Monday, August 6, 2007

Instant Karma Nearly Got Me, Part I

I'm slouched behind the wheel, alone in a grimy yellow cab, my windshield hazy from the splattered mist of a midmorning shower. I've been cruising in a series of twenty- or thirty-block ellipses in midtown Manhattan for the past hour or so, angling for fares. A slow day so far, late morning on a Saturday, just riding the wave of greenlights up and down the island. It's kind of hypnotic, sort of like catching a big, slow breaker on a surfboard; nothing to do but hang ten, kick back and enjoy the ride. A good time to think, normally, but today my thoughts are drifting darkward. In fact, they're heading in the same direction my life seems to be going.

I had arrived in The City over two years earlier, still glowing from a momentary flash of fame back in Albany - winning first prize in a big regional show for my Motorcycle Painting; still basking in the afterglow of all the news, reviews and howdy-do's that followed. In those brief, heady moments, I knew I was destined to become big - BIG - BIG! and of course, the only place to do that in the art world was the Big Apple. So I packed my gear and headed south - down the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, to Gotham. The Emerald City. Babylon. Thus began my journey into the first level of the inferno.

It took me a few months of floating around town, staying with friends, scratching together some cash, hunting for a space, etc., until I found an empty storefront in the East Village, just a few doors off Tompkins Square on East 10th, where I began to set up my studio. The year was 1968, the virtual peak of the cultural orgasm known as The Sixties, the psychedelic revolution, the countercultural movement, Woodstock Nation, whatever. Like many before me, I arrived in The City as a small town artist with big dreams and a roll of canvas, ready to conquer the world. The world had other ideas, though; within a few short years I would graduate magna cum laude from the school of artificial enlightenment, speaking an entirely new language, consisting mainly of monosyllables, what was left of my artistic vision dissolved in mere hallucination. But I was cool. For one brief moment, I was cool.

Many of us bought into the dream that we were on the threshold of a new age, an age that could only be entered through the Doors of Perception; we arrogantly claimed the dubious title of aquarian pioneers, explorers of inner space; we believed we were going to arrive in a New World of Consciousness, and transform the old one from the inside out. Little did we know at the time, though, that reality didn't really give a shit. Pride goeth before a fall, they say. We were so blinded by the sunshine we didn't notice that the times were once again a'changin', the days were rapidly agin', and The Seventies were just around the bend. The dream that acid built was about to end, and for many of us it would not be a happy ending. For some it was going to be a long, long way down.

In the beginning it was all day-glo and roses. That first summer the Village was alive with artists, musicians, poets, activists, hippies and street wizards, right alongside the original inhabitants: ethnic Ukrainians, primarily - the only ones who weren't perpetually stoned. Peter Markett, a master furniture maker of the early American school of joinery who had come from northern Maine to seek his fortune, lived and worked in the storefront next to mine; we became good friends, often sharing coffee together in the morning. We were right around the corner from Ed Sanders' Peace Eye bookstore on Avenue A, where I used to drop in, shoot the breeze with Ed if he was around, even listen to him read aloud a song or a poem he was working on. He was still with The Fugs at that time; they called it quits the following year, I believe. Met Abbie Hoffman in there a few times, Wavy Gravy and others from the Rogues Gallery of the Sixties. Rick Sanders, a fellow drummer from Albany (no relation to Ed) had a head shop just off the park on A, but I can't remember the name. In fact, there's a great deal I don't remember about those days, so I'd better get back to what I do recall, before even that fades away.

Back to that grimy yellow cab, in fact, and my increasingly dark and muddled thoughts. In the past month or so I had been robbed three times. I first lost my innocence walking through Tompkins Square Park at about 5 in the morning; this guy jumped me from behind, grabbed me around the neck, held a broken bottle to my face, and whispered hoarsely in my ear, 'give me every penny you got, motherfucker, or I'll cut your fucking head clean off.' Never will forget those words. I politely allowed him to reach for my wallet, which contained a mere ten bucks. He was so pissed I thought he was going to cut something off anyway, but he took the money and ran. It took a little while to pick up my wallet with a shaky hand, then continued on my way to 10th and A, realizing I was not quite the same person coming out of the park as I was when I entered it. Near-death experiences are funny that way.

