Showing posts with label New York City. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York City. Show all posts

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thirteen Most

One night in the 1980s, a low period for me, as I slumped on my regular stool at Farrell's, in Brooklyn, staring into my fourth or fifth of their enormous beers, the gentleman to my left struck up a conversation. Like nearly everyone in the bar but me, he was a cop, a retired cop to be exact, and unlike most of them he looked like a churchwarden, lean and grave and puckered, definitely on the farther shore of 80. He had much to say; his proudest accomplishments had gone unrecognized. It seemed he had been the first to put together a numbered list of the most-sought reprobates from justice. He'd gotten the idea sometime in the late '40s, he recalled. He had been listening to Symphony Sid, his favorite radio disk jockey. It was the week that "Twisted" by Wardell Gray moved into the pole position on the chart. The idea of a Top Ten was itself new.

There were some good cases on tap that week, too. Someone had stolen all the sacramental vessels, worth many thousands, from the sacristy at St. Patrick's; someone else had apparently scaled the sheer face of a skyscraper to murder a diplomat in his heavily-guarded 35th-story bedroom; a gang of miscreants in fright masks had walked off with the gate receipts during the seventh inning of a game at the Polo Grounds. My friend deplored these crimes, naturally, but still felt they deserved something more than the usual tabloid-headline form of appreciation. He imagined a Top Ten of crimes--the Most Audacious Felonies. He saw himself announcing the list on the radio, becoming a personality, a sensation. There would be a spin-off comic book with his name and face at upper left, "presenting" the felonies to an eager public. In the meantime he got himself some sheets of oaktag and posted a list in the squad room.

His superiors were not amused. He was informed that as a property clerk his job was to keep track of evidence and exhibits and not go inserting his nose in places where it did not belong, and he was furthermore forcibly reminded why at age 45 he was still nothing more than a property clerk--my new friend did not enlighten me on that particular score. Not a week later, however, a list appeared on every bulletin board of every precinct house in the city. Nicely typed and roneographed, it was headed "The Ten Most Wanted Men." Immediately my friend knew just which ambitious, sniveling lieutenant it was who had stolen his idea, but there was nothing he could do about it. Adding insult to injury, the FBI caught wind of the list and called the plagiarist down to D. C. to advise on the creation of a nationwide Top Ten. By the end of the month the rat was heading up his own Special Squad.

Right away the list entered popular culture. It was just as my friend imagined it, down to the comic book, although J. Edgar Hoover was the personality charged with "presenting" it. The FBI list--the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives--garnered the lion's share of publicity, but the New York City version, which evolved into the Thirteen Most Wanted, more than held its own. My friend, who was not short of contacts on the other side of the law, had any number of stories about crooks vying for a position, gunning for the number-one man in order to take his place, becoming depressed and allowing themselves to be arrested when they were bumped down to number fourteen, and so on. The public, for their part, were intoxicated--the number of wanton misidentifications and groundless accusations of bosses and neighbors and rivals in love more than quintupled, and so correspondingly did the number of false arrests. Even more than during the "public enemy" craze of the 1930s, law enforcement had become a spectacle.

At some point in the late 1950s, my friend made the acquaintance of a boy, a "bohunk" from Pittsburgh, who had come to town to become an artist. He didn't say how they met, but they seem to have become rather close, although he didn't think much of the boy's attempts at art. The boy liked to draw "fruity" things, like women's shoes, and serenely ignored my friend's attempts to steer him toward something more substantial, such as true-crime comics. Still, they had some good times before the boy started becoming a success, designing greeting cards and wallpaper and shopping bags, and began thinking himself "too good" for my friend. As the boy became ever busier attending fancy cocktail parties on Fifth Avenue, their acquaintance languished. My friend was sad, but moved on, and had put the boy well out of his mind by 1962 or so, when like the rest of America he was made aware of a huckster who was making a fortune painting pictures of soup cans. He laughed when he read the story in the Daily News, but the laughter caught in his throat when he saw the picture next to it. It was the boy.

My friend had drifted through a couple of decades as a property clerk and, despite his early dreams of derring-do, had come to rather enjoy it. The job was steady, undemanding, and allowed him plenty of time to do the Jumble. He was a department fixture, almost synonymous with his job. That same year, though, his longtime nemesis, the plagiarist, became chief. And it could only have been his decision, made out of pure malice, to kick my friend down to patrol duty--my friend was nearing retirement, had been a model employee, had fallen arches. Anyway, it so happened that my friend was on the street in uniform on an unseasonably cold autumn evening, guarding a movie premiere, of all stupid things, when he saw the boy again. The boy now looked like an apprentice hoodlum: leather jacket, sunglasses, need of haircut. He was walking with that old movie star--what was her name? The boy spotted my friend, said nothing, but the two locked eyes for a second. Even through the sunglasses, my friend could tell.

