Quentin Crisp

It was a common enough occurrence to see the artist Quentin Crisp strolling along the street in the East Village. You knew with absolute certainty that he would say hello to you, even though he didn’t know you from a hole in the wall. It was easy to spot him way off ahead even with all the foot traffic around here; his outfit was so distinctive. A big black floppy hat, a suit with exaggerated shoulders and wide lapels, a loud (red or green) cravat draped underneath his soft white collared shirt, pinned down with a diamond studded tie-pin. His elegant walk – characterised with a sideways sway – went perfectly with his attire. Effeminate and pale, his soft skin appeared all the more milky set against his black mascara. People often stopped to talk with him and he seemed to delight in the opportunity. Many years previous I had seen the movie based on his book “The Naked Civil Servant” – a masterpiece. It was broadcast in 1975 with John Hurt as Quentin, he was so convincing, I thought that he was him. The program made both John Hurt and Quentin Crisp into stars. Crisp was a brilliant raconteur and successfully toured his one man shows to sold-out theatres. After he performed in New York he was smitten and moved here to East Village in the 80’s, living on East 3rd Street.

New York is full of people trying to get attention, but you have to be careful, they could turn on you for getting what they asked for. Today I passed a woman that I have seen numerous times on the street around here. She looks like she could be Native American, or Asian. She is tie-dyed from head to toe. Her waist-length hair is tie-dyed the colours of the rainbow, her t-shirt the same. Her sweatpants and a long shop coat the same, even her boots. She wears a full size black visor that covers her entire face, and she pulls a small shopping cart that has a sign on it saying “I’m not in the mood for being stared at”. Of course I’m thinking “Then why the hell are you dressed like a Martian!” This is another reason why I loved Quentin Crisp. He dressed outrageously and drew your attention, when he got it he reveled in it.

I saw him perform once at a P.S 122 Benefit. It was a performance space on the corner on 9th Street and First Avenue. He started off by saying how much he loved New York and that he didn’t miss England at all with its fussy ways and social reserve. America had a much healthier attitude he reckoned, people said what they thought, and brought stuff out in the open. He then told a story to illustrate his point.

A woman goes into a railway station in London and finds that she has some time to kill before her train departs. So she goes to the café and finds that most of the few chairs there are taken. She sees one little round table is occupied by a single man, after clearing that it was available she places the cup of tea that she was carrying down on the table with a Kit Kat. She then removes her coat and places it on the back of her chair, shoves her suitcase underneath and begins to unwrap the Kit Kat. She breaks a finger off and washes a bite down with the tea. It’s hot and muggy in the café. “Too many people and too many coats and cases” she thinks. The steam from the cooking and human breath fogs up the glass windows looking out into the bustling station. The man sharing the table breaks off a piece of the Kit Kat for himself. She is astonished “The bloody cheek of him!” She knew it was a small table, and that her presence had taken away his privacy. But really, does she owe him a Kit Kat? Couldn’t he at least ask? She quickly has another piece, and so does he. “Well I never” she thought. She thinks, it’s time to find her platform now anyway, so much for a bit of relaxation. She throws on her coat and heads off for her train, astounding at the cheek of that bloke.

After the train pulls out of the station, a conductor announces “tickets please”. She opens up her bag to find the ticket and their she sees, an unopened Kit-Kat.

A Thousand Percent

The readout on the colourful dashboard read 110 rpm and I had the level up to 12 where it usually is. I was cycling at what seemed to be full pelt and took a moment to observe my own sincerity. Then, looking over at my neighbour’s bike to see what he was doing, his rpm was 39 and his level was 6 – he was pedalling slowly and as he pushed his glasses up on his nose he seemed distracted and uncommitted. It was then that it dawned on me that I was giving it a thousand percent, and he was definitely not. Being in a stationary position with nothing before me but a black and white gym full of sweaty men I allowed my mind to wander.

“Ye know, I do always give it a thousand percent!”

I hadn’t thought about this before.

“Could this be a blessing and a curse?”

Every time I play a gig, I give it a thousand percent. It doesn’t matter where it is or how large the crowd. I give the same to Carnegie Hall as I do to the Parish Hall. I rehearse like a maniac, and get there four hours before the show to do a lengthy sound check, so that the sound is as good as possible from the first word out of my mouth.

