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Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book


The House on 11th St.: Digging Up the Debris

A Bomb Factory?

The “live bomb” which, according to Monday night radio reports, was discovered in the ruins of 18 West 11th Street turned out to be a six-inch vintage 1916 shell, probably a souvenir, probably dead. But the two dead bodies pulled from the tons of brick, plaster, and charred furnishings in the basement of the townhouse were real enough. And then, late Tuesday afternoon, police and firemen still investigating the explosions which destroyed the building Friday morning came upon a quantity of live, wired dynamite fashioned into bombs, and announced that the $275,000 townhouse was a “bomb factory” filled with enough explosives to level the whole block if detonated at once.

Early Sunday morning, the body of 23-year-old Theodore Gold, a Columbia activist and Weatherman leader, was pulled up. Police then announced they were searching for SDS member Catherine Wilkerson, daughter of the owner of the four-story house. She was seen fleeing naked from the burning building with another girl. Three other as yet unidentified men were said to have fled the building shortly after the explosion.

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Monday morning, firemen uncovered intact the building’s oil furnace, which seemed to rule out the early explanation that a gas leak had torn the 20-foot-high holes in the two-foot-thick walls and collapsed the roof, all four floors, and the front wall into the basement.

Monday afternoon, detectives, in charge of the investigation announced that they had discovered SDS pamphlets in the debris. And Monday evening, shortly after the “live bomb” scare, firemen began removing brick-red paper-like material which some observers described as wrapping for dynamite. Police would not confirm or deny this until the dynamite itself was discovered the next day.

Tuesday morning, the second body, that of a girl, badly mangled and missing the left leg, was discovered about halfway down into the basement. Police were checking evidence indicating that the dead girl was Kathy Boudin, also of Weathermen and the daughter of Leonard Boudin, the prominent Greenwich Village lawyer who defended Benjamin Spock in his conspiracy prosecution.

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Theodore Gold, a leader of the 1968 Columbia strike, was one of the most influential organizers in the Weathermen movement. He is reported to have gone to Cuba last summer with Miss Boudin and Bernadine Dohrn, then a national coordinator of SDS. There they met with representatives of the NLF, a meeting which was said to have helped them shape the ideas which later became Weatherman doctrine. The group helped write the “don’t need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” manifesto presented at the July, 1969 SDS convention, after their return from Cuba. The manifesto called for an immediate commencement of white guerrilla activity in America to “raise the price” of U.S. involvement in the Third World.

After the July convention, Gold travelled around the country urging local SDS chapters to move toward the Weatherman position. A Times story implying that Gold was one of the founders of the Mad Dogs, a Columbia SDS faction, was said to be “absolutely incorrect” by someone who knew Gold. “The Red Squad didn’t bother to get their facts right,” he added. A Post story depicting Gold as a moderate member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement II was met with incredulity by people who knew him.

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Miss Wilkerson is reported to have participated in Weathermen actions in Chicago and Pittsburgh. An acquaintance described her as having developed into a militant at Swarthmore: “She was a premature Weatherman.”

Weatherman itself is reported to have declared its own death as a formal organization recently, but exists now as a decentralized underground in keeping with its guerrilla orientation. ❖

1970 Village Voice article by Ron Rosenbaum about the Weathermen blowing up a townhouse on 11th Street

1970 Village Voice article by Ron Rosenbaum about the Weathermen blowing up a townhouse on 11th Street


Lenny Bruce Tagged on Obscenity, Run Extended at Cafe Here 

Comedian Lenny Bruce and Howard Solomon, manager of the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleecker Street, where Bruce is heading the bill, were arrested and taken to Sixth Precinct headquarters on Charles Street last Friday night. They were booked on charges of giving an “indecent performance.” On arriving at the police station, Solomon was served with a summons from the License Department.

The arrests were made at about 10 p.m. as Bruce was preparing to go on for his only show of the night. When he failed to appear most of the audience asked for their money back and left. Comedian Irwin Corey, who was in the audience, went on in Bruce’s place.

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Bruce and Solomon spent the night in jail and were released after arraignment the next day. Solomon was released in the rec­ognizance of his lawyer. Bruce, who has been arrested on obscenity charges in several cities and has one conviction on ap­peal in Chicago, had to post $1000 bail.

The two were told that the police had taped two of Bruce’s shows, his second show last Wednesday night (which actually began at 12:01 a.m. Thursday) and his first show last Thursday night. They were also told that the tapes had been played for a grand jury, which found that there was sufficient on which to charge them.

Solomon says the police told him that the original complaint about Bruce’s performances had come from the License Department. Acting License Commissioner William Barlow refused to comment on this. Instead he issued the following statement: “In view of the fact that a hearing is scheduled before this office on Thursday, there will be no comment on any phase until a determination has been made. We do not want to prejudice the case in any way by making any comment.”

Solomon had originally planned to operate the Cafe Au Go Go as a cabaret (which would permit dancing as well as entertainment) without liquor. He told The Voice that the License Department had indicated that he would receive a cabaret license and that he had proceeded with the renovation of the basement premises on the assumption that the license would be granted. He said his application had been filed last May, and that in December the License Department told him it would only grant him a coffee house license, which does not permit dancing.

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Bernard O’Connell, then License Commissioner, refused the license on the grounds that if dancing were permitted and no liquor were served, minors could be admitted and that they would go there to dance and then hang around until all hours of the night. Solomon told The Voice, however, that he had made it clear to the License Commissioner that he would “Abide by the letter of the law” governing cabarets and would not allow minors into his cafe unless they were accompanied by adults. He finally opened Cafe Au Go Go as a coffee house on February 7.

Vanguard Okay?

Solomon also pointed out that Bruce had appeared at the Village Vanguard last January and February and that he had given one-night performances to sell-out audiences at the Village Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, on Thanksgiving Night and the night of March 28. Neither of these establishments received complaints from either the police or the License Department.

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Bruce and Solomon will be tried on April 23 in Criminal Court. Ironically, Bruce’s arrest will serve to extend his run at Cafe Au Go Go, which was originally scheduled for one week and would have ended Sunday night. Since he has to be in town for his trial on the 23rd, he will go on performing at the Au Go Go until that date.

An Emergency Committee Againt Harassment of Lenny Bruce was formed over the weekend as a result of the arrest. The committee is circulating petitions addressed to Mayor Wagner. The petitions charge “that ‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.”

Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks
January 30, 1990

AT TWO A.M. THIS BILIOUS TUESDAY, Pookie hops off the low wall of the pier and fastens a moistened forefinger to his ass. “Fsssssssss,” he goes, flashing his frog-eyed crack grin, “I’m hot like a full-time motherfuck.” On the instant, all the pretty cars come courting, making the hairpin turn at the north end of the dock. A black Saab swings by, a silver Volvo hard behind him, slowing to get a load of the short, plump kid with the sort of epicene beauty peculiar to boys of a certain age. At the back of the pack, the guy in the blue Town Car leans on his horn.

The Town Car pulls up; its passenger window whirs down. A broad, pink man with a polished skull peers out, composed as a corpse in his Chesterfield topcoat. “Aren’t you freezing in that little thing?” he inquires. “Aren’t you hot in that big thing?” says Pookie, popping his head in. “I don’t recall seeing you out here before.”

“And might not see me out here again, so best pick up while the iron is hot. Is your iron hot, love?”

The Pink Man’s eyes play up and down the boy. “How old are you, 15?”

“At least!” Pookie trumpets. “Plus tax.”

The Pink Man frowns and looks away awhile, performing his moral arithmetic. “Get in.”

Pookie jumps in. In the eight or 10 seconds it takes the Town Car to hit the exit. Pookie is across the seat and in the Pink Man’s embrace. “That’s a fuckin’ yo-yo right there,” sneers Georgie, who at 18 looks spent, his face cinched up like an old canvas bag. It is impossible to tell whether his is the voice of experience or envy. “I told him, ‘Stay in the loop till you know the game.’ Instead, he’s gonna bust right outta here with a stone-cold freak. I laugh if he come back here with a knife in his chest.”

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IF YOU ARE SITTING on that wall at two in the morning, the cold and damp on you like a molestation, chances are you aren’t one of the sleek-skinned kids who turns up here on weekends for the party off of Christopher Street. Chances are even better that you aren’t one of the buttoned-down 20-year-olds hustling a place like Rounds on 53rd Street, pre­senting your business card — Professional Escort — to the Aquascutum crowd. No, the chances are you are what they call a “dead boy” down here — a throwaway be­tween the ages of 16 and 20, homeless and hungry and, like as not, in ill-health.

According to Covenant House, the ex­perts by default, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 adolescents on the streets of this city: the kids from the Koch pest­-houses like the Martinique, the Prince George; the kids off the Greyhounds, flee­ing predaceous families; and the kids shot out of the foster care system, New York’s sprawling pathology factory. The most desperate of them eventually land with a thud on the docks, where not even the salt in the air can preserve them.

For the past several months, these kids have talked to me about certain johns who heal them up as a sort of postsex purgative; about the perils of sleeping amongst the crazies at the shelters; about the crackheads and dealers who ride herd on the scene, picking kids off on the fly. But in a sense all of this is overkill, because if you stack it up together and pile on things like polyaddiction and double pneumonia, the sum total will not finish off as many of the kids I spoke to as their numb indifference to AIDS. According to the CDC, the number of kids nationally between 13 and 19 with full-blown AIDS cases has more than doubled in the last two years.

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Everyone on the docks has a pocketful of condoms. Project First Step, the outreach arm of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, dispenses them nightly with the strenuous injunction to please use them. But pull a kid aside, out of earshot of the pack, and he’ll tell you that (a) he doesn’t need them, (b) the johns won’t wear them, and (c) a rubber these days is just a bargaining chip — “they’ll give you five, maybe 10 more bucks to let ’em do it skin-on-skin.”

“In the first place, I fuck, I don’t get fucked,” harrumphs Arnie, the tall, haggard kid to whom Covenant House intro­duced me. “In the second place, I get sucked, I don’t suck. Does it sound to you like I need to put on a bag?” Actually, I tell him, it sounds like he needs to put on two.

