The Arch Conspirators

The Night They Declared the Free and Independent Republic of Greenwich Village 

A shapeless figure crouched in the midnight shadows at the base of Washington Square Arch, the silent, somber guardian of the Brahman slumber on the north side of Washing­ton Square Park.

When the last strolling couple had passed beyond the pools of lamplight, when the last lone policeman had rounded the corner, the figure slid from the shadows, looked cautiously in all di­rections, silently opened the door at the base of the arch, put her finger to her lips, and motioned to her fellow revolutionar­ies gathered on lower Fifth Avenue. One by one, five people emerged from the darkness, quickly crossed the street, and stealthily slipped through the doorway.

And so, on a frigid, lightly snowing night in late January 1917 — exactly 80 years ago this week — Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan, and four other tipsy Villagers climbed to the top of Washington Square Arch and declared Greenwich Village a free and independent republic.

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The story has been jubilantly told in many memoirs of the period and inaccu­rately portrayed in nearly every Village guidebook since. The details vary in every retelling, but all accounts agree that this mock secession symbolized the Golden Age of the Village rebellion against middle-class, puritan, capitalist America.

In 1917, the Village had only thought of itself as “the Village” for a few years. Just a few blocks north of the arch, at 23 Fifth Avenue, Mabel Dodge had presided over her celebrated salon, introducing American in­tellectuals to the Wobblies and Freud, Cubism and free love, anarchism and birth control. Just a few blocks west, at 91 Greenwich Avenue, Max Eastman and Floyd Dell edited The Masses, arguably the most influential magazine in the history of American journalism. Just a few blocks south, at 239 Mac­Dougal Street, the lunatic genius Jig Cook and the blackly brooding Eugene O’Neill were transforming the American theater at the Provincetown Playhouse.

The years from 1912 to 1917 were “a joyous season” indeed, or, as another histori­an has called the period, “the lyric years.” Yet as with so many symbolic moments, the escapade of the Arch-Conspir­ators — as Sloan titled his fa­mous sketch of the event — signaled not only the beginning but the end of the era it celebrated.

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Actually, the leading conspirator wasn’t Duchamp or Sloan but a golden-haired, vivacious young Villager named Gertrude Drick. Born in Texas, Gertrude had vague artis­tic ambitions and a flamboyant personality. Quickly realizing that the only thing greater than her fervent ambition to become a violinist was her unconquerable ineptitude, she became a painting student of Sloan’s instead. And though she was “a wild little creature” fond of pranks, she also fell into frequent fits of dejec­tion, for, like many apparently lighthearted people, a deep melancholy underlay her efferves­cence. Gertrude’s solution to her mood swings was simple — she printed up hundreds of black­-bordered calling cards embossed with the single word “Woe” so she could hand them out and gaily declare, “Woe is me.”

Gertrude had heard of another Greenwich Village secession movement the preceding sum­mer. Ellis Jones, one of the editors of the monthly humor magazine Life, had called upon his fellow Villagers to join him in a second American Revolution declaring their commu­nity independent of the United States. Feeling that Washington Square Park would be too small for the expected throngs, Ellis decided to lead his cohorts into the heart of enemy territo­ry, Central Park. And fearing that it was faced with an anarchist riot, the New York City police department dispatched several ambulances and dozens of machine-gun-bearing policemen to the site. A heavy downpour on the appointed day spoiled Ellis’s revolution, however, for only a dozen or so umbrella-carrying insurgents showed up. One evening half a year after Ellis’s premature revolution, Gertrude happened to notice, on one of her strolls through Washing­ton Square Park, that the door at the bottom of the arch’s western plinth wasn’t locked and that the policeman on duty often wandered away for an hour or two at a time. (The police presence was deemed necessary because several months earlier a vagrant had made his home in a cham­ber inside the arch, his crime discovered only when, with a soaring sense of security, he hung out his laundry to dry on the parapet.)

Gertrude immediately informed John Sloan of her plan, and the two of them rounded up sev­eral of their friends to join in the insurrection‚ the laconically dapper Marcel Duchamp, the actors Forrest Mann and Betty Turner, and the Provincetown Players’ leading man Charles Ellis.