The second encounter took place in broad daylight as I returned home from hanging out in Washington Square, headed east on 8th Street. As I passed Tony Rosenthal's giant steel cube, "Alamo," which had recently been installed across from Cooper Union, I was suddenly surrounded by a gang of eight or ten guys you don't want to meet anywhere, anytime, even at high noon on a crowded sidewalk. Two of them grabbed me from behind, the others closed in on me, and one of them - I can still see those cold, vacant eyes - put his face up against mine and said 'gimme the jacket, asshole.' I said, 'What??' I said gimme the goddam jacket or you'll never need another one, mothafucka.' For some reason (male ego, I suppose), I said, hell, no. this is my jacket, why the hell should I give it to you?' Bad move. Bad, colossally stupid, move.

Suddenly this otherwise unremarkable fellow, a suit and tie kind of guy, someone I would ordinarily go out of my way to ignore, steps forward, taps my assailant, who's now leaning even further into my face and turning purple, on the shoulder and says, 'excuse me. hey, can I talk to him for a second?' Amazingly, perhaps caught off guard, he backs off. The suit & tie guy pulls me aside and says, Do you know who these guys are? No, I've never seen them before. They're the Alien Nomads, a gang of subway bikers*. They have to steal a denim jacket to get their colors in order to get into the gang. They were in the Times last week; a few of them beat a guy up, doused him with gasoline and stood around and watched him roast, just for kicks, over on Third Street. Oh. I see. Oh. Thanks, man. Thanks for telling me that. I turned around, took off my well-worn, well-faded and well-loved jacket, said my goodbyes, and walked away. Never looked back. By the way, I don't know who my guardian angel was that day, but I have never stopped thanking you in my heart. Muchos gracias, mi amigo.

*'Subway bikers' was the term de jour for gangs like the Alien Nomads, who lived the lifestyle of the Hell's Angels but couldn't afford motorcycles, and made their mark on the city by terrorizing subway passengers in the late '60's.

To be continued.....

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Instant Karma Nearly Got Me, Part II

I Pulled into Nazareth,
was feelin' about half past dead;
I just need some place where I can lay my head.
"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook my hand,
"No!", was all he said.

- From The Weight, by The Band

The East Village. Turbulent and raw throughout its history, teeming with every known ethnic group in the world (and probably a few that hadn't been discovered yet), once the home of the Abstract Expressionist painters, then the center of the Pop Art universe and home of the Warhol Factory workers - not to mention its legendary status as magnetic north for both the beats and the hippies. Bill de Kooning's studio was just a few blocks down from mine on 10th Street a few years earlier; Yoko Ono had once waited tables at my favorite haunt, the Paradox, down on 4th Street, the first macrobiotic restaurant in the country. Egg creams, bagels, art, music, poetry, free love - what more could a young bohemian want?

The artists and writers who once lived and worked in this neighborhood had actually caused the intellectual and artistic center of gravity to shift from Paris to New York in the late 40s and early 50s, finally coming to rest somewhere near 10th and A, I believe; though, for some reason the money remained uptown. In the ensuing years - that is to say, the 60s - things began to fall apart; the center could not hold. Even during the brief slice of eternity that I was walking those famous streets, it was clear that it was becoming more of a carnival sideshow, a nightmarish affair, complete with freaks and dancing clowns.

The original dream of the Hippie Nation - all lightness of being, tripping naked through the forests and flowers of our minds - had fallen under the spell of a cosmic eclipse of the sun; one so slow and gradual that you didn't notice that the light had changed. By the time the decade ended, we were left with nothing but bad drugs, street hustlers, pimps, junkies, thieves, gangsters and old fashioned run-of-the-mill killers. Oh, mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside manhattan with them kozmic blues again?

Still, an occasional ray of light would make it through. Standing, thumbing through records on St. Marks Place, when the jubilant sound of Creedence Clearwater's Proud Mary burst through the speakers for the first time, everyone in the store breaking into a spontaneous dance party, boogie'n right on through the entire album; when it was over we're falling over laughing, like a bunch of little kids. Or walking down 10th Street on a sunny winter's morning with Dylan's brand new album, Nashville Skyline, in my hands, his smiling face staring up at me from the cover. This made a deep impression on me at the time; I felt a need to hang onto it, somehow, like one of the holy cards my grandmother always kept in her purse. It was a comforting sign. The sorcerer was smiling.

Other moments. Climbing into a VW bus one afternoon with some fellow travelers, one of them an ex-girlfriend who had just started going out with Richie Havens, and had somehow gotten the word to head up to the Catskills to 'drop in' at Jimi's farm. Talk about a buzz! Are you experienced? Yeah, baby! Comin' ta getcha!

Unfortunately, Jimi wasn't there, he was off on tour somewhere. His 'hideaway' was just an ordinary farmhouse surrounded by miles of rolling hills, with just a few pieces of furniture, the dining room filled with musical instruments. Nothin' left to do but jam through most of the night, as freaks of every stripe and color came and went. No, we ain't gonna work on Jimi's farm no more... It was a circus at the edge of the world, an unforgettable circus; one which I can barely remember.