“Nah,” he sneers, sliding down in his seat. “I’ve been out here running game going on like six years now. And every time they test me…” he clucks, giving me his stagey grin. “Clean as the Board of Health.”

“Twelve per cent of the older kids who come into our system test positive for HIV,” reports George Wirt, Covenant House’s tireless VP of Communications. That figure is staggering, matched up against the national infection rate of 4.3 per thousand, but, as Wirt says, “You really can’t even go by the 12 per cent. Most of the kids who’ve been out there hustling for any length of time don’t even come into our system. The real number has got to be significantly higher.”

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Covenant House is itself a telling gloss on the problem. For all its celebrated good works — and even its detractors agree that life in this city would be un­thinkable without CH’s interventions­ — the agency is notorious for giving gay kids a hard time. At the crisis center on 41st Street, effeminate boys are thrown in with the hardass straights, with the predictable result that some “get raped, or beat up, or harassed to no end,” says the director of another agency who de­clined to be named. And Joyce Hunter, the director of social services for the He­trick-Martin Institute, a small but ex­traordinarily effective agency whose charter is the protection of gay and lesbi­an youth, tells the story of a kid who once called her in desperate shape. “I referred him to Covenant House. Where else could I send him? He said, ‘If that’s the best you can do, I’ll take the streets,’ and hung up. That call still haunts me now. It’s why we decided to start this agency.”

And even as Covenant House beats the drum about teenage AIDS, it stands on its refusal to hand out condoms. Instead of safe sex, it preaches abstinence to these kids, proving that Catholic obscu­rantism isn’t dead, it’s just gone private sector. This isn’t to scapegoat Covenant House, which recently opened up a floor for homeless kids with AIDS, and is re­viewing its policy of lumping gays in with straights. The point is that, outside of a cluster of small agencies, these are kids without a port in a perpetual storm.

“No one’s set up for what’s about to come down,” warns Wirt. “Nationally, there’s God knows how many kids infect­ed right now. You’re going to need a whole array of new responses once those cases incubate.”

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Certainly, the old responses aren’t working; Covenant House loses two of every three kids who come into its care. The up-at-six-lights-out-by-10 Boys Town lifestyle can’t begin to compete with the street kid’s “deathstyle,” as Tru­dy Peterson, the director of the Streetwork Project, calls it. Peterson, a vivid blonde woman in her middle forties who’s been working with these kids for almost 20 years, says that what they’re aggressively engaged in these days is a kind of “slow suicide. ‘I’m gonna take a bunch of drugs, and I’m wiped out, and my immune system’s crazy, and it’s five degrees out, and… I’ll get in this car with three guys, knowing they’re sadists and will abuse me…’ ”

Kids are, by definition, creatures of the moment, oblivious to their mortality. But on the docks, the denial is double-walled. Behind the customary teenage omnipotence is the thick shale of grief and rage. “Virtually every kid I see here is a badly abused child,” explains Elizabeth Mas­troieni, Covenant House’s straight-shoot­ing AIDS educator. “So many of them were sold, or seduced, or beaten by their parents, or just flat-out abandoned… For a lot of [the kids], hustling is really a reenactment of what they grew up with, only now they’ve got the control. Instead of lying in bed helplessly waiting for the parent to come in, now they’ve got the power to say yes or no — and get paid money to do the thing, on top of it.”

By CH’s estimate, there are a million homeless kids hustling sex in this coun­try. In New York, they happen to be largely black and Hispanic, but in Miami and Fort Lauderdale they are overwhelm­ingly white. And in L.A., reports Wirt, just back from a fact-finding trip out there, the kids are in flight from split-­level houses. “We’ve never seen anything like it. There are little cities of kids thing under the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Nor does the thing hang neatly on the peg of sexuality. For every boy on the dock who acknowledges he’s gay, there’s another who’s vehement that he’s “got a girlie in Queens, and a little baby on the way.” No, the only thing these kids can be said to have in common is that they’ve been sabotaged by the very people life appointed to protect them.

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I WILL LIVE TO BE a hundred,” declares Diego, a sweet, expressive kid who bends like an antenna against the breeze. “I won’t get no disease, no one can’t hardly hurt me, ’cause life already used up all its bullets on me. If it wanted to finish me off, it woulda did so when I was four.”

We are walking the dock this balmy October evening, enjoying the false blan­dishments of Indian summer. Around us, the johns are positively buzzing, brought on by the mild air and some hallucination about romance. Diego ticks off their pre­dilections as they go by. “That one likes to get beat up a taste, got his own little custom-made paddle.… The blue Regal, he wants you to fuck his ugly wife for him, then go out and eat Mexican food with ’em after. And this knucklehead, he’ll take anything he can get, but what he really wants is for you to piss on his windshield. From his lips to God’s mouth, I say.”

We had been talking about his child­hood a moment ago, so when I tell him that his thing is evasion, he laughs out loud. “Oh, I can skate alright, honey! I’m the black Dorothy Hamill!”


The story that he unfolds is like so many others you hear that you catch yourself wondering if these kids share notes. There was his airtight relationship with his adoring mother, “who was to me like a saint, an angel on earth”; the fa­ther, a mailman who was so mean “he used to bite the dogs”; and there was Diego’s own sense, “from as early as I can remember,” that he’d been singled out of the family for the old man’s abuse. “I’m sorry, but I have to laugh,” he says, not laughing. “You’re going to beat my ass with a broom handle for something as two-cents as slurping my milk — and then an hour later come in and lay down with me? I know it’s not polite to say something against your family — but for that man, they should’ve brought back lynch­ing, baby.”

And your brothers and sisters? I ask. Did they come out of it alright?

“Pshuh,” he snaps. “They’re as happy as larks. Far as they’re concerned, none of this ever happened.” He pauses, peering down at the bright pageant of Christo­pher Street. “I guess I had to take the weight for the good of the family.”

That isn’t self-pity, it’s guilt, and it’s the deadliest addiction down here — this attachment to the idea that you’re the proper target of life’s sadism. Why, for instance, aren’t these kids selling crack instead of their bodies? Because dealing is an act of violence perpetrated against others; hustling your body to men who won’t wear condoms is an act of violence against yourself, a carrying-out of the sentence handed down in childhood. “Why the fuck should I hassle ’em to wear a rubber?” shrugged Chris, a very stoned metal kid in heavy leather. “I’m gonna be dead in two years, anyway.”

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ONE NIGHT IN LATE September, perhaps my second on the scene, I was walking up the dock taking the lay of the land when I heard someone shout, “YO, YOUR BACK!” I wheeled and saw three kids coming straight for me, closing hard and fast as linebackers. I froze, bracing myself for the hit, when a second shout brought them up short. They veered off right, hurling glares over their shoulders, and hopped the divider onto the highway. I put my heart back inside my chest and went to thank my benefactor, a squat black kid in two-tone denims sporting a fat welt over one eye.

“Ah man, fuck you,” he sneered, “I shoulda let ’em jay you, only I don’t need no 20 cops down here. I got like 60-something cents in my pocket tonight.”

I explained what I was doing, and of­fered to buy him dinner. He asked to see my press card. “Oh, this’ll make someone a nice souvenir. But you bullshittin’, I know you got back-up somewhere. You ain’t really out here by yourself.”

I assured him that I was, and on foot, to boot.

“Look around you!” he guffawed, sa­voring my stupidity. “You see all these hardnut crackheads? They ain’t here to get laid, they’re here to get paid, if you know what I’m talking about.”

There were kids sprawled sullenly on the hoods of cars; kids roaming the piers in packs of three and four, or huddled like cabals around someone’s boombox. Only at the far north end could boys be seen standing by themselves, arms across their chests in desultory attendance. “This ain’t Shangri-la anymore, this is 42nd Street South,” said Aubrey. “Any­thing up there, you can buy down here now. Drugs, car stereos, a whole trunk­load of guns — anything you want, except for pussy… but check back for that on Friday.”

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The joke reverberated. Just that eve­ning, I’d been talking to a couple of retail­ers on Christopher Street, whose bitter suspicion was that the cops were quietly redlining the West Village, pinching all the pandemic sins of Times Square down here. “Doesn’t the Sixth Precinct ever patrol this place?” I asked Aubrey.

“To protect who?” he snorted. “Ain’t nobody out here but a bunch of fags and baseheads.”

And into which of the two groups did he fall?

“Neither, nor,” he declared. “I’m a man with a plan. One day real quick, I’m gonna just… disappear.”

There was some thunder in that word, too. Trudy Peterson, whose love for these kids suffuses everything she says, told me that the hardest thing about her work “is that these kids just disappear. We don’t know if they went down to Florida to hustle, to Puerto Rico and their grand­mothers, or if they’ve been taken up to some rooftop by a gang and raped.”

Aubrey did in fact disappear — on his own steam, I hope — but not before I ran into him again that Friday night. He was standing by himself, looking like hell in a red hood, skeed off his ass on a crack­-and-smack jam. “Come here,” he said, hugging me. “I wanna show you something freaky.”

We walked down to the second pier. He pointed to a crawlspace about 40 feet out, where a kid was sound asleep perhaps a yard above the tide. “I never in my life been that fucked up,” he marveled. “I hope whatever he do tonight, he don’t roll over. That’d be a wet dream-and-a-half, boy!”

He was still tittering about this 10 min­utes later, wondering whose life would pass before your eyes if you drowned out there, your own or Charlie the Tuna’s, when the laugh suddenly caught in his throat. “Ho, shit, here comes the fastest way to die.”

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He pointed discreetly with his chin to a baby Benz sedan. which was circling the dock slowly, in a sort of taunting, Dave Parker trot. Its windows were down, revealing three b-boys in black, fronting enough gold to float a municipal bond issue. They sprayed the scene with their 12-gauge glares.

“Which one’s the dealer?” I asked.

“What, are you gonna go interview him?” he sneered. “Yo, man, quit lookin’ at ’em! You got detec written all over you. If they see me even talking to you about ’em…”

We averted our eyes as the Benz made another pass, then peeled out onto the highway, serenading us with the gentle strains of NWA:

Fuck the police, and Ren said it with authority 
’cause the niggers on the street is a majority
A gang is with whomever I’m stepping
And a motherfuckin’ weapon is kept in
A stashbox for the so-called law
Wishin’ Ren was a nigger they never saw…

“That was Markie’s crew,” said Aubrey. “He’ll send ’em after you if you’re like even five minutes late — and those niggers don’t even play.”

