I’ve heard New Year’s Eve described as “amateur night” many times over, referring to partiers who can’t handle being drunk and act buffoonish as a result. But when you think about it, every night is amateur night in bars everywhere, and a lot of those amateurs are alcoholics. I’ve never walked into a bar to find "a professional": some suave, middle-aged man in a cummerbund or cravat, sipping aged whiskey and putting forth like Oscar Wilde. If I did, I’d assume I’d stumbled into a gay bar, and one that specialized in old queens.
I’m sitting here, snug and warm in my apartment, after having a ragged-ass day at work because a few people are out next week and used today to gun out whatever they could. No intentions at all of going out. I work in the western part of midtown Manhattan; they’ve had the parade iron gates lining up each avenue the past two days so that you can’t jaywalk, not quite realizing things get dangerous when you have hordes of tourists making it impossible for sane people to get around them. It’s been a bad scene all week with people who really ought to go the hell home instead of coming here, not quite realizing it still isn’t Disneyland despite Guilliani’s efforts in the 90s to make it so.
And I wasn’t spared my one amateur. Got on the train about 4:00 pm, just beating that undefined time when the cops lockdown midtown and start putting those metal gates all over the place and guiding people away from subway stations. As I did, a twentyish guy, long and lanky, got on at the Times Square stop with me. Seemed normal. Stood by the door. Train wasn't crowded at all. Two stops later, we found ourselves sitting next to each other, albeit with a long bar in the middle of the subway car between us.
He was drunk off his ass, listening to hiphop on his iPod. I could tell because he had earphones that rested on top of his ears, and I could hear the sound bleeding out. The paper bag in his hand turned out to be a beer … which was such a throwback to the “old” days of New York when it was easy to walk around in public with a can of beer and not get hassled. (You now will for breaking open container laws.) I could respect the guy for being so brazen, but that’s where it ended. Like so many dickheads listening to hiphop, he was gesturing with his arms while he listened, you know, the phony jabbing of fingers, the hand signals and swaying of shoulders, like a five-year-old emulating his take of bloated adulthood.
He was drunk, no need to bust his chops or get weird, so long as he kept it relatively under control. About all he did was rub up against me by accident a little too much, not enough to act offended and make a scene, but enough to make me think, “Get off the train, you drunken prick.” Every time the train hit a turn or quicker stop, he’d lean too far against me, like someone does when he falls asleep on the train. Again, the key to surviving in New York is quietly riding out situations like that. If it gets too weird, find some way to walk away, or act out, quickly and decisively. I surely had him in the corner of my eye.
But then, this smell … he shit his pants! I know he did. I suspect he knows I know he did. The smell just sort of came at me in a small wave, but I’ve been around enough homeless people to know – if I had kids in diapers, I could assure you, it would be the same smell. Not a full-on dump. He probably squeezed out a small turd by accident on one of those sharp turns. You couldn’t see it. Man, you could smell it. Again, not an over-powering stench, but enough to let me know baby made boom boom. I know after that smell, he stopped futzing around with his “white rapper representin’, yo” routine he had been putting on. That tends to be the case when you have a load in your pants!
He made it past Roosevelt Plaza, the first above-ground stop in Queens. But, luckily, he shuffled, and I mean shuffled, like a penguin, towards the door at 39th Avenue, the next stop and leaned off the train. He was so drunk he stumbled towards the subway wall and crouched against it, with his back to it, leaned over. I assume he was getting ready to puke to go along with his boo-boo.
But the doors shut, and the train pulled away. Man, what a New Year’s that guy must be having. Who knows, maybe his girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job, one of his parents passed on, D, all of the above, who knows. He wasn’t a happy, kazoo-blurting party drunk in a plastic hat tossing confetti. He was a drunk, lonely kid on the train who shit his pants, getting off on a train stop that’s still a bit dicey in terms of safety. Happy New Year! I hope his day got better once he got off at 39th, but who knows. He seemed harmless enough, but it’s my firm belief that anyone listening to an iPod and “acting out” the music, whatever kind of music, has to be a horse’s ass on some deep, abiding level that I don’t want to contemplate. Paths cross, assholes fade like tail lights in the dark, life goes on.
Such is life in the big city. The night before, my old friend Fred came into the city for a visit while staying with his extended family in a Jersey town this week. (This is the same guy from this post detailing our crazy “NYC in our 20s” days.) I haven’t seen Fred in years, maybe a decade? It’s been a long time. The dude hasn’t changed physically one iota since his college days. Maybe his pants size are up a notch or two (unlike six or seven like mine!), but he still looks physically healthy, hasn’t gone gray or lost his hair, and despite a high-pressure job in a major city, doesn’t have that sort of stress he must feel routinely showing at all in his face. I’ve seen this way of life age people in dog years. Fred must be a vampire, drinking blood in the dead of night to maintain this Dorian Gray personage. I don’t know what he’s doing, but it’s working.
We had some dinner and drinks down in the East Village, Alphabet City to be exact, one of Fred’s last stops before he moved out to Staten Island, met his wife and eventually left New York. If you’re unfamiliar with New York, this is an area on the Lower East Side that has changed drastically in the last 20 years, going from a rundown, anarchistic squatters paradise with burned-out buildings and a thriving drug trade … to an obscenely-expensive, highly-exclusive residential area that, I guess, must have started as geared towards the young and hip, but you can’t be too young and hip these days and still afford the sky-high rents and real-estate values down there. That goes for all of white Manhattan. Parts of it used to be a genuinely intriguing mix of people across all social strata. Now, you’re going to find smatterings of projects housing the very poor, or people with A LOT of money, with very few social classes in between. No struggling writers, artists, or poets, or musicians. Most of them have gone out to Brooklyn and are in the process of being priced out of most of those neighborhoods, too.
