I lived in New York City for 10 years, from 1986 to 1996. I have not been back. I have no plans to go back. (rationally, I know it is better now - murder and aids and crack have all gone down - human tragedy that wears on the soul) I have about ten short stories - all true, as is this one, about my time there. They are hard to write. (thanks to Walt Curtis and Ben Fisher for edits and criticism)
the god of new york
When I first lived in Manhattan I used to hang out at a bar on the lower east side or the east village or whatever you want to call it. The place was on First Avenue, between 9th and 10th street, and was called Downtown Beirut. It was a dump, it was a dive, a hole in the wall, a long and narrow shotgun shack, just wide enough for the bar, bathroom in the back, one Pinball machine, a video game, and a jukebox.
Looming over the patrons, attached to the ceiling, was a huge papier-mâché effigy, six foot head, with hands extended; a grey apparition flying through the bar. Every one called it “god.”
Downtown Beirut was owned by a neighborhood Polish family. The matriarch of the family, in her 70’s, would on occasion show up and look as strange as everyone else, conferring with the bartenders, counting receipts in the backroom. I don’t think they trusted their staff.
When I first started going there against the back of the bar was a classic liquor rack, from lower tier to upper tier, from bottom shelf to top shelf. A panorama of bottles backed by a wall to wall mirror. It had been a display of Bukowskian beauty, but the owners, believing the bartenders had been dispensing a too liberal supply of buy backs, had purchased a machine that hooked every bottle up into a glass and plastic computerized octopus. The tubes snaked from the bottles to a liquor dispenser, like the IV drips in Frankenstein’s hospital.
Downtown Beirut was next door to the Village Idiot, which had a clientele worthy of its name. You’d open the door and you would see a crowd of people standing in a circle around a big curly haired, wild eyed hippy, who had a quart to his lips. They would be chanting “chug, chug, chug.” I never went there.
Beirut had a better class of customers. The regulars were an interesting mix of lower east side characters. There was an old painter who came in and locked himself to the pinball machine and was said to have studied under Hans Hoffman. There was a tall creature from Belize who was a nurse, and nursed her drinks silently at the bar. I always thought she really was a woman, but everyone said she was a he. No matter. She never spoke much, smiled into her drink. When I got my ear pierced she noticed. Smiling, without saying anything, she gave me one of her earrings.
There was a midget named Mannie who fell in love with every woman who came into the bar. There was musician from Texas who was heading his way downhill, who made a living walking in front of cars. Every time I saw him, he limped more and more. He caught AIDS, ended up infecting his girlfriend. Two Satanist auto mechanics, one who was most proud that the lines in his hand made a natural pentagram. He would tell the story of how he showed his hand to a fortune teller. Her jaw dropped in shock. One of the bartenders, moustached and tough, played in a rockabilly band, Carolyn, the chief bartender, had green hair, and played in a punk band. GG Allin had covered her band’s song “Beer Picnic.” She was smart, had been on Jeopardy, but came in second. There was a tough cute girl from Brooklyn named Sherry, a couple of artists from Canada, musicians, painters, losers, lovers, squatters, a yuppie or two, an occasional tourist, lots more. I was a regular.
I usually hung out at the front of the bar, on the ledge on top of the radiator. You could look out the window at the street life passing by. With the drug dealers on the corner and the cold winter wind blowing, outside it could be a war zone. The dealers kept up their chants, the litany of pharmaceutical possibility. “loose joints, loose joints.” Methadone, tuinal, Methadone, tuinal.” But inside it was warm, sitting on the radiator.
One night I had gone out to make a collect call from the corner. The operator said “we can’t do collect calls from your location.” “My screen indicates you are calling from a prison” “All long distance calls through the phone are blocked” I held up the phone. “Listen,” I said. “I am on a street corner in New York.” “I am not in a prison.” She finally let the call through.