“Does Markie run the show down here?”

“Not really, he stays on the uptown tip. But some of these hardnuts go up and get 50 bottles [vials] offa him, then smoke the shit and don’t come back with the $200. That’s how niggers get shot down here.”

“Are there a lot of kids getting shot?”

Aubrey fixed me with his ready glare. “All these motherfuckers they be pulling out the river — what do you think, they fell off their yacht?” He wagged his head sadly, then murmured, “Dag, but that Benz was slammin’, though. All the mon­ey I made out here… I coulda bought that car three times.”

“Where is it all now, Aubrey?”

Wise and world-weary and, like so many street kids, theatrical, he waits two beats before saying, supremely, “Me, I might be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. I pay homeboy in full.”

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“THERE ARE KIDS TURNING up dead all over the city,” says Covenant House’s Mastroieni. “Sometimes, when cops find a body in a lot or a construction site, they’ll know to call us first. We keep a file on every kid we see here… very often, we’re the only ones who can identify a kid — or care to.”

A kid running the docks, she points out, is terribly vulnerable, the perfect crime waiting to happen. “They work by themselves, they’ve got no I.D., [and] they’re high out of their minds most of the time.… If you’re a dealer and a kid stiffs you, you can make a quick example of him for $20. And if you’re a john and you want to take a kid to Jersey and bury him — well, it’s not like he’s got a partner jotting your license number down…”

“Please understand that we’re trying to maintain good relations with the police,” says Mastroieni. “And generally we do. There are some very honorable cops out there, cops who tip us off when they see one of our kids where he isn’t supposed to be. But most of them?” she sighs. “Most of them don’t give a damn about these kids. As far as they’re concerned, who­ever’s killing them is doing the Lord’s work.”

How does a skinny 17-year-old stalked by johns and dealers defend himself? By arming himself, quite literally, to the teeth. There isn’t a kid out there without a gun or a knife, or at any rate a single­-edge secured in imaginative places. Bob­by, a delicate kid sitting on the hood of a Dodge, showed me how to conceal a razor blade between cheek and gum (“Keep the sharp side down, and don’t smile too much”). He told me what had happened to him and his lover, Raymond. They were walking west on Charles, “drinking a beer and smooching to try and stay warm,” when suddenly they were set upon by a carload of kids. “I’m not saying they didn’t fuck me up good — they did­ — but I know at least one of those boys will never forget me. I cut his shit from yay to yay, and the blade was rusty, too.”

Raymond, however, came away so banged up he had to go back to Puerto Rico. “He was really a nice guy, and I never expected that… I never had no one treat me with that respect before. And between us, we had like a little room in Flatbush. It wasn’t much, but at least I wasn’t out here till no four a.m., trying to get someone to take me to his place so I could catch a shower.”

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IF IT’S FAIR TO CALL kids living from trick to trick slow suicides, what do you call the grown men who cruise them? Write a piece on the johns, implored one outreach worker after another, meaning by all means bash those bastards. But the request betrayed a certain curiosity as well — who are these men, and why are they out sniffing after kids — and sad, sick, addicted kids at that?

“Ninety to 95 per cent of [the johns] are married men with families,” says Pe­terson. “They’re Boy Scout leaders, store managers, executives — men with money… One kid said to me, ‘You know, they open up their wallets to pay me, and I see pictures of their children in there and I think, if they’re paying me to do this, what are they doing at home to their own kids?'”

At 3 a.m., when the exchange rate on the pier is a bottle of crack for a blowjob, it’s the john who like as not is supplying the crack; the john who spurns the kid’s choke roll of condoms; the john who boosts the ante from sex to sadism. Al­most every kid I talked to, from the piers to Port Authority to the loop on 53rd Street, said he has at least one regular who engages him to do the “wilder thing,” i.e., the sort of act that only the most unfettered mind could construe as carnal. There is Peter, the lantern-jawed kid in greasy jeans, whose “Friday guy” forks over $200 to be yoked to two poles in the back of his van and have his nip­ples pierced with an ice pick. There is Maurice, who gets paid “stoopid money” to shit on a hot dog roll and make his client eat it.

I want to make it thuddingly plain that we are talking about so-called straights here, men whose sexuality is the ticking bomb under their two-family colonial. “Some day,” Peterson worries, “some guy’s going to wake up with AIDS, and give it to his wife. Then he’s going to come over here with a gun and shoot 10 street kids.”

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Given the fixity of their death wish — ­there are johns buying boys with conspic­uous lesions on their arms — it is impossi­ble that “some guy” hasn’t already awo­ken to that discovery. But what Peterson is putting her finger on is the john’s ca­pacity for projection, driving the stake of his self-loathing through the hearts of these kids. “With the transvestites, you know, the johns like to punch them in the crotch,” says Mastroieni. “The kid’s roll­ing around in agony, and the john’s up there laughing, going, ‘Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were a boy.’ ”

The other fraction of the john popula­tion, out gay men, tend to be vastly more benign to the kids. Many form attach­ments to their “steadies,” bringing them home for several days or even a stretch of weeks before the thing craps out over drugs or house rules. They’ll take a kid out to dinner, or occasionally pick him up a shirt, no small favor for someone who’s been wearing the same thing all week. Whether it’s empathy or romance or a rescue fantasy, something quite the ob­verse of sadism seems to obtain here.

The kids I spoke to were by and large grateful for these affairs, but the experi­ence of being cared for was also terrifying to them. On the one hand, they’re hungry for it, no matter how long they’ve been out here; on the other, they’re clinging fast to their hard boy swagger, to that uptown street affect by which they sur­vive. “I do what I gotta do,” goes the dogma of West Street, “but I damn sure ain’t nobody’s toy-boy.”

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“I’M A PRETTY NORMAL person. I wouldn’t consider myself a sex fiend,” says Peter. “But when I’m on that pipe, all I can think about — bang! — is fucking. Fucking, smoking, and fucking some more. And I’ll tell you what — when that head comes over me, I gotta go some­where and beat my meat, ’cause otherwise I’m liable to kill someone.”

In the centrifuge of crack, everything flies apart: neighborhoods, families, per­sonalities. But the drug also has an insid­ious side effect that hasn’t been suffi­ciently well-documented. Smoked in even modest amounts, it can be just a crazy­-making aphrodisiac, wiping all the other imperatives off the board. It’s like an infusion of pure id every half-hour — and these kids aren’t exactly overloaded with superego to begin with.

“Because of crack,” says Peterson, “there’s more sex and more desperate sex: multiple-partners, orgy-type sex in crack houses.… The drug itself drives you to it. You don’t care how many arms and legs and asses — the more the merrier.”

“Look at these people out here,” Diego sniffs. “They don’t care what they look like, they don’t care what they smell like — crack whores, that’s all they are.… You come down here with 20 bottles, it doesn’t matter how old and ugly you are, you’re the Pied Piper of West Street.”

The only thing that’s dropped faster than the price of drugs in this city is the price of street sex. “I used to make good money out here, and I’m talking 50s, 100s,” says Diego. “Now, the johns drive up, they don’t even say hello. They just go, ‘Hey, you got a stem (a crack pipe) on you?’ And if you say yes, right then and there they know they got you… Three, four hits, you’ll be up in the back seat like a slave — you might even get out that car with no money. This boy Rickey talk about, ‘Oh, that man spent $300 on me.’ Really? I don’t see it. ‘Well, it was $300 in rocks.’ Oh. So you’re up in the room with him talking about six, seven hours, and when you came down you had to hop the turnstile to get back here,” Diego chortles. “I guess that’s why they call it dope.”

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Covenant House refers to this disas­trous tit-for-tat as “survival sex,” as if kids were blowing johns to keep a roof over their heads. CH ought to know bet­ter. Certainly, its outreach people do. Making the rounds in their baby blue vans, they see the same boys out there night after night — strung-out, exhausted, the odor of the subways upon them. The kids descend upon the vans in their em­barrassed way, ostensibly for a cup of cocoa and a peanut-butter sandwich, but also to talk to someone like Veronica DiNapoli.

A four-year outreach veteran, DiNapo­li’s blend of tact and tenderness often opens kids up on the spot. They hug her and hold fast to her hand or her sleeve as they pour out their sad packet of lies: Veronica, didja hear, I’m going away to college… Veronica, Herbie told you we found this fly spot in Queens? And she listens to it all, treading delicately around their claims, because she knows that’s all they have. On a particularly cold night, several of them will consent to come back to the residence, or take a ride to the hospital for the gash in their forearm. But these are children whose hope and trust have been ripped out like cables. In every blessing, they have been taught to suspect a beating.

“It’s so sad,” says Liz Russo, the tough, pretty former director of Hetrick-Mar­tin’s outreach team. “They get battered at home, they get battered in their neigh­borhoods, [and if] they’ve been kicked out by their parents, they get battered in the group homes… That’s why so many of them are down here in the first place­ — they actually feel safer on the docks.”

Even by the standards of this shame­less city, it is disgraceful that there is no sanctuary for homeless gay kids. In Los Angeles, a town not known the world over for its benevolence, there are several such places, notably Lois Lee’s group res­idence Children of the Night. In San Francisco, kids converge on Project Stepping Stone, a crash pad with staff in the Tenderloin. But in New York, it is either Covenant House or the East Third Street Men’s Shelter, where kids stand about as much chance as goldfish in a shark pool.

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What they need is a place that’s uncon­ditionally theirs, that welcomes them in all their pain and complexity. There’s been some talk among the loose consor­tium of small agencies about acquiring a space, but the thing is miles beyond their grasp. No, this is a matter for the next HRA chief, who can either start looking around for a facility downtown or laying in a supply of caskets for the new year.

In the meantime, the kids will go on wintering on the E train, or at a certain all-male theater in the West Village. Said one kid who’s passed his share of nights there, “You go in expecting to see a whole bunch of bizarre sex going on, and in­stead it’s all these young kids knocked out sleeping.… In the middle of February, you’ll be glad they let you stay there, but those seats get hard on your ass, boy.”

