriced luxury goods.” They held signs that read “$800 Pants Kill Music in NYC” and “40-40-40,000 Dollars a Month, We’re Gonna Be Evicted!”

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But the backlash doesn’t last, and more often than not, the offending business goes on to success. The luxury developers in the South Bronx and Long Island City will probably find takers for their units. DBGB enjoyed eight years of selling $12 hot dogs. People are dining at Summerhill and Legacy Records. They are shopping at the Varvatos store, admiring the preserved CBGB walls. So far, Target appears to be doing just fine on Avenue A. In fact, it’s opening another Lower East Side outpost in the Essex Crossing mega-development, in a building called The Rollins, named for jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who once lived in a now-demolished tenement on the site. As the Times pointed out, rents at The Rollins “will be among the highest in the neighborhood,” with concierge service, a pet spa, a shuffleboard table, a private gym, and rooftop barbecue grills.

What the colonizers desire and replicate is gritty New York without the grit. Punk and jazz and poetry without the enlivening shock of unpredictability. It’s a neat trick that works in part because we are starving for reality and a connection to history. Homesick for our lost city, we can be easily seduced by imitations of life.

The ghosts of tenements past surround

At Target’s grand-opening event, it wasn’t the pseudo-CBGB that really got to me. I keep thinking about that fake stoop. The stoop, so utterly urban, normally brings the inside out; facing the street, it engages residents with the sidewalk ballet. But in today’s homogenized city, the new developments turn away from the street, like suburban developments often do, shielding their residents inside controlled private spaces that reject the communality and chaos of city life. Target’s fake stoop haunts me as a ghost of the unreal, an empty representation recalling a reality that is slipping away. As urbanist M. Christine Boyer has written, in her essay “Cities for Sale,” “these tableaux are the true nonplaces, hollowed out urban remnants, without connection to the rest of the city or the past, waiting to be filled with contemporary fantasies, colonized by wishful projections, and turned into spectacles of consumption.”

A haunted feeling is part of the package in today’s commodified cities. Hyper-gentrification is a horror movie mash-up. An invasion of the body snatchers, it zombifies what went before. It kills and then reanimates its victims, sanitized and tamed, to sell itself and expand into further territory, all while working to convince us that it has the best intentions and means no harm. It just wants to be part of the community. Part of the family. One of us, one of us. Like a vampire at the door it asks, with a seductive smile: Won’t we please let it in?

 

 

Categories
Living Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

City’s ‘Nightlife Mayor’ Faces a Tough Crowd on Her Home Turf

Last September, when New York City established its Office of Nightlife — a new entity meant to serve as an intermediary between club owners, residents, and city agencies — it came at the tail end of roughly a year of lobbying from advocates for struggling DIY spaces. The hope was that the new office, along with a director informally dubbed the “Nightlife Mayor,” would smooth the path for the operation of startup clubs and bars, revitalizing an industry many venue owners felt was perilously tangled in red tape.

Yet since her appointment was announced March 7, new Nightlife Mayor Ariel Palitz has drawn criticism on her home turf in the East Village. A resident of the neighborhood for two decades, she operated the nightclub Sutra Lounge, on First Avenue near 2nd Street, for half of that time — something some community leaders are charging will make her decidedly pro-bar, in a neighborhood famously more alive at night than during the day.

“People are cleaning vomit off their stoops Saturday morning,” says Laura Sewell of the East Village’s North Avenue A Neighborhood Association, which covers the stretch of Avenue A between 14th and 10th streets. “That’s an unfair burden to put on residents.”

Palitz, whose press office declined Voice requests for an interview, has worn many hats during her time in the East Village. From 2004 to 2014, she ran Sutra Lounge, which drew a hefty number of noise complaints, topping all bars in the city for 311 complaints between January 2010 and October 2011. (A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, representing Palitz, said this was largely due to the persistence of one unhappy neighbor.) From 2007  to 2014, she served on the State Liquor Authority subcommittee of Community Board 3, which gives recommendations to the state authority on matters of licensing.

Yet while this experience makes Palitz intimately familiar both with the challenges facing entrepreneurial business owners vying for a shot at success and with the gripes of residents who have had their fill of liquor-slinging outposts, East Village and Lower East Side locals vehemently disagree over whether Palitz has been willing to give both parties equal treatment.