One summer night, feeling kind of trippy, I went to see The Incredible String Band at the Fillmore East. Their haunting sound of strings, flutes, pipes and voices managed to conjure up a fair number of wood nymphs, fawns, satyrs, and for one brief, shining moment brought us all together 'round the Cosmic Campfire in the middle of the Magic Forest. But it couldn't seem to penetrate the fog rolling ominously through the streets just outside the door. Which one was the real dream? It was getting harder and harder to tell.

Early the next morning, as I slid into the front seat of my cab and rolled out of the garage on 32nd Street to meet the city, still waking up, the fawns and nymphs were all but invisible, and the satyrs, grown stone cold, glared down at me from the odd building or two. No matter. One steaming cup of java, cream and sugar, and reality kicks right back in. And that ain't always a good thing, I was beginning to learn.

Though it was common knowledge among new york cabbies that there was more money to be made after midnight, I had been running mostly day shifts in the wake of a series of high-profile robberies, one resulting in the death of a fellow cabdriver just weeks earlier. In those days, there was no protective barrier between the cabbie and his passenger, which meant that anyone sitting in the back seat was virtually alone with you on a floating island, and had the strategic advantage of being seated behind you. All you had was a face in the mirror. This, while weaving in and out of some of hell's finest traffic, at what might be judged by some folks to be, well, some pretty goddam crazy speeds.

In light of all this, I calculated that even though the money didn't flow quite so freely in the daylight, the bullets probably didn't either, so at least I'd get to keep my earnings and possibly even live long enough to spend them; and besides, I could always make up the difference in hustle. I liked to live dangerously, but usually not for money. Didn't interest me. I completed this house of cards by telling myself I always did my best painting at night anyway - a nice move, actually, since I hadn't finished a painting in almost a year.

As the crime wave grew worse, most cab companies still didn't consider it cost-effective to install the shields. We were like sitting ducks. We began taking our own protective measures, like checking out each fare carefully before stopping to pick them up; if we didn't like the way they looked, they weren't going for a ride. Sorry, pal; altruism can be hazardous to my health. Some stashed billy clubs in the front seat; others, it is said, were packing heat. Me, I just dragged along my trusty portable radio, music being my first line of defense in any crisis.

Now, having already been robbed twice in the past month or so, and having learned at my mother's knee that bad luck comes in threes - kind of a package deal - I was on edge, to say the least. It made me very fussy about who got into my cab. But at this one intersection, 24th Street, I think, before you could say There's no place like home, there was this guy, sitting in the back seat, staring at me in the mirror with eyes as big as ping pong balls. I knew it was bad from the minute he jumped in. He was a junkie, and he was strung out like a clothesline.

Where ya headed, my friend?, I ask, driving slowly away from the intersection. After a few seconds of silence, he says, 'I've got a gun aimed right at the back of your head, motherfucker, and if you make one move, I'll splatter your brains all over the roof of your cab. Take me to Harlem.' I was left with no choice but to drive onward, into the valley of death. This was going to be a long, long ride; and that's if I was lucky.

It seemed to take an hour to get to Harlem. I could see him in the mirror, sweating and twitching, and caught an occasional glimpse of the gun, a small snubnose deal. I tried talking to him the way you might try to talk someone down from a bad trip, but he was somewhere else, high on adrenaline and running low on junk. I was actually more afraid I might die as a victim of one of his twitches than out of any intention on his part to kill me. I knew he just wanted a fix.

We finally reach Harlem without a sound from the backseat, and when we get there, he tells me to turn around and drive back downtown. That's when I started to sweat. This didn't make any sense. If he wanted to rob me, I could have pulled over anywhere and given him the money. I told him he could have the goddam cab if he wanted it. Now we were headed back downtown. What was going on here?

I began to try to figure out some way of derailing this thing before somebody got hurt. Truth be told, I was thinking mainly about me. I thought of trying to signal a police car with my lights, making hand signs out the side window, or even crashing the cab into a streetlight and jumping out onto the pavement. In the end, it seemed none of these options would work, and could get me killed. I had no choice but to go along for the ride, wherever the hell it might take me.

Finally, somewhere around midtown, he seemed to have made his decision. 'Take me to Grand Central', he says. 'Yessir. You got it.' I weave my way around to the side of the station, the morning sidewalk already standing room-only, and pull up to the curb. He wants everything in the cash box and everything in my wallet. 'Take it, man, it's all yours.'

