18 June 2013

Smack, Crack and Pop!

Holy smokes! My dear friend, Armen, just sent me a video from Gothamist, the website of all things New York, containing some rediscovered footage of singer and East Village resident (at least in 1993), Iggy Pop giving a tour of the neighbourhood I left behind a year later. At the time, he was living at Christodora House, a high-rise luxury condo conversion at the corner of East 9th and Avenue B that was the first nail in the gentrification coffin to this bohemian oasis in 1986; and a far cry from this building's philanthropic origins as a settlement house for low-income and immigrant residents when it was erected in 1928.

I lived at East 6th and Avenue B, in 1993, so this retro tour of an East Village I left 20 years ago was bizarre in the extreme, especially since I have mixed feelings about the three years I lived there: I was back at school, at Columbia, where I'd left a suite in university housing to move in with my brother, who'd occupied several EV apartments since the '80s and now had a vacancy in his then-current two-bedroom flat: a spacious domain we would re-do together to create a salon, of sorts, that allows art and books to furnish a room, which we so favored (as had, apparently, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas before us), even as we were more preoccupied with the spate of weekly dinner parties we gave, as well as the larger 75+ oyster and drinks bacchanals with which we enticed intrepid friends generally too fearful to venture past Avenue A.

I spent a lot of time walking my new neighborhood in what was then called the Lower East Side; since today's LES was, at least in 1993, still completely off-limits to nice white colonists, like me, who knew little about the local proclivities for heroin and anarchy, two attractions that flew in the face of my more pressing interests in cashmere sweaters and Belgian shoes; neither of which I could afford on a student's work-study stipend, but neither of which were impervious to my recklessness with what little reserves I had, later pleading with Mother that I had additional books to buy so as to augment my squandered allowance from her. 1993! Apparently this was a seminal year, as evinced by the recent and rather enjoyable show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, occupying its place these days on the Bowery in what would have been an inconceivable idea for a cultural institution's locale, back in the day.

But if the cultural and political tides were turning in 1993, as we learned from that show, this was lost on a still fairly quaint EV, where an eager Iggy walks his beat, identifying his haunts. Ah, the comically cheap and plentiful sandwiches from the late and lamented Pedro's Bakery, right there, on Avenue C: then such a grotty and rather dangerous destination for most, but not Iggy and certainly not I. For did you happen to notice the abundance of street peddlers purveying their wares? This video was clearly shot on a Sunday, the day when all of those merchants of theft were out, en masse, their teeming inventory of fenced goods from the better neighbourhoods spread across blankets; an urban Harrods for the underclass! I learned quickly that an eager consumer--endowed with impeccable taste but impecunious otherwise--could make out like the proverbial bandit in those parts: a frontier of drugs and guns at night; but on those Sunday mornings, a hallowed ground of merchandise that constituted the sabbath for those who get high off a bargain.

I would rise at 6am each Sunday to be the first one on the scene--not easy with the previous evenings often spent on a stool at Temple Bar. If ever I'd had an athletic bone in my body, I don't think it's bragging to say how quickly I could scan for booty! Still can! My snake eyes were given a rigorous training on that miracle mile. This shit went for literally nothing: gorgeous tweed jackets, 2 and 3 dollars; silver services (a veritable embarrassment of riches for those who observe the 4pm ritual, as I do); so much Staffordshire and English ceramics and transferware, I could plate a banquet; club chairs (I bought two Harvard chairs for a friend of mine, $5 the pair) and ottomans, objects d'art and the decorative adornments to a drawing room so favoured by the rich, such as a globe on a mahogany pedestal, some representational sculpture that would make for tasteful bookends, and lots of botanical prints and art that never offends; linens aplenty and simply outrageous deals!

Because the bulk of the shopping demographic hailed from the projects on Avenue D, where only the electronics, kitchen items and other devices that either glittered or held some sort of sheen were coveted, it's probably moot to say I had little competition for the finer neckties and the like. The vendors all knew me, and knew my scam, but they also knew I'd spend regularly. They could count on me. In a day's good grab, I'd drop $40, which was a ton, considering how much I'd bring home; and sometimes I'd have to dash back and drop off my treasures just long enough to grab two other bags I'd had at the ready, so I could race back and buy more. I was addicted to Avenue C: who needed heroin! The high that comes from stealing is so staggeringly euphoric, I can't begin to articulate its ecstasy. And of course, my proximity lent itself to my getting there before this market caught on among in-the-know bargain-hunters who'd begun venturing over from other neighborhoods. Some would see me with bags filled with fresh plunder, and I'd tell them it was a dry day, and discourage them from staying. I'm not proud of my bloodthirsty avarice in those days: a student's life left my purse strings hamstrung by anything retail. (Not unlike my current actor's life that's left my purse strings hamstrung by anything retail...gosh, have I been poor that long?)

But back to the video: Iggy walks by a maroon Volvo wagon at one point, just like the one I had. How I loved that car. Got me through five accidents and a DWI. That was in the '80s, but I digress...again. Back to the video. Right, the NYPD's cars were still light blue, still late '80s-era Chevy Caprices. I love that Iggy hates cops and details his various arrests for us. I'll certainly spare you mine. I also love that Iggy cannot pronounce Lois-I-EEDA, despite an international existence that finds him saying something in French and German and letting us know he's lived in Paris and Berlin. In all, he's actually quite conventional for someone I always thought was cool: "[In New York] the streets are laid out a certain way...." Do you mean, a grid, Iggy? No, he's not articulate, alas. But he's earnest and I like that. I wonder if that squatter's park on E. 9th between B and C is still there...and that hideously painted façade Iggy liked a little up from that park? God, that was always dreadful, and I hope it's been razed: I hated that building. Oh, that's right, Iggy was making Coffee and Cigarettes for Jim Jarmusch when I lived there. Yeah, I wouldn't call it acting either, Iggy. I hate when people say CON, for Cannes; it's not that it's pretentious, it's that it's ignorant.

So funny to see those streets as they were, still abandoned, occupied by the squatters, whom Giuliani would later evict with his power of eminent domain. It was still such a chill place to live, back then, in that there was nothing to see or go to, past Avenue B, which itself was lean on attractions, outside of a bodega or two, and a couple of bars for the locals, mostly, and Time Cafe, which served great drinks but an awful menu. Iggy moving into the Christodora must have been scandalous: it was considered blasphemy among the locals to even look in that direction; and sheer sedition if one moved in, especially if having already lived in the 'hood. Sleeping with the enemy and all that jazz.

Of course, Mars Bar is now gone, so how long before 7B becomes a Le Pain Quotidien? It was a small neighborhood in those days; but by the following year, I saw the writing on the wall, and when I had to leave for Savannah, I said goodbye for good to heroin addicts in my stairwell and Jersey boys peeing on my front stoop. I was over it.

I never should have left Morningside Heights.