Essays and Comment: Michael Gregory Stephens

Angels on Second Avenue: The Lower East Side When Poetry Was the World

 

At the start of the 1960s, the Lower East Side transformed itself—from a Jewish ghetto that was still peopled with immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe—into the East Village, a neighborhood of jazzmen, hipsters, alternative poets, ranting public intellectuals, drug addicts and winos and dropouts, students and ex-students, art students and literature students, politicos, anarchists, radicals of all sorts, and bohemians, some of them leftovers from the Beats, some were the earliest memory one might have of the hippies, the flower children, the 1960s alternative culture enthusiasts. It was also a place where someone who did not fit in anywhere suddenly found themselves being part of a community, however broadly defined the term “community” was. In 1961, the East Village lacked history, though its geography had been once pegged onto that larger entity known as the Lower East Side. The latter place, like Greenwich Village, had an historical geography, something the fledgling East Village lacked. The Lower East Side was where so many Jews started their American lives; it was the paradigm of the immigrant’s tale, not just for the Jews, but also for the Italians and Irish, the other 19th and early 20th century groups to migrate to American shores.

Greenwich Village was where the great early bohemians gathered, the more colorful being characters like Maxwell Bodenheim and Joe Gould. The more significant bohemians were less characters than full-blown personalities and literary talents such as the playwright Eugene O’Neill and the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her middle name was taken from a local Greenwich Village hospital later made famous for being the place where Dylan Thomas died, drinking himself to death at the nearby Hudson Street dive, the White Horse Tavern, now a place where young drinkers made pilgrimages to their fallen idol. In more personal mythology, St. Vincent’s Hospital was where my mother worked as a nurse before she met my father and got married and had sixteen children. In the 1930s, my mother hung out with leftists and bohemians, shocking her more traditional parents back in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But the East Village had no such personages like O’Neill or Millay associated with it—yet.

Allen Ginsberg moved to East 10th Street around Avenue C in the early 1960s and called this place home more or less for the rest of his life. Ed Sanders, later of the Fugs singing group, opened the Peace Eye Bookshop in the East Village in the early 1960s, just across the road from Allen’s pad. Poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara, LeRoi Jones, Joel Oppenheimer, and Hettie Jones lived in the East Village, too, and so did Paul Blackburn, Ishmael Reed, Bill Amidon—the list goes on and on. The East Village did not have historical geography so much as a New World geography; it was a map of possibilities or, as the writer Guy Davenport said in another context, “a geography of the imagination.” What the East Village had was tenements and cheap rents, and this drew future greatness to it.

The East Village was carved out of a northern part of the Lower East Side, not so much physically as psychically. It was an imaginary boundary which separated the Old World of the Lower East Side from the new one of the East Village. The Lower East Side was a ghetto for Eastern European and Russian immigrants, while the East Village was not so much a ghetto as a sanctuary, an Albion, for the young, radical, and creative. But in terms of history, which more or less begins for the East Village at the beginning of the 1960s, a boundary is often the first thing to define such a narrative. “To draw a boundary around anything is to define, analyze, and reconstruct it,” the historian Fernand Braudel once observed about the Mediterranean region. By calling the northern sector of the Lower East Side by a new name, the East Village, a boundary had been drawn around the neighborhood, not only defining it but re-defining it, as well as creating a new analysis for its circumstance, and a new construction for its state of being. This urban reconstruction had nothing to do with the built environment, except in the most superficial way, but it did affect the economy and story of a place.

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The Encyclopedia of New York City defines the East Village as a “neighborhood in lower Manhattan, bounded to the north by 14th Street, to the east by Avenue D, to the south by Houston Street, and to the west by the Bowery and 3rd Avenue.” It goes on to say that in the 1960s, it became home to artists and writers, musicians and intellectuals who were motivated by its cheap housing in contrast to the more expensive ones found in the Village. (An aside worth noting: even this wonderful, scholarly tome gets some things wrong, including putting an apostrophe on St. Marks Place; there is none.) The entry for the Lower East Side defines the place as being “bounded to the north by 14th Street, to the east by the East River, to the south by Fulton and Franklin streets, and to the west by Pearl Street and Broadway.” It goes on to state that the LES comprehends (their word, not mine) the East Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, Tompkins Square, Astor Place, etc

