It’s easy to be uneasy about our neighborhood, The Bowery; about how many more months circumstances will allow Mary and me to occupy our happy loft. For years, I told self and others that The Bowery would “never change”; I meant that the street-level presence of restaurant-equipment stores and industrial-lighting outlets would ensure The Bowery’s row of 12 blocks remaining too grubby to please the putative occupants of mondo-condos or the parents of NYU students. For years, “developers” left us alone; and even the encroachment of New York University, from the north and west, seemed stalled; in fact, the only encroaching force seemed to be the waves of provincial Mainland Chinese, expanding Chinatown uptown from Canal Street—but Chinatown does not mean development: it is ever a force for stasis. The Bowery’s character would never change because New York is about restaurants and restaurants need suppliers and the suppliers have to be grouped somewhere! So I thought. But I was wrong.
Today’s Bowery (Summer 2008) sports not only door-manned condoleezas and NYU dorms (with studiedly sleazy nightclubs to provide the kids with nightcare) but a Whole Foods link, a health spa, and a new museum (the soi-disant “New Museum”, built to resemble a careless stack of hatboxes; it will age quickly). Here comes the neighborhood!! Mary and I hear the wrecking ball grow ever closer on both sides of our soon-to-be-dwarfed four-story, formerly the Hotel Nassau, a flophouse.
“Never change”? But, of course, The Bowery had already changed—and mightily!—, even during our tenancy.1 The restaurant-equipment store has only dominated the last two decades. In l975, our first year in the loft, I worked for a dress-designer-turned-carpenter named Carlyle Morris, a man who knew a little about a lot; he claimed that Bowery was originally the edge of Manhattan, that everything to the east was landfill, that it took its name (the “flowery way”) from the garlands hung from its porches by Dutch wives, welcoming home their sailors. Our own arrival there was met with utter indifference by what had become the planet’s most extensive, most densely-populated skid row.
Other cities’ slums may make this claim, of course; and New York’s own South Bronx was, for years, a vast moraine. But a slum may have families and other human groupings: The Bowery, as Mary and I first knew it, had a population—almost exclusively2—of drunks: literal thousands for whom The Bowery was an edge of a wholly other sort.
It had been this way, we were told, since the 30s: in a sense, immune to economic vicissitudes: “depressed”, to stay. Discouraged men drink and WWII, Korea, and Vietnam each added a whole new host of slaves to oblivion. Institutions had sprung up to serve this mock-community. First and foremost, the bars, of which there were more than a hundred. And, up and down both sides of the street lay the derelicts’ hotels, some with encouraging titles: the Providence, the Sunshine, La Paloma, the Pioneer, the Uncle Sam, for example, and next door to us, the Confidence. Unwilling to provide decent housing for, at The Bowery’s swollen sum, seventeen-thousand derelicts, the City instead subsidized these hotels, to keep the cost of a flop a dollar (later, five dollars) a night.3 The Salvation Army maintained a visible presence, of course, but so did Volunteers of America, Goodwill, Catholic Worker, the Mennonites, several other stray sects, relevant Government bureaus, and at least one big-hearted wonder who could have posed for trad Santa.
Some of these had thrift shops (used clothes, mostly); some had soup kitchens; some provided temporary housing: Santa, operating alone, put up five or six men at a time, Heaven knows how. In warmer weather— in fact, in barely warm weather—, many would sleep rough: in packing crates or boxes, when available, or under newspapers.
My first impression of The Bowery was chaos. Our loft lay between East Houston and Prince streets (cognate with zero and minus-one on the numbered grid). It was a warm, early-Autumn evening; the bars were thronged and the sidewalks clogged; some men were shuffling along…but it struck me that any pedestrians bent on getting somewhere anytime soon took to the street, where they could set their own pace. The men on the sidewalk seemed an inert, barely-moving mass. This impression was less than accurate. I soon learned to discern pattern in their movement, to recognize destinations (bar, bodega, flophouse). Oh, it was true enough that many men seemed content to stay within one block for weeks at a time, an alky ideal of sorts. But my notion of chaos was seriously challenged, one morning a week after we moved in.