I don’t know who lives down there now. I do know you still have sizable projects when you get over to Avenues C and D (this area is called Alphabet City because it’s a large, rectangular block of a neighborhood intersected north/south by Avenues A through D). So things can still feel hairy down there depending on where you walk. But, man, nothing like in the 70s and 80s, surely up through the mid-90s when things changed rapidly along Avenues A and B. When Fred and I sat down for dinner at a nice “American” style restaurant (with prices better than what I find in my neighborhood in Astoria!), it was nearly empty just after six, but filled up fast, most of them a younger crowd. No way on earth could they have lived around there. They were probably like me – in the city for a night of hanging out. I neglected to mention to Fred, who had been asking what happened to all the old clubs and great places to see bands we knew and frequented, there still are a few places like that around, like The Living Room, Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge just south of where we were. But not many.
That was our main draw to hanging out downtown back then, the allure of seeing good music in a small club, which we did dozens of times, at places like the old Ritz on 11th between 3rd and 4th Avenues, and The Knitting Factory when it was on Houston Street. A bomb has gone off in Manhattan though in terms of night clubs, and most bands now, when they come to New York, head out to various small clubs in Brooklyn to make their small legends. You saw people like us wandering around downtown, most of the time we were out to see bands. Those days are just about gone in Manhattan.
It was a kick to later walk the streets of Fred’s old neighborhood and gawk in disbelief at what it had become in the past 20 years. Understand that before I moved to New York, the two or three times I visited Fred in his cramped/shared apartment just west of Times Square, whoever was up for it, we’d all get on the subway down to the East Village, get cans of beer in paper bags at the nearest bodega (much like the dude noted above on the train today!) and just walk in the night. Man, just walking around New York in the 80s, you could still feel “that vibe” – a wonderful feeling, like sparks. The place felt so alive and vibrant. Run-down as hell, sure, but that was part of it. I’m sure part of it was being a bit of a rube and feeding off the different kind of energy a major city provides after dark, but with New York, it was something else, too, something much larger. And I should point out we weren’t acting like “frat boys” or in any way kicking up a fuss. Just walking and taking it all in. Pass a bar? Man, let’s go in and have one. The night would piece itself together like that until we got back on the train, exhausted, and went back uptown to sleep fitfully on hardwood living-room floors.
I guess Fred and I did roughly the same last night, save we had our beers in the restaurant and just walked, particularly down the block that was his last living space down there, a dumpy apartment building on 13th Street between A and B. I remembered that place. Every time I went down there to see him, someone on the first floor would be wailing away on a drum set and sounding terrible. Fred noted that his most vivid memory was the night there was a fire in the building, and everyone filed in their pajamas and blankets, huddled in the water and smoke-filled street in front of the apartment building, dazed and half asleep, not being able to go back in until later the next morning and the whole place smelling like smoke.
It still looked dumpy, as some apartment building always will. But just across the street was a palace, a very nice-looking building with arty lanterns and such hanging from awnings and immaculate brickface on a building that looked like a grand old hotel that had been there for centuries. Well, Fred informed me, that was a squat back in 1989. A burned-out hulk of a building with no windows, graffiti-covered, runaway kids and older boho artist types making a stand there because whoever owned the building had let it rot, so these people moved in and made a go of it without any heat or running water. They’d tap into electricity from street lights in front of the building. This was the urban version of “off the grid” people you’ll find out west living on the edges of deserts and in the deep woods. Some good people, some crazy and lost, all trying to make lives for themselves outside the rule book.
Who knows when that particular squat shut down, but they all did down there, and there were surely dozens, as that whole neighborhood changed in the early 90s. The Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 was probably the last hurrah of the rebel side of the neighborhood, where the various forces at play in the neighborhood came to a head, and “law and order” prevailed, thus paving the way for gentrification. Surely, when Fred lived there circa 1990, it was still rough, but I’m sure signs of the impending changes were taking root right then. It blew his mind to look across the street from his old building in 2009 and see this beautiful art-deco apartment building standing where what you might call a black hole of hope once stood.
As Fred noted last night, what the hell, you can piss on gentrification all you want, and for good reason, but by the same token, drugs, squalor, shootings and general mayhem going on all up and down the block at all hours is hardly an ideal living situation, even for a young guy looking for a grittier alternative to wherever he’d just been. I don’t like gentrification at all – in fact, find it horrifying in some senses now that I’m actually living in a neighborhood where I can see how insidiously it works – but when you see the end results, years later, you do get that deep “what the fuck” moment and realize you, as a small person in a set place and time, are more like a cork bobbing on a wave in the ocean than anything else. Shit happens in place and time, and you move along with it, sometimes rolling along nicely for years, other times being swept away for various reasons, in best cases, of your own choice.
And I guess that applies to our lives, too, which is I what I got from walking around with Fred last night. You just roll with the waves and see where they take you. At least that’s how I’ve lived my life. Which must sound like a nightmare to a go-getter with everything that’s going to happen in his life laid out in outline format. Well, outline formats always come up with unanticipated sub-numbers that tend to spread out the broadly-stroked Roman Numerals of Big Shit Happening. You roll with things. And as I told Fred, last night, like a grumpy old man laying out the mystery of life while I clutched my newspaper and harrumphed: sane, healthy and solvent … the rest takes care of itself. You just take whatever shit rolls your way – good, bad or indifferent – and improvise to the best of your abilities. I think I realized this walking around last night, and the vibe was virtually no different from the one we had back in 198X roaming around as kids looking for sparks, as opposed to middle-aged guys who had found them in some sense, and watched some of them die, others go on glowing in the night.
I think the key to life is to simply not shit your pants on a subway train in New York!