Friday, February 5, 2010
#49 – EVERYTHING NEW
The thing was everything in these new meetings, like everything in these new-old places outside them, was new to me – like the paintings in the museums and the trees in the parks through which I was seeing my life in new ways, and the many people that had suddenly come into this life, all of this so surprising. All new, and not out of calculated adventure. For nothing in my life now in 1986 had a simple self-explaining context as in encountering headhunters or police thugs in places headhunters or police thugs were expected to be.
And this sort of newness was something I was aware I had not experienced in years. I flashed on when I was 24 and came not to visit but to live in New York – after school and a foray into wire service journalism and my Cuba adventure and the irrelevant peacetime draftee army. Everything back then was brand new to me. When I wandered into this area below 14th Street in the spring of 1959 looking for an apartment, I saw all these young boys with wide-brim grown-up hats and curled locks of hair – some entirely new ethnic group it seemed, for I had never heard of Hasidic Jews. And there were these corner candy stores with their square counters, where you could get drinks like egg cream and also sandwiches and all the older people were white and had accents. I am having a Coke in one of them and a burley young man with no jacket, which seems a the sure sign he is a guy from such a neighborhood, comes in swearing about prices. He has just been up to Times Square to see a new John Wayne movie, but when he found the price there was $1.98 he came straight back and he is saying he will never go up there again.
I had never heard of Ukrainians, and now there were these old women out on the sidewalk on Second Avenue taking the sun on steamer chairs in front of the old Ukrainian National Home. Much like old Polish people by the old Polish National Home on St. Mark’s Place, in a block that also had a couple of new art galleries. Second Avenue had new off-Broadway theaters and also something I had never been aware of – the Yiddish theater and a star named Molly Picon. I did not know about Ratner’s and Rappaport’s and blintzes. I had never been in an apartment like the ones I was looking at in the tenement buildings. One room opened onto another, not to a hallway but to the next room, starting with the kitchen in which there was a bathtub that had a top used for dishes and pots when the tub was not in use for bathing.
Side streets tended to be Puerto Rican, something I knew of but had not lived with. There was a Puerto Rican store across from my first place, which was this ground floor apartment that I shared with Jason Bacon, whom I had known since third grade in Connecticut. We had a cardboard sign in the window with the name of the magazine, Session, we were trying to start. I would often walk over to the West Village, by way of Washington Square which was filled with folk singers. I had liked folk music since I first listened to it as a child with the radio hidden under the covers in a house where no one else knew such music. Some of what I heard now was sublime, some ridiculous, like a young schoolgirl who was clearly a city girl singing about having no beans for her babies on her farm. One of the folks singers who sometimes played in the Park, and also at an up and coming Village place called Gerde's Folk City, was a Wall Street trainee, Frank, whom Jason knew from Yale. One night Frank was playing and singing his original songs for a group of us – anti-Eisenhower songs that went after each member of the gray and cruel Eisenhower businessman cabinet. Like the Interior Secretary, Douglas MacKay, whose name rhymed with “giving the land away.” It was a warm night and from our open window we heard people speaking Spanish in the street. And we suddenly heard a long anguished shout.
We watched as a man ran down the middle of the street waving a knife, which he plunged into another man, whose heart spouted blood like a fountain, and yet another man came speeding in with a noisy beat-up old car, picked up the killer, and sped away just before the cops arrived.
The people, all Puerto Ricans, who had been outside when the killing occurred stayed outside and gathered beneath our window to hear Frank sing. The cops came but could not find any witnesses on the street. Then they tried us, but we hadn’t seen anything either.