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So on the night of January 23, the six rev­olutionaries, having purchased sandwiches, wine, thermoses, hot-water bottles, Chinese lanterns, cap pistols, and red, white, and blue balloons, quietly slipped through the arch’s unlocked door, mounted the 110 steps of the spiral iron staircase, lifted the trapdoor, and emerged at the top of the arch.

After lighting their lanterns and building a small bonfire in a beanpot, the group spread out steamer rugs, unpacked their sandwiches, and uncorked their bottles for a midnight picnic. Passing the bottles back and forth to the ac­companiment of ever more raucous toasts, they began their insurrection by reciting verses. Gertrude, as it happened, was also a poet of sorts, her most memo­rable lyric — the text of which, alas, has not sur­vived — entitled “The Soul That Took Off Its Stockings and Threw Its Shoes Away.”

Soon soused, the six Arch-Conspirators decided the moment had arrived. They loaded their cap pis­tols, blew up their balloons and tied them to the parapet, and, in John Sloan’s words, “with suitable rite and cere­mony … did sign and affix our names to a parchment, having the same duly sealed with the Great Seal of the Village.” And as the other five cheered, waved their arms, and fired their cap pistols, Gertrude read their declaration of independence — which consisted of nothing but the word “whereas” repeated over and over (surely Duchamp’s inspiration) until the final words proclaiming that hence­forth Greenwich Village would be a free and independent republic and calling upon Woodrow Wilson to protect the new country as one of the small, strife-free nations of the world.

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The band of revolutionaries then gathered up their steamer rugs and hot-water bottles, made their inebriated way down the spiral stair­case, and disappeared laughing into the night, “to ply our various callings” — Sloan once more — “till such time as the demand of state again might become imperative.”

At dawn, Villagers were pleasantly surprised to see balloons festooned to the ramparts of their arch — all but the aristocratic residents of The Row, of course, the 10 Greek Revival townhouses on the north side of the Square, who were dis­mayed by yet another example of bohemian tom­foolery. Within 24 hours nearly everyone south of 14th Street knew of their new status as a liberated community, and for a week the balloons fluttered in the midwinter breeze as a symbol of a symbol.

What could the authorities do? No one was rounded up. No one, in fact, was even investigated. And the only result of the Revolu­tion of Washington Square — “the demands of state” as interpreted by the unimaginative guardians of the law — was that the door at the base of the arch was permanently locked.

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For a few years, Greenwich, Village had already been, in fact, something close to a free and independent republic — of mind and spirit, if nothing else. But by 1916, a year before the Arch-­Conspirators, Floyd Dell had already declared that the Village wasn’t what it used to be — the first recorded use of that perennial phrase. The spirit of joyful rebellion had disappeared, Floyd lamented after having been accosted by an up­town type at a local tearoom and eagerly asked, “Are you a merry Villager?” — the rents were ris­ing, the real artists and intellectuals were moving out, the poseurs and tourists were moving in.

As if to confirm, Floyd’s claim, by the time Gertrude and her cohorts climbed the stairs of the arch, Mabel Dodge had already brought her salon to an end and was about to depart for Taos, the editors of The Masses were soon to be indicted by the federal government for conspir­ing against the war effort, Jig Cook and Eugene O’Neill were beginning the quarrels that would eventually send Jig into exile in Greece and Gene to fame on Broadway, and the era of what Village troubador Bobby Edwards called “Greenwich Thrillage” was well under way — the era of Guido Bruno’s Garret, Tiny Tim and his “soul candy,” Sonia “the cigarette girl,” Romany Marie’s tearoom, and all the quaint novelty shops and garish basement restaurants that con­stituted the commercialization of bohemia. But of course there were those who looked back at that Village a decade later and said “the Village isn’t what it used to be” — and the phrase has been used every decade since to nostalgical­ly describe the previous decade.

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As for the Arch-Conspirators, further coun­tering Floyd’s claim, many of John Sloan’s “lyric years” still lay ahead, Marcel Duchamp had yet to discover “R. Mutt,” and Charles Ellis would later star in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Gertrude Drick? She married James Oppenheim, the founder and editor of Seven Arts, the short-lived but seminal Village magazine of the late teens. And even Floyd’s “merry” Village days were hardly over, for when he issued his premature obituary he had yet to meet Edna St. Vincent Millay, with whom he had the quintessential Village love affair.

