Friday, February 10, 2017


I lived in a secret
kingdom, one that
hadn't yet really
been built. Or
that's how I felt 
anyway. Streets 
and places that 
are strange to a 
person somehow 
seem to be less 
inviting than the 
usual old haunts, 
but they hold 
much more mystery  
- and for me that 
was the kind of 
strange thing I 
fell into immediately. 
Very difficult to 
explain. For people
born there, the 
sights and places 
of New York City 
have different values, 
from the get-go; they 
hold no specialness, 
they just are : 'There's 
the corner store where 
we get our eggs and 
groceries; there's the 
place we sometimes 
eat at; and over there 
is the store where I 
buy my shoes, and 
next to him is my 
shirts and belts guy.' 
The most simple 
junk. All plain and
ordinary because of
its boring familiarity.
Hard to believe. For 
me, it was all a 
something perfect 
I could fall into and 
be taken away from.
Any doctor, even 
the NY Municipal 
Medical ones, would 
have said I was crazy.
But not for me, I'd 
already ruined it all 
for myself by arranging 
those historic ghost
corridors and almost 
spiritual places. I'd 
have to be saying, 
'No, no. This was 
the corner where 
the old Langston 
Hotel stood; next 
to the grocer who 
lent Poe money; 
down that street 
was one of Hart 
Crane's apartments, 
where Harry and 
Charmain Crosby 
lived, his friends 
and backers. Just 
east of that is 
where Wendell 
Marchesa died 
in that hold-up 
after his play's 
opening night. 
Over there, on 
Bedford. was 
one of the places 
Delmore Schwartz 
lived. There, there,
that's where Nathan 
Hale was executed.'
I guess you see 
what I mean...and 
I only kept that to 
recent literary history. 
Beyond that, it 
went everywhere, 
200 years back, 
raw land, hilly and 
rocky outcrops, the 
small Indian villages, 
the waterways and 
the old, original 
coastline. All of 
that was in my 
head, you see, 
and it could 
never be dislodged. 
I lived through a 
different fabric 
of place and time 
and being. It was 
very difficult to 
share that or properly 
communicate it to 
others. It is what 
crazy men are 
made off.
'The lower depths 
of the densely 
populated inner-city, 
which carried such 
a charge of social 
anxiety, (1850), 
threatened to 
re-emerge as a 
waste land, an 
outer zone of 
random residential 
and commercial 
development largely 
created by the 
increasing number 
of factories located 
to the north of the 
built-up areas of 
the city. An unsanitary 
cordon of slaughterhouses, 
milk distilleries, 
hog-pens, and 
dung-heaps. The 
foulest imagination 
could not give 
form and expression 
to the countless 
and monstrous 
shapes of filth, 
obscenity, and 
abomination of 
which they are 
the home. Golgotha, 
Gehenna, and the 
midnight revels 
of graveyard ghouls 
at their un-nameable 
feasts, united, could 
not furnish a scene 
to compare with them. 
Struggling half-built 
streets, with shabby 
stores, lumber-yards, 
heaps of rubbish, 
petty wooden shacks 
and houses, and a 
general aspect of 
filth and disorder.' 
Yes, well folks, 
that was the factual 
re-telling of the 
presence of mid-19th 
century, early NYC  -  
Sixth to Eighth Avenue, 
between 14th, 28th 
and 35th today; 
either side of 
Eighth Avenue in 
the 40's; and on 
the east side, Third 
Avenue, 24th thru 
35th, today. That's 
what it was all like, 
and that's where I 
lived. All those 
places held me 
in their thrall. 
I never wised 
to leave and 
there was no 
present day. 
My friends were 
rag-men and bone 
collectors. Their 
daughters, though 
poor, were fair 
and cheery. The 
sons, dragging 
and rugged : horses 
and more, wagons 
and carts. 
I'd manage to get 
back to the Studio 
School, from my 
off-time, and always 
found ways to 
dedicate myself 
right back into 
that work. I was 
determined to 
pound myself to 
death, if need be, 
to attain what I 
sought. My studio 
mate was some 
strange, straight, 
Jewish guy from 
Montclair, with the
name of 'Mike.' He 
was just a guy, it 
didn't matter religion 
or creed, he had his 
calling : he painted 
soldiers. Yes, you 
read that right, he 
painted soldiers. 
