My first sight of Vanille…on East 13 Street. Vanille is a foundling, and looks like a cross between a bat, Gizmo, Pikachu, a chihuahua and Yoda from Star Wars. I loved her immediately, as well her owner. Jeanette has been in the East Village for many years….I believe she said almost forty three. Jeanette has many stories. When I first saw her on my way to San Gennaro in Little Italy, she looked to be suffering mightily with the heat of Indian Summer in New York City. Sweat rolled in beads, like raindrops, down her face and onto her neck, her dress, the sidewalk…everywhere. I didn’t feel sure about including her in any pictures initially because I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. Jeanette is a holdover, originally from France but old school Lower Manhattan through and through.
I’ve been thinking about Victoria. When I left Los Angeles, she thought she was pregnant and I was dumbfounded……I couldn’t believe that this tragic miracle could possibly occur on the eve of my leaving California. She was jubilant, and referred to the developer inside as a “Trick baby”. We were on the street when I found out, buried deeply in Skid Row, and we ran across a woman, hanging at a corner sandwiched somewhere between San Pedro and Gladys Avenue where Skid Row meets the flower district. The woman’s dress was bright blue, and her hair was thin and dark and oily. Her legs were bruised , and she wore no underwear of any kind. She sat, posed on the curb, and I asked for a few pictures and she obliged–I know not where those pictures are in my disorganized Lightroom catalog. The streets in this area are seedy, and dirty, and barren, pockmarked by some very deeply worn women trying to make drug money by prostituting themselves.
I remember thinking how far removed from their lives I really was, and that their references and storylines and habit sets were as different to most as any could be, and that there was very little that could be done to pull these women into the present, a place devoid of crack and sex, dirt and spit, semen and urine….a place without running sores and rats, deeply pungent body odors and vicious beatings. But one thing I can say is this: they are willing. Willing to do whatever it takes to follow their path, with patience and persistence, and sometimes without either, screaming bloody and murderous battle cries deep into the night, a night full of cries and whispers, rape and all things secretive and furtive. With perseverance and abandonment of everything and everyone that stands as obstacles, they do whatever they must to get high, and absolutely will not be deterred by genuine offers of help, or clear guidance toward a path to redemption and recovery. You can call that a sort of bravery in my estimation, backhanded and full of torsion….but all the same, like it or not, in reality a sort of peculiar model of courage. Because , after all, if you’re not willing, you’re not going anywhere, whether that path is a righteous one or it’s a blemish that will forever disfigure a lifetime.
As it turned out, there was no tragic pregnancy, and no baby to live out a life that would serve as a perfectly defined model of neglect and despair. I began to realize that her babies, as she referred to what she believed to be twin lives inside her, were likely an abdominal fluid build up that could represent the dawning of a severe health problem. The pregnancy was a mirage, and all the days spent in floating, feminine dresses while working the streets of Skid Row were a strange fabrication, some alchemy of hope and despair, brain damage from inconceivably heavy drug use and delusion and happy thoughts. And it makes me wonder about the rest of us, and our lives and hopes and aspirations, and I wonder how much of that, too, is falsehood and waste.
I thought I would write this in one of my favorite cafes, a place called Le Figaro Cafe on Bleecker Street at Macdougal. I had it in my mind: the black wrought iron of the chairs, the hard, old style round seat, the marble topped tables forever wobbling atop matchbooks placed under their bases for stability….cappuccino spilling, attempts at table stabilization and every time you place an elbow on the table the mess starts again. The smell of Italian coffee beans, the inimitable aroma of a real West Village Italian cafe. I used to sit in these old places, pining after one guy or another, endless journaling over the nonsensical particulars of a misguided romance or two that I’m happy to forget. But…..I’ll never forget Le Figaro, or Speakeasy. I’ll never forget the drama of the lives lived in this neighborhood, the artistic misfits and dreamers that used to populate the streets, and the intense experiences I had in the few minutes or months I spent in their company. Because things were always fleeting, even though it felt like forever at the time. Joanne and Wendy and Chrissie and Charlie and Michelle…..Michelle was a beautiful poet and heroin addict and mother and cocktail waitress and she taught me about art on Macdougal Street when I was twenty one….in Speakeasy. Art in a sweaty, earthy sense, of living your life for it and in it at the expense of everything else. Speakeasy is gone, and I saw Michelle a few years later, when I was a waitress at Goldfinger’s and she had undergone an unforgettable transformation from a reasonably healthy heroin heroine into a completely strung out west side prostitute. She told me I should watch myself and be careful about how I choose to make my money and I never forgot her or that statement, or what she looked like when she made it. She is gone, and so is Bleecker Street. So many memories swirl in my mind on St Mark’s Place that I can barely manage a walk without a long drawn monologue on the ruination of the street, and the wealthy young people who have replaced us artists and actors, dancers and poets and musicians and dreamers…..not to mention the old Polish and Ukrainian people, the junkies and particularly particular people that rounded out the mixture. I never felt judged there, and it was a refuge as well as an affordable neighborhood to forge habits and friendships. I remember the smell of patchouli, and the sounds of reggae on Avenue A, and the way someone’s dreadlocks looked at dawn on Second Ave.
I’m sitting in a doorway in present day Soho as I write this. Eileen’s is to my left, selling cheesecake, and my son awaits on my right, ready for his soda and a walk to the East Village to buy a chocolate chip cookie from a place on 7th street very near to where I once sat, in my little rent controlled apartment at 7th and 1st Avenue. Every morning I made spice tea, and sat at my window overlooking 7th street, smoking cigarettes and thinking thoughts and dreaming of someone or something…..across the street, an old Ukrainian woman often sat in her window in her rent controlled apartment. Here and there our eyes would meet….and in my mind, it’s still there, as are all of the old things and faces and places that are imbedded deeply inside. But I know she is dead now, because that was twenty four years ago, and the reality is that it’s 2017, and good credit and income are absolute essentials on that street. So the windows are empty and now it’s time to create new memories for my son, aged 14, who is patiently waiting for his soda and a chocolate chip cookie from that new place on 7th street.
This festival is buried in Crown Heights. Everybody tells you something different and so I wound up missing the sunrise start, which was okay to be honest…..the neighborhood is block by block, and early in the morning was out of my comfort zone, so a 9 am foray was perfect for me. This section of Nostrand Avenue was my first visit and today the streets were covered in paint and oil, as were many of the people present. I didn’t feel unwelcome….one guy objected to me photographing him, and it was apparent that it was his personal feeling about me that drove his distaste. Interactions like this always flatten my mood, and this one did, but only briefly. Because this day, Monday September 4, 2017 was about one thing: fun. Pure fun for adults on one day at summer’s close.
This guy noticed me photographing him and he was in the middle of the paint and oil intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Empire Boulevard.