Everyone came through there. There was this scary tall east side woman who would mask or veil her face and was emaciated - anorexic. I would always see her looking masked and haunted like an omen , a silent apparition walking the streets alone. You could only see her eyes. She came in once, with a big, brown paper wrapped package. She sat down and unwrapped the brown paper and string. Her family must have sent it to her. She unwrapped it, went through it, and said, in the only words I ever heard her speak. “it’s nothing but food.” I made up a story about her, that her family knew how fucked up she was, anorexic and lost and haunted, and loved her and wanted to help but they couldn’t and didn’t know what to do and sent her this food.
So they pretended it was an artist bar, and every month or so they had a new art show. They gave the painter two free drinks a day, as long as their show was up. That was the story with god. The looming sculpture had been installed for just a short time, as part of an art show, but they kept it up there until the bar closed. They just needed to spray it with insecticide once in a while. It had become infested. It had been created by an artist from Toronto. He had been getting his two free drinks everyday for years, as his payment for creating god. Eventually he became an alcoholic. He moved back to Toronto. I wondered to myself. “Is that the price you pay for the creation of god?”
Sometimes we had wild times. Once an artist friend and I were cajoled out to Long Island by two women offering us Jack Daniels and a good time, which was had by all. They drove us out there, but in the morning we woke up, in Long Island, trying to figure out how to get the heck back into Manhattan. They just laughed. The bus, to the LIRR, to the subway. It took us two hours to get back.
But mostly I hung out there for the companionship, to cut the loneliness, to act like I had a place to go and reason to be there.
I would sometimes sit at the bar, and read my stupid poetry, and try to get someone to listen to it. Sometimes they did. I still remember a skinny black woman with dreads named pebbles. I read her my desperately bad poetry. I think it was about a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks people in to die. I think she got it. She sang a song to me, quietly, sitting next to me on a bar stool, looking into my eyes. For a moment it seemed the world had stopped.
So one day I was hanging out at the bar and Sherry shouts down the bar “My wallet is gone. That bitch grabbed my wallet.” The girl who had stolen the money was slight, dark haired and spoke with an accent. Sherry followed the thief back to the bathroom, kicked in the door. Sherry pulled her out and started pushing at the girl, and a crowd gathered, and they stripped off all of her clothes, looking for the stolen money. So she is standing there, naked, cowering, being pushed, hit, screamed at. All of a sudden someone noticed that her body was covered with purple patches. “Karposi’s Sarcoma.” “That’s AIDS.” Someone shouted. “Don’t touch her.” “You could catch it.”
The crowd went through the girl’s knapsack , and threw the contents on the floor. I noticed a French English dictionary. She had been living in New York long enough to catch AIDS and be a junky, but she still needed work on her English. Sherry never found her money. She said, “The junky must have passed it off.”
If you ever are stuck in New York and need to steal, if you are infected with AIDS and need to get drugs to cut the pain, get a friend in on the deal. Pass off the money quickly, that’s the way it is done.
The crowd kept humiliating her, spitting at her standing naked, shaking in the back of the bar. I said “isn’t this enough?” Finally they let her go. She pulled her scattered possessions together, got her clothes back on, went outside, and to the corner. I followed her out. I think this is the part of the story where you have to say that the person who was humiliated had dignity about her and that she was smiling, laughing with a dealer, She had passed the money off, and was probably going to buy crack or dope. I just looked at her, with her story going through my head. She looked straight at me. It wasn’t exactly like a smile. She said something. It sounded like mercy.
I guess this young woman had come to New York, capital of the world, from France, expecting to find love or sophistication or art, came in following the beacon into JFK International like a moth, took the wrong path, got infected with AIDS, ended up with dirt junkies and crackheads, stealing purses, and eventually would die alone in delirium in a hospital bed for indigents.
They eventually closed the bar, moved it down to Houston Street, started having live bands. But I never hung out at the new one, and after too long left New York for good. But I wrote this story about the old place. It ends like this.
The god of new york hangs over the ceiling of a lower east side bar, it is made of papier-mâché and chicken wire, and at night its dreams are the rats and cockroaches that scuttle through its skull.
While you are here, if you want, you could look at my best work.
Experimental Portraits (Visual Art)
Epistemic Purchase (A poem)
Borges: The Golem (My translation)
Eagle Creek (A hiking essay)
The Time Factory -SF story and video