Ignoble as that is, it’s high living compared to last year, when kids slept in the backs of reeking garbage trucks, or in the Department of Sanitation’s salt storehouse on 16th Street. “They had the most casual rats in there,” Diego winces. “Big-ass ones that just walked right up to you and started chewing on your shit… If you count my father, I’ve slept with sick, dirty bastards for 13 years, but rats I cannot work with.”

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ONE NIGHT, THAT FIRST bitter stretch after Thanksgiving, I took a ride up to East 53rd Street. The Loop, as it’s known, used to be the Ritz of rough trade: clean, pretty boys, the majority of them white, available for the delectation of more discriminating palates. Enter crack, the great leveler. Such kids as have managed to steer clear of the pipe now do their business inside the bars, leaving the streets to the Dead Boys and the newly addicted. You see them staked out in doorways or phone booths, skinny and windburnt in their thin nylon jackets.

They tend, however, not to show up much before 3 a.m., working the docks and the ’Deuce for the earlybirds. So, just before midnight I walked the neighbor­hood looking for stragglers. I turned up 55th Street, marveling to myself at the high-speed sociology of crack, when I saw a kid skulking in the shadows. I’d been mugged just the week before, nailed as I left the piers by a bunch of kids yelling “Faggot!” so I broke left on instinct, cut­ting him a wide berth. As it happened, he was weeping. I came near, guilty and so­licitous, and saw a small Spanish kid with a flat, round face, hugging himself inconsolably.

“What happened?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you out here?”

Startled, he came out of his half-crouch and fixed me with a look that I will never forget. He had the heartbreaking eyes of an abandoned baby, wild and illingual in his pain and terror. He was convulsing in sections, his left and right sides going at cross-purpose spasms. He teetered against the building on stork legs. “Mau­rice!” he screamed at me. “Maurice, the motherfucker! I was ’sposedta been high from three hours ago!”

I backed up and look off down the street, looking for a cop, an ambulance. But the only thing that met me coming up Second Avenue was the wind making its announcement to Diego, and to Au­brey, and to Dead Boys everywhere, that winter, in all its maleficence, was here.

CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized Violence

Memories of Crazy Joe Gallo

The way Bobby Kennedy told it in his book, The Enemy Within, it was all very sinister. Joey Gallo showed up for a private pre-hearing interview in a black shirt, black shoes, and black suit, scuffed the office rug with his foot, and said, “This would be a nice place for a crap game.” The way the surrogate Nicely Nicely told the story subsequently in the Corner Bistro was, if not more accurate, certainly more entertaining. “I read that bullshit,” he said, “and just for openers I didn’t have a black shirt on. I was wearing a one-buck work shirt I picked up at an army-navy story on Sixth Avenue.

“The first thing he told me was if I helped him get Hoffa” — the occasion was Gallo’s 1958 appearance before the Senate Rackets Investigating Committee, Robert Kennedy counsel — “I’d never want for nothing. When I told him the hell with that and that I was going to take the Fifth he said: ‘You’re not so tough — I’d like to fight you myself.’ And when he came around from behind his desk and started to peel off his coat, I told him, ‘I don’t fight,’ and I reached in my pocket and pulled out a mezuzah that Sid Slater had given me and shoved it in his face.”

Joey laughed at the thought of using a mezuzah on Kennedy as one might use wolfbane on Lon Chaney, Jr. Laughter was central to his life, the private life he lived in the Village apart form the cruelties which were his public life. Without defining it, Joey’s private role playing had him as Dick Powell playing the last Billy the Kid, the white Malcolm X, but he loved to laugh at himself if anyone was paying attention and attention was compulsory. Sitting once in the late Waverly Lounge in the Earle Hotel he said: “My brother Larry’s public enemy number one or number two — I forgot which because I’m the other one.” Then he emitted a small laugh, one with an edge on it because it was 1962 and he was on trial, and he turned to Laurie Brewis, who is also late and was then piano player, and said, “I’ll bet the papers are out now,” and Laurie who was small but no smaller than Joey, scuttled out to Sixth Avenue as if someone were shooting at him and came back with the Mirror and the News and both had lengthy stories about the trial of Crazy Joey.

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He explained his name that night and it made perfect sense to Leo, who owned the bar. “They put me in this nut factory, the Kings County Hospital,” he said, “because they wanted to keep me for 90 days and they didn’t have any other way to do it. So this doctor came around and showed me something and asked me what it looks like. ‘It looks like somebody spilled ink on it and folded it over,’ I say, and so they say I’m crazy. I say to the doctor that he’s paid by the taxpayer’s money and so is the D.A. and so is the police commissioner and I’m not talking to any of them and they tell me I’m crazy again. I pass my time painting and they come around with my paintings and they say, ‘Would you like to live in a house like this?’ If I could answer questions like that I would be crazy.

“Finally I tell the doctor, ‘You tell me I’ve got a persecution complex. Well, it happens that I am persecuted.’ But I tell him, I’ve got a lot of friends. He asks, ‘Are you threatening me?’ Well, I told him I wasn’t but you know what? He gave me better marks than my own shrink does. Does that sound crazy to you?”

Joey loved the Village as only those who move here from some other where can. He spoke of his Brooklyn home as someone else might speak of Ashtabula. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when he was at war with the Profacis, it used to be a regular police number to run over to 49-51 Pres­ident Street in Brooklyn, the of­fice of his Direct Vending Machine Company and, upstairs, what was known as the Dormitory for his associates, and pick up maybe a couple of dozen of his friends, then to scour the Village and Little Italy looking for Joey. One night he issued a blanket invi­tation to everyone in Jack Barry’s to breakfast with him at Luna’s at 112 Mulberry Street — half a block from where he was killed the week before last — and when he was told the cops were looking for him he and everyone else went out the back. The only reason a participant remembers the event is the sight of Gallo boosting a lady over a fence, an event sexually stirring for the onlooker, if not the lady.

Joe lived for a time at 63 East 11th Street but his last home before he went up was in a build­ing now gone next to the Ameri­can Youth Hostel, also now gone, where there is now a series of shops at 14 to 22 West 8th Street. He lived there, in a ground floor apartment, with his wife, Jeffie, when they ran into Jeffie’s first husband, Gerry Mulligan, who was playing at the Village Vanguard. It must have been a bad split because, Joey said, laughing, “He looked me up and down and then he turned to Jeffie and said: ‘You must have scoured the gutters of the Village to find somebody lower than a jazz musician.’ ”

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Joey got sent up, he always maintained, on a bum rap. It was extortion and he freely admitted — cheerfully admitted might be more accurate — that he was trying to extort money from a man named Ted Moss. The thing was, Joey said, that the cops said he was trying to extort a piece of Moss’s bars. One night in one of the bars, the one at the corner of 12th Street and University Place, where Shine’s was later, he ges­tured to the only other customer in the bar and said: “Look — this joint takes in maybe $150 a week. Do I need to muscle a guy for a lousy $75? But the bastard is shylocking and this is my territory. Let him keep his fucking bars but let him keep out of my business.” The cops, Joey claimed, couldn’t admit in court that they were talking about shylocking so they doctored their telephone tapes. He stood mute, thinking that he would win on appeal, and did 10 years as a result of that mistake.

Even that mistake was made with a little Gallo panache. His lawyer, David Price, was ill and Joey asked for a continuance. General Sessions Judge Joseph A. Sarafite refused and, instead, ap­pointed a lawyer, Irving Men­delson, to defend him. Joey took Mendelson aside and said, “That goddamned dago judge is never going to give me a fair shake.”

When Mendelson said Sarafite certainly would give him a fair shake and that he could vouch for it because the judge was a lifelong friend, Joey said: “You just told me all I want to know” and thereafter refused to speak to the judge’s lifelong friend. Sarafite subsequently hit Joey with the maximum possible sentence.

His daughter was born after he was sent up and Joey refused to see her or Jeffie on the theory that he was in and they were out and the hell with it. On a train back from Ocean Beach one summer Jeffie explained all that and said that when Joey got out the baby would be in her teens, she would be in her 40s, and that they both needed someone to love them. “But who?” she asked. “Would you marry me?” There was laughter and Jeffie laughed, too, and then said: “That’s the trouble. Who’s going to marry Joey Gallo’s wife, the chief of police?” She did have something of a problem, one that was resolved only when Joey gave her specific permission to get a divorce and re-marry.

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New York is a tough town and no one who remains alive ever knows quite how tough. Sid Slater, who gave Joey the mezuzah he flashed at Bobby Kennedy, turned out later to have been something other than what Joey used to call his “token Hebe.” He was also Frank Hogan’s token fink, and it may be a mark of Joey’s class that when he had him beaten he had him beaten in the Copacabana. But Sid was a gangster and one night he left Joey’s apartment with Pat Wilson, the singer, and another friend, and started walking own MacDougal Street. He heard a heavy clomp of running feet behind him, reached into his coat, pulled out his piece, and whirled around to discover a Villager running to keep up with his Dalmatian who never knew how close he came to meeting Mr. Death.

Now that Joey is dead it seems to be a popular idea — perpe­tuated, it would seem, by his sup­posed biographer — that he be­came bright only in prison where he is said to have read Camus and Sartre. Men do not become bright in their 40s by reading books in li­braries. Joey was sitting in the late Jericho Tavern on Sixth Ave­nue one day talking about a certain Lieutenant Hoffman who had raided the Dormitory on Pres­ident Street the night before. He was asked if it was the same Hoffman who, as a detective, had picked him up for running a dice game when he was 16. “‘Yeah,” Joey said. “I forgot about that. You know, that son of a bitch is playing ‘Les Miserables’ with me.” Joey had read books before he went to prison.

Joey, as has been said, loved to laugh, but there was a thread of bitterness in it. “They say I’ve been picked up 15, 17 times,” he once said. “That’s bullshit. I’ve been picked up maybe 250 times but they don’t make a note of it. I’ve been worked over so many times my hat sits on my head like I’m a midget. I’ve been picked up at least 50 times for consorting with known criminals — my father and my brothers.”