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***

The Lower East Side and East Village’s reputation as a party hub is now so entrenched in the city’s collective consciousness that it’s difficult to imagine it being any other way — but longtime locals say unchecked hell-raising is a relatively new phenomenon on their blocks. Diem Boyd of the Lower East Side Dwellers Neighborhood Association, which covers the now notoriously booze-soaked cluster of blocks bordered by Houston, Delancey, Allen, and Essex streets that has been dubbed “Hell Square,” says she noticed the chaos start to ramp up between 2003 and 2005 — during that time, the Hotel on Rivington opened between Ludlow and Essex streets, concert venue Fat Baby popped up on the same block, and unfailingly popular drinking destination Pianos opened on Ludlow Street.

By 2006, the subdistrict had earned its ominous moniker. (The first documented use of the term “Hell Square” was reportedly in a post on Eater, though the original article seems to have been taken down.) In the years since, the DL opened at 95 Delancey Street (a bar that has butted heads with neighbors ever since, and last year was raided by police after spawning two violent brawls within two months), rancorous sports bar Hair of the Dog opened at 168 Orchard Street, and the ironically named No Fun (whose owners would sue the Dwellers in 2016 for trying to prevent their liquor license renewal) opened at 161 Ludlow Street. By 2013, the hellish nature of Hell Square was only escalating, and the Lower East Side Dwellers convened to combat the proliferation of liquor licenses they deemed responsible.

Meanwhile, the North Avenue A Neighborhood Association was formed in 2009 as a direct response to an explosion of rowdy nightlife establishments on a once reasonably peaceful stretch of Avenue A. That was the summer, notes association member Dale Goodson, that the block between 12th and 13th streets saw the opening of the notorious Superdive — a bar known for its frat-house atmosphere, keg stands, and champagne nights, for which a dwarf would lop off a champagne cork with a small sword. Upon its closing in the fall of 2010, a breathless obituary in Politico claimed the bar had signified a “tipping point” for the East Village into party central.

“It was the fuse that ignited everything,” confirms Goodson, noting another rowdy bar called Diablo Royale Este started giving neighbors near 10th Street grief in 2010. “Up and down Avenue A, things were starting to really go crazy.”

Locals ever since have lined up at community board meetings to air their grievances about thumping, sleep-disrupting basslines and shouting (and sometimes vomiting) partygoers. And those gripes are backed by statistics. An audit by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the area encompassing the East Village, Lower East Side, and Chinatown in 2015 was the site of more noise complaints stemming from nightlife establishments than anywhere else in the city.

Beyond chipping away at residents’ quality of life, longtime locals complain, the explosion of nightlife has left establishments that don’t serve liquor unable to keep up with climbing rents, driving out daytime attractions and less-moneyed residents alike. The result, at least within pockets of the neighborhood, is more of a boozy Disneyland flush with sloshed tourists than a community.

“The Lower East Side and the East Village have been decimated by this,” says Boyd. “We’ve lost so many mom-and-pop shops, rents have skyrocketed — it’s a transient community in a lot of ways.”

The Dwellers, known for their antagonistic tactics in combating liquor saturation, years ago declared war on Palitz and her Sutra Lounge, calling for her removal from the community board due to the lounge’s “rap sheet” of violations. The group fretted the launch of an office they feared would favor the nightlife industry over beleaguered residents, tweeting last year that a nightlife mayor was “not the answer for communities suffering quality-of-life nightlife blight and crime.”

When they found the appointed nightlife mayor was one of their own, that anxiety only intensified.

Members of the Dwellers, North Avenue A, and the Orchard Street Block Associations all say that during her time on the community board, Palitz voted overwhelmingly in favor of new liquor license applications and brushed aside residents’ concerns in public meetings. (Community Board 3 declined to comment for this article and was unable to provide Palitz’s voting record.)

“They really couldn’t have made a worse choice, in my opinion,” says Pamela Yeh of the Orchard Street Block Association, which covers a swath of blocks below Delancey Street and between Allen and Clinton streets. “She voted in favor of just about passing every [liquor license] application that came through the SLA committee.”

***

Those who served on Community Board 3 with Palitz, however, recall a reasoned and evenhanded presence who was always willing to hear both sides. These former colleagues insist the harsh criticism from bar-weary neighborhood groups is unfair, especially considering the newness of the position.