Mary and I, returning home after breakfasting at Yonah Schimmel, a venerable knishery on East Houston, witnessed a strange sort of real-life playlet being acted out right in front of our door: a rough circle of derelicts had formed around a wafer-thin, too-drunk-to-be-defiant young blond punk. (I mean this noun in its 50s sense; in 1975, Punk Culture was only on the cusp.) The circle, as a whole, was admonishing the punk, and its spokesperson, although clearly stewed to the gills, was holding forth in a rumbling baritone not entirely devoid of authority….
“No, young man, I’m sorry,” were the first words we caught, as we made to skirt the circle and put a key into our downstairs lock; the speaker was wagging a thick finger at the hapless blond. We had just got our door open when we heard this remarkable pronouncement: “What you don’t see is this:
If you’re going to live on The Bowery, you just can’t do that sort of thing!”
We both turned around, amazed. We saw the punk hang his head. The solon, having apparently finished, thrust his hands into the pockets of his all-weather ulster. Some around the circle nodded drunken, grimy agreement. We turned back to the door and left this scene to its slow-moving actors; we stayed silent until we reached our home floor (the French third, the American fourth), where our amazement found words: Had we just missed the iteration of a community code?; if so, what in the Green World would be so outrageous as to demand the censure of peers such as these?; and what was this man, he who’d lay down the law to his fellow defeated?
Of these questions, only the third answered itself in time with any certainty. (Although we’ve always put yes by number one and learned good guesses for number two.4) As it turned out, the author of the admonitory lecture would succeed, had succeeded, in distinguishing himself, in some ways, from his brethren…even as he typified them. Many times, over the next few years, I was to hear Bernard Kelly referred to as the “Mayor of The Bowery”. …Of course, those who called him that were the sorts who’d formed that circle, local long-timers; maybe every few blocks had its own mayoral candidate?, every block? Even if so, Barney was special.
Of course, the typical is special when it differs radically from one’s own case. If it was unusual that Barney had been a research chemist at Phizer, it was utterly ordinary that he’d first come to The Bowery on (ever- more-frequent) visits after work, seeking anonymous release from pressures of the job. “Had to keep too much in my head,” he would explain. “Took it home with me. Sleep became a stranger. So I started wiping the slate clean. Daily basis. That helped. But…after a time, I had trouble getting home at all. Then…getting to work began to become too difficult to accomplish with any regularity. And eventually I though: Well, why not live here?” …This was one drunk’s variant on a common Bowery theme.
I developed a chatting acquaintance with Barney Kelly over a two-and-a-half-year span. Every month or so, he’d disappear for a fortnight. I asked after him, the second time I noted his absence. His friend Henry, a man of his years (early 50s?; derelicts age in a hurry: both men looked 75 if a day), pooh-poohed my concern. “Aw, Barney’s all right,” he said. “Time to time, bottle becomes his whole world is all.”
What did he look like? Unfortunately for the reader, Barney’s face has long since melded with that of Wallace Beery, whom his coarse features roughly resembled. For a derelict, he dressed with mix ‘n’ match spiffiness, after the layered look obtainable by careful shopping in any of the superb thrift-stores that dotted East Houston Street in those days. By the standard of his mates, Barney was eminently presentable. So, still possessing a head for figures and, by reputation, neither dishonest nor greedy, he was welcome behind the counter in several of these shops. “I generally work three weeks, every three months.” “A week a month, then,” I assumed. “Oh, no,” he answered: “That would be too much! Lord, no.”
It was while manning a thrift-store that Barney was involved in an incident that would cause his star to ascend to local Bowery legend. I heard four versions, one of which was the man’s own; what I’ll present there are the points on which the four agree.
The year was 1970, a time when I and countless others believed in the imminence of a new American revolution, believed with all the perfervid thoughtlessness of your 1st Century Christian in the Second Coming. White radicals generally found no rallying standard beyond self and friends, but America’s ethnic minorities all had noble bands willing to take the heat for their people as a whole, donning costumes that might truly (in life the cartoon) have included talking targets (“Kick me. Infiltrate me. Shoot me.”). The most famous of these were the Black Panthers; but New York’s Puerto Rican diaspora had the Young Lords….