When Joey got out of the can last May he moved to 14th Street and, after the shooting of Joe Colombo, found himself suddenly an object of radical chic by those who had gotten bored with the Panthers. He talked into tape re­corders and sent miles of tape up to Viking to be written by anonymous editors and, one must think,­ in the fastness of the night he laughed.

Vale, Joey.


Practical Man’s Guide to Washington Square

Practical Man’s Guide to Washington Square
August 2, 1962

The fantastical map above was conceived by Jaf to supplement “A Practical Man’s Guide to Washington Square.” The numbers in parentheses in the article may be coordi­nated with the numbers on the map.

Monuments and Shrines

Washington Square Park is the acknowledged centre ville of Greenwich Village.

It is entered from Fifth Avenue on the north by uptown types and runaway buses via a large triumphal arch to the memory of George Washington, the first ­President of the United States (1).

Two statues front the arch. The statue on the right looks like George Washington. No one can identify the statue on the left. However, the words “Support Mental Health” scraped in­to the stone there led many to believe that it is the statue of a former Parks Commissioner.

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The present Parks Commissioner, Newbold Morris, is of the opinion that Washington Square Park is lopsided. He has solved this problem by leaning to the left whenever he confronts it.

The top of the arch is used for parties.

In back of the arch is a flagpole (2). It was erected to pro­vide a suitable backdrop for pro­test demonstrations and rallies (see Where the Park People Are).

Behind the flagpole and slight­ly to the west of it is a shallow circular pit generally referred to as the fountain (3). It is used as a shower by frightened children. After a great deal of con­troversy, the fountain has just been redecorated. It now has nine squirts. The central and largest squirt comes out of an aluminum pipe in the middle of the fountain (4). Eight smaller and less reliable squirts are evenly placed around the cir­cumference. The rim of the fountain is alternately baked by the sun and cooled off by the water. It is used for sitting (see Where the Park People Are).

To the west of the fountain is the marble head of a steel ty­coon called Holley (5). Holley is smiling. He was commissioned by stock brokers who have to cross the park each day to get from the Seventh Avenue sub­way to the Fifth Avenue bus.

To the east is a statue of Garibaldi drawing his sword (6). Garibaldi was commissioned by Italian park-goers who wanted protection from newer types who had begun to inhabit Washington Square.

The Park’s Paths

Washington Square Park is cut by many paths, which all lead to seats on the rim of the foun­tain. The most traveled path runs from the circle to the coffee houses and is known as the Via Veneto of Washington Square. It is lined with benches, and people sit there either to wait for fountain space or to watch for girls.

To be picked up in Washington Square, the common route is down the Via Veneto, once around the fountain, and back up the path again (7). Should a girl fail there, she will end up conveniently near the coffee houses, where she will then go and try her luck again. Should she fail at the coffee houses, she will be close enough to the sub­way to go home. At the end of this path are the checker, chess, and go tables (see Sightseeing in Washington Square Park).

The path from the circle to the northwest corner is less popu­lated and leads to the pigeons, who have a little circle there (see Flora and Fauna in the Park).

The path from the fountain to the northeast corner leads to Chock Full O’ Nuts and is used exclusively for that purpose.

The path due north leads up­town and is considered to be contaminated by gasoline fumes from the Fifth Avenue Coach Line (8). It is generally deserted by day, except for bus drivers and hardy children.

The path due south leads to Judson Church. It is used only to enter the park to protest folk­-singing bans.

The path around the park is for people who want to be alone.

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East Side, West Side in the Park

Until recently, the west side of the park was In. At present, however, it is more In to fre­quent the Out regions of Washington Square, particularly the southeast corner. Few people are that In.

There are fewer benches on the east side of the park than on the west side. This fact has led some east-siders to suggest that the In-Out theory of park life had no basis in personalities originally and was merely found­ed upon an order-blank error in the Bench Office of the Parks Department.

Sightseeing in Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park has four playgrounds. The one just east of the arch is generally acknowledged to be the In play­ground (9). Children of very hip and/or rich parents play there (see Where the Park People Are). Their carriages are either quite old or brand new. It is believed that this playground will get tanbark before the oth­ers. At the entrance to the play­ground is a sign which reads “For Children and Guardians Only” (10). Benches for living parents are provided outside.

The playground east of the Judson Church path (11) is fa­mous for its water cooler, which is the best in the park (12).

The playground west of the church path (13) is next to a large brick outhouse (14) and smells. There is some question as to its popularity. It is used by children with colds. They will grudgingly admit an advantage in its proximity to the bicycle rack. Also, some mothers pre­fer this playground as it is close by the telephones (15).

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The playground to the west of the arch is not a playground at all but a sandbox with benches around it (16). It was designed for quick conversion into a launching pad in times of na­tional emergency. It is used by babies. Babies who have out­grown the launching pad can often be seen waiting by the shelter arrow on the southwest corner outside the park. This ar­row points nowhere and was the practical joke of pacifist groups which frequent the park (see Where the Park People Are).

Around the fountain are eight evenly spaced wire trash baskets. One of these is used ex­clusively for The Voice (17) and another for the New York Times. The six remaining baskets are for Good Humor wrap­pers and old pickets and peti­tions.

Washington Square has num­erous circulating Good Humor wagons, yellow and fringed on top. The men who wheel them are uniformed in hand-me-downs from Carabinieri relatives abroad and charge from ten to 25 cents, according to the law of supply and demand. They will accept credit if you are well known around the park (see Who the Park People Are).

The chess, checker, and go ta­bles at the southwest corner of the park are reserved exclusive­ly for chess, checker, and go players (18). A large warning has been posted to discourage anybody else from sitting down at them. This warning must be observed at all hours of the day and night.

The west edge of the Square is bordered by a fence known affectionately as the Meat Rack (19). It claims as precedent the west edge of the Acropolis.

Flora and Fauna in the Park 

Washington square Park was nourished into its present lush green life by the bones of 1000 paupers who were buried there between 1797 and 1823. Its beauty has been kept intact through the years by signs that say “Keep Off the Grass.” They are meant for people.

There are many trees in Washington Square Park. They hang low on the east side and contribute greatly to its gloomy charm.

The best tree in the park is the English elm on the north-west corner (20). People used to hang from it before electricity. Lafayette counted the hangings there as among the most impressive he had ever seen.

The English elm is next to the pigeon circle (21), and this proximity has given rise to a theory that pigeons are evolved from the vultures who once attended hangings there. An extension of this theory holds that the pigeons in Washington Square are looking for blood, not crumbs.

There is a flower bed behind Mr. Holley (22). The flowers are mostly purple. Some are white. This is the only flower bed in Washington Square Park. It was recently been immortalized in the Karachi Tourist World as a refuge for drunks, who lie in it, “the sunlight draining colour from their clothes.”

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Where the Park People Are

Several thousand people are always out of work in Green­wich Village, and most of them pass the time in Washington Square Park. They generally put in an eight-hour day there if the weather is good. The older and more ambitious of this particular group sit along the north edge of the park (23), which is called Henry James Row because of the brownstones across the street. Facing uptown, they read the classifieds.

The benches along the west edge of the park are for lovers in the preliminary stages of courtship (24).

The men who play chess on the stone tables at the end of Via Veneto are old retired sea captains from New England (25). They attract huge crowds of other old retired sea captains. Few women are allowed to watch.

The park police are most active in the chess, checkers, and go corner. An officer is always on duty there (26). He patrols the tables, waiting for someone to make a false move.

Farther down the coffee house path is a different crowd, which thickens toward the fountain. Old women sit on the benches there, sunning souls (27). Alternating with the women are young male types who have won seats on the Via Veneto through an ability to talk about art and pick up women at the same time (28).

Toward Holley’s head is a small circle used almost exclusively by travelers who have come by A-train from Harlem or by foot from Avenue A (20). The Bowery gentlemen congregate there between five and six in the afternoon and intercept the through traffic from Wall Street as it pours out of the southwest path.

At the fountain circle, just to the north of Holley, is the In bench of Washington Square Park (30). It is considered private property by Italians, intellectuals, junkies, and mothers. It is commonly known as Mothers’ Bench, but unless she is pregnant a mother will have to fight it out for a seat there. Seats on Mothers’ Bench can be bought, though, from intellectuals.

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The mothers sit on Mothers’ Bench to talk to the intellectuals. The intellectuals sit there to talk to themselves. Italians like the bench because is commands an excellent view of Garibaldi’s sweeping Baroque curve. Junkies like it because they can look innocent there, sitting, as it were, next to mothers.

From Mothers’ Bench mothers are able to keep an eye on their children, who come to the park to participate in the all-day tricycle races around the fountain (31). When the children stray north into the bus zone, it is generally conceded that they have the right of way.

The fountain itself is used by everybody, although by law no one over 11 except parents is allowed in during the day.

On hot days the fountain is full of children, who will brave the sting of the nine squirts for the sake of the cold water. Pails, shovels, and big plastic beach balls share the fountain with the children (32).

At night the fountain is used for conga lines and parties. On Sundays it is used for singing.

The rim of the fountain is acknowledged to be the best spot in the park. People get there early and stay all day to keep their seats (33). At meal times the ice cream wagons will come to them. Writers prefer to sit on the rim so that their friends will see them thinking. It is also the scene of the most smoothly maneuvered pick-ups in the park. Rim pick-ups generally begin with a comment on splashing babies and a fond, paternal nod in their direction. From babies to sex is an easy conversational turn.

The most popular uses for the area immediately surrounding the fountain are sex and music.

The space due east of the fountain, however, is kept clear for the frisbee team (34). The frisbee team is Greenwich Village’s only gesture toward physical fitness. It meets in the center of the park to show off. Among the members of the Frisbee team are an artist, a junkie, a photographer, a stock broker, and a writer.

Northeast of the fountain, at the beginning of Chock Full Lane, is a bench for two (35). It is referred to as the Love Seat and is set aside each day by common consent for a deserving male couple.

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Garibaldi is used by New York University undergraduates for hiding behind until their beards grow in and they can step with confidence up onto the rim of the fountain (36).

Besides the students, the only east park regulars are the heterosexual lovers (37). These lovers use the obscure peripheral paths and are generally in more advanced stages of courtship than their west park counterparts. Together with the Sixth Precinct, they form the leitmotiv of Washington Square.