Cut to Spring, 1964. My friend, inches from retirement, had been patrolling the World's Fair. One day he was called to the New York State pavilion. There might be trouble, he was told. As he approached he kept looking up at the piston-shaped towers, imagining a jumper. Only when he got close did he notice the lower building. It was covered with a row of enormous portraits of men. To his astonishment, he recognized them: the Thirteen Most Wanted. He stared at the faces in disbelief. But the instant he recognized the face of Salvatore Vitale, workers began obliterating it with white paint. One by one the faces disappeared. It was his dream--both realized and short-circuited--all over again. Somehow he found out, eventually: it was the boy! He did that! But was it an act of love, or an attempt to kill him?

Friday, November 28, 2008


Just about as rare as if it had never been published at all, this may be the only extant copy of Dave Carluccio's only book--typed, photocopied, folded, and stapled by its author in 1980 in an edition of fewer than a hundred, maybe fewer than twenty. The title and the cover image both refer to Aleksei Kruchenykh's Against Hooliganism in Literature (1926), cover by Gustav Klutsis. That work in turn, which has never been translated, is to the best of my knowledge a polemic by the veteran cubo-futurist directed against some rival Soviet avant-garde gang. But that didn't matter much to Carluccio, who most likely just saw the cover reproduced in some book and ran with it. "Hooliganism"--a word strangely omnipresent in Russian and ultimately derived from a slur against the Irish--was to him something desirable, especially in literature, which he persisted in seeing in early-modernist terms, as a genteel tea party much in need of being forcibly invaded and broken up.

I knew Carluccio's brother slightly in high school. We weren't friends, and I didn't even know of Dave's existence until half a decade later, when he showed up at my apartment one day with a group of people who were looking for a party. I wasn't giving a party and wasn't in a hospitable mood, which is probably what impelled them to hang out somewhat longer than necessary, opening the beers they had brought, lighting joints, and putting records on the turntable. While most of the five or six of them were having a high old time and I was calling around trying to find the party, or any party, to get them out of my hair, Carluccio was looking through my books. Finally, when their beers were drained and before they could go for seconds, I pretended someone had given me an address on the other side of town and sent them on their way. A week later I received an envelope from Carluccio containing a sheaf of tiny stories typed on the backs of pink "While You Were Out" notes. It was the first of more than a dozen such envelopes.

As it turned out, I was to meet Carluccio only twice more. The first time was about a year later. I was coming out of a party in Tribeca, one of those huge, brawling things where maybe ten percent of the guests had actually been invited. I had no idea who the hosts were and didn't know anybody there, but on my way down the stairs some guy I didn't recognize rushed to catch up and immediately started talking at me. He had sent me the stories because I had Bataille and Artaud and Mayakovsky on my shelves and he knew I'd understand. He talked from Franklin Street up to Canal, east to the Bowery, north to St. Mark's Place, and would have talked me all the way home if I hadn't suddenly ducked into a tenement behind somebody who had just been buzzed in. His talk was all very much checklist literature--you know, the kind of thing young guys do, like throwing names of bands at each other in lieu of conversation. He was very excited about Lautréamont and Cendrars and Traven and Burroughs and Ballard and Iceberg Slim. He wanted to celebrate murder and burn down churches and throw up barricades and liberate the zoos. He wanted to invent a new language, a new literature, make the future happen today. He was talking as fast as a sports announcer in a foreign language, sweating even though it was February. But I already knew the song by heart. I had been there.

His writings were not the unpunctuated breathless screedlike verses you might expect, but on the other hand they weren't much better. He had apparently decided that the crime novel was the essential building block of literature, the constituent unit of its DNA, and he had set about reducing and recombining it--I could just about see the wheels turning in his head--much the way punk rockers had cloned and distilled and chopped up the standard Chuck Berry guitar riff. Each story, if that's what those things could be called, was a paragraph long, titled and signed, and each resembled a page of a crime novel if you were trying to read it while it whipped by on a conveyor belt.