Conflicting accounts put me in some doubt about the origins of the ruckus or fracas; but apparently some manner of demonstration had culminated in, variously (a) heckling of police, (b) a hurled, overripe cantaloupe which splattered a cop between the shoulder blades, and/or (c) a more general pitched battle. Juan Gonzales, now a celebrated columnist for the Daily News, was at the time the Young Lords’ minister of information. Perhaps he could call back the event and offer accuracy. In any case, the impact on our current tale is sudden: three young men are high-tailing it up The Bowery with police in sweaty pursuit, two blocks back but closing; the lads skid left on East Houston where one of them clocks Barney Kelly, standing just outside a momentarily-empty thrift-shop, left in his charge.
“You gotta hide us, man,” gasps the lead runner. “Pig’s up our ass.”
“Get inside,” Kelly orders. “Stairs at the rear. Down to the basement. Look for a big clothes-bin, says ‘unsorted’ on it. Climb in, clover yourselves up, stay quiet.”
The three sweep past him and Barney resumes his post.
The next scene is choice! The cops, having had to pick their way through the human thicket of the last few blocks, find themselves in some doubt, when they reach Bowery and Houston, about which way their quarry has fled. Several continue up Bowery, some go right on Houston, others left; two are deputed to stop and question the disreputable sort, swaying outside the off-the-corner thrift-shop.
“You see three boys, Old Man? Three boys run past here? ‘Ricans? Leather jackets?”
It was in response to these queries that Bernard Kelly proved himself if not The Bowery’s mayor, at least its fairest flower. For what he presented to the cops was, all accounts agree, an imposingly accurate impersonation of a silent scatterbrained drunk, Ray Bolger’s mindless scarecrow pointing the way in opposed directions. Exeunt the cops, wondering why they bothered, usw.
Five minutes later, a heavyset, formidable Puerto Rican mama sailed up to Barney.
“Listen,” she said, all business. “I know you got my boy in there, his friends.” She pressed a wadded-up fiver into BK’s horny hand. “Keep ’em hidden another half-hour, then dress ’em up in bums’ clothes—the money should cover that, right?—and send ’em out one at a time, one every five minutes. Got it?”
“My pleasure,” said Barney and permitted himself a courtly bow.
This brought a smile to the woman’s heavy features. The Gospel according to Henry has her answering: “And you can flop in the hallway of any Puerto Rican building in Loisaida.”
Whether or not these words were actually spoken (Barney himself thought not), something of the sort was definitely set in motion. And, a week to the day, the Latino community (largely PR; the Dominican not yet a dominant presence) feted The Bowery.
Free food was not without precedent: the Sally Army provided it at the expense of sitting through a sermon; the Christian holidays always featured a feast at the shelters and well-wishers with hand-outs; the Lubavitcher Hasidim brought their noisy van into our block according to their own schedule, dispensing comestibles which some derelicts were seen to sample.
But nothing I’ve seen could match the scope of what legend says was laid on, that day: two sidewalk- blocks, both sides of the street, were crammed with folding tables, perhaps donated by a church?; on the tables lay all manner of islands food: pigs ‘n’ chicken, fish, rice ‘n’ beans, paella, salsa ‘n’ chips, fruits exotic and domestic, not only flan ‘n’ sweetbreads but fancy cakes of the sort set to decay in the windows of ‘Rican bakeries. …And wine! Not all The Bowery’s drunks were winos, of course; not even most. But those who were got a foretaste of Paradise; and many more become winos for a day. And it was a day-long event.
“And you were the cause of it all,” I said to Barney, after hearing his version.
“Well,” he answered, “any chemist will tell you that there are moments in the lab when the effect fucking dwarfs the cause….”
…In summer, in those days at least, the Upstate Jewish resorts would collect those derelicts willing to try drying out, doing brute labor, eating at regular intervals, sleeping indoors, and breathing clean air. This regimen spoke to some, even to a few long-timers. Barney, Henry, and others referred to it as “getting healthy”. Henry said he went every year. “Helps a man build up the stren’th to get through livin’ on The Bowery, the rest of the time.”
Barney was not a regular traveler to what he called “the Hebe Himalayas”. “Guys like Henry,” he said, drawing a distinction: “the work they do up there at Grossinger’s, The Nevele, is the only work they do; lie around here the rest of the time. That’d be a mite extreme for me. I prefer to labor only as I have to. The idea of day-in, day-out work for a couple of months….” He shook off the thought.