But I don’t perform that often! Could it be that I am afraid to take on too much because I know that I will have to give it a thousand percent? I remember being at a gathering one evening here in the Village with two famous writers (I wasn’t going to say who, but why not – it’s only a blog) – Philip Glass and the play/script writer from England, Christopher Hampton. We were celebrating Chris’s play opening on Broadway, he already had another one “God of Carnage” which was hugely successful, now he had two. Chris looked stressed, like someone was chasing him all the time, his shoulder-length hair looking stringy and vitamin-deprived. Philip was calm like a duck, but maybe pedalling like mad underneath the water.

“Do you guys take on stuff when you are already up to your eyes with other commitments?”, I pried, half-knowing the answer before receiving it.

“All the time” said Chris, with a resigned shake of his head.

Because he gets hired to write film scripts – he wrote the hit movie “Atonement” – he tends to take on these high paying jobs while he is also working on his own stuff. Movie scripts are notoriously difficult, not only is the director on your back, the producers are vetting it too with $ signs pre-empting every thought.

“I ask this question, because of late I am questioning myself and my achievements, I really don’t take on more than what I can do, could that be holding me back?”

Asking this of two people who are really successful was pretty clever of me, no?

“That’s really smart in my opinion” Chris replied.

Phil just observed, and appeared to be addressing his own response tacitly (And yes I call him Phil, as do all of us).

But now I wonder if is it is smart. What would happen if I just bit the bullet and didn’t worry about the consequence. Possibly I might have to give up on the thousand percent. But might this change my world for the better? Could it be possible that I would end up doing more things and keep the standard up to a thousand percent also? Jesus, if I did I could rock the world. And all those people that are not sure about me, might say “Jesus, you’ve got to hand it to him, he’s a bloody hard worker”. As I ride the stationary bike, I think – that stuff doesn’t interest me, but I am fascinated by the notion that not worrying about my standards could free me to be more alive.

I lean down on the bike and ride like a bastard, bringing it up to 130 rpm. I am now almost at 7 miles, that’s how far Curracloe Beach (featured in the movie “Brooklyn”) is from Wexford Town. I am at the Asser Levy Gym on 23rd and Ave A surrounded by poets and painters; all who seek to reach a thousand percent at what they do. None of us appear to be rich, yet many are well enough known artists in their field. It may be that we are all there in this public gym because we will not take on more than we can handle at the standard we believe to be 1000 percent. No?

Don’t be surprised if you see me out there more often in the near future. I’m sure you’ll call me on it if it’s less than a thousand percent.

Positively 11th Street

This is a crazy city, every year it just gets crazier. In the 80s it was crazy dirty, drugs everywhere, lawlessness like the wild west. I remember wincing in the back of a taxi, stopped at the light on the corner of 12th and 1st Ave, there was a small popping sound that projected a sinister bigness behind me. I looked around while ducking, two guys were shooting at each other from opposite sides of the street – bad shots obviously ‘cos no-one was hit – but they were only about twenty yards behind me, the light changed, we got outta there. Another time, cops waved people past the corner of 13th and 1st Ave, behind them you could see a pair of expensive sneakers protruding from a grey blanket, rich red blood flowing towards the drain from the victim’s head. It was a given that his death was drug-related because of the expensive new sneakers, us New Yorkers just walked on by. Forensically thinking, it had to have been be recent. Fifteen minutes earlier I might have seen it, could’ve even been shot. No-one gathered though, it wasn’t unusual enough.

Now, past the noughties and into the teens, New York is somewhat gentrified. The drugs haven’t gone, but they are less visible, more legit perhaps. But the city is still crazy.

If you have a lot of confidence, New York is for you; if you have no confidence, New York is for you; if you are sexually adventurous, New York is for you; if you are lonely, or want to be someone else, this is the place. If you are a conspiracy theorist, or believe that your most abstract dream should be shared over dinner with strangers, or if you believe you are writing a book, come here, everyone is writing a book in New York as far as I can see. And lastly, if you want to keep talking like a baby until you’re ninety; not extraordinary here.