The East Village can also be defined by geography, but it is also defined by other less tangible things than place, such as time (the 1960s), mood (its jazz, and later its rock music), temperament (its politics and esthetics), and even its use of mind-altering substances, including drugs and—what is less mentioned—its massive amounts of alcohol. What I am getting at is that the East Village was as much an imaginary world as it was a real place. In that sense, it reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which explorer and navigator Marco Polo weaves tales for the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan, the trouble being that when Marco Polo tells him of a real place like Venice, Kublai Khan finds it fantastical; so the seafarer reverts to storytelling, making up his cities, which seems to please the emperor far more than real places.

“If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed,” Marco Polo says, “you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire.”

I suppose the East Village of the 1960s, long gone, mulled over in a million imaginations, is like one of those invisible cities in Calvino’s narrative. Yet, like Marco Polo, his narrator, I don’t want to believe that the search for it must stop, however discontinuous in space and time it is. In fact, that gives me even more incentive to try to piece together this narrative, combining research with personal account, the empirical and its opposite, the fragmented codifications of memory and intuition.

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When I first arrived in the East Village at the beginning of the 1960s, I was separated from the older immigrants by a construct called the Lower East Side. The construct constituted cultural differences across time and space, these people having come from pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. They had no idea of this transformative experience known as the East Village, even if their streets and mine were identical. But over the course of the 1960s decade, these two entities would merge somewhere between the first Bill Evans piano solo on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Allen Ginsberg’s moving to a tenement on East 10th Street in the early 1960s. For me, everything came together upon first reading Hubert Selby’s novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn. In other words, it was around the time that Modernism ended and Post-Modernism began.

Ted Berrigan, so important to the East Village, was a large man, tall and broad, with a Lincolnesque beard. In another time and place, people might mistake him for an Islamic or even Hebraic scholar. Instead he was a poet of incredible originality, and like so many poets throughout the ages, someone driven by the songs in his head to extreme experiences, in his case, living them out at the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place. Prior to his position in front of Gems Spa, Ted Berrigan had grown up in Rhode Island, served in the US military in South Korea, and attended the University of Tulsa. While living in Oklahoma he met his lifelong friends (fellow poets and artist) Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard, all of whom would move to New York at the outset of the 1960s and become connected to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on Second Avenue and East 10th Street in 1966.

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In 1966, I lived two blocks from that epicentre of the East Village, my first rent-paying apartment in New York City. My rent on East 10th Street was $60 a month, it was a railroad flat of three rooms, and the bathtub was in the kitchen. I had first encountered the East Village five years earlier when I was 15-year-old runaway. At the age of 20, I fancied myself a writer, and that is probably why I dropped out of the state university I indifferently attended, then moved to downtown Manhattan after gloriously (grandly) failing my physical to be drafted into the military. I had an erratic heart and, as the doctors put it, traces of illegal substances in my bloodwork. Now I worked as a clerk in the Music Department at the newly opened Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, making $125 a week before taxes. I subsisted on a nightly diet of brown rice and soya beans, some vegetables and tofu, with soy sauce poured over it. Sometimes I ate an egg. For lunch, I had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I did not drink coffee, so I consumed a lot of tea to stay awake. Also, almost nightly, I drank a six-pack of beer and smoked a few bowls of hash-hish, almost like that character in The Quiet American who nurtures his opium habit while he is writing for a British newspaper and searching for moles (the spies) in Saigon. The opiate hash came from Nepal, and I purchased a long stick of it from a young page at the Music Library, a fellow who somehow had connections in the opiate trade out of South Asia. (New York was like that in those days.) I was wafer thin, with bad teeth, dodgy hygiene, nits in my long kinky hair, and always a notebook in my pocket. As our poetry teacher Joel Oppenheimer liked to say: “Be there when it happens. Write it down.”