But some years, he’d go anyway. I never found out what made 1978 special. We never had a final conversation. Henry told me, one June evening, that he and Barney Kelly were among those being picked up, early next morning. Barney never came back.
When September rolled around without Barney, I thought maybe Henry could fill me in. But Henry couldn’t; because he didn’t come either.
I have only known humiliation, beauty, and the sadness of compassion united in one face. The drunk possessed of this face was named Swanson.
…There is one brilliance in Neal Cassady’s slapdash memoir, The First Third: his clear-eyed account of being reared in Denver’s skid row by his father, a drunken barber; Cassady’s great point is that alcohol reduces its slaves to typicality. Bright little Neal recognized the same attitudes ‘n’ alibies, the same linguistic tropes, even some of the same stories…issuing from the various men in the same boat with his dad. These one-time individuals had become conformist with a success ‘way beyond the dreams of straight, normal suburbanites. This conformity5 goes far to defining what a drunk is. Swanson was definitely a drunk, yet he was unique: the odds in favor of this occurrence lie beyond calculation.
It’s easy to see strong or pleasing or even noble features having lost a war with degeneracy. Some bums were, clearly, once handsome dudes; some even vain (and vanity dies hard). Mary may smile if I recall a fellow who resembled the actor/bridge-columnist Omar Sharif6. But Swanson’s face and gaze radiated a nobility which seemed not a residuum of any sort but the very product of his (dreadful) present circumstances. I didn’t know the man; he wouldn’t let himself be known; but I believe my view of Swanson to be more than projected fantasy: I seldom saw him when he was not helping steer one of his fellow stewbums. That was Swanson’s specialty: he’d determine where a man would find himself had he sense and strength to get there (that night’s flop, a favored bar, the Bowery Residents Committee office, any of many beer-vending bodegas) and walk him to that place. Swanson’s day featured repetitions of this activity, punctuated by bouts of what must have been solitary guzzling—unlike the vast majority of his compeers, he was never to be seen drinking. Seen drunk, of course, full often; but even then, his eyes seemed to reflect a struggle after orientation: he’d soon be on his feet, one thought, and once again guiding others. And he would be. Barney Kelly’s judgment: “Swanson? Yeah, he helps out.”
For half a year or so, Swanson was often to be seen in the company of a seeming-incapacitated blind man–
-the blind-drunk leading the blind. This latter was a black man with a ratty conk; Swanson’s tonsure was dirty-blond with silver streaks and swept back. As they’d navigate together—sometimes each with a crutch-
–, they’d keep their heads close…for quiet conversation. Twice only, I joined this ever-ambling duad…and felt honored so to do.
“Kelly said your name is Swanson,” I began.
“I’m Forrester. And your friend?”
Swanson smiled sadly. “Oh, I doubt he’d want you to know his name.” I learned a little more about the man during this, our only real back-and-forth. He, following type, had gone to The Bowery in search of a place to drink unobserved. His demons remained unconfessed, at least to me; all he said was that he’d left his loving wife and family…and believed them better off without him.
“No, I made a right mess of things,” the man explained without the lightest shadow of self-pity. “It’s easier for my wife to keep it together, to breathe, without the problems I present.”
“She don’t think so,” his friend put in. (Startling me!: I had thought the blind alkie totally out of it.) “Now’n then, she comes here. I met her, coupla times.”
“She come for him,” the unnamed added, “but he won’t go, won’t go home.” “I can’t change,” Swanson concluded. “Or: I notice I haven’t changed.”
…Several months on, I witnessed one of these meetings. Swanson’s wife was a striking beauty who put me in mind of Bergman’s Harriet Andersson. The two of them stood under the awning of the New London Chinese and American Restaurant Equipment Company; they held hands in silence. I looked away.
Twenty paces up the street (as the drunk staggers), I clocked Swanson’s friend perched on a hydrant. I strode over and, without preamble, said “Maybe this time?”
“Doubt it,” he answered.
Eventually both men disappeared, vanished. It didn’t surprise; I’d grown used to the phenomenon. In terms of my awareness, even the least typical of derelicts came to the same enigmatic end.
The same could be said of John Beaton, but I’d love to believe that this courageous survivor has found a new scene and a way to thrive within it.