It wasn't much, I thought. Oh, he had a good ear and all--maybe he should have been writing song lyrics. And maybe the French would appreciate it. But it hardly amounted to any kind of revolution, literary or otherwise. I can't say that I was really disappointed. What more could you expect from the typical punk-rock overgrown juvenile, too hopped up to sit still long enough to write more than 150 words? On the other hand, he was writing something, which was considerably more than I was doing at the time, for all my knowingness and jadedness and the seniority of my 25 years. Maybe Dave Carluccio was onto something, however long it would take him to get there.

As the envelopes kept coming, their contents changed. The stories grew in length, formed series, were incorporated into collages. And Carluccio, who always wrote in the first person, became a character of his own devising, the hero of his stories, addressed by name by the other characters. One envelope consisted entirely of a sheaf of author's bios: he was variously a rogue CIA agent, a Vietnam War deserter, a drug trafficker operating out of the Golden Triangle, a con artist masquerading as a movie producer, a public-relations expert simultaneously working for and working to undermine every unsavory public figure in the world, a chameleonic and indiscriminate traitor to all sides.

I published some of Carluccio's work in an occasional zine I put out then, but I never managed to run into him again. My friends, who never met him at all, became convinced that I had invented him and was using the name as a pseudonym. I laughed along at first--if I had wanted a pen name, wouldn't I have come up with something more clever? But it started to grate a bit. I wouldn't have admitted it then, but my condescension toward Carluccio began shading into a feeling of rivalry, gradually deepening into jealousy. Meanwhile, the envelopes, which at first had all been posted in Manhattan, started appearing with more far-flung and even unlikely postmarks: Lincoln, Nebraska; Guelph, Ontario; Truckee, California; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Merida, Yucatan; Punta Gorda, Belize; Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Was he attempting to enact the character he wrote about? Or was it that his writing in some way reflected what his life had become?

1980 was an insane time, at least for me: drugs were spiraling up, romance was spiraling down, and melodrama was abundant. I had gotten a job in the mailroom of a prominent literary journal, a job that permitted me to arrive at noon--since my co-worker had to leave early to attend music lessons--and then not return after taking the mailbag to the post office, which I usually contrived to do before four o'clock. I was not serious. I was fucking around heavily, not writing, pretending to be a musician but not managing to practice. I walked around in a daze of self-kidding. Late one night in early summer I was perhaps on my way to or from a party, probably high, when I happened to pass the 24-hour copy shop on Mercer Street just south of Eighth. I glanced in briefly--it was the place where I had put together my zine, and I knew most of the employees. A few doors south I felt a hand on my shoulder. Once again I didn't recognize him. I've never been good with faces, but this time there was an additional reason. Carluccio had grown, broadened, darkened--he was very nearly a different person altogether. He led me back to the copy shop, where he was collating and folding stacks of sheets laid out in a row. He finished assembling one, stapled it, signed it, and handed it to me. We must have made some sort of conversation, but I remember none of it. I didn't even remember the chapbook until days later, when I picked my jacket up off the floor next to the bed and discovered it sticking out of the side pocket.

The book collects all the contents of all those envelopes, along with a sampling of other matter--letters, pronouncements, manifestos, poems, all of it strung together apparently in chronological order. It is hasty, confused, random, jejune--and it is bursting with every kind of world-beating youthful energy. It would have made a fine first effort for anybody, the sort of thing that sits unsold on the consignment shelves of bookstores for months and even years, and then suddenly is changing hands for four figures, and eventually cannot be obtained at all unless some major collector dies. But Carluccio's slim volume is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly obscure. For all intents and purposes it doesn't exist. He will never produce a follow-up. It was my friend G., then working for the AP, who spotted the item on the teletype in 1983. I've managed to lose the printout he sent me, but the gist was that a corpse of foreign appearance, found at a border station near Antombran, Guatemala, just across from El Salvador, had been indentified as a certain David Carluccio, 24 years old, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He had been killed with a machete. Local police were investigating the matter.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 5)

Dear D.,

I went over to M.’s to retrieve my letters and whatever else from the four big crates of stuff she salvaged from E.’s apartment when E. entered the nursing home a few months before she died. It took me a few years to work up the courage to ask. I wanted the letters, I justified, because they were probably the closest thing to a diary I ever kept, in the key years 1979-1983. In other words I was exercising my usual dodge, which is to turn all of life into research materials. M. was game if not exactly eager. One corridor of her apartment is choked with boxes--the rest consist of her father’s belongings, and they will undoubtedly soon be joined by her mother’s. She hadn’t opened any of the crates since hurriedly packing them more than four years ago.