Just think of that, 
from the viewpoint 
of my timeless soul, 
battered and ramming 
through 300 years 
of past and an island's
history, in all its fury,
to end up there. There! 
In a room, a space to 
paint, unfettered, 
in a studio of my 
own. With a guy
named Mike, who 
painted soldiers. In
all seriousness. 
He painted military 
men, perhaps 
maybe three feet 
high  -  canvases  -  
the guys were not 
sitting for portrait 
or anything, but just 
standing, staring 
out, on a sandy 
field, or next to 
a tank or something, 
in a setting, but still,
no action depicted, no
moving about. 
perfectly done, 
all the medals 
and ribbons and 
those colored bars 
of stuff they wear 
on the chests and 
shoulders. I never 
grasped, could not 
figure it out  -  and 
we never really 
spoke intently of 
it, it was too far-out. 
We never actually 
interacted that 
much anyway; 
some days he'd 
sit around, smoking, 
and we'd talk about 
the bus ride or the 
train, mine and his   
-  his, to Montclair
(he went quite regularly, 
like to  a schedule, 
weekends and all; 
didn't seem to do 
much else, and I 
don't know where 
he stayed in the 
city. Nothing). Or 
he'd talk about 
Montclair. Not 
much else. Once 
or twice I can 
remember us 
going on about 
a gallery show 
or this or that, 
art-talk, ideas. 
His soldiers always 
threw me, I never 
knew if this was 
a military thing, a 
fixation, an anti-war 
or pro-war viewpoint, 
Just never knew. 
They had nearly 
perfect fidelity to 
the imagined reality 
of a strong-jawed 
and determined 
soldier staring 
straight out. I 
guess that was 
good, like a painted 
Campbell Soup Can 
was good, or a Brillo 
Box. Maybe. I should 
have asked more. 
I should have delved. 
Now I can't even 
remember the 
guy's full name.
When they laid 
out New York City  
-  the commissioner's 
Plan of 1811, whatever 
it was, there was, 
immediately a conflict 
between realms of 
thought. I could 
sense that battle.
The rational, of course,
won out, not the romantic.
The grid plan of straight, 
10th of a mile, numbered 
streets running east and
west, along the up and
down running north/south
avenues, all squared 
and numbered to make 
a relatively simple 
map, all of that was 
for after the geography 
first was tussled and 
destroyed. It was all
done for business and
the ease of commerce.
I knew that too, and 
sensed it walking. 
This had once been 
a real place, crags 
and heights and 
boulders and landscapes 
made of dips and 
hollows and stony 
rises, a flow up and 
from, and down and 
to, the rivers and 
streams all throughout. 
Each side was lined 
with its own river, 
and in between were 
the brooks and streams 
and ponds and pools 
of a jagged, natural 
landscape. Some 
places higher, others 
lower. Swamps and 
fens. All gone. It was
 only by a great 
public-works effort 
and as a means of 
getting the indigent 
rabble up and off 
the streets and doing 
instead some sort of 
public works for 
pennies that all 
this got going : 
pick and axe and 
shovel, barrels and 
wagons loaded with 
material. All those 
rocks and boulders 
moved, cut, things 
leveled. It was a 
massive, monstrous, 
and seemingly crazy 
undertaking for all 
those years. 'There 
were scarecly any 
buildings at all on 
Fifth Avenue above 
25th Street. When 
William Waddell's 
Gothic villa went 
up on Fifth Ave. 
between 37th and 
38th Streets in 1845, 
it was reached along 
a dirt road from 
the northern side 
of Washington Square. 
From the tower of 
the house it was 
possible to see both 
rivers.' I began studying 
all that, paging through 
and reading the great 
books all night  -  tales 
and re-tellings of old 
gaslight New York, 
the stories of the 
wagon-men and 
the night-porters 
and those who 
hauled and carried, 
the rich and the poor, 
all massed together. 
It was a grand mess, 
and I realized no 
one really even 
knew of this any 
more. Thy walked 
over a land of the 
dead they'd not 
even thought of. 
Potter's fields, 
military drill 
grounds, execution 
grounds, forts and 
camps, slave 
shacks and squatters' 
sheds. It was crazy 
and unheard of, 
the seated reality 
beneath of  all of 
what I saw daily. 
Minetta Brook, 
an unspoken ghost 
now just a street 
name, and a lane. 
At least it had 
gotten used twice,
Each morning, as
the sun rose again,
I swear, the island

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