|CBGB in the late 1970's|
Back in the late ‘70s, I lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a sprawling loft at the top of a six-story walk-up building. I’d gone to New York for a short visit and wound up staying for months, living with Kristian Hoffman of the Mumps and Bradley Field, drummer for Teenage Jesus And The Jerks. Their loft had formerly been a silver plating factory, and for $25.00 a month in rent, a pre-Cramps and Gun Club Kid Congo and I moved in as their tenants. Kristian and Bradley were Bowery homesteaders, the only tenants who actually lived in the building, which also housed some sweatshops and Sons Of Italy meeting hall, as well as the office of the landlord Yat Ting Moy, a Chinese doctor who giggled when he saw the loft bed Kristian and Bradley had constructed.
“Bed in the sky!” Dr. Moy said.
Though Kristian and Bradley had made the place more than habitable, with a bathtub salvaged from the street, a huge collection of vintage Halloween decorations, and moth-eaten taxidermy, the loft was pretty dirty… well, the floor was, anyway. No matter how hard we all scrubbed, it was always dark with old tarnish from the plating factory, and our feet were constantly black. Bands would practice there almost every night: The Mumps and Teenage Jesus of course, also James Chance and The Contortions, The Fast, and a side project of Lydia Lunch’s called Beirut Slump. I was consumed with rock and roll and that was one of the reasons I was in New York to begin with, because you could walk five blocks down the Bowery and see The Cramps, The Deadboys, Television, The Talking Heads, Richard Hell , The Ramones or Blondie at CBGB’s, any night of the week. But sometimes all of the bands’ practicing got to me, too much of a good thing. I took to sitting up on the roof of the building, hanging laundry on the clotheslines we’d strung and then just hanging out, writing in my diary or surveying the endless sea of buildings, a sea of tar paper, pipes, chimneys, laundry lines, and water towers spreading to the East River in one direction and to the Hudson in the other. For even more quiet in the midst of the city, I’d take long walks across the Village to the decrepit piers lining the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side under the highway.
Kevin, my boyfriend at the time and the main reason I was in New York, was the one that introduced me to the piers. He was wonderful: a kind, talented, funny sensitive man. He played bass in the Mumps, and worked at a store that sold party goods and novelties. He had giant blue eyes, chiseled features, and a slightly femme James Dean look. He was also gay, but that didn’t really matter. We bonded immediately – could read each other’s mind, had exactly the same sense of humor. He was my boyfriend, we were in love, really, we adored each other—but we never actually had sex. We kissed and held hands a lot, but that was it. We’d spend hours at night at Max’s or at bars like The Ninth Circle, then take our separate subway trains. I guess I was probably the only person he ever met at the piers during the daylight hours.
At night, the piers were overrun with drug dealers, hustlers, johns, and vicious, strung-out Puerto Rican drag queens who’d rob their tricks blind at knifepoint. There were tractor trailers parked at the loading docks and the inky shadows surrounding them seethed with anonymous night crawlers cruising for rough trade and older businessmen taking a Walk On The Wild Side, trying to buy some hot young ass, stepping over puddles of piss , slipping on spilled semen.
But in the mid-afternoon solitude, in the wintry sunlight or late summer golden pink haze, looking across the choppy, silvery river to the Jersey Palisades, the piers were beautiful and not dangerous, except maybe structurally. Every so often you’d hear about one caving in. On the Jersey shore, there were ancient-looking factories blackened with the soot of their own belching smokestacks. Topped with grimy neon signs that appeared unchanged since the ‘50s, if not before then.
CHOCK FULL O’NUTS… THE HEAVENLY COFFEE, WISE POTATO CHIPS, SAVARIN, and ironically enough, USE CRISCO.
Me and Kevin used to laugh about that one, wondering how many other pier-cruisers ever caught on to it. There was always a faintly brackish smell of seawater mingled with the stench of the trash barges, the diesel fuel of the sightseeing Circle Line crafts, tugboats, and the Staten Island Ferry. Seagulls wheeled overhead and pigeons cooed on the wooden pilings.
Depending on which pier you were on, you could clearly see the Statue of Liberty or maybe even the George Washington Bridge. Once in a while, you’d be joined by a quiet derelict looking for a place to crash or someone who wanted to smoke a joint in peace. The piers were a good place to meetyou could get mugged or killed at night, but during the daytime people respected each other’s privacy. Kevin and I would talk for hours about everything. We’d meet there almost every day.
Kevin has been dead for many years, but I still treasure those times. In hindsight, I think we helped each other grow up out there on the river, two lost souls barely out of our teens, trying to make sense of the insane world we were living in. We’d smoke a joint, and water would slap against the support beams; you could always see it moving as you stared down through the cracks of the weathered boards and asphalt-covered planks. It was calming to face the Palisades and watch the afternoon slowly turn to lavender twilight, and to know you could be with someone, sharing the moment without words. Sometimes it would seem as thought it was very early in the century; it was easy to imagine foreign steamers chugging into the harbor, bringing thousands of immigrants to Ellis Island…until the shrill horns of the rush-hour taxis or the rumble of the West Side Highway above and behind you cut into the illusion.
All the crazed hubbub of the city would almost, but not quite, muffle the moaning that was beginning to come from inside the long-unused warehouses, the early-bird rentboys gathering in the shadows, turning their first tricks as darkness fell.
|Kevin Kiely & me, 1978 Photo: Theresa Kereakes|
NOVEMBER 5th, 12th, 19th, 2014, LOS ANGELES:
IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU: MEMOIR WRITING WORKSHOP
WITH PLEASANT GEHMAN
Wednesday evenings 7:45-10:00 PM
1954 ½ Rodney Drive LA CA 90027
Space is limited!
For more info: https://www.facebook.com/events/749269365140806/