The other east side park people cannot be classified. They do not congregate. They are either so far In that they can afford the anonymity of east park-go­ing, or so far Out that they do not know the difference. Sight­seeing on the east side of the park is thus always an adven­ture in definition.

No one goes down the path that leads to nowhere.

Although protesters may enter the park by the Judson Church path, no one leave the park by it. It has been designated as the Washington Square void. People who go to church from the park follow protocol and take an alternate route: up the Via Veneto and turn left.

Due north of the fountain, politicians and pacifists and rallyers to all causes assemble (38). This part of the Square is espe­cially popular for rallies. It of­fers an easy escape route up Fifth Avenue should the police appear. It has been the stage for a Paul Revere Wake Up America Rally and a pacifist call to arms.

The congressman who wants the Village vote speaks there at least once a campaign. The flag­pole and the triumphal arch can be counted on to add a suitable note of patriotism to any occa­sion. Vive la France!

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Who the Park People Are

The New Conservative girl be­fore the arch, her back turned on Socialism and Title I, is Rosemary McGrath (39).

The ice cream man open for business near the path to the men’s room is Morris, who gave a free Good Humor to the Gover­nor in 1958 (40).

The big, brown man in the middle of the path to the coffee houses is reading dirty poetry out loud ( 41).

The man tailing him is Captain Savitt, leader of the Sixth Pre­cinct park patrol (42).

John the Swamp Rat is stand­ing under Holley. He will take you on a tour of the Village (43).

The gentleman on the north­west corner of the park is Henry Hope Reed, collecting people for another kind of tour (44).

Sitting on Mothers’ Bench are, respectively, Delmore Schwartz, Gilbert Millstein, and an out-pa­tient from Bellevue (45).

The man on the east edge path wants to be left alone ( 46).

The red-plaid-shirted, yellow-­tied, and blue-checked-trousered old man on Henry James Row is reading Murray Kempton (47).

The Moonman is standing in the middle of the fountain, wav­ing a map of Pennsylvania. He has come from a mysterious planet to look for Village girls (48).

The old man walking up the west side with a wooden box on his back will shine your shoes if he thinks they are dirty. Otherwise he will pass you by (49).

The actor with the long, muscular brown legs and the long, muscular brown arms and hardly and clothes at all is the star of many avant-garde Bible films (50).

The little girl in the pink play­suit crying in the middle of the sandbox has to go to the bath­room (51).

The man with the beard on top of the arch is Jaf, tossing a small party (52).

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A Cause a Day, Keeps Ennui Away

Washington Square Park is the cause celebre of Greenwich Village. Beats and hips and hangers-on who never vote or work or in any way commit themselves to action have in the past rallied, and even organized, to save the Square.

One recent popular cause was the folk-singing cause. It had a vast appeal. Park-goers united against Newbold Morris and saved the singers from perpetual banishment. Morris, to save face, cut their allotted fountain time.

The no-road cause was equally effective in uniting all park peo­ple against the City, which want­ed to split the park in two. The tricycle set threatened to stage a massive sit-down demonstra­tion in the middle of the intend­ed bus route. The City retracted, and the Square was again saved.

Park people again joined forces against the Parks Depart­ment in 1961, when, in his pas­sion for concrete, the Commis­sioner proposed that new bench­es be placed in Washington Square. This was known as the Old Bench Cause. It was a huge success.

A new park cause is barely under way. This is the cause to save the Square from DDT. It was inspired by Rachel Carson and is being organized at the Village Independent Democratic Club. There is still time to join this cause.


Making Sense of “Cruising”

William Friedkin’s Cruising first appears in the Quad Cinema’s exhaustive Al Pacino retrospective this week, unspooling unassumingly on Wednesday night — atypical for a movie that has made, over the course of its history, quite a bit of noise in the Village. Starting with its production in 1979, and on through its release the following year, this sweaty cop thriller, set in the world of waterfront leather bars, would become the focal point of a heated debate that raged throughout New York City, its gay community, and the pages of this very publication.

Friedkin, who also penned the screenplay, based the film on three primary sources: a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, about an undercover cop investigating a serial killer of gay men; Friedkin’s conversations with Randy Jurgensen, a former NYPD detective (and a consultant on Friedkin’s The French Connection) who spent several months undercover in the city’s s&m clubs and proclaimed the experience “messed up his mind”; and a series of Voice articles by Arthur Bell detailing several grisly, unsolved killings of gay men picked up in leather bars. In 1977, Paul Bateson was arrested and charged with those crimes. In the kind of coincidence that wouldn’t make it past your average script’s first draft, Bateson had appeared as an X-ray tech in Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist.

The writer-director made several trips to the Mineshaft and the Anvil, two of the most notorious hardcore bars on the scene; introductions and protection were provided by Genovese crime-family member Matty “The Horse” Ianniello. (Those s&m-inviting businesses, like most gay bars and clubs of the era, were under mob ownership.) But Friedkin remained an aloof observer of gay life, and Cruising was undeniably a script written from a straight, Other-ing perspective — a fact that sounded alarms when news of its existence leaked to gay activists just as the film’s production commenced in New York during the summer of ’79.

The first salvo in the battle came, ironically enough, from the same Voice writer whose columns on the gay serial killer had caught Friedkin’s eye. In the July 16 edition of his “Bell Tells” column, Arthur Bell wrote that Cruising “promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant’s hate campaign.” Bell opined that Friedkin was “not only playing with a keg of dynamite, he’s throwing a match to it,” and offered up a suggestion for action: “I implore readers — gay, straight, liberal, radical, atheist, communist, or whatever — to give Friedkin and his production crew a terrible time if you spot them in your neighborhood.”

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Bell’s readers, to put it mildly, took him up on the challenge. In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, the filmmaker recalls, with against-type understatement, how “attempts to prevent the film from being made became a cause célèbre in New York.” Pamphlets were distributed, rallies were held, streets were blocked, bottles and bricks were thrown, demonstrators were roughed up, and arrests were made. Friedkin, who didn’t like working in the studio, shot the film’s many apartment scenes in real buildings; residents in adjoining units played music so loud it drowned out the dialogue. (Most of it had to be re-recorded after the fact.) People on the streets did their part by blasting air horns and whistles.

Activists also took more official routes to stifle the picture. Appeals were made to Mayor Ed Koch to withdraw the tax incentives provided by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, or to cut off the support of that organization (which issued permits for shooting in the city). Koch, unsurprisingly, denied the request. “To do otherwise would involve censorship,” he explained. “It is the business of this city’s administration to encourage the return of film making to New York City by cooperating to whatever extent feasible with film makers.”

But the company was inconvenienced in plenty of other ways. Gay bars that had granted Friedkin and his crew permission to shoot withdrew their cooperation. (“I couldn’t blame them,” Friedkin shrugged.) Bell had also called upon gay men the production had hired as extras and background color to “be aware of the consequences” of the picture; about twenty of those men quit, and some who remained served as spies for the community, leaking valuable, confidential information about the company’s movements, which allowed activists to better disrupt location shoots. In a later column, Bell relayed, with relish, the trouble the company had in shooting a simple scene of Pacino’s character leaving a building on Jones Street. Residents refused to leave the stoop, and then ruined each take by making faces at the camera or blocking the actor’s movements. (Bell subsequently reported retaliation against troublemaking residents by the film’s crew.)

The disruptions came to a head on the night of July 26, when (according to the Times) about a thousand protesters gathered at dusk, moved to the film’s production headquarters at Pier 40, and then marched through the Village, chanting “Cruising must go!” The protest ended with a sit-in that stopped traffic in Sheridan Square for a half-hour before the protesters were broken up by about a hundred police officers. Two arrests, per the Times report, were made. “One cop was kicked in the balls,” wrote Richard Goldstein in the Voice’s August 6 issue. “It made page one of the Post.”

“It was a surprise, you know, to me,” Pacino tells the Voice now, of the protests. “You’re an actor, really. You’re going into what the role means, what that means, and you’re not looking around at who you are in relation to the whole thing. You just aren’t. Or at least I wasn’t. I try to do that now. If it taught me anything, it taught me that. You have to know what you represent and what you’re doing and how it affects the world around you. A little bit, you need to know that stuff. Because if you don’t, that kind of thing can happen.”

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Reporting on the march for the Voice, Goldstein opined, “Assuming it’s finished, Cruising will go down in history, if only because it marks the first time a citizens’ protest has been mounted against a film before it’s in the can.” Whether one agrees that protesting a work of art sight unseen is a net good, Goldstein’s objections have the kind of nuance and insight badly missing from Friedkin’s script, which, by the maker’s own admission, saw this gay subculture as “just an exotic background for a murder mystery.”

It’s a question, to dip into the current lexicon, of representation. Goldstein explains that the city’s waterfront bars were “designed to resemble a filmmaker’s fantasy of dangerous sex. Illusion — not danger — is the point. The people who go to those bars know they are visiting a Luna Park of the libido; most of the people who patronize Cruising will think they are seeing ordinary life. Billy Friedkin wouldn’t know ordinary gay life if it hit him in the face — which, apparently, it has.”

Yet as the anti-Cruising movement was gaining steam, other voices stepped up with their own objections. Right alongside Goldstein’s extended commentary in the August 6 issue of the Voice, John Rechy made “A Case for ‘Cruising,’ ” as the piece was headlined on the front page. In the article, Rechy granted the foundation of his colleague’s concern, while noting carefully, “It would be naive to deny the special impact of films. It is also risky to predict that impact; and it may prove dangerous, based on such prediction, to move into the quagmire of prior censorship.”

Nat Hentoff did not hedge his bets, or mince his words. The founding Voice columnist and First Amendment absolutist took to the paper on September 24, after the completion of Cruising’s New York photography. Noting that he had “resisted adding a broadside to the sulfurous polemics about Cruising because there has been no scarcity of comment on the matter in this paper,” Hentoff nonetheless granted that “one would have to be an utter dolt not to understand the anger and fear of homosexuals at what they thought it was about (and what it actually may be about, for all I know).” Yet Hentoff, in sharp contrast to his Voice cohort, saw such understanding as doing more harm than good. “There are often extremely honest, powerful motivations for censorship,” he wrote. “And that is precisely why thought control has to be resisted at every point, because once one group does succeed in obliterating expression it considers intolerably threatening, then another group will insist on lighting its own pyre.”