'Now I'm going to get out and stand on the sidewalk with this gun in my coat pocket, and it's gonna be aimed right at the back of your head until you drive to the corner and make the turn. Don't make any funny moves, 'cause I'll be standing right here till you disappear.'

As I drove away, I looked in the rear view mirror; he had already melted into the crowd. I was alive. I had dodged the final bullet. By any cosmic reckoning, I had taken everything this city could throw at me, and had lived to tell the tale. I had no way of knowing at the time that the story was just beginning.

To be continued....

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Instant Karma Nearly Got Me, Part III

Let that which stood in front go behind,
let that which was behind advance to the front,
let bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions,
let the old propositions be postponed.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx- Walt Whitman

I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn..
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx- The opening lines of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg

To be honest with you, peering into the kaleidoscope that was The Sixties is not all that easy. People, places and events seem to shift and blur in the mind's eye when you try to zero in on them; details and timing are notoriously difficult to pin down, especially since, during much of that time, time simply did not exist.

Truth be told, by the end of my travels in that wonderland, I had lost my way; and from my present, slightly more peaceful, sanctuary it is growing ever more difficult to retrace my steps. But since I lived to tell the tale, the tale must be told. I will do my best to line up those fragile moments, like so many dominoes, and hope to finish before the first one falls.

Some of those moments will never disappear, though; like seeing the face of God in a glistening slice of ripened orange, or sliding through the sounds, smells and sensations of the memory of my own birth, tumbling out onto the living room floor in stunned silence; stars criss -crossing the bejeweled skies like so many flaming rocket ships - what adventurous soul could resist such delights? It was like tumbling down the rabbit hole.

I'll tell you how it was, straight up: we had somehow managed to throw what was arguably the greatest party in history, and actually believed for a while that it would never end. Not only would it never end, but it would eventually encompass all of spaceship earth. And by the way, all that outer space stuff? That was for sissies; the real action was inside your head. We were time-travelers; pioneers on the frontiers of human consciousness. We were kicking the old evolutionary can down the road.

In the end, though, all the nascent beauty and shimmering symmetry of those days began to slip away, almost unnoticed; morphing, ever so slowly, into something more than vaguely grotesque. It became a carnival on the edge of town, with nothing left but the freak show. The world's biggest party was now a million private versions of hell; and, just as in Sartre's play, there was no exit. It was a house of mirrors.

But I'm getting ahead of myself; this is supposed to be the part of the story where I'm still falling. I hadn't painted anything in months, I was drifting deeper and deeper into depression, becoming more fragmented, more disoriented. I was on acid much of the time, floating through the city as if in a dream, the background ominously dark even in the middle of the day. Robbed three times in the past month, struggling to keep my head above water, but what to do? Where to go? I couldn't seem to focus long enough to make a decision.

Many of my friends had seen it coming and had already left town, heading for places far from the war zone; places like Africa, Nepal, Morocco. My dreams of becoming an art star had slowly slipped through my fingers like sand in an hourglass, and just to escape the deafening silence of my studio I'd ride the canyons of the city in the mother ship, looking for adventure; kicks, as Dean Moriarty would say. In New York, there was never a shortage of kicks.

In those final weeks, for instance, my cab had been hit by a city bus as I pulled into traffic after dropping off a fare on 2nd Avenue. His back bumper hooked my front bumper and dragged me down the street for a few dozen yards before he even noticed, and once he saw that it had done nothing to his bus, he just drove off, leaving me with my bumper sticking straight out into the world like Don Quixote's lance. With no windmills in sight, and having no desire to be charged for the damage, I pulled into the nearest side street, found an abandoned building, threw her into gear, and drove straight into the stone facade. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. Fastest damned body shop in the world.

I had also developed the habit of leaving some of my fellow New Yorkers sputtering at the curb as I cruised the streets in recent days, a bit gun-shy since the sweating junkie incident. It didn't always work, however. A few days before catching that bus, I picked up this guy at La Guardia who had just arrived from somewhere in the Middle East and he hands me a note written in English, directing me to one of the piers on the upper East Side.

When we drove out to the end of this desolate wooden structure, I began trying to explain how much the trip from the airport cost in yankee dollars, when he suddenly began screaming at me in Arabic. Within seconds, my cab was surrounded by a half dozen of his blood brothers, who had sprung out of a nearby wooden shed, their faces up against my windows, angrily accusing me of trying to rip him off. I told this guy to get the hell out of my cab, and split the scene, almost taking one of those dudes with me on my front hood. An early al-Qaeda cell, perhaps?