Late in the evening, after dinner, we began to dig. It was quite literally like entering a tomb. There was E.’s Perfecto jacket; there was a small box containing a gold tooth and a lock of her hair; there was a whole box of her eyeglasses. There were boxes and boxes of collage materials, of her photographs and negatives, of notebooks. There was copious evidence of her study of botany (she took university classes in the subject at some point), of her various pursuits of therapy, of her adherence to Buddhism (much more serious and longstanding than any of us unbeliever friends realized). And there were many bags and boxes of letters. This was just the stuff M. kept--I understood firsthand the harshness of trying to make those sorts of decisions, in a hurry and under major psychological stress, and my parents’ house didn’t even reek overwhelmingly of urine.

Going through the boxes caused me to enter a state that I suppose was not unlike shock. I took my letters and nothing else, went back to my hotel and read all of them, then couldn’t sleep. On the one hand I wasn’t wrong; the letters are indeed the only real record I have of those years, and I have nothing to cringe about concerning their style or expression--E. always brought out the best in me that way. They are full of detail about those days, that is when they don’t consist of naked pleas. Reading them felt vertiginous, like being admitted back to that apartment on First Avenue for fifteen minutes of an afternoon in 1979 and experiencing all over again the despair and optimism and boredom and love and fun and heedlessness and anguish of that time. And it brought her back into a kind of three-dimensionality that I’d forgotten--my jealousy rushed right back. There were a few unmailed letters from her to me, too. One of them, from after her last visit to New York in 1990, may be the most romantic letter she ever wrote me. I can’t help but speculate on what would have happened had I received it.

She was getting crazier and crazier as well as sicker at the time. Photographs of her from before she became immobilized by her illness show her grinning wildly with a missing front tooth, aggressively unkempt, looking like someone who’d hit you up for spare change in Tompkins Square Park. Could I imagine myself nursing her until her death? But she wouldn’t have permitted that anyway. M. reports that at her memorial the room was crowded with people, few of whom knew any of the others. She needed to compartmentalize her life, and that was one of our chief stumbling blocks as a couple. Of course I understood, since I have similar tendencies, but I wanted her exclusively. I can’t begin to account for the chaos of emotions this has all raised in me, the sheer number and variety of them. Part of me wanted to take those four crates--M. doesn’t know what to do with them. They are E.’s life, her complexity, her unbelievable array of talents and their utter dissipation. She’s going to haunt me for the rest of my days--do I wish I’d never met her? But that’s like trying to imagine my life as another person. She changed me, totally and irreversibly.

Interesting to hear M. say that as far as she’s aware E. cracked at some point in her last year of high school, and was never the same again. A banal incident--she backed over a row of metal garbage cans while trying to drive (she was always an awful driver)--sent her over the edge. M. dates E.’s cruelty to her (she was consistently vicious to M.), among other things, to that time. That sounds too neat, but who knows? In my experience she didn’t start seeming or acting weird until we’d been together about nine months, maybe sometime in the spring of ‘75. Here’s a random snapshot of E.: One time during her next-to-last New York visit (’87?), M. and her boyfriend of the time were going to a club and invited E. to come along. She insisted on stopping to get some takeout food, and then, to M.’s and boyfriend’s dismay, insisted on bringing it into the club to eat. You didn’t do things like that in clubs by that point. To me the story graphically illustrates an aspect of her. She specialized in the inappropriate. You’d constantly be wondering: What’s the deal, exactly? Is it that she wants to accommodate her own needs and conveniences regardless of whatever social codes are in effect? Does she mean to provoke? Is she oblivious to the reactions of others? Does she want to reorganize the whole world, starting here and now? Is she deliberately doing something gauche as a way of wrestling with her feelings of inadequacy and gaucheness? It may have been that all of those things were true, and that even ranking them in order of importance would be irrelevant. I could go on, but I won’t.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 1)

(As long as this blog is sitting on its hands, we might as well assign it some make-work, in this case as a slap-up reprint house. For the next six days we'll be serializing a story that was published in the spring of 2007 in Conjunctions, and has appeared online only in French translation.)

Very late that night, riding home on the train as it shoots past the graffiti-washed vacant stations on the local track, they stare straight ahead, unable to explain or articulate the sense of dread that fills them both except by reference to the lateness of the hour, or the ebbing of the drugs, or the onset of a cold. The nearly empty train is going too fast, and it leans around curves as if the wheels on one side have lost contact with the track, and the lights periodically wink off for as much as a minute at a time. They sit slumped in a double seat next to a door. Whenever the train stops at a station the doors open and nothing comes in, an almost palpable nothing. Neither bothers to look because they can feel it slide in and take its place among the already assembled nothing. The air is heavy with the weight of an earlier week, when it was still summer in the streets above. The light breaks up into particles. Down here the night could last forever. The song is "Florence," by the Paragons.