Beaton resided longer on The Bowery than any of the others we were able to pick out: a full decade! It took most of that time, eight years at least, before his wariness lifted to the extent of allowing us his name. But everyone thereabouts knew his sobriquet. The dude was known to all as Shakespeare.
His was the only instance of being noticed elsewhere (by me) and only latterly seen on The Bowery. Not that I’m conjuring up a weepy before-and-after, a “personal” narrative of having known some poor wretch in the palmy days ere The Bowery claimed his soul. Oh, no; midway through our first summer in the loft, I saw John Beaton at his workplace, that’s all. And in his work-duds; although, to be fair—if to tease you a moment more—, he wore them at all times; at least in public and I doubt Firbankian exquisites like JB have even the most Deistic belief in “private” life. What he wore was hose ‘n’ doublet; one big hoop earring; and an outsize, mauve, Richard-Wagner beret; his feet sported filthy (once green?, irreplaceable?) elf-slippers with curl-up toes. And where I saw him was Central Park.
John Beaton’s work-gig—and, for all I know, his calling—involved walking up and down the glacial line of spectators who waited to be let in to the park’s Delacorte Theatre (Amerkin fer D’Oyly Cart?), where Joseph Papp’s troupe gave free, open-air performances of the Bard’s greatest hits. As, in his own way, did John Beaton.
I was in line for Twelfth Night; I’d been warned that getting-in was a two-hour affair; had brought and, alas, finished Frances Yates’ book on the cult of Astraea. I glanced up, wondering what would occupy my impatience now; I hadn’t long to wonder: suddenly almost in front of me was a five-foot dubiously- strawberry blond (little dyed straggles popping out of the beret) with the wispiest possible mustache-‘n’- vandyke combo, sweat flying off him (although it wasn’t that hot) as he danced by (imagine a cross between a campy mince and a middle-aged stumble), declaiming all the while. His voice was strong and clear enough, so it was probably disbelief that kept me, for a good half-minute, from realizing that I was in the presence of the noble Rosalind from As You Like It. Threatening to pay him, as you might imagine, arrested the guy’s progress up the line; he retreated to Forrester, stage front. I don’t remember what I gave him, but, given our mutual existence in mid-70s New York, it cannot have been much. Abruptly, the dude switched to Mark Antony’s funeral oration, which I considered something of a bring-down (preferring Lord Buckley’s version); every bit as abruptly it ended, the performer having apparently given his patron a precise calculation based on the size of the tip. Mr. Motley moved on, but unfortunately he walked into the wind, and so his bodily aroma was carried back to us, his quondam audience: we become that term’s unwilling olfactory equivalent. “Man, that’s repulsive!” said an Othello of a fellow, just behind me. I couldn’t disagree. (This was a stench compounded of sour sweat, sour beer, and some unsorted sourness.)
I told Mary about it, late that night (the event having been far more memorable than Joe Papp’s Twelfth Night). She said, “But I’ve seen the guy. And around here!”
It was true. We were to see “Shakespeare” full often sidling our of or into the Salvation Army where, it turned out, he rented a room. He’d worked out a proper life-maintenance deal with the Army: he gave them all the money he made out of his brand of high-falutin’ pan-handling. (His specialty, yes, was the Papp festival, but he’d show up anywhere a line formed, anywhere people waited. How could he not be thought the hardest-working derelict in show-business?!) The Army deducted his rent and doled out food-money which he spent on plonk and the cheapest beer available. The rest they kept in an ever-growing (if slowly- growing) fund meant to finance Beaton’s transition to a putatively alcohol-free existence.
Three mysteries swirled around John Beaton; all might be comprehended under the amazed query “Where was this dude coming from??”