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I want to note two experiences I had during that time.. One of them took place on a bus going down Second Avenue after a day’s work at the Music Library—a brief encounter I had with a woman passenger, concerning the poet William Carlos Williams. The other story concerns two old Jews from the Lower East Side, standing in a queue in a pharmacy on Second Avenue at St. Marks Place; it was not anything they did particularly, but rather something that was said. They were two quotidian yet comprehending experiences which typified the East Village in those days. I took two buses to and from work, one directly beside Lincoln Center that drove eastward across Central Park, then across the Upper East Side. I alighted from the bus at Second Avenue, taking another longer bus ride downtown. This is where I usually took out a book, if I found a seat, and began to read for the slow journey back to what amounted to my Albion, the East Village. Usually I had a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems stuffed into one of my pockets. But on this occasion, I was reading Paterson, the epic poem by William Carlos Williams. The New Directions paperback had an illustration of the Passaic Falls in New Jersey, and upon seeing the cover, a passenger on the bus exclaimed, “Oh, my God, a book about Paterson, look, it’s the Passaic Falls on the cover!” I was delighted by the recognition and acknowledged her enthusiasm immediately. The woman asked to see the book and once she realized it was poetry, a sour look came across her face, and she handed it back to me, almost as if it were covered in a smelly, unmentionable substance. She was a well-dressed young woman in a smart, crisp dark business suit with stockings and high heels. By contrast, I had unusually long nappy black hair and goatee, wearing a blue workshirt, a ridiculously colorful tie, a thick cheap corduroy jacket, and heavily wrinkled khaki trousers, with Converse sneakers. We were probably the same age or maybe she was just a year or two older, though already she appeared middleaged.

The second soul-comprehending experience unfolded this way: An old Jewish couple stood in front of me waiting to fill a prescription in the pharmacy on the northeast corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, and as they waited, they talked, not in Russian or Polish but the heavily accented English of the Lower East Side. When Lincoln Center was built, the Russian-born Jewish artist Marc Chagall had been commissioned to do these grand tapestries in the front of the new Metropolitan Opera House, a building which I walked past every morning on my way to work. The tapestries were typical Chagall works that were filled with bright colors and imaginary beings floating in the air. The old Jewish woman and man in the pharmacy were speaking about the Chagall tapestries. The works of art were in the news as the opera house had just opened.

“What’s the big deal?” the old woman asked. “What’s so great about this Chagall?”

“He’s Jewish,” the man said, “and he comes from the Old World.”

“So does the butcher,” she answered, “but I never heard anyone call him a genius.”

“It’s theological,” the old man said.

“What’s theological?”

“Chagall,” he said.

“Wha!” she shouted, like a seagull calling out.

“Before Chagall,” the man told her, “all angels had wings in paintings. But Chagall made angels fly even if they didn’t have wings and are not angels even.”

“No,” the old woman said. “I had no idea that it was all because of no wings.”

“No wings,” the man said.

*

I want to dilate on is that world in which people fly—only without wings. Where this phenomenal event took place was in the East Village in the 1960s, a place of poets and musicians, artists and writers, street theatre performers and anarcho-politicos, ranting lunatics on street corners, no one listening except people like myself, always drawn to the crazy music of the streets in those days. I am still drawn to the crazy music of the streets, only I’ve broadened my definition of a neighborhood to include this all-comprehending Earth. The East Village was not Shangrila; it was too edgy and dangerous at times to be a paradise. But it continued to be, like its predecessor the Lower East Side, a kind of promised land, if not for immigrants, then the intellectual and creative migrants who eventually filled its tenements in the 1960s. The creative impulse is what distinguished these newer downtown inhabitants from people on the uptown bus who took umbrage with a book because it contained poems. We took umbrage with the war, with the placidity of American suburban life, with our parents and grandparents, our ethnic origins, our educational system, with the various agencies, the city, the state, the federal government, with the literary establishment—with the Establishment. Others did not quite yet comprehend our grasp and scope, our determination and desires. These new inhabitants of the East Village also were joined to those old-timers from the Lower East Side, the old radicals from Eastern Europe and Russia, like those two old people in the pharmacy discussing Marc Chagall’s tapestries at the new opera house at Lincoln Center. We were all outsiders, looking in.

 

 

 

Michael Gregory Stephens is a novelist, playwright, and poet whose works include The Brooklyn Book of the DeadGreen Dreams: Essays Under the Influence of the Irish, and the long-running off-Broadway play Our Father.

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