So as long as Villagers keep saying “the Vil­lage isn’t what it used to be,” they’re keeping its oldest tradition alive. ❖



Tears of a Clown: Charlie Barnett Cracks Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was it like working with … ?”

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

“Did you get in any good shots?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how much will you do at a time?

“The whole thing.”

Which whole thing?

“Whichever whole thing there is.”

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

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

When ‘s the last time you smoked?

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

So why do you do it?

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

Do you think you ‘re punishing yourself for something?

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

Sounds like a rap song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where were you living then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

New York’s Finest: Busting Out All Over

New York’s Finest: Busting Out All Over
May 2, 1968

WASHINGTON SQUARE — While the good John Lindsay praised the peace parade in Central Park, the bad John Lindsay had the peace parade busted in Washington Square Park. While the good Sanford Garelik passed out flyers of “principles to guide police officers at demon­strations,” the bad chief inspect­or gave the order to attack the demonstrators. While the good William Booth looked on, the bad human rights commissioner looked away. While the good Jay Kriegel and the good Barry Got­tehrer privately deplored the police action, the bad mayoral aides publicly condoned it.

Saturday was a fair, gray day. At 11 a. m. the Anti-Imperialist Feeder March began to form in Washington Square Park. Its marchers, some 400 strong, had split with the Fifth Avenue Viet­nam Parade Committee because, according to an ad, “the Parade Committee leadership arranged for strike-breaker Lindsay, whose police regularly attack the black and Puerto Rican commu­nities and break up anti-war and Yippie demonstrations, to greet the anti-war rally in the Sheep Meadow.” So the dissidents — ­mainly Youth Against War and Fascism and the United States Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front — planned their own march.

As police and city officials met under the arch, plainclothes heavies massed on Washington Square North. Cheaply dressed, each cop sported a red hat pin and secreted a sap. City officials also wore hat pins. Tethered by Garelik’s glance, the plainclothesmen waited hungrily at the edge of things, ignoring the far-off challenges of their enemies and prey.

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Aryeh Neier, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, leaned against the arch and waited for the bust to begin. Earlier, Neier had sug­gested to Kriegel that the march­ers, two or three abreast, be given a sidewalk route. “You’re telling me what’s legal, I’m tell­ing you what’s practical,” responded Kriegel, who had evi­dently already decided on the bust. So there was nothing to do but wait.

At exactly 12 noon the march­ers hoisted their banners (“Poli­ticians lie — Vietnamese die”) and Vietcong flags, marched out to the sidewalk on Washington Square North, and turned west.

An aged police lieutenant with a bullhorn intoned a warning: “Atten-Shun! There are two authorized parades. This parade is unlawful, having no poi-mit. You are in violation of the law and subject to arrest.”

“The streets belong to the people. The streets belong to the people,” responded the marchers, inching forward on the sidewalk.

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The cop with the bullhorn con­tinued to urge marchers to join the Loyalty Day Parade down Fifth Avenue or the Vietnam Peace Parade up in Central Park as plainclothesmen led by Assist­ant Chief Inspector Sidney Cooper seized some 50 demonstrators, slammed them against parked cars, and tossed them head first into paddy wagons. Other cops chased would-be marchers west on 4th Street and north on Seventh Avenue. They caught a few at Perry Street and beat them bloody. The plainclothesmen worked in teams, shielding their colleagues from the press while they pummeled their prisoners. One photograph­er was so carried away by the action that he joined the police in seizing a demonstrator. Aryeh Neier objected, and he too was arrested and thrown into a van. Kriegel watched Neier’s arrest, made a feeble attempt to stop it, failed, shrugged, and went back to directing the bust.

Within a few minutes some 80 persons were arrested and hauled off to various precincts. It took hours to book them and longer for arraignment. At 100 Centre Street, the cops, claiming the court rooms were filled, closed the criminal courts build­ing, denying access to attorneys and bail bearers. It took the DA to re-open the place.

On Monday the New York Civil Liberties Union called for a dep­artmental trial of Chief Inspectors Garelik and Cooper on charges of brutal conduct by plainclothesmen in dealing with the Anti-Imperialist marchers. The NYCLU also said it would bring suit in Federal Court against the Police Department for deprivation of civil rights in Saturday’s incidents and during earlier demonstrations.

“The Police Department be­haved abominably … with the active support and the agree­ment of the Mayor’s office,” said Neier. “Either Lindsay is poorly served by Kriegel and Gottehrer or he is complicitous.”