“I am extremely happy that she got appointed — I think she is the perfect person for this job,” enthuses former board chair Anne Johnson, who says Palitz’s experience as a bar owner should allow her to effectively tackle the issues facing the Lower East Side and East Village. “I always found her to be reasonable and willing to listen to all sides and not just blanketly support one side or the other.”

Former community board member Chad Marlow, who has been a staunch supporter of limiting liquor licenses in the community, recalls Palitz as a voice of reason, attempting to bring “uniformity and clarity” to the process of supporting or denying liquor license applicants on the subcommittee. “I think [for] Ariel, her challenge is going to be to try and find a way to promote the interests of the industry while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, and I have no doubt she’s going to labor very hard to strike that balance,” he says.

Essential to that balance, as far as bar owners are concerned, is an understanding of the hurdles faced by incoming entrepreneurs looking to build a sustainable business, particularly in such skeptical and often combative communities as the Lower East Side. Rents for retail space in the neighborhood are so high, a liquor license is often the only way to stay afloat — yet the tenor of the neighborhood has become warily anti-bar, creating a snag for anyone hoping to make a living out of a rented storefront.

Longtime local and nightlife veteran Nick Bodor, owner of beloved First Avenue dive the Library and shuttered rock music staple the Cake Shop on Ludlow Street, says the process of garnering approval from the community board can be laborious. And all the hoops one must jump through to justify the business model in the meantime — negotiating a lease, hiring a lawyer, hiring an architect to draw up renderings, even beginning to build out the space before the promise of a license is secured — can be prohibitively expensive.  

The result, says Bodor, can be a stifling of creativity and a depressing homogeneity in the bar scene.

“Cake Shop couldn’t make it up to twelve years,” says Bodor. “When you have these $25,000-a-month rents, it’s causing people to do lowest common denominator shit like pubs. It’s taking away any kind of interesting vibe–type places.”

Upon securing a lease, those looking to open a bar will often pay exorbitantly high rents for months while wading through the community board process, which often asks that the operator prove its establishment will be a boon to the community. Sometimes, bar operators will try to go around the community board and appeal directly to the SLA — something Bodor is hopeful will no longer be necessary. “All of that should be ironed out [by] the nightlife mayor,” he says. 

And Palitz is the perfect person to do so, says Bodor, recalling her as a sympathetic and reasonable voice on the SLA subcommittee when he was vying for a liquor license for the Cake Shop’s top floor as a means of staying afloat, even as anti-bar sentiment in the neighborhood was mounting.

“She was like a voice of reason during that time period when she was there, and it was really crazy with really long meetings and lots of opposition — she really understood both sides,” he says.

To assuage fears, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment Julie Menin, who oversees the Nightlife Office, quickly arranged the first of several planned meetings with Lower East Side groups on March 14. Goodson says Menin “seemed genuinely engaged with resident issues with licensing, the SLA, and oversaturation.” Palitz recently made her first public appearance in Bushwick at the invitation of the NYC Artist Coalition, where she addressed the concerns of local business owners. A representative for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment says town halls will eventually be held in every borough so that Palitz can get a feel for issues affecting each community.

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***

The bulk of the inherent distrust in Palitz and her office may stem from the fact that Lower East Side residents have long felt neglected by authorities tasked with overseeing the flow of liquor in their streets. Some, including Marlow, have argued that the community board’s SLA subcommittee has a history of passing wishy-washy resolutions that greenlight new liquor licenses in violation of the SLA’s 500-foot rule, which prohibits issuing a new liquor license within 500 feet of three or more other licensed establishments. The results of this are evident on a map of the Lower East Side: The stretch of Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton Street, which is roughly 500 feet long, contains six full liquor licenses according to SLA data; the full nine blocks of Hell Square contain over fifty full liquor licenses — and that’s not including beer and wine licenses.  

In early 2016, residents railed against a taqueria seeking a full liquor license that was set to replace a beloved Chinese bakery at 162 East Broadway — the spot was within 200 feet of a church (placing it in violation of another SLA regulation) and within 500 feet of a handful of other liquor-serving establishments. The business owners ultimately moved their entrance to skirt the 200-foot rule, and the community board issued a list of stipulations for them to observe. (The spot is now vegan eatery Jajaja.)