My friend Beverly waved me into her shop one day as I was passing by. It’s a shop filled with curiosities, curious to Bev or her co-owner Sharon Jane. Antique typewriters, 50s lamp shades, jewelry, musical instruments, colourful glass ashtrays, watches and ornaments. Movie stars love to root around in there with little fuss from the proprietors: Tom Hanks and Rachel Weisz immediately come to mind. Rachel lives with Daniel Craig just across the street, I saw her outside one day when it was closed, a “Gone Fishing” sign hanging on the glass door. She’s very underdone and pretty “girl next door” looking, approachable, normal but aware that I was looking at her, no make-up, slightly exotic. Beverly treated everyone the same, bums, junkies, alcoholics, down and outs, and superstars. Bev will talk about Joseph (let’s say) in such a way that you have an image, a normal one of someone who might be even slightly industrious “Well Joseph was here earlier and he says…. “. Then one day you’re in the shop and a guy with no teeth comes in, a red kerchief wrapped around his forehead, a big clump of lumpy sweaty hair falling over it, a rough looking grey sweat suit, and sneakers that could walk away on their own “Hey Bev how are oooo?” “Oh Hi Joseph” Your mind goes into a tailspin “That’s Joseph?”  You’ve got to love Beverly … oh and Sharon Jane is the same.

One day while passing by, Bev beckoned me towards her from behind the small glass counter.

“Come ere, can you do me a favour and stand up here?”

“What! where?”

“Can you stand up on the carpet?”

She pointed directly downward, I had been standing a little bit away from the counter cos there was a large carpet rolled in front of it, it was over a foot tall and almost twice as wide. She silently pointed down again with a mischievous grin. Bev is from a small town in England  and has been here even longer than me, we share a similar sense of humour. Eventually I copped that she wanted me to stand up on the rolled carpet. I stepped up but found it a little hard to balance, it was lumpy. Bev shushed with an index finger to her lips. I made an incredulous expression with my face. She broke the intrigue.

“Just stand there for a while”, she announced calmly for all to hear, but who was all besides us? and where were they? Bev drew up the sleeves of her black leotard, signaling a change of subject.

“So how the hell are you?”, she asked with a big smile.

I nodded. “Good”.

“Anything strange?”, she asked, with a knowing reply etched in her smile.

“No, there is nothing strange”, I denied with an exaggerated shake of the head.

“How’s business?”

“Good, it’s fine”.

We were distracted now and the elephant in the room was underneath me. I felt a movement in the carpet. There was somebody in the bloody thing! Bev – seeing that I had copped on – asked could I stay on there a little longer. I did my best, but it was too weird.  She beckoned me outside.

“What is goin on Bev?”, I asked, astounded.

She explained that this guy had come in and offered to pay her if she would allow him to roll up in a carpet and encourage customers to stand on him. It was an art project, she explained.

“That’s all there is to it?”

“Seemingly”, she said.

“Yeah, right” said I, and we both laughed knowingly.

This is a crazy bloody city, who would live here?

Novak Lives in a Wheelchair (part 2 of 2)

Today I decided it was time to find out more about Novak. He was standing in the sun on the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue just across from the new post office. My zip code is 10009 and unfortunately for me, that means I am married to this particular post office – it has always been the meanest most inadequately run place I have ever set foot in, a full diatribe will come in a later blog. For now, suffice it to say, knowing someone has to go there to pick up a parcel can break up a family.

Perhaps this deathly mission is what provoked me to speak to Novak. It may be a dying deed – after all, the term “going postal” came from the countless incidents of post office workers mowing down the customers and fellow workers with a rattling gun.

He was clean-shaven and seemingly sober. I estimated him to be younger than my first impression, maybe in his early fifties. He moved his upper body without difficulty and, but for his filthy soiled trousers, he seemed almost salvageable from the street. He had acquired a clean shirt and from the waist up looked normal. But still, as he stood leaning on his wheelchair, it was clear that there was no turning back for him.

“Hi, I met you before a long time ago, you won’t remember, how are you?”

He raised his eyebrow and, with a glint in his eyes, he held out his cupped and weathered hand.  I ignored it.

“What’s your name?”

“Novak”, he shouted, “Vat’s your nem?”

“Pierce”

He squinted his eyes.

“Beers?”

“Yeah. Where are you from?”

“I from Poll-land. Where you from?”

“I’m from Ireland”

“Eyer-Land!”

He seemed to find that a little amusing, his curiosity was awakening, you could tell that he wasn’t used to talking to the customers. I continued to disarm him.

“When did you come to America?”

“I coms, durty years ago.”

He was  smiling now and shouting a little aggressively, he wasn’t sure he wanted to behave normal.

“What did you work at when you came here first?”

“Clubs, I work in clubs. Eight hours, I was earn, one undred and pifty dollah for eight hours.”

I was pleased to hear him say this, he had some pride, he was acknowledging that his life had gone wrong. Before, he seemed to be trying to project an arrogance, he didn’t owe anybody anything.