Mind if I play it for you? Here it is, on The Best of "Winley" Records, volume seven of "The Golden Groups" on the Relic label, an ancient copy with varicolored stains on the back of the sleeve and a skip in the middle of the cut in question. The skip is annoying, but it also feels like a part of the fabric, along with the hollow-centered production, the dogged piano like the labor of the accompanist at a grade-school assembly, the groans of the four supporting Paragons, and the agony of Julius McMichael's falsetto lead. It's a daredevil performance, a miracle of endurance--he sounds as if he will dissolve into coughing and retching or perhaps even drop dead before the end of the track. The song wants to be a ballad but keeps turning into a dirge. It's so ghostly you can't imagine it ever sounding new. But then doo-wop is a spectral genre. It actually happened on street corners; what transpired in the recording studio, afterward, might sound posthumous.

"Florence" happened below street level. It happened in a cave, in an abandoned warehouse, in an unknown room eight stories under Grand Central Station at five o'clock in the morning. Probably it took place in an impersonal studio off Times Square panelled with that white pasteboard stuff gridded with holes, with folding chairs and ashtrays and demitasse-size paper cups of water and a battered upright piano. Probably the Paragons got a twenty-dollar advance apiece, if that, and then they took the subway home to East Tremont or wherever it was they came from. "Florence" has reached our couple two decades after its release through the medium of oldies radio--a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after. Doo-wop became "oldies" in 1959, when it was still kicking, a premature burial but a phenomenon that allowed records that had sold a hundred copies in the Bronx when new to suddenly go nationwide and become phantom hits a couple of years later. But "Florence" cuts through the format with its breathtaking weirdness. The piano, the groans, the keening falsetto--it comes on as Martian. "Oh, Florence, you're an angel, from a world up above," raves the singer in a dog-whistle register that symbolically indicates the purity and intensity of his passion, while an Arctic wind blows through any room where the song is played.

Naturally our couple don't know that each has "Florence" playing on the internal soundtrack, not that either would be surprised. The hour, the chill, the sticky yellow light, the vertical plunge from a high--all call down "Florence." The moment could feel merely depressed, small-time, pathetic, but "Florence" in its strangeness lends it magnificence. They feel heroically tragic in their stupor. "Florence" places the moment in the corridor of history, makes it an episode, emphasizes its romance and fragility and proximity to heartbreak, suggests that a contrasting scene will follow directly.

Now they have emerged into the weak pre-dawn light of the street. The place is empty except for garbage trucks. The traffic light runs through its repertory of colors to no effect. They still haven't spoken, not in an hour or more. Words feel too huge to shovel onto their tongues. The lack of traffic is convenient, since their reflexes are too slow to negotiate any. They walk, side by side, down the street of shuttered stores, each plodding step a small conquest of space. The apartment seems impossibly distant, their progress the retreat from Moscow. At this hour time doesn't exist, actually. The hour just before dawn looks like night, but with all of night's glamour stripped away, and although habit assumes that dawn will soon arrive and peel back the sky, there is no real evidence of this. Darkness clutches the world and will not give it up. The calendar year is an even flimsier proposition; only the 24-hour newsstands maintain it, here and there shouting it into the void like street-corner proselytizers. The year is a random set of four digits that may or may not coincide with the information imparted by the posters wheat-pasted on the windows of empty storefronts. In all probability, "Florence" has not yet been composed or recorded. Our couple has imagined it. When they awaken the following afternoon, they won't remember how it visited them.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Summer in the City

One night an old Pontiac driven by an overburdened father of six went out of control on Avenue A and crashed into a corner building, bringing the whole thing down. The noise was overwhelming, an explosion. People came running from bars and bedrooms. The tenement--empty for years--just dissolved into a hill of bricks, from under which one solitary taillight poked out, its turn signal still for some reason pulsing red. Eventually the cops showed up and tied off the scene with sawhorses, but by then a party had begun to take shape. Somebody had a radio or maybe it was a cassette player, emitting charanga. Joints and bottles of Ronrico and forties of Olde English went around. Percussion started up, keys and knives on bottles tapping the clave rhythm. A man in late middle age who looked like a goat kept enjoining the crowd in a loud bray to "show some resPECT," but nobody paid him any mind. Cop cars at night, with their lights spinning around, splashing the sides of the buildings and visible from blocks away, nearly always put everybody in a party mood. By now there were at least a hundred people milling around, laughing and pointing, shrieking and clowning, quite a number of them dancing. Even the cops were getting into it.