The resulting controversy led to a board resolution solidifying its commitment to the 500-foot rule; since then it has been more unwavering in its rejection of violators. (SLA Subcommittee chair Alex Militano has also pointed out that the board is merely advisory, and it is often in the best interest of the community to recommend stipulations rather than push for an outright rejection from the authority.)

In any case, once a new license has been issued, it is notoriously difficult to have it removed — community members have in the past found themselves saddled with bars that seemingly get slapped on the wrist for violations. Hookah bar Mazaar Lounge at 137 Essex Street earned a renewal despite accruing $20,000 worth of liquor law violations and a violent incident in which a drunk patron attacked a police officer. While the SLA has the authority to revoke, cancel, or suspend licenses for such violations, it often opts for less-damaging penalties — in the case of Mazaar, the lounge was hit with a steep fine as part of a plea deal — a tactic Boyd’s group has slammed as overly lenient. An SLA spokesman noted the authority does have a disciplinary process, pointing out that the DL was hit with a $40,000 fine last November, and could ultimately have its liquor license revoked. 

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said there was no set interagency strategy in place for tackling nightlife issues, but that the office would work with the SLA and other agencies with a hand in nightlife. And in a written statement to the Voice, Palitz herself reaffirmed her commitment to pursuing nightlife parity: “I have tremendous faith that after we conduct a very thorough listening tour of all five boroughs and listen to all stakeholders in nightlife, we will be able to present a very comprehensive and realistic plan that will address the overall concerns of the residents and business owners alike.”

***

Palitz and her cohorts no doubt have a difficult road ahead of them in her home neighborhood alone if they are to truly balance the interests of business owners grappling for the right to serve booze just to stay afloat, and a rattled community that lives in fear of more drunks pouring into the street below their windows.

But hopes and fears aside, nightlife is an economic and cultural force to be reckoned with — it provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars, both from New Yorkers and from out-of-towners flocking to the party hubs its residents hate so much. And so, the city’s logic goes, why should it not be maintained like any other part of the city’s economy?

There needs to be a balance between nightlife activity and residents, and this office can help to mediate situations that occur, and also focus on planning and managing nightlife, instead of letting it organically get out of control and then having to police it,” says Andrew Rigie, founder and executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who now serves on the advisory board of the Office of Nightlife.

“We focus on city planning, and there’s no reason nightlife shouldn’t be part of the planning. It’s vital to our economy and our culture. And after all, we have been called the city that never sleeps.”

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Jared Kushner’s East Village Tenants ‘Horrified’ Their Landlord Will Be Working in the White House

For tenants in Jared Kushner’s buildings, seeing their landlord get a top position in the White House is as nightmarish as Donald Trump becoming president is for most New Yorkers.

“It’s disgusting. It’s insane. It’s ludicrous,” Mary Ann Siwek, who’s lived at 170 East 2nd Street for more than thirty years, said after Trump, Kushner’s father-in-law, tapped him to be an official senior adviser. “I don’t know how to tell you how despicable this man is.”

Kushner bought the East Village building three years ago for $17 million and immediately began what tenant advocates call “construction as harassment”: renovating vacant apartments in a way that makes life dangerous and miserable for the current residents, particularly the rent-stabilized ones. “We were breathing in dust and fumes. There was plaster everywhere. My ceiling collapsed a couple times. For six months we had to live like this.” At one point there was a gas leak bad enough to cause the fire department to cordon off the entire block.

Tenants couldn’t find out what was going on, she adds, because none of the workers spoke English. Kushner “was never around,” and representatives from his Westminster Management came by mainly to offer tenants money to leave. Siwek, now retired, turned down a $10,000 offer, and says some people got only moving expenses. Within nine months, she says, three-fourths of the tenants had left.

That enabled Kushner to renovate their apartments and raise the rents to luxury rates. Today, his management company advertises apartments there for $3,375 to $5,450 a month, while touting the building as the place “where Allan [sic] Ginsberg wrote his famous poem ‘Elegy.’ ” (Some clueless philistine apparently felt it was necessary to Anglicize “Kaddish.”)

This history didn’t stop Mayor Bill de Blasio from praising Kushner after the appointment was announced on January 9.

“I respect him a lot,” de Blasio told reporters at a press conference later that day. “He’s someone who really cares about New York City and is someone that would be very helpful to us. So I’m certainly pleased he’ll be in that role.” The mayor added that Kushner was “a lot more moderate” than many of Trump’s other appointees.