“Where did you live?”

“I liff, I just liff”

He pulled down the neck of his blue shirt to show me his shoulder.

“It’s  mettle, I have mettle ere, and down here.”

He shows me his hip.

“I have metell havery-veer. Whatever you do, don’t sleep over deere!”

He was pointing across the way up towards 14th Street, with the nod of his head.

“What do you mean?”

He pulled down his lip.

“They kutt me! Here and here.”

He pointed inside his mouth and at a swollen gash on his forehead, his face was  so weathered and scarred, it was impossible to see any difference between his newly acquired complaint and the ones of yesterday.

“Don’t sleep in dat park behind dat, they will beata you up and robb you.”

He was talking about the small park behind Beth Israel Hospital, a tiny sanctuary of green grass and ivy shaded by trees and a broken circle of park benches surrounding an ornate water fountain. I had no intention of ever sleeping there, I needn’t tell ye. Now it seemed that he and I were on the same page, he was warning me about the dangerous places to sleep on the street. I liked the fact that we were now communicating man to man. Yes, I intended giving him some money, and with Novak he had always given the impression that this was the only reason to communicate. But now this wasn’t the case, we were just talking.

“I sometimes would dake One Undred and Pifty dollahs, but den my moddah got seek, I send all my money back to Poll-Land, she get seek.”

“Oh that’s a shame, so you had to look after her from here?”

“Yes, she got seek, ever-ting vent, I lose my job.”

I had a dollar in my hand to give him.

“I am a musician Novak, I don’t have any money, but I’ll give you this.”

“I used to play dee acordian.”

“Really? Which one – button key or piano?”

“I donna know.”

He dismissed this as an unnecessarily complicated question.

“Iss impossible, you need two brains, one for each side”, he demonstrated with his hands.

“But the brain has two sides!”

“No, only one brain, impossible.”

He took the dollar bill and seemed genuinely grateful.

“You got a cigarette?”

“Don’t tell me you smoke as well as drink”, I goaded with a laugh.

He smiled with devilment and immediately switched his attention to another guy that seemed to be preparing to give him money.

“You got a smoke?”, he said cheekily, suggesting that the guy should be good for something.

Novak Lives in a Wheelchair (part 1 of 2)

It’s 12:46 on Thursday morning, I am sitting on the futon by the window next to First Avenue. Outside somewhere, a saxophone is playing, wailing away endlessly to the accompaniment of a piano. It has the celebratory feel of the Saturday Night Live finale, when the whole cast stands on the stage waving at the audience and congratulating each other on taking part in such a hugely cool show. It’s one of those exclusive fraternity moments; looking at a club you wished you could be a part of, but knowing it’s not possible, and if it were, you would never experience what you think it is from being outside it. The saxophonist has the aching soulful cry of a craftsman with a powerful pair of lungs, riding the top notes where they unburden their speechless heart and speak to ours. It has been going on for a couple of hours now, where is it coming from? It’s not an apartment, is it a stereo coming from a parked car? Or something new that has begun to happen in one of the so many new cafés or bars around here? They open and close with the frequency of a Chinese fan in mid-summer.

I spoke to Novak today on my way to the dreaded Post Office (I’ll explain that later) for an undelivered parcel. He lives in a wheelchair on the busy intersection at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue. He didn’t always need a chair, he has slipped to that necessity over the years by hammering his body with endless homelessness, alcohol abuse and the broken limbs, lumps and crevices that come from sleeping painlessly in his own waste and broken body parts for ill-advised lengths of time. I have seen him unconscious at all hours, and countless times, being loaded on to ambulances by resigned paramedics.

I saw him for the first time about eight years ago. He was sprawled like a rag doll on the ground in by the wall of a side street. It was a rabid hot summer’s day just like this one – New York has just endured fifty days with temperatures of over 80 degrees, most of which were closer to 100 degrees (the hottest run of all time apparently). It was a Sunday morning and I felt some compassion for him. In this city we see so much of this and there is only so much room to let this information in. I was due to pay some mind when I laid eyes upon the sorry sight of Novak in that heat.

“Hi, can I get you something? Coffee?”

He looked up at me as I leaned over him with hands on my knees. In an instant you could tell why he was in this predicament. There was no apparent embarrassment for his circumstances, or humility about requesting assistance. He seemed to see it in a sort of matter of fact way, he had drank a lot and fell asleep in his own piss, more excrement stains to add to his other ones, on a piss-stained street, so what!