An ambulance and a firetruck arrived along with another squad car. The firemen got busy digging through the rubble while the ambulance crew stood around and shot the shit with the locals. It turned out it wasn't even the second or third building collapse of the day, but the seventh. One in Inwood, two in Chinatown, three in Harlem. This not counting the fires. Even as they spoke, said somebody, two separate tenements along Avenue C were burning, one of them for the third time--what could be left of it? And how about those Mets, somebody else said. Everybody laughed, then the conversation petered out. What could anybody say? For all anybody knew, their building might be next. You didn’t really want to go around to the back and see the fault lines in the brick face, or go down to the cellar and see the sag. You really really didn’t want to speculate about what your landlord might have in store or what his tax situation was like.

Time passed. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had showed up. People in pajamas rubbed elbows with people in disco outfits. A guy appeared with a shaved-ice setup in a shopping cart and immediately began doing a brisk business. By now the cops had gotten to the car and were deploying mammoth pliers on the roof, trying to wrench it open. It was something to see, like mice trying to open a can of sardines, but it was taking too long. The crowd started losing patience. "Hey papi, you want a hand?" yelled a woman who looked like a ten-year-old until you saw her face up close, and some guy in the back shouted a rejoinder in Spanish that cracked up the whole crowd. Pretty soon everybody was calling out lines at the cops the way they shouted at the screen when a movie started to drag. The cops fastidiously ignored the backchat, just as they ignored the characters standing right next to them smoking cheeba.

Everybody who was anybody was in the crowd. The man with the crutch was all over the street. It was never clear whether he actually needed it or just used it as a stage prop. He was often, as now, seen walking normally while gesticulating with the crutch, shouting all the while. Over there, bending the ear of a young cop who was attempting to pry himself away without leaving his post, was the little man who showed up at all public functions, waving a greasy, much folded piece of paper that may once have been an official document. His cause, an ancient and esoteric grievance, was instantly forgotten by anyone who listened to two minutes of it, although it seemed to keep him alive. The dirty shirtless man with the nine misshapen and mange-ridden dogs was there--from the look of them you assumed a carnival of incest--and so was the marooned Swiss woman with the stainless-steel hip who regularly woke up everybody on the block calling all night for her cat, Gaston. Lolling here and there were various of those locality drunks--usually somebody's brother--who got themselves adopted by the tenancy of a half-block, so that little girls bought them jelly cakes at the bodega and their mothers thrust sweaters upon them in October and baseball hats in June.

An hour limped by while the cops kept working. Soon after the crowd hit its maximum the excitement level started dropping fast. People went back to bed or dominoes or television, probably, but it almost looked as if they had just evaporated, like spilled beer on a car hood in the sun. One minute there were fifty people standing right in front of you, and then you blinked and they were gone. You could hear the music fading away down the avenue. Soon enough there were just three skels left alone on the avenue with their quart of Don Diego rum, and everybody else was spared the sight of the crushed body as the cops hauled it out on the gurney. The ambulance's doors finally slammed, and it took off at full throttle with lights spinning and sirens blasting, followed by squad cars doing likewise. You might wonder how dead a body had to be for them to slink off in silence, but most likely they were just having a little fun.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


This was the view out my back window in New York City for more than ten years. That time (1979-1990) was the heyday of Wild Style, when graffiti truly became an artform, as is documented most vividly in Henry Chalfant's photographs. These tags, though, are primal. You can imagine them--in chalk--festooning an alley a century ago, or even earlier. Gang tags probably go back to antiquity. Today, owing to a couple of decades of outsized police response to graffiti, much urban tagging, accomplished under great pressure, is even cruder than this primal sort.

Wild Style graffiti is a late, studied, self-conscious phenomenon, a sterling example of postmodernism in action. This sort of zero-degree tagging, by contrast, seldom if ever even gestures in the direction of art (although photographs by Helen Levitt, Cartier-Bresson, and John Guttmann show examples of it that qualify as poetry). Both are unauthorized sets of marks made by urban youth, generally, on surfaces that do not belong to them. Graffiti of both sorts aims to broadcast and publicize the existence and identity of the tagger.