“Mayor de Blasio seems hopeful that his friendly relationship with Jared Kushner may be of some benefit to New York City, but our community has not benefited at all from Kushner’s ownership of close to forty buildings in the East Village,” the Cooper Square Committee, which has organized tenants in several Kushner-owned buildings, and the Fourth Arts Block association said in a joint statement. Kushner, they said, “has converted scores of affordable rent-regulated apartments into luxury housing that rents for $3,000–$5,000 per month” and repeatedly “faced allegations of harassment and lack of essential services” while doing that.

If de Blasio “stands by his words and thinks Jared Kushner is ‘reasonable and moderate,’ ” they added, “we suggest the Mayor come meet with Kushner tenants in the East Village to hear what they’ve been through under his ownership.”

“For de Blasio to be pleased about Kushner’s appointment because Kushner is ‘a lot more moderate’ than Trump’s other appointments is scary indeed!” says a tenant in one of his Brooklyn buildings, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment.

“I want to be sure Kushner is made to reveal and divest from all of his real estate holdings, and is not absolved of anything — all his conflicts of interest, all his shady real estate deals…and all the horrific things he has done to tenants in his real-estate empire.”

A Westminster spokesperson did not respond by press time to questions about whether Kushner plans to divest from the buildings once he takes the White House job. Jamie S. Gorelick, a lawyer advising him, told the New York Times that Kushner would sell his interest in about 35 investments. He plans to sell them to his brother and a trust controlled by his mother, she said, and will not be involved in managing the properties he retains.

Kushner typically doesn’t use the building-wide eviction-demolition-renovation process he undertook in Siwek’s building, however. His business model might be called “apex scavenger”: Over the last five years, he’s spent more than $400 million buying more than fifty buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Astoria, primarily in the East Village — at least forty of them from Ben Shaoul and Stone Street Properties, two landlords who specialized in “maximizing value” by clearing out rent-stabilized tenants through trumped-up eviction attempts, threats, and construction-as-harassment, and then flipping the buildings to new owners.

Anthony Donovan, who lives in one such East Village building, says Kushner is a lot more moderate than the previous owners: Steve Kaplan, who conned several tenants into signing “special agreement leases” that omitted the clauses saying they were rent stabilized and residents had the right to stay, and Shaoul, who kicked those tenants out and put the rest through “two years of hell, of construction and lies.”

Today, he says, the services are good, and Westminster staff responsive. “But I know the game they were playing,” he says of Kushner. “He knew what Shaoul was doing, and he bought the building after Shaoul did the dirty work.”

Tenants in Kushner’s East Village buildings, however, have often complained about lack of services. In April, residents of 118 East 4th Street, after five months spent with a garbage mountain in their backyard and with no cooking gas, won a court settlement in which Westminster agreed to make repairs, give rent-stabilized tenants 60 percent off their rent for the time without gas and market-rate tenants 30 percent off, and cover the tenants’ legal fees.

The problems are “more about chaotic management than about gut renovation,” says Edward Osborne, who lives nearby. “Kushner’s been legitimately distracted in the last year.” Turnover in Westminster’s offices is so high, he adds, that you’re lucky if you can reach the same person twice.

He says he’s “horrified” by Kushner going to the White House. “I don’t think he’s demonstrated very good management principles.”

“Trump’s appointment of Kushner is in keeping with his cabinet selections of amoral billionaire crooks, liars, and thieves,” says another East Village rent-stabilized tenant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “This guy’s company preys on the feeble and infirm, lies, charges illegal late fees, puts tenants at risk in myriad ways, whose overall message to tenants is a shrug and a ‘you get what pay for’ re: heat, gas, hot water, modern plumbing, and electricity.”

“We felt the complete lack of empathy and compassion from our landlord,” she adds. “The whole country’s going to experience what we’ve been going through.”

Kushner never once showed up to meet with tenants at 170 East 2nd Street to respond to their complaints about the construction, says Siwek. That, she believes, reflects his business ideology. “He couldn’t care less about human suffering,” she says. “He couldn’t care less about the city. He couldn’t care less about anything but his money and his family.” And he “stays very far away” from the results of his actions.

She has one wish for him: “I would like him to stay for a month in one of the rooms while the construction was going on.”