I cannot say Beaton purported to be English. Purport, the noun, played no part in his make-up. But, like the aliens in a certain highly-Jungian installment of Star Trek: The Next Generation, JB spoke almost entirely in quotations or, more usually, in fragments thereof, and, often enough, in slurred fragments. Whom he quoted, as you might imagine, was nobody but The Bard. Not even Nobodaddy got a lick in. (In bodegas, he got round the difficulty of finding an apposite citation for Colt 45 Malt Liquor by pointing to the product: what Wittgenstein called “ostensive definition”. He sometimes sported—and often literally learned on—a gaudy walking-stick; and this doubled as a proper pointer.) His accent was that of the stage; he could have been from Yomato, Utah; or from Yonkers; or Ulan Bator. He always put me forcibly in mind of those seedy thespians who crop up in “Western” movies and teevee programs—accoutered typically like Sylvester the Cat in a ratty tux—, putting on a show for The Law and the outlaw—saloon turned salon—, bringing culture to the Frontier (a.k.a., helping armed louts to feel better about themselves). Were they English? But I suspect John Beaton actually was. Alien he certainly was. And there is happy augury in the temporal setting of his all-day masquerade: at one and the same time, American English departments were roiling and tossing over what to do about the posthumous white male canon. And here was the canon’s brightest star, impersonated on a daily basis, always on offer, always on, free performances while you wait. (And I’ve no doubt he could “do” Posthumus, come to that!) Was he a sad little child of the Midlands, dumped here in the Wild West after an unfortunate crossing among the Merchant Marine?
However it was, I felt John Beaton had adopted New York. And, as Mary recently said, “I felt privileged to have met him.”
As did I! How was it, this prison graduate would still like to know, that a man who dressed and acted (and spoke) as John Beaton did was permitted to strut his stuff in an all-male American situation-tragedy without being regularly set upon, knocked-about, and robbed? For The Bowery of that era might be viewed without error as one of the last outposts of American masculinity, a place where men needn’t wash; watch their words; mind their manners; tidy up after themselves; leave the seat down, or otherwise acknowledge the parallel existence of womankind. Drunks tend not to have an image problem, but with all the other affects of character lost to them, they yet remain men. How then did this popinjay, this blatant affront to straight manhood, manage to survive on The Bowery without having his teeth loosened? But he did. As to how (in the simple sense): through constant exercise of an unearthly courage, I imagine. How-was-it-that?— which equals why—is ‘way more speculative. Perhaps because he was so weird, riding and ridden by his own fate; yeggs be superstitious about such-an-one?, loath to touch, let alone touch him up? Or because he was so demonstrably harmless (why blacks, across the land, loved Peewee Herman). It’s also true that I heard muttered praise when I asked about “Shakespeare”; among some, he was esteemed as a bum who had it together7. This was, I reckon, rare enough that it didn’t matter just how it was accomplished: Beaton had a steady flop and a source of income to stoke his habit; and although he might occasionally be found in the gutter, and he was, he always stayed on the sunny (if stinky) side of utter degeneracy. Yes, John Beaton had it together and was, especially among long-timers, respected for that. …In prison, I had watched my mates act courtly around a pretty fellow-felon; but this was a different scene. And JB wasn’t pretty. One eyeball seemed always at the point of popping out. His skin-color often pronounced him ill. His habiliments were not feminine; they were fey…and so was he. Bravely so.
Beaton’s thrid mystery had to do with his painting. After Mary and I had finally developed some sane converse with the man, we learned that he considered his room in the Sally Army his atelier, where he only “happened” to reside. Learned further that he used no proper bed but slept on a pile of his canvasses, both virgin and daubed-upon. Canvas also made do for sheets, covers, and pillows. About the content of these canvasses, alas, I can tell you nothing. No one but the painter was ever permitted to view his work. As usual, when a small mystery is cleared up a larger one presents itself: before we knew why, we’d wondered (for years!) at the random appearance of titanium white splotching “Shakespeare’s” brow, or his hands mottled with prussian blue, or his current outfit bespattered with cadmium red; but what manner of painter was John Beaton—figurative or non-? (go figure); a force to be taken seriously?, a farce, humorously?
Were we better off, not knowing?; or will we curse ourselves for never having known? …Does it matter? Is ever the greatest mystery.
Ah, but about those outfits! Mary reminds me that although they followed the basic pattern outlined above, and although they inevitably promoted the “lived-in” look (slept-in, too) and would often sport the detritus of a proper roll in the gutter, they would vary in detailing and in hue, from time to time. Questioned on this point, John Beaton told Mary that, indeed, he sewed his own costumes, adding on and deleting at will: true motley. (Idle hours, even today, are sometimes occupied asking myself what quote JB would have found for mundane queries. Had I asked, for example, if he ever took detergent to his soiled raiment or just snipped out the offending part and stitched in some new, would he have answered: “’There is a Tide in the affairs of men…’”? For the sot’s citation was not above stupidity; nor is his chronicler’s.)