You might say that graffiti is, at base, a form of advertising. In the places where graffiti is found there is frequently also advertising of the authorized sort. Space rented from the owner of the surface in question is given over to printed tags that publicize goods and services for sale. You might say that the one form of advertising is intransitive--no action is required on the part of the beholder other than perhaps to steer clear if one is of a rival crew--while the other is transitive: it intends to prompt expenditure.

So the form of graffiti that inveigles the passerby into surrendering cash is viewed as legitimate by society, while the kind that is strictly gratuitous, or nearly so, is considered vandalism. The financial aspect has further ramifications, of course: the first sort pays rent while the second squats. But squatters never displace other tenants; they merely occupy otherwise vacant spaces. Likewise, graffiti roosts on unemployed surfaces. And as ugly as it sometimes is, it's indisputably human, which cannot be said about the post-industrial walls and sidings it occupies.

Yes, this is an argument I've been carrying in my pocket for thirty years. The passage of time may have made it less pressing, but hardly obsolete, I think.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Coffin Nails

I quit smoking ten years ago, but before that I smoked for thirty years, starting at age 13. Like junkies and alcoholics, I'm a lifer. I quit because I was afraid of dying, but that's about the only thing that could have made me quit, and I continue to have a deep and convoluted relationship with nicotine and the forms and guises under which it travels.

I first heard Picayunes mentioned in Frank O'Hara's 1964 poem "The Day Lady Died." It's July 1959 and he's preparing to go to Easthampton for the weekend, back when the Hamptons contained more poets and painters than rich people. He's buying supplies and hostess gifts here and there in midtown Manhattan--recording everything in his seemingly casual diaristic way that's really as meticulously arranged as a collage by Braque, down to the all-caps names that are after a fashion glued in--and then he sees the NEW YORK POST with her face on it. The pleasantly hectic course of the day, ticking away like a taxi meter for 25 lines, is abruptly flicked off and he's thrown into memory. Billie Holiday has died.

He buys the Post from the tobacconist at the Ziegfeld Theater along with a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes. For years I had no idea what Picayunes were. By the time I was a teenage poet reading that poem again and again, wishing I could write like that and for that matter live like that, the New York of the poem seemed like a vision of glamour from the deep past, even though it was little more than a decade gone. I did smoke Gauloises when I could afford them, but there was no more tobacconist at the Ziegfeld and nobody I knew had ever heard of Picayunes.

Then, years later, I met George Montgomery, who had been O'Hara's roommate at Harvard. I learned many things from him--he was a fount of every kind of lore and custom and means of appreciation. One of them was that the perfect way to end a meal was with a cup of black coffee, a piece or two of crystallized ginger, and a Picayune. He bought his at Village Cigars, at the head of Christopher Street. They were made in New Orleans, where they shared a name with the local newspaper, and they were the only American cigarette still at that time made, like Gauloises and Gitanes, from black caporal tobacco.

I didn't visit New Orleans until many years after that, and even though I had by then quit smoking, I went off in search of Picayunes, but they were no longer manufactured. Their absence was conspicuous, because they went along with the city and its Afro-Franco-Hispano-Italo- Caribbean style, with the chicory coffee and the lagniappes and all the rest of it. It made sense that the most culturally distinct city in the lower 48 would boast a distinct local cigarette. Picayunes in their day were another symbol of the elegant separateness that would eventually provide the federal government with its excuse for sacrificing New Orleans. Anyway, nowadays local pride is reserved for team sports.

Thanks to Joshua Clover for reminding me.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Liquid Dollar

This is a drink ticket. It was currency at one time--actually it was better than the greenback equivalent, because it contained added value in the form of prestige. A drink was a drink, but a drink ticket was a badge of rank. If you wanted to impress a potential pickup, buying them a drink with a ticket carried more weight than flashing a roll. I'm amazed this ticket was never spent, and can only imagine it whiled away the years in some forgotten pocket until after the chance to redeem it had passed. Drink tickets were fought over, stolen, begged for, dubious promises made in exchange for. The drink ticket had a fixed value--it could be redeemed for one drink, top-shelf or well, beer or wine--but while it could generally be obtained for a line of blow, it wasn't necessarily self-evident whom you could perform this exchange with or under what circumstances. In any case, the blow-for-tix swap was probably less common than trades founded on sex, friendship, services rendered, or--above all--a brush of the wing of celebrity.