Yet Hentoff’s rhetorical remove, or for that matter our own historical one, cannot downplay the validity of the fears and concerns voiced by gay activists that summer. It wasn’t like mainstream Hollywood movies had a sterling reputation for nuanced characterizations of LGBTQ people. Was there a place for a film that explicitly dramatized gay life as a sordid bacchanalia of rough sex and blood lust? Should there be?

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And thus, Cruising became a rallying point, and perhaps one the gay liberation movement needed. It had, after all, just passed merely the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising (also covered legendarily in the Voice), and the movement’s signal cause (AIDS activism) was still on the horizon. Outsiders raising their voices against a potentially incendiary Hollywood production, from a superstar actor and an Oscar-winning director, made for a story, and a sexy one. As Goldstein noted, the picture “brought the gay community its most potent organizing tool since the murder of Harvey Milk.”

Pacino and Friedkin on the set of “Cruising”

Or did it? In a cover story for the February 1980 issue of the gay magazine Mandate, editor in chief John Devere visited the set — as an extra, recruited (as so many were) in New York City gay bars, and without divulging his status as a journalist — and deflated some of the narrative around the production. “More than 1,600 gay men participated in the filming of Cruising,” he wrote, while “significantly fewer gays protested the filming, and the protestors, day after day, were usually the same basic group of people, about 25 in number, who were of course joined by others daily.” And to the concerns of suburban moviegoers viewing the version of gay life depicted in Cruising as disproportionately representative, Devere offered up a counterpoint: “One recurrent observation was that the men who frequent the world being depicted — the Eagle, the Spike, the Mineshaft, the Anvil — were in the movie, and did not object to their world being depicted. Middle-of-the-road gays, they thought, were the ones who didn’t want the leather fringe seen by Middle America, even though the world certainly exists. Many felt that the protests were as much a protest against the leather world itself as they are a protest against Friedkin’s film.”

The elemental questions surrounding Cruising — of who is permitted to tell a culture’s stories and who is not; of the limits of free speech and peaceful protest; of the significance and consequences of representation in popular art — haven’t gone anywhere in the nearly forty years since the film’s release. But they weren’t contemplated much in the original reviews, which mostly dismissed it outright. In the February 11, 1980, issue of the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes summarized it (perhaps accurately) as “a hopelessly garbled film,” while reporting on a post-screening Q&A with members of the media in which Friedkin seemed unable to explain entire swaths of his plot. (He insisted, “The violence in this movie is by a heterosexual killer,” and confessed, “I myself was not sure whether there was one killer or more than one.” Huh?). “That Friedkin has made a tedious movie is too bad, but he has gifts and will make a decent one again,” Stokes wrote. “That he lacks even the courage of his bad convictions is shameful.”

Other critics were even less charitable. New York’s David Denby wrote, “The movie is sordid and depressing because it’s been made without insight or love and from the depths of a soul about the size of a thumbtack.” The Times’ Vincent Canby called it “exceptionally unpleasant, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because it makes no attempt to comprehend it. It just stares.” And Daily News’ Rex Reed, while insisting Bell’s “hysterical columns have done more harm to his fellow gays than anything in Cruising,” nonetheless wrote that the film “sickens, insults, and distorts.” (And that last one is saying something, considering the source.)

But what of those early, dire warnings that helped sound the alarm for the Cruising protests? Bell predicted Cruising would “negate years of positive movement work and may well send gays running back into the closet and precipitate heavy violence against homosexuals.” Goldstein believed its release “will endanger the political viability of civil rights legislation without which no homosexual can live a full and candid life.” While neither of those predictions is necessarily false, when one looks at the struggle of LGBTQ people in the Eighties and beyond, determining the causality or culpability of Cruising is a complex task. An argument can perhaps be made that because Cruising was so effectively protested, it was denied the commercial success that might have brought dire repercussions for the community to pass.

And yet, in the decades that followed, something curious happened. Critics — particularly gay critics — revisited Cruising, and came to find value in it through the lens of (ironically enough) representation. Several such pieces greeted its long-delayed DVD release in the fall of 2007. Christopher Wallenberg of the New York Blade wrote, “It remains a curious cultural artifact remarkable for its bold, graphic depiction of an underground gay subculture — something you’d be surprised to see in a mainstream movie even today.” The Voice’s Nathan Lee doled out the strongest praise ever seen in these pages: “Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing — and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot — to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.”

And in the New York Sun, Grady Hendrix offered up this thought: “With over 72,000 AIDS deaths in New York to date, it stands to reason that a large slice of the men you see in the club scenes are no longer with us. But here in their disco grottoes, behind their mustaches and muttonchops and leather, behind their tough-guy masks, they’re smiling. They’ve found a place in the world where everything finally makes sense.” And maybe, through that prism, Cruising finally does, too.


The Trencherman: A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

I’ve long held that there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of coffee and the vibrancy of where it’s served. Caffe Reggio is proof point one. There has never been a better time for high-quality coffee in the South Village. In the pocket bound by Sixth Avenue and Broadway and Macdougal and Houston, the blocks are littered with third-wave espresso bars like Joe Coffee and Think Coffee and Third Rail and Stumptown. From behind the battlements of La Marzocco machines, baristas pull single-origin shots, filling the pre-warmed porcelain demitasses with intricate latte art patterns made with your choice of oat, soy, whole, or skim milk. In a carefully imitated simulacra of Scandinavia or Seattle, one sips the finest shade-grown fair-trade Ethiopian beans $5 can buy.

And yet, there is no worse time for coffeehouses in the Village. To walk past any of the latter day coffee shops is to peek inside the hive farm of capitalism. Man and machine peer at each other as equals, connected like anglerfish, one fueled by the city grid and the other by macchiati. The air is stuffy with email and commerce but bereft of conversation. But a coffeehouse — a true coffeehouse as opposed to a coffee shop, as Nancy Groce, senior folk life specialist at the Library of Congress tells me — is an open space, a place to exchange ideas, to foment movements. Everything from Lloyd’s of London to the French Revolution was planned in a coffeehouse. But where are the revolutions being plotted today? Where is the poetry writ?

Allen Ginsberg (left, with beard) and Gregory Corso (center) at the Five Spot Cafe in 1964.

The ghost of Gregory Corso haunts the small and unsteady marble-topped tables of Caffe Reggio on Macdougal Street. The youngest of the Beats — and the only Greenwich Village native of the lot — sits in the oldest of the coffee shops, grousing from the corner table, beneath a plaster bust of Mozart and the original Pavoni espresso machine from 1927, a stainless-steel colossus from which protrude decorative bronze figures of cherubim riding chimera. He raises his voice, just as he did with Allen Ginsberg, another Reggio habitué, to declaim. But this time it isn’t iambs about radiant brains and apple deaf that spill forth from his spectral maw but invective. “Stop laying your Village nostalgia on me!” the late poet howls, “Drag your mind from the gutter of years gone.”

He’s shouting at me through the years as I search for the coffeehouses of yore, those hotbeds of bad coffee and counterculture, where Dylan and Van Ronk and all the others found their voices, where from the smoke-filled seats, the Voice’s voices of Norman Mailer and Seymour Krim were once raised. But I’m having a hard time hearing them. Most of the old places are long gone, many upcycled to house some NYU function. Others have just fucked off into condos. The Gaslight is a cocktail bar. Cafe Wha? has become just another dive with live music and nachos called Whachos. The original location of Gerde’s Folk City is at least the Hebrew Union College which, as far as these things go, might be a mitzvah.

Clockwise from left: Cafe Wha? circa 1970; A menu for Caffe Reggio from 1959; the same coffeehouse from the street; Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly Place.

It’s hard to hear the ghosts of the past at Reggio anyway. They blast Brahms at maniacally high levels, imbuing all that transpires within its sepia-toned walls, hung heavy with brooding Renaissance paintings, with pathos. All the small tables are occupied. At 10 p.m., cappuccinos predominate, which makes sense, as one of Reggio’s claims to fame is that they served the first cappuccino in America. Though it may be the first, it is far from the best. Leave the microfoam and the rosettes to the bourgeoisie. These are frothy formless things with a dash of cinnamon on top. The best part about them are the ancient orange-and-white cups they come in with Caffe Reggio written on the side. They don’t make burnt ochre like that anymore. 

Caffe Reggio, a Village staple since 1927.

Through the piano chords snatches of conversation can be caught with a well-attuned ear. And it should be, for eavesdropping is rewarded here. An angel-headed skin-and-bones guy has folded his legs criss-cross applesauce and sits opposite a much younger woman. Daughter, lover, student, friend, who knows? They sip their coffees and she tells him of a recent spiritual journey she took with a shaman in Edison, NJ. “Cosmic,” he says. Next to them, a pair of aesthetes, the only two to have braved the Reggio’s savory offerings, drink glasses of Sangiovese, stab penne flecked with pesto — one of the six pastas for $12 on offer — and chat, in French, about a recent cello concerto. The both of them wear shawl-collared sweaters, characters in a literary memoir as yet to be written. I stab into my tiramisu, a sodden square shoved haphazardly into a glass sundae dish. The periphery is thawed, sweet and yielding, but the center is still frozen. I chew on an icy ladyfinger and I hear Corso’s cackle in my ear. “That’s what you get!” he laughs, “for wanting time to stand still!”

A few blocks down Macdougal, another of the old boys is still buzzing. Like Caffe Reggio or Monte’s or Carbone né Rocco’s, Caffe Dante is a holdout from when the Village was Italian, a survivor not just of Corso’s generation but of his parents’ generation, too. After the paesanos cleared out, it too was once filled with the uproar of poets and prophets. And now it is filled again. I’m old enough to remember when Caffe Dante was what it was, an old bakery with a shell-game of desserts. There were like fifteen on the menu but there only seemed to be five ever available. It was a crap shoot but at least it was a place you could sit.