On one of my sweeps south on this particular Saturday morning, I was heading down 7th Avenue toward 42nd, trying to catch a break in one of the taxi lines in front of the hotels. There were only a few lined up at the Taft, so I pulled in. As I sat there daydreaming, it crossed my mind that somewhere up there, in one of those rooms, country music legend Jimmie Rodgers died of TB back in '33. He was in the city to raise money for his medical bills, and had just made his final recording the night before. He was 35.

Bone-weary after a long Friday night, though, I leaned back on the seat and shut my eyes. I only had to be conscious enough to notice when the lead cabbie picked up a fare and pulled out into the midday traffic. Within a matter of minutes I was in front of the hotel door.

"Howdy, Mister," this big Texan fella barks at me from halfway across the sidewalk as he strides towards the cab wearing a dark pin-striped suit and a white ten-gallon cowboy hat, a ragged leather briefcase at his side. He's well into his monologue before he even climbs into the back seat. As I sat there waiting for him to finish his Texas ramble before asking him where he wanted to go, I noticed a man's head bobbing and weaving through the midday crowd on the sidewalk across the street. Right behind him, a policeman in hot pursuit.

"Looks like trouble over there," I say, pointing, and the cowboy's ramble stops mid-sentence.

"What the hell..."

As the bobbing heads reach a spot directly across from us, the first one, belonging to a big, seedy-looking guy, bursts out of the crowd and starts bolting across 7th Avenue toward the line of cabs. Behind him, the cop yells from between two parked cars, Stop! Give me back the gun! The guy stops in the middle of the street, turns around, and fires at him. The cop, clutching his throat, falls backward toward the screaming crowd, dead before he even hits the ground.

The cowboy and I sit in stunned silence as the killer now turns and starts running toward my cab. Waving the gun in the air, he curses at the lanky Texan in the backseat and lunges toward the taxi behind us, opens the rear door, climbs in and shouts, Get the fuck outta here! Now! As the driver begins to pull out, he opens his door, drops onto the street and rolls under my cab. The getaway car rolls to a stop no more than a dozen feet from mine. Then all hell breaks loose.

To the sound of sirens, screams and gunfire, I dive for the illusory safety of the front seat as the cowboy hits the floor in the back. After a few rounds of gunfire, curiosity overcomes fear, and, lifting my head above the front seat, I see a cop making his way to the rear of the getaway cab in a kind of sideways crawl. He fires off a half dozen rounds into the rear window, which is already shattered. Unbelievably, return fire knocks him to the street.

Stunned by what is happening and expecting bullets to rip through the door at any moment, I lie back down on the seat as the gunfire intensifies. In the background, over the din of a fusillade of bullets - I kid you not - the sounds of the Carter Family singing, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? on WBAI, emanate from my portable radio, now lying on the front floor, intermingled with the prayers and curses coming from the seat behind me.

Finally, a pause in the hellfire. Outside the window an army of cops advance toward the bullet-riddled cab. With a flourish reminiscent of the slo-mo finale of Bonnie and Clyde, they shred what remains of the back door of the getaway car. Once the silence seems to hold, the cowboy and I get out and walk around, adrenalin-charged, gunfire still ringing in our ears, like two soldiers climbing out of a foxhole, exulting at the simple fact that we're alive.

The street suddenly comes back to life as others emerge from their hiding places, crowds of onlookers now standing in clusters around the windowless, bullet-riddled cab. The cops open the door with guns drawn, two of them reach in and jerk the guy unceremoniously out onto the street. Justice had been swift. Blood is pouring from every part of his body.

As we help the other cabbie out from under my cab I notice two bullet holes in my trunk. Not bad, considering this was Bonny and Clyde Redux. After dropping my favorite cowboy off at his destination, I drive back to the garage, turn in my keys, and leave New York for good. Like my father before me, I'm headin' west. No way it could be as wild as this.

To be continued.....

Author's note: The story of this shootout can still be found in the archives of the New York Times, where it appeared on the front page the following day, March 1, 1970, under the headline, Gunman and Policeman Die in Times Square Area Battle, written, oddly enough, by a reporter named Thomas Brady. The policeman who died in the line of duty that day was 29-year old Michael Melchiona, leaving behind a wife, two children and a two-week old baby. The gunman, a drifter named John Girgosian, had disarmed Melchiona in a nearby subway station, and attempted to flee. The cop who fired into the rear window had also been hit the neck, but survived. Several pedestrians were also injured in the shootout, during which, by some estimates, as many as a hundred shots were fired. The photo of the aftermath, above, is from the Times article.

Thursday, March 29, 2007