This drink ticket, issued probably in 1978 or '79, was a harbinger of the following decades. Velvet cordons were just coming in downtown; in the future lay VIP rooms, ultra-VIP rooms within VIP rooms, bottle clubs, memberships, and whatever crushing nonsense is currently on offer. At the time, my friends and I worked minimum-wage jobs, and most of us were paid in cash--not that we were in the black-economy sector, mind you; it was just cheaper for bosses than cutting checks, and it was understood that many of us wouldn't even have bank accounts. So the drink ticket provided an important lesson in economics as well as a glimpse into the future. We learned that not all dollars are of equal value. We learned that the better off you are, the more eager people will be to give you things. We learned that wealth has never been obtained through labor, or at least not through one's own labor. We learned that wealth envies celebrity more even than celebrity envies wealth--and this at a time when it was possible to be a bona fide celebrity and still be dead broke. This knowledge was lost on us, of course. A creature of today at large in the drink-ticket economy would set about brokering the stupid things.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Torn Down

In 1985, an unknown person briefly went around tearing down sections of compacted poster-gneiss from the walls of lower Manhattan, mounted them on light stock, and sold them as postcards. I'm very sorry I only bought one; I probably thought they'd be around longer than a month. The unknown person was perhaps aware that he or she was reviving décollage, also known as lacération, the art devised by Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé in Paris starting in the late 1940s. The idea was that a vast, constantly renewed collective artwork was available for the taking on the walls of the city. It was a sort of readymade in Duchamp's sense, since its primary essence was commercial imagery, but it also transcended the readymade by virtue of having been serially lacerated by the crowd, who shredded the posters because they were bored, because they were angry, because they needed a scrap of paper, because they were waiting for a bus. If there ever was a populist avant-garde work, that was it.

It was the purest art of the city: open to all, viscerally satisfying, and recording an actual dialogue between citizens and the stuff they were force-fed. It was bright and explosive and hurtling toward nothingness as you watched. In New York City at the moment of the postcard the display was less bright because there was less commercial fly-postering of the type seen today--therefore less color--and much more in the way of monochrome photocopied gig flyers wheatpasted by the band members. There were still many unpoliced blank walls then and many plywood-covered storefronts, which sometimes carried so many layers of postering that sections would peel off, from combined weight, like icebergs calving. The posters were advertising of the most zero-degree sort--bands that existed for one night, bands that existed only in one person's imagination, texts written in a code understood only by the writer. The laceration therefore was less a matter of citizens talking back to authority than a phase within a cacophonous ongoing babble. The postcard, with its fortuitous subliminal impression of the World Trade Center, is a fragment of something overheard.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Street Life

Can of Ruppert Knickerbocker "opened with an axe," as it says on the back of the print. Ruppert was the last beer brewed in Manhattan and the most godawful pisswater ever, although it may have been better back when Colonel Ruppert owned the Yankees. It was also the cheapest beer sold in New York circa 1970, and so well within the budget of teenagers, who had no trouble buying it at supermarkets, grocery stores, bodegas, just as they had no trouble going to liquor stores and buying Yago Sangria or Boone's Farm Apple Wine, or the hi-test option, Richard's Peach Wine. The trouble lay in figuring out a place to go drink it, when the park was too cold or too far away. The default option was, for some reason, the sidewalk in front of the old West Side Airlines Terminal, which must have stood somewhere in the general vicinity of Times Square. How it differed in ambiance from other stretches of sidewalk is a detail lost to time. Other substances were more of a gamble, because they had to be purchased from chiselers and layabouts, and the teenagers lacked experience, so that they often came to the belated realization that they had just acquired some very expensive aspirin or oregano.

This commerce and consumption was not recorded at the time, which is a pity. Instead the camera sought out the ensuing hilarious hijinks, which have not weathered the years well. The camera is unkind to hilarity. Hijinks only look funny for about a week. But the photographer had talent, although he didn't pursue the matter for long, going on to other ambitions, notably poetry, to which he transferred his eye and his power of suggestion. Maybe you get an idea of the talent from this shot, which suggests a lot of teenage business in economically elliptical fashion. That phone cord could just as well be a guitar cord, and the floor a stage, and the heel could be airborne for any number of reasons. And the can of Ruppert is the vortex, apparently the casus belli of a storm of unseen activity. Outside the frame was probably a bedroom, and outside the bedroom Stuyvesant Town, 14th and C, in my memory of the time forever being circled by the deafening choppers of the Third Street Angels. The city was a lot bigger then, its people huge and its dramas overwhelming, and only in part because I was so small in relation. The photographer, being a native, was unimpressed. He was my Virgil.

In memory of Robert Long, 1954-2006.