I left Manhattan in June of 2005. It was a tragic end to a love affair that had lasted some 40-odd years. I may not always know when I’m not wanted, but I always know when to leave. Always. I’m well known for leaving just before the cops arrive or the guns are drawn.
I knew I had to leave when they opened an Olive Garden restaurant franchise in Chelsea, when Old Navy wiped out Canal Jeans in Soho, when Best Buy and Home Depot arrived. I knew I had to leave on September 12, 2001, when they deployed fucking tanks to every bridge and tunnel in the city. The realization that the city could be locked down so easily terrified me. One of the reasons I loved the city so dearly had to do with my perception of it as a fundamentally anarchic civic model, an independent and essentially ungovernable assemblage of various cultural parts and influences in which the whole is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. It was always chaotic to me, in a good way. Chaos is fecundity, especially as regards art.
I remember staggering home to Inwood from a serious night of coke-fueled boozing on the Lower East Side in the wee hours of September 13. The A train only ran as far as 168th St. after midnight in those days. You had to change to the C local at 168th.
168th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave. was notoriously the most dangerous place in Manhattan. During the crack wars of the 1980s, there was a point where the NYPD refused to answer any calls emanating from the region bordered by 163rd to the south and 175th to the north between Broadway and Amsterdam. It was simply too dangerous for them. I recall vividly a news item from that decade describing how the tenants of one building on 168th called the cops on a pack of crack dealers operating in front of their building. The cops came and chased the dealers off, and to express their frustration and rage at having to relocate their informal pharmaceuticals enterprise, the dealers stole a Toyota, drove it into the lobby of the building, and set it on fire.
It was close to four a.m. when I debarked the A train at 168th, only to find myself alone on the platform with two pimply-faced white boys in National Guard uniforms toting big ass machine guns. They were as white as milk, clearly not old enough to drink legally, with that corn-fed look that indicates an upbringing in Ogdensberg or some other godforsaken rural upstate shithole where people drink Genesee Cream Ale out of green bottles without irony and think Ranch Dip Flavored Doritos are food. I was coked up, drunk, and fairly stoned. It had to be obvious. They were nervous. That was very obvious.
I staggered up to them and asked, “What the fuck are you doing here?” I’m old; I can get away with this kind of shit. One of them replied that they were here to “protect the city.” I informed them that they were directly under the most insanely dangerous intersection in Manhattan, that no “terrorist” with the brains God gave a chicken would even consider venturing into that neighborhood, and that the chances were very good that Homeboy would come down and snatch their guns, leaving them stripped naked and duct-taped together in a puddle of stale piss at the end of the platform, and probably ass-raped for the sake of punctuation. I suggested that they get back to their CO as soon as possible, and bid them “Have a nice day!” as the C train pulled in, providing me with a perfectly timed departure.
Home, in those days, was a $568 per month studio apartment at 207th St. and Seaman Ave., directly across the street from the last wild forest area left on the island of Manhattan: Inwood Hill Park. I could walk out my door, and within a 15-minute walk be over an ancient ridge and lost in the silence of the deep forest. I was two blocks from the top of the A train. There was a gorgeous saltwater estuary just a few blocks away, with all manner of wildlife. There were ducks, Canadian geese, and a spectacularly beautiful pair of mated swans. I could get stoned and go feed the ducks bits of stale bread and hang out near the swans. Swans mate for life.
My girlfriend at the time, let’s call her “Daisy,” couldn’t sleep properly for 10 days after 9/11. She was a schoolteacher: kindergarten, Waldorf Education. Wholesome: opposites attract. She had a recurring nightmare in which she was out with the children in Central Park and the sky caught fire. She lived just a few blocks away from me, and I had a car, a cute little white 1992 Chrysler LeBaron that I’d inherited from my deceased mom in 2000 with only 14,000 miles on it. I told Daisy that we were driving down to the site, she needed to be there and sense it. I refused then, and refuse now, to call it “Ground Zero.” She agreed.