No room for “espresso”: The recently-upgraded Caffe Dante

In 2015, Caffe Dante reopened with new ownership, a new chef and a heavy focus on handmade pasta and artisanal cocktails. Both are superlative. Under the direction of Australian bartender Naren Young, Dante was just named 16th of the 50 Best Bars in the world. The cocktail list is treated with appropriate gravitas. It is handed over by bearded men with tattooed hands atop a heavy brass clipboard. The offerings are appropriately arcane, expensive, and expansive. The food — from a quivering sphere of burrata chaperoned by figs to handmade orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe to a garlicky skillet of chicken parm, tranches of breast under a duvet of cheese — is top-notch. The cocktail list favors the negroni, of which there are a dozen variations, including Unlikely Negroni, a negroni with all sorts of far-out shit in it like pineapple shrub, chili, and banana.

Dante, as it is now known, is certain of what it is. It has a purpose and a mission. With that comes both an excellence absent from Reggio and a momentum, too. It is the familiar hustle of commerce, of turns, of running a restaurant. We know this rhythm, recognize it, from all aspects of our life. Time cuts through space, and space feels tight. So we cram into coffee shops to burn through emails and approach the Dantean gates pregnant with expectation and purpose.

Sitting at the bar at Dante, I stare into my quickly draining Old Fashioned and think, you and me both, buddy, you and me both. I bemoan that I’ll never run into Corso or Ginsberg or Dylan, and if I’m sitting next to the next generation’s bards, they ain’t talking to me here. But then I hear voice, not the bartender’s. “How’s that chicken parm?” it asks. It’s a neighbor. His name is Bob. He’s an accountant from Encinitas, California, in town to clear up the estate of his mother-in-law. “It’s pretty good,” I tell him. We talk about mutual funds and real estate for a spell, how houses in Encinitas that look over the sea cost millions more than those that don’t. “People just want to look out into space,” he says. We both gaze at the bottled spirits behind the bar and sit in silence. It isn’t quite poetry but perhaps it’s close enough.


This Week’s Five Best Food Events – 12/29/2014

It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, which means productivity is on vacation. Treat yourself to these five food events as a great way to say goodbye to 2014 or to ring in 2015.

Food Trend Dinner at Nossa Mesa Supper Club, Louro, 142 West 10th Street, Monday, 7 p.m.

For the final episode of 2014’s Nossa Mesa Supper Club, chef David Santos is crafting a menu honoring this year’s food trends. The seven-course tasting menu pays homage to Thai food, Sichuan fare, tacos, and über-trendy vegetables like celery and arugula. Tickets are $55 and can be secured by contacting the restaurant.

Toddler Tuesdays, Lefrak Center at Lakeside Prospect Park, 171 East Drive, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Tuesday, 9:30 a.m.

If your little one needs to skate off some steam after seeing what Santa brought, take advantage of this park’s early morning sessions. For $15, one child ages 2 to 5 and one adult receive a one-hour tutorial on how to fall with dignity, with snacks and juice included. There’s also a snack bar, which opens at 11 a.m. for those in need of hot chocolate, grilled cheese, or Sigmund’s Pretzels. Tickets purchased in advance can be redeemed on any Tuesday.

One Year Anniversary, All’Onda, 22 East 13th Street, Wednesday

In addition to New Year’s Eve, All’Onda is celebrating its one-year anniversary by offering 50 percent off all sparkling wines. Chef Chris Jaeckle is also offering a few holiday specials, such as a crudo platter, in addition to his à la carte menu featuring a variety of pastas and a short rib for two. The restaurant will celebrate its birthday with a cake at midnight. Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant directly.

Coney Island Polar Dip After Party, Peggy O’Neill’s, Surf Avenue, Brooklyn, Thursday, 1 p.m.

Share a beer with strangers after jumping into frigid waters. For a suggested donation of $20, New Yorkers can prove their insanity by participating in the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s annual New Year’s Day plunge and receive a free pint glass for their troubles. Afterwards, polar bears are invited to this nearby bar to fill up that pint glass while talking about just how refreshing the Atlantic Ocean is this time of year. The bar is also offering a $50 plunge special starting at 11:30 a.m., which includes a continental breakfast, lunch, select drinks, and a swim care package. Registration can be completed on the day of the event or in advance.

Stay Warm Winter Supper, Miette Culinary Studio, 109 MacDougal Street, Suite 2, Friday, 6:30 p.m.

Start the new year off by learning how to perfect winter staples like butternut squash and green apple soup, roasted pork tenderloin with celery root purée, and julienne vegetables. This class will also show you how to make a raspberry soufflé — something to keep in mind for Valentine’s Day, perhaps. Reservations are $95 and can be secured through the studio’s website.


The Village Halloween Parade’s Jeanne Fleming Has Made a Shimmering Alterna-Festival

Winter can really put a stranglehold on the Hudson Valley and its residents. The landscape is hungover from the psychedelic autumn leaf hues that draw a snappy tourist trade right up until Thanksgiving. By the time December rolls around, the tour buses are a distant memory and the motel rooms gather dust.

But not in the village of Rhinebeck. December in northern Dutchess County starts with a Dutch bang of color and pageantry — a day-long street festival and evening parade known as Sinterklaas. For the past six winters, the first Saturday in December has been a day for this normally staid upstate burg to let its collective hair down, with an event that is equal parts carnival and ancient tradition, featuring offbeat events, characters, and artistic expression that flies in the face of the standard yuletide clichés.

“Rhinebeck is ideally suited for this event,” says Jeanne Fleming, the celebration artist who just celebrated her 30th year at the helm of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and who can claim Sinterklaas as her brainchild. (She also directed the Statue of Liberty Centennial Harbor Festival in 1986.) Fleming, who lives and runs her production company on the Rokeby Estate near Rhinebeck, relaunched Sinterklaas in 2008. She had attempted the “Old Dutch Christmas” celebration in the mid 1980s but it failed to gain traction, partly because of lack of funding and partly because “Rhinebeck back then was more conservative,” Fleming explains.

Rhinebeck officials had a change of heart after a longtime crafts fair pulled up stakes and moved to Massachusetts, leaving village leaders fearful of empty holiday streets. Fleming’s original mission was to create an event that involved holiday celebration, children, and the local Dutch heritage. Fleming’s research showed the original 18th-century Dutch settlers of the Rhinebeck area probably celebrated Sinterklaas, an old tradition in which their version of St. Nicholas — a fourth-century bishop on a white horse who helped inspire the modern Santa Claus icon — rode through Dutch villages rewarding well-behaved children, while a thuggish Grumpus at his side would put a friendly scare into the “naughty” youngsters.

Now armed with hundreds of volunteers and widespread community support, Fleming’s Sinterklaas has become a hot destination for those seeking a different take on holiday celebrations. Last year, says Fleming, roughly 6,500 people attended, almost double the turnout from three years ago. The show-stealers are 19 Grumpus characters decked out in densely layered outfits that pit steampunk aesthetics against Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, with a little Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel thrown in. A mysterious masked group made up of local restaurateurs and community leaders and bored dads, they lurk around corners and keep the children on their toes, even in the most wintry conditions.

The Sinterklaas nighttime “starlight” parade, which oozes over a hill outside of the village and makes its way into the center of Rhinebeck, features Fleming’s trademark animal-themed puppet floats, held aloft and operated by teams on the ground. Fleming says participants can look for lots of hummingbird puppetry at this year’s festival. “Though the hummingbirds have flown south for the winter, they will be back in Rhinebeck where they can feel the vibration of an intense concentration of joy,” she says.

Though it keeps very adult hours, in the end the festival is all about children. Fleming tweaked St. Nicholas’s tradition of sorting good children from bad by creating a royalty theme. “Instead of judging the children, I thought instead we should honor them,” she explains. The kids are made kings and queens for a day, donning handmade paper crowns and wielding decorated branch scepters.

Attendees buy illuminated cardboard stars to hold during the parade, which has no official barricades to separate the marchers from the audience lining the street. The parade ends with a pageant where adults bow down to the younger generation that stands among the lowered stars. The kids then hold up their scepters, to which they have attached three of their own written wishes — one for family, one for community, and one for the world. Fleming says the wishes allow the children to “understand their responsibility to be a good king or queen.”

Aside from its roots dating back to 17th-century Dutch settlers, Rhinebeck is also a geographically perfect setting for Sinter-klaas. A Norman Rockwell diorama village set along the Hudson River roughly 100 miles north of the Cloisters, Rhinebeck offers well-preserved houses and shops thronged around a one-stoplight intersection that used to be the unofficial halfway point between Gotham and Albany. At that intersection is the historic Beekman Arms Inn and Tavern, which serves as the unofficial hub of the spoked wheel that is Sinterklaas, with a bell-ringing town crier circulating through the streets announcing events and performances.

The festival offers more than 250 performers and a vast program including teddy-bear beauty pageants, vaudeville-type circus acts inside the local cinema, illuminated books, trees made of Christmas cookies, pantomime-style plays in hotel lobbies, and all manner of roving bands, buskers, and street characters. Sinterklaas is still a big deal in the Netherlands, where his arrival by boat from his traditional homeland of Spain warrants live television coverage.

“It is our Mardi Gras, with all that entails, good and bad,” says Gina Walker Fox, a Rhinebeck resident of 20 years and former town board member who has attended every Sinterklaas festival. Parking and security have become issues as the festival has grown, but village officials and law enforcement have meshed well with Fleming, her staff, and volunteers to smooth out any logistical wrinkles.

Fleming has taken special care in keeping Sinterklaas a multicultural event. Though it is not a religious festival, local churches host concerts and stage a Living Nativity scene. Children and officials from the Rhinebeck Hebrew School and Temple Emanuel open the parade with a havdalah ceremony involving intertwined candles to mark the end of the Jewish Sabbath and the start of a secular Sinterklaas party. A Native American blessing held inside the Beekman Arms calls the community together, and the local Mexican population is represented by the astoundingly colorful Chinelos dancers, who wowed last year’s overflow crowds. As each Sinterklaas festival adds to the tradition and the word spreads, those crowds are filled with more and more people from out of town: travelers who — once they’ve experienced the Sinterklaas festival — might know what the Three Wise Men felt like back in the day.