As I said, he too would vanish, all of a sudden, never to be known again or not by us. He did so, just before life on The Bowery started seriously to jump up-scale. I ought to have taken John Beaton’s disappearance as a harbinger of the passing of all that was eccentric, queer, and brave about our part of town. But although he was lost to us (and the implications of that, lost on me), I’d love to believe some tempest tossed this real- life thespian8 to an exotic, welcoming Elsewhere, where “nothing of him that doth fade ‘ But doth suffer a sea change / Into something rich and strange”.
A bright, think-ahead mind in City Government realized, come the greedy 80s, that The Apple’s very own eyesore (or Mysore) might be quietly obliterated (pacified?) through a sometime Leftwing panacea known as “decentralization”. The once-concentrated support-services for the derelicts were dispersed throughout the City. It worked. The private services faded with the passing of the public. Within a few years, there were drunks and junkies and drifters more or less all over town. As a quasi-community of derelicts, my stretch of streets died on the vine. Put another way: The Bowery was readying itself for yet another incarnation, one which likely will not welcome the likes of Mary and me, let alone the men I’ve remembered in these pages.
…When Yahweh says “I am that I am”, we don’t like Him. He’s boasting that He—uniquely, no doubt!— provides his own reason for being. He sounds like the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye after an energizing can of greens. Per contra, The Bowery’s drunks were beaten men (punningly, in one case). Unlike Yahweh, they had no problems with image: they’d nought to be proud of, to defend. They lived to disappear. Am I wrong to deny a few of them their prized anonymity? To insist that memory is more than recollection (with the latter’s tendency to connive with “value”)?
Succor me, St. Dorothy, for I’d not be a realtor-of-the-mind.
1. I am omitting here any more than mere mention of its Five Points legacy or its Burlesque heyday…although I saw points of reference to both.
2. There was a sprinkling of artists: we weren’t the first. A downstairs neighbor was once presented to the anarchist saint Dorothy Day, who interrupted the introduction to say, “But I don’t need to hear your name. I know you.” “You do?” “Yes. You are one of the artists who are the shock troops for the realtors.”
3. The hotel owners, for their part, agreed not to allow their buildings to be capitalized beyond a certain limit (unknown to me); this held true even after a building was converted to artists’ lofts, as ours had been. Hence our rents remained low while those in SoHo soared. The situation was plain to far-seeing St. Dorothy.
4. Derelicts on welfare were permitted some number of free nights, periodically, in the local Men’s Shelter; but many avoided this plop like the plague, would even rather work (if at pan-handling) than doss down in its open-barracks arrangement. This, owing to the ease with which a thief could take a drunk’s entire set of possessions out from under him. Was this the punk’s high crime?
5. I’ve watched hard-drugs work a differing (if no less pernicious) effect: a junkie’s personality is often allowed to remain intact but only so it may be exploited by his habit. Utilitarianism gets a real workout: junkies (“users”) find their character-structures used: the habit, in service to itself, uses what the user used to be; the friends and families of the junkie all find themselves being used. …I’ve noticed how wretchedly long it takes a user who’s quit using to trust himself to be himself again. …In terms of Life Drama: audiences will be excused for finding this entire process inevitably tedious.
6. Did he know it? Or did some residual glamor from a cultural judgment (liquid-eyed Omar had portrayed both Doctor Zhivago and Che Guevara) penetrate his ultra-thick alcoholic veil: his arrival on The Bowery coincided with that of a jettisoned couch—found sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes on the medial strip (where it just fit)—and “Omar” took to it like a duck to a wet cliché; stretched out full-length, he out- Capote’d Capote!
7. After the eventual breakthrough of learning his given name, Mary tried to interest John Beaton in joining one of her performances; he was flattered to be asked (or pretended to be) but would have none of it. In refusing, he joined other proud, narrow-gauge loonies…including a robotic plate-glass window-washer who wore signs advertising his craft all over his body; and, of course, Emil Metalik, the advocate of birth- control through self-spanking. As Mary recently commented: “The weird ones who have it together are usually paranoid.” They need to be?
8. A life-actor portraying an actor.