Neither the Mayor’s office nor the Police Department could be reached for comment. They were busy busting Columbia.

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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.


Pillow Fight NYC

Battle your fellow New Yorkers in the most fun way possible: an urban pillow fight! Select a feather-­free pillow or teddy bear, bring your cuddly weapon to Washington Square Park, and on the organizers’ signal, start swinging. It’s a hilarious scene in the middle of the city, with some pillow­fighters donning pajamas to add to the whimsy. Once a cease­fire is called, you can either bring your war­-worn pillow back home or drop it at a donation point. Last year the event’s organizers donated more than 1,500 pillows to homeless shelters in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Sat., April 4, 3 p.m., 2015



The shortest day of the year will be long on a Portlandic sort of cultural whimsy when the fourth annual Make Music Winter Festival unfurls tentacles of paraders around the city. It begins with “Winterize,” a participatory version of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden at 11, and concludes at the Metropolitan Museum, at 6:30, with “Pilgrimage,” a march of early-music singers. In between, a dozen parades of kalimbas, bagpipes, bells, drums, carolers, cellists, tap dancers, and a makeshift gamelan will gently disrupt various environments. Of special note is percussionists Amy Garapic and Clara Warnaar’s Washington Square Park circumnavigation, constituting New York’s contribution to A Worldwide Day of In C, a global celebration of Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece.

Sun., Dec. 21, 11 a.m., 2014



Nothing takes the chill off a cold winter evening better than a warm cloak of luminous electronic minimalism. Since debuting on the streets of Greenwich Village in 1992, composer Phil Kline’s crowd-performed Unsilent Night has spread to dozens of other cities to become an annual oasis of tranquility amid our seasonal anxieties. To participate, either download parts from the website onto your favorite digital device or manually load a cassette or CD provided by the composer into your dusty boombox. After simultaneous ignition, paraders proceed from Washington Square to Tompkins Square, delighting passersby along the way with the work’s tintinnabulating totality. Part sculpture and part demonstration, Unsilent Night musically affirms the magical bond connecting public space to listening public.

Sat., Dec. 13, 7 p.m., 2014



Controversial photographer Andres Serrano, most (in)famous for his Piss Christ, is taking on another hot topic: New York City’s homeless. For his new show, “Residents of New York,” Serrano followed 85 homeless people for several months and interacted with them daily. “They are people with dreams and aspirations who, for a multitude of personal and external reasons, are living a very difficult situation,” he said. “I see this project as an opportunity for us to look deep inside ourselves and examine our sometime hypocritical attitudes toward charity.” Beginning today, the public can see these large-scale portraits around Washington Square Park, including the entire West 4th Street subway station, along with LaGuardia Place, Judson Memorial Church, and public phone booths.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: May 19. Continues through June 19, 2014



If you’ve ever wanted to participate in a mass musical mobile, here’s your chance. A glorious and chilly ritual since 1992, with only the technology changing over the ensuing years, Unsilent Night is composer Phil Kline’s annual electronic tribute to the joy of caroling. Tote your boombox to the Washington Square Park arch, where you will be issued a cassette or CD (apps also available) containing one of the minimalist work’s four interlocking parts. Hit your start button on cue (warning: miss it and risk being chastised mid-parade by the composer himself) and proceed eastward en masse. A single musical movement in literal movement, Unsilent Night is a spectacle of tintinnabulation to delight participants and bystanders alike. It all ends with a few magically meditative minutes in Tompkins Square Park.

Sat., Dec. 14, 6:45 p.m., 2013

Datebook Events Listings VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To


Want to know more about insect courtship and reproduction? What about Quantum mechanics? Or maybe the theory of multiple universes? Learn about these and more at this year’s World Science Festival. Presented by the nonprofit organization the Science Festival Foundation, the annual festival is a five-day-long celebration of the field of science, featuring more than 130 speakers and 50 programs. Highlights include an outdoor science street fair, The Moth’s special science-themed evening, and a lecture by this year’s honoree, James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame). Events will take place between today and Sunday at various locations throughout the city, including Washington Square Park, the Met, and the New York Botanical Garden. Many events sell out quickly, so head to the festival’s website to snag tickets for the programs that interest you the most.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: May 29. Continues through June 2, 2013