It wasn’t so much the crude little flyers with pictures of missing loved ones that got me. They did. They were all over the walls. MISSING. That wasn’t the big thing, though. It was the smell. The smell was unique, and I won’t describe it in detail. I could feel her relaxing with each inhale of the undoubtedly toxic atmosphere as we wended our way down Broadway, finally detouring into the John Street Bar & Grill. I needed a shot, maybe three. A big burly construction worker at the bar who would’ve surely beaten me to a bloody pulp if he had any idea who I really was hugged me fiercely and wept on my shoulder like Meat Loaf in Fight Club.
“Get out,” said the Voices.
She fell asleep in the car on the way up the Henry Hudson Parkway to Inwood, the top of the island, the highest geological point. She slept well afterwards. Smell is an old sense, a little atrophied in humans, but still there. Confronting the horror of it all directly through the sensorium worked, as it always does. The only way out is through.
I wanted desperately to believe the official narrative of the 9/11 attacks. I was about 10 when they splattered JFK’s brains all over the trunk of his limo on Elm St. in Dallas. I’d dodged the Vietnam draft in 1971 by claiming to be a follower of Charles Manson. I’d pissed on the White House lawn dressed in a top hat and a cutaway tux on acid on June 17, 1973, while handing out slices of a beautiful white sheet cake inscribed in blue and yellow icing with the words “Happy Birthday Wanda June” and mimeographed pamphlets detailing the particulars of a then-obscure news item regarding a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. I’d watched the Church Committee hearings on CIA misconduct. I watched Frank Church die in a plane crash. I watched that shit-for-brains mediocrity Gerald Ford install the Cheney/Rumsfeld team into positions of authority that they weren’t fit to clean the toilets for. I saw Jimmy Carter completely blindsided and undone by CIA dirty tricks. I saw the October Surprise of 1980. I saw Ronald Reagan and his team of fag-bashing closet queens and perverts like Richard Viguerie, Alfred Bloomingdale, the fascist Ed Meese, and Lawrence E. King, Jr. systematically dismantle every single thing that the labor movement fought and died for. The wars in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, the hideous coup of September 11, 1973, in Chile, the cocaine conspiracy behind the USA-backed “Contras” in Nicaragua, the ongoing genocide against the First Nations people and the black people of America. I knew far too much about the doings of the Bush Crime Family, and their absolutely despicable co-conspirators, the Clintons. Don’t blame me, I voted for Perot in ‘92.
I wanted a break. I wanted 9/11 to be exactly what they said it was.
I knew we had to get out. Daisy didn’t, not quite yet, but she was beginning to get it. When Canal Jeans closed up their Broadway shop and headed to Brooklyn, I left for Oakland, California, but she wasn’t ready to join me. I wound up coming back to Manhattan after just six months, broke and desperate. The things we do for love, as the old 10cc song goes. I’d sublet my little studio apartment to an old buddy from the entertainment industry, so I accepted Daisy’s invitation to move in with her, a little further down in Washington Heights, down below the Cloisters on Bennett Avenue near the 181st St. station of the A train.
I drove a yellow cab a couple of nights per week. I was still freelancing as a circus tent rigger for various tented spectacles, driving a truck and humping set pieces for the great ballet impresario Eliot Feld, and writing frequently for New York Press and CounterPunch, occasionally for the famous gardening magazine, High Times. Gallery magazine hired me to do a piece on the debt recovery industry, a down and dirty expose of the vicious quasi-criminal nature of the entire industry, and then tried to stiff me on the payment. After a few calls in which I subjected the publisher’s accountant and her entire staff to precisely the sort of threatening racist abuse described in my article for them, the publisher demanded a meeting with me, wherein I tore that French-cuff-wearing cigar-puffing fat pimp a new asshole in front of his secretary and staff and collected the $3600 he owed me on the spot.
We dithered and dallied, started watching a lot of television, spending more and more time indoors, especially after that asshole Michael Bloomberg banned smoking in bars in 2003. New York Press was sold at the end of 2002 to a pack of flaming mediocrities who immediately fired editor John Strausbaugh, probably the best editor in the alternative press industry.
By 2005, Daisy came around and took a teaching position with a new Waldorf school starting up in Lawrence, Kansas. I very publicly resigned from New York Press on the heels of an atrocious front-page article mocking the impending death of Pope John Paul II.
We hired a reputable mover based in Lawrence, loaded up the LeBaron, and I drove across the George Washington Bridge for the last time, into the wide open, as the song goes: a rebel without a clue as to what I was getting into.