“No!  I’d like a cold Coke”, he said abruptly, lying with his two hands beneath his head like a baby.

I was taken aback, one would think his reply might be “yes please” to what I had suggested. But he seemed to think it only right that I get him what he needed. Breakfast in bed, so to speak. He seemed to think the world owed him support for his lifestyle, and this – I thought later – could be why he has ended here; he would rather be here than have to appease someone else. For the most part, the stuff that happens to us happens because we can tolerate it – even if it’s just barely – and if we get too close to “barely” that’s our warning. We must retreat when “barely” gets too close, straighten up and turn around. Sometimes we can’t, those are the times when we need a good friend, a sibling, or a spouse, to pull us back. My guess is that Novak didn’t have that, so he let go. The reason he didn’t have anyone I don’t really know, but I may have sensed it that morning when he felt that I owed him a cold Coke.

(Next week I find out more about Novak)

An Irishman living in the East Village

I’ve been living in the East Village now for the better part of my life. And yet I know very few people by name from this neighborhood. Still, I do … know them.  Here, I have seen teenagers grow up into adults and then disappear; businesses that were around from the turn of the century fold, and newer ones open and close – some after decades, some within a year. I have seen normal-looking young men from seemingly good families, mostly Italian or Eastern European, go from step to step with each passing year; from soft white complexion to bristle and shadow, from Coca Cola to beer and sometimes from there, tragically, to serious drug addiction. Some get through it and some die. In most cases I wouldn’t know that they died of course, but it’s not hard to believe the worst once you you’ve heard a couple of horror tales through the pipeline. And if you see them flopping around for a few years, then disappearing for good, they’ve gone somewhere! I can’t imagine it’s to an aunt in Montana somehow.

Just the other day I held the door open for the daughter of an elderly Italian lady that lives upstairs. We had a short discussion about her mother “how old is she now?” (thinking she was ancient) “Actually she’ll be 82 next month” she declared with a ‘how about that’ smile (I thought she was about ten years north of that). I had seen the daughter pretty much grow up in this building, raised by her single mother (I had never been aware of a father figure). They were always a quiet family, and lived here through all the changes from a half-empty building looking for tenants, to that vacuum being filled by dodgy drug dealers, to Yuppie political types instigating rent strikes – to where it is today, part of the N.Y. University rent boom, which has driven the rent of these tenements up beyond all  reasonable value. She and I had never really spoken to each other, other than to say a neighborly hi on the landing. Then one summer evening back in the 80s, she was at the Schaeffer Music Festival in Central Park to see Cyndi Lauper when she noticed Larry Kirwan and I in the opening band The Major Thinkers (Larry and I had shared this apartment at the time) – she was there with her husband-to-be. The next day she stopped me to share her surprise as I descended the stairs with the garbage. After that I got to know them better. Her slightly older brother Sandy stopped me one day too “Hey my Sis saw you guys at the Schaeffer Music Festival, how about that, so you’se guys musicians?”. He had a Saturday Night Fever wardrobe and hairstyle, and it turned out that he had a small speaking part in the movie too – “How’ye doon Tony”. I presume that was why I never saw much of Sandy in the building – he was going out to Brooklyn to dance.

So I got a little piece of them that day, and they of me. We have not gone much further than that after all these years, it’s willful of course, we prefer to keep it down to a rhetorical “Hello how are you?”. It could be fear – or laziness – not sure. I left behind a small town in Ireland where it felt like I knew everyone. Before going on to the Main Street one always had to do a full self inspection: hair, clothes, demeanor – otherwise you risk a scathing review right to your face. Here I have no such concern, and if I see one of the faces that I know – know as well as any family member to see – looking rough, or drugged or having a spat in public, it won’t matter: I don’t KNOW them, don’t know their name and they are none of my business.

I suppose we will go on like this forever, guessing how each other is doing, based on a handful of small clues. We will all go away one day and never come back, and someone else will take our apartments. The double-decker buses will continue to look into my 2nd floor window and, instead of seeing me in my underpants, they will see someone else.  But before that, I have things to do and places to go.  And you and I should see each other as much as we can before then, at a safe enough distance, through the window.   Time flies when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Every week from now on till the day I die, I will do a blog about my life in the East Village, it will be delivered to you like the Monday Morning Milk -it’s a colourful existence, come in to my crazy world, it might lighten your load or something.  This is one hell of a spot. Love p